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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 

You'll know who they are by what they produce.
Since when do people pick grapes from thorns or figs from thistles?

   ---Gospel of Matthew 7:16

 

 

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 itself.

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 their stock,
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 house.
      ---Ezekiel 2:6

Harsh words are, after all, mental barbs designed to ward off trespassers who violate one's space.  Far from attracting people, they irritate and repel.

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 them.

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.

 

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  • This article is one of the author's contributions to a multi-authored volume on probable authentic sayings of Jesus that never made it to press.  It is published here for the first time.

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- last revised 25 May 2017 -

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