A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. –Matthew 7:18 (KJV)
Dear members and friends of the Swedenborgian Church,
In Matthew 7, we read that Jesus compares humans to trees in a very simple way of dividing us into two categories: good trees and bad trees. In my NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) Bible, Matthew 7:18 is written as, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” This made sense to me for a while. However, the more study I do with the Bible, the more this teaching becomes troublesome to me, especially when I connect this to Matthew 7:16, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” How is it okay to classify that thorns and thistles are bad or corrupt trees, while grapes and figs are good trees? Aren’t they all creations of Creator?
One way to solve this trouble is to understand how it is written in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. The adjective “good” in “a good tree” in Greek is agathos, meaning “of good constitution; useful; pleasant, joyful.” And, the adjective “good” in “good fruit” is another Greek word, kalos, meaning “beautiful, useful, suitable.” Consequently, “the good fruit from a good tree” can be explained as “what is useful to humans can only come from what is pleasant in the sight of God.” On the other hand, the adjective “bad” in “a bad tree” in Greek is sapros, meaning “rotten; corrupted by one and no longer fit for us; of poor quality.” And, the adjective “bad” in “bad fruit” is another Greek word, poneros, meaning “hardship; pressed and harassed by labours; brining toils, annoyances, perils.” Consequently, “the bad fruit from a bad tree” can be explained as “all hardship and difficulties in the lives of humans come from what is corrupt in the sight of God.” What is more fascinating is that the Greek word poneros is used in Matthew 6:13, “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Unlike the common belief of Christians, what Jesus meant by “the evil one (poneros)” could have been the hardship and difficulties in life simply for survival, rather than the personification of evil as Satan or Devil. It becomes clearer when we check out the meaning of the primary root of poneros, which is peno meaning “to toil for daily subsistence.”
So then, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” can be understood that when we become joyful beings before God, hardships and difficulties in life will be no more, but when we become corrupted beings before God, we are no longer capable of doing things that are useful and beautiful to us and to others.
Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee