Figs from Thistles Jun03

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Figs from Thistles

Regardless of one’s religion, the scriptural writings of the world’s many religions provide amazingly insightful images and stories that teach some of life’s greatest lessons.  One of those great lessons is contained in Christ’s simple question, “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistleweeds?”

In the book of Genesis we see that ever since God set the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the garden, mankind has sought, despite serpentine temptations, to properly discern right from wrong, truth from error, uprightness from folly.  Eve was tempted by the serpent with promises that if she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that she would not in fact die (as she was warned by God), but would become “as the gods, knowing good and evil.”  And when Eve saw that “the fruit was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make on wise,” she partook of the fruit.  Like many of us, Eve was seeking for good things, but she was beguiled.  And from that moment on the Earth was cursed, so that rather than bringing forth spontaneous, delicious, worry-free fruit, it would bring forth “thorns also and thistles,” and these conditions would compel mankind to work “in the sweat of [its] face” in order to obtain food for nourishment.  And yet God said that this curse was “for the sake” of mankind, not merely as a brutish punishment.  But how could work and sweat be a blessing?  The answer lies, at least in part, in Christ’s simple question, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

By asking “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles,” Christ is essentially asking, “When we need sustenance, do we seek for fruit among the weeds?  Or do we seek out the tall and beautiful fruit-tree, or the winding grapevine?”  The answer to Christ’s question is embarrassingly simple: “Yes, of course, men gather fruit from the fruit tree and the vine, but not from noxious thorns and thistles.” So why does Christ ask this obvious question?  Because he wants to make obvious to us what was previously obscure about discerning right from wrong. When Christ asked this question, he was teaching the people how to discern between true and false men and philosophies. Christ used this question to suggest that we can discern between truth and falsehood the same way that we discern between a fruit-tree and a thistle-weed. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”  In other words, he is suggesting that it is as practicable to discern between a truthful or false man and philosophy as it is to discern between a fruit-bearing tree and a noxious weed.  Then why do some of us still turn to obnoxious men and philosophies for our physical, mental, spiritual sustenance?

We all have a certain image that comes to mind when we hear the word “weed.”  We know all that this word entails.  We know the attributes common among weeds, and we also know that they are generally not “good for food.”  We also have a certain image that comes to mind when we hear the word “fruit tree” or “vineyard.”  We know all that these words entail.  We know the attributes common among them and we also know that they are fruitful and “good for food.”  Because we know the distinct attributes of weeds versus fruit-trees, we know where to go to find fruit.  But if anyone were to ask us today, “What does a false philosophy look like?” or “What does a truthful philosophy look like?” then could we even make an answer?  If not, then how could we know where to go to find the sustenance of truth?  Do we even believe that there are attributes in common between false or obnoxious philosophies by which they can be clearly identified?  Do we believe that there are attributes in common between truthful philosophies by which they can be clearly identified?  If we do, then we are among the minority in the U.S. today.  Most believe in relative truth.  But this is to be expected in a society that never seeks to analyze and identify the attributes of any of the philosophies presented to it.  We live in a world of five-minute soundbites and emotional knee-jerk reactions.  In such a world, one philosophy looks pretty much just like another, or pretty much exactly like the face of its proponent, having no discernible attributes that exist independent of the proponent himself, because we have not learned to see the common patterns among philosophies the same way that we have learned to see the common patterns among weeds or fruit trees.  But rest assured, those attributes and patterns are there, but because it takes more than just a simple glance to see them, we do not see them.  But the fundamental principle behind discerning a fruit-tree from a weed is the same as that of discerning a true from a false man or philosophy — we only have to educate ourselves on their distinctive attributes, and then all becomes clear, and we know where to go for what we need.

So, in answer to the beginning question: How could it be that “thistles and thorns” are “for our sake”?  Because by this experience we have the full opportunity to learn to discern the good from the evil, by the dint of careful comparison, so that we do not have to be beguiled anymore.  So, are we going to continue to seek for figs among thistles, or are we going to open our eyes so that we can find the truth?