“Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21.43).
My first taste of the fruit of the Christian tree was during Sunday School, where I learned about the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul introduces the reader to the variety of fruits on the Christian tree: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22, NRSV).
My hope was to find these fruits, characteristics, values, virtues on the tree of the well-planted, rooted, and watered life of the faithful follower of Jesus Christ. With training and maturity, I began to consider what type of fruit others would find on the tree of my life. Would a person find the fruit of the Spirit or the works of the flesh, which include “strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy,” just to name a few?
Upon closer and more ruthless self-examination, I discovered that my tree could bear both the fruits and the works. It would just depend on what side of the bed I woke-up on, who crossed my path, what I heard on the morning news, or what I saw on my social media feed.
The Song of the Century
Abel Meeropol was a Jewish American New York City Public School English teacher, community activist, amateur poet, and composer. Meeropol was living the American Dream and eating apple pie in the Roaring Twenties. Throughout the 1930s, he was haunted by the strange fruit of the American nightmare. As an act of catharsis, Meeropool described the American ordeal in 1937 when he penned these words and set them to music:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
From “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol
Meeropol describes how he was tormented by the strange photograph of the bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hanging from a tree in the local courthouse yard. In the gruesome yet iconic image from August 7th, 1930, the men, women, and children of the lynch mob pose and smile. Apparently, it was not strange to circulate this image of black flesh swinging in the breeze as the postcard of this image became one of the most widely distributed of the 1930s.
Billie Holiday breathed life into Meeropol’s words when she first performed “Strange Fruit” in March 1939. For the next 20 years, Billie Holiday would ask for the lights to be lowered before she breathed “Strange Fruit” as the closing number of her set. Lady Day lived in a strange and segregated society where she could enter the backdoor as a performer but not the front door as a patron. Her rendition of the song was a form of nonviolent direct action for which she paid the ultimate price. She died tragically in police custody on July 17th, 1959, while handcuffed to a hospital bed. She was an early casualty of the war on drugs. In 1999, “Strange Fruit” was named the most influential song of the 20th century by Time Magazine.
Same Fruit New Tree
How do we express the strange sadness, anger, fear, and shame the history of oppression has forced upon so many but particularly people of African ancestry. Music artist Hasan Green has revived Meeropol and Holiday’s classic by breathing fresh words to capture the 2020 edition of the American nightmare in his rendition of “Strange Fruit:”
O My brother can’t you see
Strange fruit this is a new day of slavery
Strange fruit no longer hang from popular trees
But strange fruit we are now lying in the street
“Strange Fruit” by Hasan Green
The Civil Rights Movement commenced after the lynching of Emmitt Till. The Black Lives Matter Movement was launched after the murder of Trayvon Martin, fueled by the killing of Michael Brown, and globalized by the final pleas of George Floyd. With more questions than answers into his death, George Floyd’s family requested an independent autopsy before Mr. Floyd’s funeral. The medical examiner’s results contradicted that of the local officials. The examiner determined that asphyxiation, killing by deprivation of oxygen, due to back and neck compressions, was the cause of death.
Recent scholarship on ancient Rome reveals that the cause of death by crucifixion was not nail piercing but asphyxiation. In Matthew 27, the reader encounters Jesus nailed to the cross. An innocent man between two bandits, the just between the unjust. With the weight of his body deflating his lungs, “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last” (Matthew 27.50).
A Vision for the Movement
The Christian Movement started not when Jesus took his final breath, but when he shared his most important teaching. When Jesus ascends the mount to teach, he has a massive and diverse crowd of followers, who have both heard his words and experienced his power. Jesus’s movement was one of religious, social, and political nonviolent confrontation and change. Jesus was on a divine assignment to make things on earth as they were in heaven.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demonstrated what I have called Clarity of Vision Impacting Destiny. We know Jesus’s vision as the Beatitudes. This descriptor is a derivative of the Latin term “beati” which means the happy, fortunate, blessed person. For Jesus, the “blessed” person enjoys the benefits that extend from God. Here’s Jesus’s vision for his followers.
The poor in spirit enjoy the benefits of the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn enjoy the benefits of being comforted.
The meek enjoy the benefits of inheriting the earth.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness enjoy the benefits of being filled.
The merciful enjoy the benefits of receiving mercy.
The pure in heart enjoy the benefits of seeing God.
The peacemakers enjoy the benefits of being called children of God.
Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake enjoy the benefits of having the kingdom of heaven.
Adapted from The Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5.3-12
With the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges his followers to be an orchard of these strange fruits of the kingdom. To be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for justice, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be a peacemaker, and to be persecuted for righteousness sake in the 21st century is to be faithful to the gospel message while strange against the status quo.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus of Nazareth, who was scourged, crucified, and resurrected, is the Christ. The bad news is that God’s reign on the earth will be accomplished through his descendants. Yes, we who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ are entrusted with expanding God’s territory. As NT Wright says, “the agenda of the kingdom and of blessings is not what God does to you but what God does through you.”
What will you allow God to do through the tree of your life? Will you allow God to produce a harvest of the fruit of the Spirit? Will others be blessed through your witness as an orchard of the Beatitudes? How can the Beatitudes be the virtues that guide your sense of personal responsibility and social action? The alternative is the works of the flesh and the status of those disinherited from the kingdom.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain undeniable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is included in The Declaration of Independence (US 1776.)”
The truth is the world got it wrong. Something that God quickly began to teach me as I attempted to watch the well-known movie The Pursuit of Happiness. As we embark on what is easily the most hostile election year to date, it is evident we need to pursue what Jesus instructed from the first day of his ministry. We need to pursue the Kingdom of God.
As Christians, too often we associate ourselves and our circumstances with the pursuit of things that make us happy or feel good. This takes us away from the purpose of God in our lives. Happiness by definition comes from the root word, hap – which means luck, chance, or fortune. This sets the way to create an idol in our lives, one that causes us to focus on the pleasures of life and the circumstances that surround them. Take note this is something God clearly speaks about in Isaiah 65:8-12. This is even true when it comes to the election and voting for a person who makes you feel good, or even secure and happy, not necessarily what lines up with the will of God.
Does that mean that God’s will is for us to never be happy? By no means. Quite the opposite in fact. God wants us to be happy. Jesus preaches it very much so in Matt 5:3-12 commonly known as the beatitudes. Take note, however, this sermon is preached as characteristics for those who have entered into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). ‘Blessed’ in Greek means happy and in Aramaic means prosperous. What does that mean for us? It means that in order to be really happy (blessed), we need to pursue God and His Kingdom. Deeper than that, seeking God, staying in His will, produces joy, and that is something that is not dependent on circumstances, it is indwelling and solely dependent upon God.