Right now, as I write this, I’m looking forward to a rich harvest.
No, not souls: tomatoes.
Some months ago, our friends were gifted some heirloom tomato seedlings that relatives had propagated themselves. Our friends had more than they needed, so gave my wife and I a few extras. We’ve raised vegetables before, so we know the difference between a tomato plucked fresh and ripe from your own garden, and one brought home from the store. It was with some anticipation, therefore, that I lovingly put the seedlings in the ground.
We waited. And watered. And waited. For a long time, the plants flowered but didn’t set any fruit: did we not have enough insects to pollinate the blossoms? But eventually, things changed. We now have several green tomatoes growing out back. We check the ones that are ripening every day, like kids shaking the boxes under the Christmas tree.
That is, after all, the point of vegetable gardening. What good is a plant that bears no fruit?
. . .
Jesus used horticultural metaphors to speak of the spiritual life. In one parable, he spoke of a sower broadcasting seed (Matt 13:1-23); only the seed that fell on good soil took root and produced a crop. It was a picture of the different ways in which the gospel of the kingdom could be received. Later, he referred to himself as a vine from which his followers, as branches, drew life (John 15:1-11). God wants us to bear fruit, and to do this, we must abide in the vine.
Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that James uses similar imagery. We’ve seen how he urged believers, as an expression of their faith, to be quick to listen instead of being quick-tempered. He follows that statement with this one:
Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you. (James 1:21, CEB)
The word translated here as “humility” can also be rendered as “meekness” or “gentleness.” It is one aspect of what the apostle Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:23) — yet another horticultural metaphor. The idea of meekness draws upon the Old Testament description of God as the champion of the weak, the oppressed, the marginalized, as in his caring concern for the poor as well as orphans and widows.
But in a more general sense, as the saying goes, “meekness isn’t weakness.” For those who actually have social power and resources, meekness can take the form of empowering others; instead of using power in self-serving ways, we put what power we have into the service of God and his loving purposes.
In such meekness and humility, we are called to “put aside” our old way of life (Paul uses the same verb in Eph 4:22, 25), and instead welcome with open arms “the word planted deep inside [us].”
Again, we might think of the teaching of Jesus: warning his followers against false prophets, he advised that they would know them “by their fruit” (Matt 7:20). The fruit of one’s life is an outgrowth of what is planted within, he taught. Don’t look for grapes and figs from thorns and thistles!
. . .
The implication of all this might make us a little uncomfortable. James’ language, while written in loving concern, is serious and urgent: You need to live in a way that’s consistent with the gospel you say you believe! The word planted in us by grace should bear appropriate fruit. That’s what God wants.
But note that he’s not talking about grand theft or felonious assault. He’s talking about people getting mad and not listening to each other.
He’s talking, in other words, about you. He’s talking about me.
What fruit will God find?