Make the Good Tree Good: Jesus and the Call to Integrity
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. (Matthew 12:33–34)
It’s pretty rare that Jesus went full “brood of vipers” in his response to anyone. When he did, it underscored how deeply something mattered to him.
In this case, what mattered was integrity.
On the surface of it, Jesus was calling out the absurdity of the Pharisees’ judgments against him. His works — miraculous healing and deliverance from demons — were clearly good, yet they wanted to label the doer of those works as evil.
Jesus responded strongly, not only to their accusations but to the worldview that lay behind them.
Jesus’s words here can sound harsh, so it’s important to remember that he was addressing the Pharisees. And according to the gospels, the Pharisees were hypocrites. That’s almost the central narrative fact about them, actually: they were trying to appear as something they weren’t.
That’s why they could look at Jesus’s miracles and straight-facedly pronounce them to be demonic in nature. They thought in terms of duality because that’s how they lived.
To the Pharisees it was natural to think that a bad tree could bear apparently good fruit, because they operated that way.
They knew their hearts were full of rot and dead men’s bones but still thought their fruit was worthy of admiration. They were teachers and religious leaders in Israel: they were full of pride and greed and enmity against God, yet they wanted people to follow them to God.
The Pharisees were duplicitous and assumed Jesus was too. They wore masks, covering up their motives and intentions; he did not.
And that made him almost incomprehensible to them.
True God from True God
The irony of hypocrisy is this: if we veil ourselves in a false identity, the veil will prevent us from clearly seeing others. Or from clearly seeing anything at all.
The Pharisees’ own hypocrisy colored all their interactions with Jesus so strongly that they couldn’t recognize God when he was staring them in the face.
By contrast, Jesus could speak to their cavalier sense of duality so strongly, and with such a profound note of frustration, because he was not false. He was not dual, good and bad at the same time.
(“The Lord your God is one,” as God himself declared to his people in Moses’s day.)
Jesus spoke with the voice of a man to whom hypocrisy of any kind was totally foreign and frankly appalling. He spoke this way because he was (and is) true. There was nothing false in him. “Verily, verily, I say unto you” as the KJV often opens Jesus’s words; “Truly, truly.”
In Jesus, truth is a primal value. Truth in our words, in our thoughts, in our very selves.
Chesed, that marvelous Hebrew word that describes a central characteristic of God, can be translated in many different ways in English. In this series, we’ve already addressed several of them. Chesed is loving-kindness; it is mercy; it is faithful love. Chesed is devotion. It is covenant faithfulness.
But there’s another word in English that, in the past, was often used to translate chesed: truth.
Chesed is the way God relates to us.
He relates to us in truth because he is true.
He is who he is. All the way through.
There is no falseness in God. No unfaithfulness, to himself or to us in how he presents himself, saying-one-thing-and-being-another.
And, in part, it is because God does not wear masks, because he is what he is, true blue, tried-and-true, true as steel, utterly genuine and true to himself, that we can trust him not only to do right by us in all circumstances but to see us truly as well.
Hiddenness and Hypocrisy
To say that Jesus did not wear a mask, that he was not in any sense a hypocrite, is not to say that everything true about him was readily apparent to everyone. He was never deceitful, but he wasn’t always obvious. He rarely called attention to himself; he invited others to seek him rather than shoving anything down their throats.
Jesus lived his life in a hidden way. And that’s in keeping with God’s nature more generally: even now, he is often hidden.
You do not have to see God. You can, but you don’t have to. He is easy to overlook.
This was true even when Jesus was here on earth. He was here, incarnate in the flesh, but you did not have to see God when you looked at him. If you wanted to, you could even look at him and see the devil.
The Pharisees did.
And that is why God hates hypocrisy.
The reason we can look at God and see the devil is not because he is false, but because we are.
God wants the falseness out of us to remove the veil from our eyes so that we can actually see him.
Hypocrisy blinds us just as much as it fools others. And God is not okay with either.
Jesus and the Call to Integrity
Jesus’s “make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad” rings out with so much clarity because it came from a man who embodied integrity.
His words are a call to repent of twisting things, coloring them, coming at life with an angle and a hidden agenda.
“Be one thing or be the other,” Jesus was saying; “just be true.” Be what you are with integrity.
Throughout Matthew 12 and 13, this conflict between hypocrisy and integrity comes up over and over again.
Jesus wants his followers to be real and congruent. He’s not looking for people to get their fruit all polished up while their roots are rotting. He values words and actions that flow from the heart.
He values this so highly that in criticizing the Pharisees’ way of thinking, he doesn’t just say “Make the tree good,” but “Make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad.”
Acknowledge everything honestly for what it is, because only through honesty — only through being really and truly real — can we enter the kingdom of God.
The Call to Get Real
In our current moment in history, so much of our cultural angst is around authenticity and integrity.
We’re in a time when false identities are incredibly easy to create. Social media, influencer culture, and the idolization of celebrity lure us to present false selves to the world, and once we do, they demand to be maintained.
Eventually, of course, hypocrisy blinds and burdens us. So quite a number of people come bursting out of this self-created stranglehold, or try to do so, by openly sharing what’s raw and hard in their lives.
We share feelings and wounds and habits and half-glimpsed “inner truths,” under the banner of “This is me”; “This is authentic.”
The irony, though, is that much of what we share in the name of authenticity is just another false identity we’re trying on. Much of it isn’t really us either; it’s just our wounds, our impulses, our wish fulfilment, or the momentary shallows we’re kicking around in.
Into all this image-projecting and mask-wearing and confusion, Jesus comes along, and he is utterly and absolutely real. He is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3); he is the one who is always and eternally true to himself — the I AM THAT I AM. “Let God be true, but every man a liar” Paul wrote in Romans 3:4 (KJV).
God is true, faithful and consistent, even when we are not: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
This Jesus, this absolutely true God who is faithful and consistent and real and authentic, says to us:
Make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad.
Integrity is possible.
Authenticity, true authenticity, will come not when we find the best way to project ourselves but when we discover the One who has authored us — the one who knows the deepest reality of who we are right now and also the greatest potential of who we were meant to be.
To know him, we’ll need to take the masks off.
We’ll need to learn to relate to God in truth, even if we can’t imagine how to do that. Even if we don’t know how to begin.
It starts by confessing that we’ve lost ourselves.
Jesus, who is true, knows where to find us.
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This is Part 215 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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