Although a rotten tree may not be able to produce good fruit, we know that evil people can mimic goodness and kindness for their own selfish purposes. And so an apparent act of self-sacrificing kindness is undertaken in the service of ingratiating oneself with someone from whom one has something to gain. On the other hand we have those struggling against their sinfulness who go against their natural inclinations and perform a good action thereby resisting the temptation to do something evil—good fruit from a not-so-good tree! And so one might wonder if Jesus is being a little too exclusive in allocating good fruit solely to a good and healthy tree?
As usual in these types of situations, I suspect that we are dealing with the presentation of the ideal as well as the promise of what grace can do in the heart and life of the redeemed Christian. As such it assumes that dual-process whereby we strive to bring forth only good fruit—with still mixed results—while grace (if we allow it) continues to heal and recreate our hearts. Then, becoming like that good tree, we will eventually bring forth good fruit naturally and effortlessly. Indeed, when the sanctifying Spirit has been allowed to complete its transforming action in our hearts it becomes virtually impossible to produce bad fruit.
This is, of course, another way of describing true freedom and no longer being driven by compulsions that undermine our humanity and that fundamental way in which we are made in the image and likeness of God—the ability to choose freely. For our slavery to sin is one of the principal ways in which we have lost our likeness to God and are perhaps even worse off than animals that live by pure instinct, but who do so according to the manner in which they were created—thereby glorifying God. Regaining this freedom is the ordeal it is precisely because in growing towards it, we have first to surrender and give up our pseudo-freedom and what we foolishly consider our independence.
Monastic life, in general, and monastic obedience, in particular, are the tried and proven paths to this inner liberation. Not believing this or not being willing to pay the price it initially demands, makes of monastic life an unremitting misery whereby we can no longer fully exercise our pseudo-freedom and yet are not growing in that true freedom apart from which we remain deformed and not yet our true selves. And thus we remain that rotten tree from which only bad fruit can be harvested. Therefore, if we desire to become that good and healthy tree that gives forth good fruit, we need to recommit ourselves to monastic conversatio and ongoing conversion. We need to resolutely take up what Saint Benedict called those noble weapons of obedience—and set out anew on this paradoxical road to true freedom. And because he warns that it is a definite labor we do well to heed Saint Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians and remain firm, steadfast, and always fully devoted to
work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain.