The proof of Jesus' wit is the
ability of his quips to survive repetition and editing by more pedantic
minds. While a one-liner may seem easy to recall, its initial impact is
hard to duplicate. Just try reproducing a good punch line. The witty
remark that struck you as so sharp is first dulled from being stored among
your mind's vast stock of wise things to say. Then its point is further
blunted by the verbal framework you must reconstruct for those who missed
the original performance. Yet, a good quip is a gem that retains its
distinctive luster even when repeatedly tossed about with common sand.
The rhetorical question about fruit picking in Matt 7:16b is a case in
point. It suggests a surrealistic scene of migrant workers routinely
collecting baskets full of plump muscats and succulent figs from a brier
patch. Jesus deftly drafted this graphic description of absurdity by
pairing incompatible items that in Mediterranean culture were traditionally
associated with cultivation (grapes and figs) and devastation (thorns and
thistles). To speak of gathering grapes or figs to a Jewish audience
inevitably invoked further connotations about God's expectations of his
people, due to time-worn passages in prophetic scriptures such as this:
When I go to gather them, says the LORD,
there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree.
--- Jeremiah 8:13
But setting a fruit harvest
among thorns and thistles introduces a novel absurd twist that no Hebrew
prophet would have expected.
This saying is like Jesus'
suggestion of another implausible scenario: a camel threading itself through
a needle. Both situations are intriguing precisely because ridiculous
scenes are left unresolved. Instead of lecturing people on obvious
futility, Jesus whimsically invites us to imagine for ourselves the outcome
of impossible projects. "When has this happened?, "he asks. The patently
incompatible combinations he proposes lead us to endorse his viewpoint by
volunteering to reply, "Probably never." Thus, by letting listeners draw
their own conclusions, Jesus is able to elicit a broader consensus than if
he told people what to think.
The implicit incongruity of a brier patch harvest is so clear, however,
that it is hard to avoid advertising it as such. Hence, other gospel
writers transformed Jesus' rhetorical question into statements of fact that
preclude even contemplating the surrealistic vision of his original quip.
Compare Matthew's version of this saying with these:
For each tree is known by its fruit.
Figs are not gathered from thorns,
nor are grapes picked from brambles.
---Gospel of Luke 6:44
Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees,
nor are figs gathered from thistles,
for they yield no fruit.
---Gospel of Thomas 45:1
These versions clearly represent
a scribe's revision of Jesus' original remark. Jesus' fanciful combinations
of fruit and plants are preserved well enough in Luke and Thomas' disjointed
pairs. But their explicit instructions on where not to harvest fruit
lack the necessary appeal to common sense for the saying to survive as a
piece of oral folk wisdom. Good proverbs are reminders of pragmatic points
that people are apt to forget. But who in a farming culture ever needed to
be cautioned not to expect grapes from thorns and figs from thistles? To
issue such a trite memorandum is to treat one's audience as a mindless mass
that is incapable of observing things or thinking for itself. Formatted as
a proverb, Jesus' ironic juxtaposition of incompatible images is turned into
a bit of overbearing trivial advice. His line has been preserved but his
sense of timing has been lost. For instead of letting people react
spontaneously to an incongruous situation, these instructions
condescendingly point out the obvious.
Yet, even in distorted form,
Jesus' graphic quip still retains enough sparkling clarity to set it apart
from the colorless observations with which the three gospel writers group
it. Grapes and figs, thorns and thistles (or brambles, as Luke has it) are,
after all, distinct species whose contrasting characteristics are easily
imagined by anyone who has come in contact with them. Matthew and Luke
introduce this saying, however, under a banner that is neither vivid nor
concrete: you label things by what they produce.
The generalization that plants
are known by their fruit is an adequate formulation of the basic principle
of classification in primitive botany. But it can hardly be the thesis that
led Jesus to raise the question about gathering fruit from thorns and
thistles. For once one grants the elementary principle of classification by
type, there can be no thought of finding grapes on anything but grapevines
or figs elsewhere than on fig trees. To suggest otherwise sounds silly.
Jesus' graphic quip about harvesting prickly plants was obviously not
designed to illustrate the idea of identifying plants by their fruit. Even
the author of the gospel of Thomas did not draw this connection. So, the
principle of classifying plants by produce is best regarded as an
afterthought by one latter-day scribe: the compiler of the sayings source
scholars call "Q." It represents a pedantic response to, rather than the
premise of, Jesus' whimsical question about gathering grapes from thorns.
