June 24, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 6:43-45.
“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
This seems to be a follow-on from the preceding verses admonishing against hypocrisy. Our actions belie our hearts regardless of what our mouths speak. But there’s more to this passage than that, I think, when Jesus refers to the “fullness of the heart.”
We read and hear news stories daily about the monstrous evil that some people perpetrate on innocent victims. We all probably have known people who produce evil fruit and perhaps been their victims or targets. They act from a “store of evil.” It is easy for me to label them and write them off as intrinsically evil or disordered. Yet, my heart has stirrings of compassion for them as well. Perhaps they were victims of evil in their early lives. It doesn’t excuse them, but I think it’s my way of trying to understand their “store of evil” as if by understanding it, I believe it could be changed. And I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t really give up on anyone; he always called them to faith, to believe in God’s healing love.
We may know people or know of people who have changed, undergone conversion. It makes me think of Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and founder of Survive which counsels families of victims of violence, who has served many death-row inmates as spiritual advisor. It also calls to mind my brother-in-law Ron who works for a Christian ministry with inmates in a Texas prison to take steps in accepting Jesus into their lives and thereby change their lives so that they can lead successful lives once released. He has told me some of their stories, how they have changed. They bolster his hope and keep him going day after challenging day.
John Shea in The Relentless Widow writes, “[B]ehavior is intimately tied to a sense of identity….Moral change is dependent on identity change.” There’s something very profound in these words. In my heart of hearts do I identify myself as a child of God, as a brother to Jesus, as his disciple? When I do, I naturally act in an observable way to follow Jesus’ teachings to the best of my ability. When I don’t identify as a disciple, I am susceptible to moral corruption. As Sanford states in The Kingdom Within, “The kingdom of God requires that the outer person and the inner person correspond to each other….[F]or no matter what we strive to accomplish outwardly in our lives, no matter what pretensions we make to righteousness, the actual fruit of our lives will be brought into existence from what is within our hearts.” I have to be of one heart, one mind with Jesus. That’s why God came in the flesh, so that I could identify with him.
However, I’m not without sin or sinful desires; I am not immune to temptations. So then, how do I identify with him? How do I reconcile the evil thoughts and sinful impulses that lurk in my heart from time to time? Sanford goes on, importantly, to add, “It is not a matter of becoming a person who has no ‘shadowy’ or ‘dark’ thoughts or feelings. All of us have murderous thoughts, adulterous feelings, and the like from time to time. It is a matter of not leaving them ‘in the heart’; that is, not burying them in the unconscious. Once we recognize our thoughts and feelings for what they are, they are no longer ‘in the heart’ but brought out into the open. We may lose some of our moral self-esteem in this way, but we also lose our mask and gain moral humility. We then no longer live just by the Law, for we have confronted the one within us for whom the Law was necessary in the first place, and this lifts our whole personality to a higher moral plane.”
The lesson here for me is transparency. I know that evil flourishes in darkness, in secretiveness. That’s why it’s important for me to share the parts I’m ashamed of and want to hide away — to not leave them in the heart where they become a part of my identity. To share those parts of myself with someone I trust to help me see that that is not my identity. Sanford writes, “This brings us to the next step of discipleship in the kingdom. Shedding the mask necessarily means confronting something in ourselves that is unpleasant and that we do not like. This is why we put on the mask in the first place. [I]initially it looks as though we need our mask in order to hide from a dreadful inner adversary.” I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
I can talk to him, of course, sharing my darkest thoughts and desires. Just like I can confess my sins to him. But that’s not enough. I have to share them with another person just as I have to confess to my priest. There is something about that that invokes accountability, but also allows for the store of goodness in my heart to be reflected back to me while the store of evil is revealed for what it is and shrivels in the light. That’s always the way it is with Jesus — the command to change. In this teaching it is to change my identity by revealing myself, all of myself, and confronting the part of myself for which the Law was necessary — to lift my “whole personality to a higher moral plane.” I do that by revealing myself to you, by shedding my mask.