It can be helpful (at times) to think in either/or and black and white categories. In doing so, though, we disregard those gray areas of life that can be ambiguous, complex, and even confusing. Jesus seems to be doing just this with his metaphor of the tree that produces either good or rotten fruit—it is either one or the other and nothing in-between. And yet, is that our own experience? For while it is true that a good tree is unlikely to produce rotten fruit, can a rotten tree not sometimes produce good fruit?
In this regard I recall Saint Gregory the Great’s comment on the Christian who is still on the road to holiness but not yet perfected. He tells that we do some things which are of the light, but we are still not free from some remains of the darkness. Using the metaphorical language of Jesus, we might say that although we do produce good fruit, on occasion we also bear bad fruit. Accordingly, it is important to identify within ourselves whether it is the good fruit or the bad that ultimately represents who we truly are and are ever more fully becoming.
As we know, some people are not averse to producing good fruit and doing noble deeds either out of a simple prideful desire to impress others, or to manipulate others in service of selfish ends. Conversely, others struggling to overcome sin in their lives may act ignobly and produce bad fruit that is not indicative of their true inner state or the deepest desire of their heart. Paul’s lament concerning not doing the good he would wish to do, but the evil he would wish not to do, captures the struggle of this kind of person.
Given the possible ambiguity of external words, actions, and behaviors, we need to be careful in judging others and deciding whether they are good or rotten trees. Jesus suggests that one of the essential ways of enhancing our ability to judge is to truthfully assess the meaning of our own good and evil actions—the good or rotten fruit we produce. By removing the wooden beam from our eyes and accurately evaluating the good or rotten fruit we produce, we will be less likely to mistake vice for virtue or virtue for vice—not only in others, but also in ourselves.
Accurately discerning the rotten fruit we produce guards us against the delusional assertions of pride, while recognizing the good fruit we also produce, protects us from discouragement and the ingratitude that fails to recognize God’s saving work unfolding in our lives. Only in this way will we flourish like the palm tree, planted in the house of the Lord and flourishing in the courts of our God. Then shall we bear fruit even in old age; declaring how just is the Lord, [our] rock, in whom there is no wrong.