From the Heart

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 6:43-45

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Luke 6:43-45 RSV

Many of us think a good deal about how we can have a positive influence on others. Parents would like to mold their children for responsible living. Managers seek to impart motivation and a strong work ethic to their employees. Preachers want to guide the flock committed to their care. Husbands and wives are concerned to bring about various improvements in their respective spouses. And, of course, teachers desire to inculcate values even as they teach. All of us would like to know how to do those things better, how to be successful, as successful as possible, in influencing others. What are the key factors involved in doing that?

Listen to these words of Jesus. They are eye openers for us. I’m reading from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 6, beginning at verse 39:

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

Here Jesus talks about one person trying to lead another, about the relationship between teacher and student, about correcting faults in our brothers and sisters. What do these various influencers need if they’re going to do the job?

INFLUENCE BY CHARACTER

Obviously, if you’re going to lead a person who is blind, you need the faculty of vision yourself. If you can’t see any better than he can, you will hardly be a safe guide. Both of you may well end up in the ditch.

In the same vein, teachers apparently cannot bring their pupils beyond where they are themselves. They cannot teach what they do not themselves know. They can only bring their pupils to the level that they have attained. When they have done all the instruction they can do, their students will be similar to them. That’s the most a teacher can hope for by direct personal influence.

The same principle applies when it comes to pointing out the faults of others, trying to modify their behavior. We often try to do that when we ourselves are in need of change. We tend to notice flaws in others with which we have had a long personal history ourselves. It’s hypocrisy, Jesus said, trying to correct in other people a character flaw which is even more prominent in us. What’s more, our efforts don’t work. We only succeed in encouraging repentance in someone else when we begin by humbling ourselves.

You see the point in all these little vignettes from life? The point is that influence depends upon character. The molding we seek to accomplish depends upon some degree at least of modeling. The real effects that we have upon the lives of other people depend upon the persons that we are.

Now Jesus makes that lesson explicit. Here are the verses that follow:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Notice first what Jesus says about a person’s nature, his or her basic character, about the heart. In the thought world of the Bible, the “heart” means far more than the organ within us that pumps blood. The heart is the center of a person’s being. It’s the inner spring from which attitudes, thoughts and actions proceed. To know the hearts of people is to know them as they truly are, behind all posturing and pretense.

We’re familiar with this thought from the Old Testament, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). Again, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Jesus spelled out the significance of that when He was talking about the matter of defilement. He said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:20-23).

What Jesus is saying here is that what we eat and drink cannot make us morally impure. Purity is a much deeper issue. It’s what comes from the inmost center of our being that can defile us, what proceeds from the heart.

Changing the figure of speech, presenting the same truth with another image, Jesus talks about trees and the fruit they bear. What kind of fruit the tree will bring forth depends entirely on the kind of tree it is. We can’t expect figs from thorn bushes or grapes from a bramble patch. No. It takes a fig tree or a vine. There’s no way, Jesus said, that you can bring forth a harvest of delicious, nourishing fruit unless you start with fruit trees. The tree can only bring forth what’s in it to bear. It can only express its essential nature.

Now, according to Jesus, there are basically two kinds of persons, two types of trees, two sorts of hearts. There is the good and the evil, the fruitful and the barren. Every one of us, presumably, is in one category or the other.

That’s hard for us to hear, isn’t it? Aren’t we all, we wonder, a combination of those? Isn’t there “so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it ill behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us”? How can we lay things out in black and white when our hearts seem to come in shades of gray? The Bible seems to say that all of us are flawed people, all of us prone to wander, all of us capable of great evil. But here is Jesus’ word about the two kinds of trees and the two kinds of treasure. Apparently in all of us, strangely inconsistent though we are, something predominates, something weighs most heavily. The heart either is sound or it’s not.

THE LIFE REVEALS THE HEART

And, according to Jesus, the secrets of the heart are revealed in the fruit of the life. You find out what kind of a tree a fig tree is when you see figs appear. Even if another tree looks very much like it during the off season, there’s no question about the difference between the two at harvest time. One proves to be fruitful, useful, satisfying, while the other bears nothing but leaves. No doubt then about which is which.

The same is true, Jesus said, about our conduct and conversation. It’s always revealing, whether we intend it to be or not. I used to teach preaching at our seminary and I was impressed again and again at what happens when students preach their class sermons. They put their hearts out there. What’s really inside them comes to light. Isn’t that what Jesus said? “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” and “You shall know them by their fruits.”

Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t “fool some of the people some of the time” with the things we say and the facades we put up. Sometimes people who go from place to place, never settling down for very long, can fool almost everyone. But over the passage of time, in the long run, those around us come to understand what we are really like. They discover what kind of trees we are. They get a glimpse of what’s in our hearts. It all appears in the way we act. And, Jesus seems to say, especially in the way we speak.

Suppose you meet a person habitually profane. This person can hardly speak a sentence without taking the name of the Lord in vain. You learn something quickly, don’t you, about their heart attitude toward God? Or what if vulgarity is the most prominent characteristic of their speech? They revel in humor of the lowest kind. That lets you see something about how they think, doesn’t it, about the pictures on the walls of their imagination? If someone lies to you all the time, you come to recognize reluctantly, painfully, that there’s a deceitful spirit about them. If they verbally abuse you, you learn sadly that love is not reigning in their hearts.

On the positive side, the real situation in people’s lives becomes equally apparent. Some are always expressing gratitude to God and to other people. That tells you something, doesn’t it? They’re quick to affirm, to recognize the best in others and call attention to it. When they speak, you can count on it that their word is their bond. If they have counsel to give, there’s a kind of homely wisdom and reality about it. Listen to them long enough and you understand a good deal about the health of their inner lives. You come to know them by their fruits.

As I talk about this, I’m thinking about my life. Maybe you’re thinking about yours. As people watch us day after day, what do they see? As they study our behavior in all kinds of circumstances, what have they learned about us? As they listen to the way we talk to other people, the subjects that occupy us, our characteristic expressions, what is it all telling them? All of it is coming, Jesus reminds us, from our hearts.

Remember how Simon Peter on the night that Jesus was arrested was trying to stay incognito in the court yard? He didn’t want anybody to find out that he had been with Jesus, but his Galilean accent tripped him up. Someone said in the midst of his denials, “Your speech betrays you.” In other words, the way you talk gives you away. At a profound level it does that for us too. However much we try to hide it, the fruit of our lives and of our lips is telling on us every day. What’s the message?

NEW HEARTS FOR OLD

I can hear someone saying now, “Hey, all this sounds very depressing. What I say is showing me up, revealing that I’m not what I ought to be, or maybe that I am one of those bad trees. Where does that leave me?”

You know, I think that’s just the kind of question Jesus was looking for when He said these things. He didn’t mean to say that bad trees and sick hearts are hopeless cases, not by any means. He had something very different in mind. He wanted us to see that changing our lives and the lives of others is no easy thing. He wanted us to see that we have a moral and spiritual need which we can’t meet, an inner brokenness which we can’t heal. When we grasp that, we realize that we can’t save or transform ourselves. And that opens us up to grace.

The gospel is all about new hearts for old. Jesus came to do more than teach us about the state of our hearts. He came to do something about it. In His obedient life and self-sacrificing death, He bore our sins and carried our sorrows. He did everything necessary so that we could be forgiven. And now, risen from the dead, He sends His own Spirit to the hearts of all who believe in Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, He Himself comes to live within us and transform us on the inside. We can be new people. We can have changed hearts. That is the good news!

And from the time that we believe in Christ and receive the new life He gives, the great struggle in life is keeping our hearts, staying in touch with the living Lord, allowing His Spirit to reign in our lives so that more and more what flows out of us will point people to Him.

We started today talking about influence. How do you shape and mold the lives of others? What Jesus is saying is that we do that most powerfully by who we are. The greatest, most wholesome influence, is always unconscious. Think of the people who have most enriched your life, most encouraged you to become a better person. In the main, it wasn’t their advice, was it? Not their getting on your case, trying to straighten you out? No, it was the warmth of their love, the radiance of their joy. Just being around them made you want to be like them.

And you know, it’s possible that you can be that kind of person. You can lead the blind in a sure way because the light of the world is shining inside you. You can be a teacher because you’re listening to the Lord yourself. You can help others to straighten out their lives because you’re open to God’s working in you. You’ll be like one of those good trees planted by the rivers of water that brings forth fruit in its season, and its leaf will never wither. If Christ is living within you by His Spirit, people will notice and they’ll know you by your fruit, and all of it will be coming “from the heart.”

Prayer: Father, work in our hearts, we pray, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, to make us the people we’re meant to be. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.