by Amy Fisher
My favourite poem goes like this:
No one lives his life.
Disguised since childhood,
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.
Our true face never speaks
Somewhere there must be storehouses
Where all these lives are laid away
like suits of armor or old carriages
or clothes hanging limply on the walls.
All paths lead there,
to the repository of unlived things.
–Rainer Maria Rilke
I love this poem for its truth, even while I hope that it’s a lie.
I hope that when the poet observes that no one is living their life, that everyone is wearing a mask, while their real selves are lying empty and uninhabited in storehouses and abandoned barns, I hope that he’s lamenting something we’re in danger of, but not totally resigned to.
I hope my real life isn’t hanging limply on a wall, a cast off shell…even if I often feel, as he says, haphazardly assembled, fitted together by bits and pieces of man-made façade.
I hope that it doesn’t have to be the way the poet says that it is.
In today’s passage, I think we find Jesus showing the way back to the place where real lives were laid away, to the repository of unlived things. He’s reminding his crowd of listeners that they are not two selves but one; they are not masks and hidden faces, no coveralls, no make-up, no faking.
Fruit that grows naturally out of a tree.
Fruit that fits its source.
An outside that matches its inside.
Jesus is pretty clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and again here in chapter 12, that what comes out of you matters. That whatever and whoever you are is made known by what comes out of you. That whatever is in your heart is bound to come tumbling out of your mouth sooner or later. That, in fact, your true face always speaks, whether you like it to or not. That your body is a storehouse for good or evil and your fruit will allow those around you to know which.
Is it ironic then, or only more tragic, that this story begins with a man who cannot see or speak? A man so possessed by the devil that very little can get into him, and even less can get out. If what comes out of your mouth matters, then the fact that this man has no words shows how completely he is consumed and inhabited by Satan. Satan has sealed him up. He is locked up in Satan’s house, as it were. The tree being so bad that fruit cannot grow.
When Jesus heals the man, the crowd is divided: some of them are amazed. Some others blaspheme. The usual suspects. The Pharisees. Jesus knows what they’re thinking before they say a word… He can see the truth of what’s in them even before they open their mouths.
They call him a son of Satan.
There is, of course, no shortage of reckless interpretation on Jesus’ strong reaction — Especially this business about blasphemy against the Spirit being the unpardonable sin. After a rather cursory read, it seems to me that a great deal of these interpretations break the cardinal rule of New Testament studies, the first lesson and maybe the only thing I remember from my one and only class in biblical literature: the importance of CONTEXT.
There is a lot going on in this passage…
A sick person healed.
A demon exorcised.
A kingdom divided.
A strong man robbed.
A spirit blasphemed.
Some trees bearing fruit.
Some tongues being tamed.
…all in preparation for the day of judgment.
When some people will be permanently condemned.
We might be tempted to follow any one of these stories as the main event. Tracking them to other places in the scriptures where more is said on each subject, and sometimes in very different rhetorical and social settings.
But Matthew puts them together. And I think he means for them to hang that way. To cohere. They’re not so disconnected as they might first appear. The warning about blasphemy against the Spirit is not easily unmoored from the rest of this story, to be branded about like a dangerous sword condemning all manner of carelessness. When Jesus warns the Pharisees of the gravity of their error, he is talking specifically about their illogical conclusion that his healing must be the work of Satan.
The Pharisees have been watching Jesus heal people all along. They’ve have had time to think about this particular miracle, in between hearing about it and then confronting Jesus. But they still resolve that Jesus must be in league with the devil.
Blasphemy is as simple as that: calling the work of the Spirit the work of Satan. A simple, not flippant, but persistent misapprehension about who the Spirit is and what the Spirit is capable of.
It’s simply preposterous to watch a man, once blind and mute, restored to wholeness, and to call that the work of the devil. It’s plainly ridiculous, that demons would cast out demons. That Satan might evict himself from a body, vacate his power, and weaken his kingdom.
It would be as if the strongman left his house unguarded. His doors unlocked, even wide open. Vulnerable, susceptible, and defenseless against the thief who was coming to rob him.
At first it seems strange that Jesus calls Satan the strongman. But there’s a certain irony in calling him this, since Jesus knows that strongman is going to be tied and bound, his house ransacked and plundered. The thief is stronger, if only by his wit. The robber subdues the strongman, now weak, and steals his possessions – those people he had literally possessed.
Jesus is the stronger man.
Even so, he doesn’t seem surprised that some people will doubt him. Jesus is willing to forgive those who don’t believe that he’s the Son of God. He’s human. He’s flesh and blood and standing in front of them. There’s room for confusion. He doesn’t look like much – all that redemption he has to offer hidden underneath his dirty clothes. People are apt to be mistaken about who he is and what he’s up to. But the work of the Spirit should be obvious; even instantly recognizable…
Here she is again.
Back on the corner again.
Back where she belongs
Where she’s always been
Everything the same
It doesn’t ever change
She’s never been away
from the healing game.
That kind of magic can only come from God. God’s in the healing game. God heals because it’s in God to heal. It’s the outpouring of who God is. We might even say that healing is the fruit of God’s tree. Maybe it will be something like those trees that will grow in the New Jerusalem in the end, and bring the healing of the nations.
Somewhere in the middle of his tirade, Jesus offers his listeners–and by extension you and I—a choice:
Gather with me. Or be Scattered.
And if this passage is about one thing instead of many.
And if God and Jesus and the Spirit are one, while Satan is Legion.
And if the fruit of their essence, is to heal people, to restore wholeness, while Satan’s impulse is to break people apart.
And if Jesus is teaching us about making our outsides match our insides, about the unity of our being.
THEN there’s something remarkable about this choice:
Gather with me. Gather yourselves up. All those pieces of you. All of your disguises. Your brokenness. Your assembled voices and fears and little pleasures. Those seemingly ill-matched threads of your existence. Gather them up. And become one. One tree. Bearing one kind of fruit. One with me.
Or else be scattered. A house divided. A brood of vipers, slithering in knotted, hissing chaos. A broken set of senses and abilities. Knicknacks and bric-a-brac in Satan’s crowded house.
Gather with me. Or be scattered.
So there is some logic to this passage, after all. It hinges on cohesion.
It’s about oneness.
About the truth that is in you being visible outside of you.
About wholeness. Whether its wholeness after healing. Or the wholeness of acting out of the deep truth that is within you.
About being either good or bad, but not both. Because to do two things at once is to do neither.
About whatever is in you saving you or condemning you.
When we’re more apt to live in masks and costumes, among smoke and mirrors, Jesus tells us there are no hypocrites. Hypocrisy is only bad fruit.
Back in Matthew, right after all of this, the Pharisees ask Jesus for some proof that he is who he says he is. Their blasphemy deepens. The tree is standing in front of them, and they can’t see its fruit for the leaves. Their challenge to him shows their own fruit, tiny, wrinkled and bruised. Their words, whatever they are, they matter. Our words, whatever they are, they matter too.