There’s a verse in Isaiah that is a stark reminder of what John was inferring here. The prophet says that even the best things we think, say, and do in life are like filthy rags in God’s sight. God is holy and we aren’t. He doesn’t make us unholy: the sins we choose do that. But, because we’ve chosen unholiness, we’re filthy. Our sins are fit only for the trash, or to be burned up. Like filthy rags.
What do you do with orchard trees that don’t produce fruit? You get rid of them. You cut them down and burn them up so you can use that spot to plant a new tree that will grow fruit. Part of orchard and vineyard management is to cut down plants that aren’t producing. Weak plants become susceptible to disease and infect other healthy ones.
Another part of managing growing fruit is pruning. There’s an art to pruning. You can’t just willy nilly start cutting. There are specific places, angles, and distances that are best for pruning because the point of pruning unproductive branches is to strengthen the whole plant. Like unproductive plants, unproductive vines and branches become weak, susceptible to disease and bug infestation. They drain energy out of the whole plant. A careful gardener takes time to responsibly prune where he needs to, so that the pruned plant can come through the cutting trauma to become even stronger. To produce better fruit.
You know where this is going.
Admit it. There are people we know who are spiritually unproductive; they might even be us. They hear the Word but don’t put it into practice. Or, worse, they ignore the word, act contrary to it. No, I’m not trying to be a prude; I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes our words and actions fail to produce good fruits of faith. Sometimes our words and actions make others susceptible to the disease of sin. Filthy rags to be pruned.
Jesus is a great pruner. He’s a master farmer. He can see which trees are dead and which ones will produce more if they’re pruned. The ones that won’t produce good fruit, even if they’re shiny and pretty, are little more than filthy rags. They’re fit only for the anguish of being dug up, cut apart, discarded and burned. Is that me? Is that you? Friend, it’s a good question to ask.
John the Baptist asked it. Even more, he already knew the answer where the self-important religious leaders were concerned. Like his cousin, Jesus, John got out his pruning shears and started to cut.
For more reading: Isaiah 64;6, Luke 3:9, Luke 13:6-9, John 15:2 & 6, Matthew 3:11
Lord, prune me so I might grow for You. May I never be unproductive, or dead inside, or lead others astray.