The same can be said of the pronouncement comparing the quality of trees
and fruit which is linked to Jesusí quip about grape gathering in Matthew
and Luke (but again not in Thomas):
A choice tree does not produce rotten fruit
any more than a rotten tree produces choice fruit.
---Gospel of Luke 6:43 (Matthew's variations are minor).
This saying is an obvious
attempt to illustrate the botanical principle of identifying a plant by its
fruit. Unfortunately, this generalization fails as a proverb, precisely
because it is derived from an abstract idea rather than from common
experience. If I were to apply the preceding principle of botanical
classification to this saying, I would have to say that it was produced
not by an itinerant rural sage tramping around the hills of Galilee but,
rather, by some urban scribe who had no first-hand familiarity with
orchards. My own experience with fruit trees is just extensive enough to
tell me that this generalization is not generally true. By nature, fine
young trees produce measly rotten fruit if they are not properly pruned and
tended. Conversely, with cultivation even an ancient tree that has rotted
to the core can be made to produce some prize fruit. Whether the fruit is
choice or rotten reveals the character of the caretaker rather than the tree
The genius of Jesus' quip about gathering grapes from thorns is that it
resists being reduced to a commonplace even when lumped together with such
unimaginative half-truths and moralizing maxims. Just compare its challenge
to explore implausible worlds with the sobriety of the saying that some
early Christian scribe appended to it:
Good guys produce good from
bad guys produce evil from the evil stocked in their hearts.
---Gospel of Thomas 45:2-3 (Matthew and Luke vary slightly)
The rhetorical question about
finding edible fruit on thorns and thistles playfully mixes up the real
world and then urges listeners: "Judge for yourselves what's wrong with
this picture!" The maxim about good and bad guys, on the other hand, simply
endorses a Puritanical picture of a black and white universe. A saying that
draws a radical distinction between good guys and bad guys is the type of
moralizing one might expect from a Pharisee or John Wayne. Jesus, who was
himself criticized for dining with toll-collectors and sinners, however,
would be more apt to urge people to contemplate turning the conventional
moralist's judgment of the world topsy-turvy.
This raises the question of
whether there is any way to discern why Jesus formulated his quip about
gathering grapes from thorns in the first place. If the sayings cluster in
which the gospel writers recalled this saying does little to clarify its
rationale, how can we hope to discover what prompted it? Tracing the origin
of one-liners to a particular occasion is almost impossible, since sharp
comments are generally honed by frequent repetition. But the gospels
themselves provide clues as to the type of situation that could well have
prompted Jesus to pose the question of finding fruit on thorns and thistles.
The first and most obvious clue is that the synoptic gospels append it to a
group of sayings in Jesus' inaugural sermon that caution people against
criticizing others. Wouldn't anyone who has passed through thorns and
thistles find the experience an apt metaphor for the sting of a critic's
scorn? At least one Jew before Jesus described critics in these terms:
As for you son of Adam, fear
neither them nor their words,
though you're surrounded by briers and thorns and you sit on scorpions.
Don't be afraid of their words or their looks, for they are a rebellious
Harsh words are, after all, mental barbs designed to ward off trespassers
who violate one's space. Far from attracting people, they irritate and
True, Jesus irritated some
people, but less by intention than by gathering around him social groups
whose company self-sufficient and self-righteous men of his day did not
tolerate: paupers and toll collectors, children and women, invalids and even
lepers. The gospels provide ample evidence that Jesus intended to stir up
the neat social system that marginalized such people. But he also realized
that you don't get people to accept others by criticizing or attacking
them. For criticism of any sort, no matter how well-intentioned or
well-deserved, only separates people. Whether it is sinners or the
self-righteous whom you criticize, the result is the same. People are left
alienated from each other. Criticism may be intended to produce positive
results. But people are not generally attracted to someone who constantly
pricks them. Thus, Jesus recognized that criticism was counter-productive
to his perception of God's desire to gather people rather than to repel
So, then, how did Jesus deal with criticism? Certainly not by criticizing
the critics in return, but by inviting them to laugh at themselves. Humor
is the perfect mirror for letting people see their own imperfections without
putting them on the defensive. No one likes to be made the butt of a joke.
But who doesn't laugh at foibles in comic predicaments involving someone
else? The genius of Jesus' comic question about gathering fruit from thorns
and thistles is that it highlights ridiculous behavior without pointing
fingers. Confronting critics with the question, "Since when does this
happen?" is a non-abrasive way of making them reflect on their own behavior
to recognize their own foibles. Thus, it remains an ideal saying for any
admirer of Jesus to remember, not just for deflecting criticism of oneself
but for stifling one's own impulse to criticize others.