“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”Matthew 12:34-37 (ESV)
Jesus asks how an evil person can speak good. The question is, of course, rhetorical for the answer is that he cannot. James 3:12 emphasizes this same point stating that what one is in his nature always correlates to what one is in his behavior. Fig trees, for instance, cannot bear olives nor can a salt pond produce fresh water. Similarly, an evil person cannot bring forth (or produce) good, for it would go against who he is in his nature. This does not mean that an evil man cannot do moral acts. To say such a thing would not only be naive, for every man makes choices that branch off the tree of his heart, but would also be foolish. But Jesus is not concerning Himself with the branches on the tree but with the fruit that dangles from them. Anyone can choose to be kind to their neighbor on occasion. But occasional watering or fertilizing of the heart does not change the nature of the heart itself. The evil person stores up evil in his heart and produces evil fruit, which is continuously displayed through his dispositions, habits, beliefs, and behaviors, regardless of the behavioral modification that he may do.
The terrifying thing about Jesus’ analogy is that fruit is never meant for the tree. It is produced for the consumption of others. “No man is an island,” said Donne, and of this, he could not be more right. We are social creatures by nature and the fruit we produce in our lives is presumably given to others for their betterment. But when what we produce is evil and our family and friends have glutted themselves on it, the more our fruit becomes a part of the sap in their tree. In this way, evil replicates itself until a cancerous orchard of pain, perversion, suffering, affliction, and death has infected all who take a bite. That is why the warning that Jesus gives us about storing up evil is not about us becoming evil. We have already accomplished that by ingesting evil continually. It is about how we bring forth evil into the world.
The nature of a man expresses itself first and foremost with one’s words. A man’s appearance may provide a clue to his background or culture, but it is his language that exposes his nationality, the region in which he lives within that nation, the history, traditions, customs, and folklore he may have grown up with, and in some cases the amount of education or refinement he may have learned. In short, language helps define a person’s identity and point to his nature, for it is out of the abundance of these influences that the man speaks.
So it is, Jesus says, with our hearts.
But instead of trying to sift through almost 200 countries and more than 7,000 languages, Jesus simplifies it for us by reducing it to a binary system. Man is not American, Senegalese, Russian, or Brazilian. Rather, he is either Good or Evil. And, depending on where he is from and what culture, traditions, customs, ideas, stories, and beliefs he has stored up in his heart from this country of origin, out of the abundance of that treasure, the mouth speaks. And “the good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” (v.35) At the judgment it will be our words that distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous, the justified from the condemned. Just as the Gileadites tested the Ephraimites at the Jordan River by forcing them to pronounce a word they could not say correctly (Judges 12:5-7) so too will our words rescue or condemn us.
But “bringing forth” also refers to the actions of a man, for as stated above, the fruit always correlates to the nature of the man. If a man is evil, he is “still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:3), i.e. “controlled by animal instincts.” Such a man may look tame or safe, and some might argue that we ought to “let him be” and “what business is it of ours to tell him how to live his life?” But those who make these types of arguments are missing the point. Men and women might have a domesticated dog or cat that they share a home with, but the only reason we can call this animal “domesticated” is that it has learned to restrain its animal instincts. It no longer urinates when it feels the need but paws at the door instead. And rather than hunting for its food, it has learned to come to its owner and nonverbally communicate that it is hungry. But if something were to happen to that owner so that the pet could not go outside or receive food from its master’s hand, then the animal would quickly return to its animal instincts and, if given the opportunity, feed on the corpse of its master. So, too, it has been in societies. History has proven across time that the restrained indulgence of animal instincts has led to healthy, thriving, functional civilizations. But when the private musings of a man’s heart manifest into overt skepticism about what is right or true, when everything has become redefined to fit one’s personal preferences, then evil becomes justifiable. Sexual perversion, strife, jealousy, idolatry, sensuality, impurity, enmity, divisions, dissensions, fits of anger, and the like are brought forth on a continual basis, and the people of the flesh glut themselves on the organism of society until the organs of morality, justice, and law fail to function.
But if we yield only to God and His Son, Jesus Christ, if we build only on that foundation, we discover that salvation comes not only to the soul but also redeems the instincts, so that we no longer submit to the animal but are instead ruled by the spiritual, i.e. words and behaviors which are rooted in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Words and actions. In the end, nothing will be more evidential to prove who we are than what we have brought forth, and regardless of how we might try to obfuscate our true nature, nothing will be more damning.