Why does context matter? (Matthew 12:33)

Fruitful conversations have a context. That’s how language works.

Open Matthew 12:33.

When your spouse says, “Can we eat out tonight?” what they mean depends on the context.

Perhaps you’re both dog tired, and all you want is a fresh roll from Subway before you fall asleep. But if the kids are sleeping over with friends tonight, it might mean, “I’d like some quality time with you.” Or perhaps what they mean is, “Did you remember it’s our anniversary? I’d like to celebrate our life together.”

We all know that meaning depends on context. When you’re close to someone, sharing the same context, it’s easier to pick up on what they’re saying. It is harder when the message comes from a different culture, through another language, from a bygone era, the way the Bible does. Yes, it’s harder work to hear the message as the people in that culture and time would have heard it. But it’s so worth it!

Novelists and script writers give us context to make sense of what their characters say. A good biographer takes you through the person’s words into the meaning of their life.

So we’re not making any special claim about the Bible when we ask you to hear what it’s saying in context. We’re very likely to misunderstand its message and misuse it if we ignore the context. Because that’s true of language in general, it’s true of the Bible too.

Let’s take an example. What do you think Jesus meant by this?

Matthew 12:33 (my translation)
33 Treat a tree well and there’s quality fruit.
Treat a tree poorly and there’s poor fruit.
From what it yields, the tree is known.

We understand that leaving a tree without water or nutrients will yield only shrivelled fruit. If Jesus was a guest on Gardening Australia, the literal sense might be all there was to it. Since that wasn’t the context, he was probably using a gardening metaphor to speak of something else.

But what? The metaphor could apply to many things. If you don’t invest yourself in your marriage, the relationship will shrivel. If you don’t take the time to care for your children, the results will not be good. The gardening metaphor could work for your business, your friendships, in fact most facets of your life.

So are all these things valid applications of Jesus’ statement in our lives today? That’s an important question.

Applying Jesus’ statement to those things would be repurposing Jesus’ metaphor. That’s not a bad thing, provided both you and your hearers understand that’s it’s been repurposed.

Say you’ve asked your teenager to clean up their room. Again. You want action now. You leave the room with, “I’ll be back!” Both of you know this context has nothing to do with what Arnold Schwarzenegger meant in The Terminator. You’ve repurposed his statement as an implied threat, veiled in humour.

It’s okay to repurpose Jesus’ gardening metaphor to mean something quite different to what he meant (such as nurturing your marriage). But please do that only if both you and your hearers are clear that you are repurposing it, that it’s not what Jesus meant.

So that leaves the question, what did Jesus mean by this metaphor? We are not understanding the Bible until we pursue that question. Jesus wasn’t really talking about fruit trees or marriages.

So how do we discover what Jesus was talking about? The story teller (Matthew) gave us the context.

Back in verse 24, the Pharisees declared Jesus to be an agent of Satan (Beelzeboul). They told everyone Jesus was a charlatan, using the evil powers to order demons around. Jesus showed how preposterous that claim was: if he was sabotaging Satan, the reign of evil would fall anyway, so Jesus’ actions were opening the way for God’s reign to be restored (12:25-27).

The Pharisees were protecting the status quo. They had significant influence over the Galilean towns, and they did not want to relinquish their power to Jesus — something they must do if they recognize him as God’s anointed ruler (Christ). In supporting the status quo instead of Jesus, the Pharisees were supporting the continued suppression of Israel under evil. God’s Spirit was working through Jesus to dethrone evil, and they were resisting the truth that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).

They accused Jesus of being evil, but look at the fruit of his work, the good he was doing in releasing people from the reign of evil into God’s reign! That kind of good fruit cannot come out of an evil tree. Their accusation is groundless.

So Jesus reversed the accusation. The Pharisees refused to let go of their power over the towns of Galilee, and the towns would never be free while they hold power. They were functioning as evil spirits do — holding people under oppression. From their fruit (namely holding people in oppression), it’s clear that they were bad trees: “From what it yields, the tree is known” (12:33).

That’s what Jesus meant by his metaphor. There might even be a wider context too. The Pharisees would have been familiar with the gardening metaphor in Israel’s story of exile and oppression, the result of evil leadership (e.g. 1 Kings 14:14-16; Psalm 80; Isaiah 5). The fact that the kingdom had not been re-established — that God’s tree was not yet producing the fruit he intended — was evidence that the leaders were not caring for the tree appropriately (12:33).

So what is the application for us? Submitting to Jesus’ kingdom authority causes us to care for God’s “tree” the way he does. We cannot have the fruit that God intends in his world any other way. If what we care about is our own power and position (as the Pharisees did), we will have shrivelled fruit. Quality fruit is only produced in the caring community where people (and especially leaders) value the tree and give themselves to tend the tree, to provide the water and nutrients so it can generate the fruit God intended.

Feel free to repurpose Jesus’ analogies. They’re worth reusing in other contexts. Just understand that when you do, you’re not giving the meaning Jesus intended. You need to spend the effort discovering what Jesus meant.

That’s why the kingdom context is so crucial to understanding what Jesus was saying. If we don’t understand that framework we won’t understand him.

You don’t want to end up offering a Subway sandwich for an anniversary celebration.

What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 484:

The Pharisees’ malicious charge now provides the setting for some further reflections on the power and significance of words (vv. 33–37); this complex of sayings is clearly applicable to what the Pharisees have said, but may also be more widely applied, and may originally have been preserved independently of this particular narrative setting.

W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, International Critical Commentary (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 349 – 350:

To speak evil is to be evil. Those therefore who have spoken evil of Jesus have revealed their true character. …
There is a close parallel in Ecclus 27:6: ‘The fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree; so the expression of a thought discloses the cultivation of a man’s mind.’

[previous: What’s the unforgivable sin?]

[next: You say more than you realize]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Discipleship Trainer • Riverview Church

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