“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”
Matthew 7:15-20 (NRSV)
Continuing in the portion of the Sermon that focuses in on the coming judgement, Jesus brings up the issue of false prophets.
We might immediately think of the Torah’s laws about prophets, such as not needing to fear a prophet whose prophecies do not come to pass, or even executing a prophet who claims to speak in the name of the Lord only to lead people away from the Lord.
It is that latter sort of bad prophet that Jesus seems to have in view, and there are great examples that come from Israel’s history that are directly pertinent to Jesus’ sermon.
Jeremiah 21 has already been alluded to in the Sermon, and in chapter 27, Jeremiah is warned by God about the prophets in Israel telling the people that they will not be subject to Babylon. God warns that the might of Babylon will indeed fall on Jerusalem, and if these people listen to the false prophets speaking of peaceful times, they will surely be destroyed. This culminates in a showdown between Hananiah – a false prophet who predicts that Babylon will fold in two years – and Jeremiah, who points out that all the prophecies before them point to war and famine for Israel. Spoiler alert: Hananiah is wrong. Also, he dies.
Jeremiah has a contemporary, Ezekiel, who dramatically enacts the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon with miniatures. Beginning in Ezekiel 12, God castigates the false prophets who tell Israel that judgement is far off and the horrible things seen by the previous prophets will not come to pass. They tell Israel everything will be fine. God responds that the truth is that Jerusalem is about to become a wasteland, and these prophets are leading the people right into the mouth of the destruction. This goes on for a few chapters. My favorite part is the end of chapter 12, where God points out that the false prophets say that the judgement prophecies are for the distant future and not for their immediate historical context. Yes, indeed. Where’s Ezekiel when you need him, am I right? Left Behind series, I’m looking in your direction.
Both of these men are prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, and both of them are surrounded by false prophets who tell Israel that there’s nothing to worry about, life will go on as usual, and all of those terrible prophecies are really about a Great Tribulation a few thousand years in the future.
It is this tradition that Jesus is summoning up for his audience. He, too, is prophesying the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, but Israel is surrounded by leaders who tell her this is not the case. They make themselves comfortable. They like things the way they are, and nobody and noTHING is going to shake their world. And like the true prophets of YHWH before him, Jesus will be persecuted by Israel herself who does not want to hear the message.
But Jesus takes the veil from our eyes. These soft men preaching peace and safety are, in reality, rapacious wolves full of hunger and violence. Their lives do not bear the fruits of repentance, as John the Baptist demanded, but they bear the fruits of fleecing the herd. You can see them in their paneled houses, drinking rich wines, skimming off changed money, lounging on the Temple’s golden furnishings, securing lands and titles – all the while Israel groans in her poverty and oppression.
These wolves are fearless. They believe nothing will happen to them. If God disapproves, why isn’t He doing anything about it? They have made friends with the occupying force. All is as it should be. Nothing is going to happen. This is the way life will be for Israel, and you can run with the wolves or get eaten with the sheep.
But Jesus’ message is that this situation is about to be radically reversed. The sheep are to be collected and protected by their shepherd. The wolves, on the other hand, are about to be dragged out of the pasture and killed. The judgement image in verse 19 is unmistakable – these men will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
This puts the teeth on Jesus’ warnings and ethical instructions all through the Sermon. It’s what he’s been saying a dozen different ways. If you join the wolves, those false prophets bearing the fruits of this world, you will be destroyed with them. If you join the sheep, those humble, meek, and poor who are seeking after being faithful, you will live and be rewarded with them. The wolves will tell you none of this will happen, but Jesus and his hearers know what has happened to such false prophets and Jerusalem in the past.
- What do false prophets of this sort look like in our world? Is it those who preach wealth and prosperity? Is it those who say Christianity is still in fine shape in the postmodern world? Is it those who deny climate change? What messages are coming to the people of God that obscure upcoming troubles, and who is sending them?
- How can we know how God wants us to respond to contemporary challenges to the welfare of the Church?