A man and his wife had an apple tree in their front yard that always produced rotten apples. Every year the apples would develop, every year the fruit would be inedible to its core. One year, he came up with a brilliant idea. He went to the grocery and bought a crate of beautiful good apples. While his wife was not looking, he removed all of the rotten apples and stapled the good apples to the tree.
The next morning he encouraged his wife to behold the tree. She was delighted; her tree was filled with beautiful good apples.
In the Gospel reading this week (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus teaches his disciples that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles but what comes out of the mouth. When they asked for an explanation, he revealed that he was talking about the human heart. The Pharisees dealt with externalities: clean hands, dietary laws. Jesus is concerned about what is going on in a person’s heart. The Pharisees are “fruit staplers” concerned only about religious externalities. They strive to make the outside look right which requires a lot of work because it involves maintaining a elaborate façade. The tree in the above story will continue to produce rotten fruit because its problem is systemic—in its root system. Cure the root system and you cure the tree. Deal with the heart issues and a person’s life will truly be clean!
The fundamental difference between the religion and Christianity is this key, key point. Jesus is the only one who can change the systemic problems of the human heart. We must have a vital relational connection to him or else we are just stapling fruit. Likewise, Christian leaders are not primarily religious leaders. The goal in Christian ministry should never be about stapling good fruit on rotten apple trees. Jesus referred to the Pharisees as the blind leading the blind. We are called to see beyond the fruit to the heart. Consequently, Christian ministers are called to be instruments of heart change not fruit change. When the Holy Spirit changes the heart, the fruit will naturally be transformed.
So how is heart change accomplished? First and foremost, it is by being in a loving, submissive relationship with Jesus. Secondarily, heart change will only be possible when we have the eyes to see beyond both the rotten fruit and the stapled fruit.
With those whom we rub shoulders with in community, the rotten apples will present themselves. The staples can’t hold for long. We may in those moments be tempted to pull the rotten apples off the tree and staple on the good fruit. No. Jesus would call us to address the systemic issue. He challenges us to go deeper to the root system. When we see the rotten fruit in our own lives or in the lives of those within our care, we are called to question the heart. Ask, “what is going on deep in the heart that would produce such fruit?”
Heart change requires brokenness, grief, repentance, renunciation of idolatry and forgiveness. It requires reliance on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It requires submissive engagement with the Scriptures and prayerful conversation with Jesus Christ. Look at the fruits, but minister to the roots!