Gospel: Today the Church’s Lectionary lands us near the end of the Sermon on the Mount,
“15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
Who are these false prophets? When I was anevangelical Protestant teenager reading the Bible, I thought of them as people in cult-groups that considered themselves Christian such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or in my more triumphalistic Protestant moments I thought it could be the Roman Catholics.
Later, as a Roman Catholic, I was sure these false prophets were the JW’s and, in my more triumphalistic moments, the Protestants.
Then, as an Orthodox Christian, I was sure Jesus was referring to all those other guys, again.
But St. John Chrysostom does not go that route when interpreting this passage. For him, this is not an “us vs. them” warning, rather, Jesus is warning us against ourselves. He is warning us against false prophets in our own herd of sheep.
Although prophecy has to do with teaching (and other Church Fathers did use this passage as a call to guard against false teachers outside of the Orthodox Church), St. John puts the emphasis on fruit-bearing.
The emphasis is not on the content of the teaching so much as the Christlikeness of life. For there are many in Christian groups not our own who live changed lives committed to Jesus.
The Golden-Mouthed John Chrysostom is telling us to watch out for our own fellowdox who do not walk the talk, who say the right things but do not apply it to their lives themselves.
For prophets are not merely foretellers of the future, or forthtellers of repentance, they should also be forerunners in virtue.
Here is St. John Chrysostom’s take from the late fourth-century:
“It does not seem to me that “false prophets” here refers to the heretics but rather to persons who live morally corrupt lives while wearing a mask of virtue. They are usually called frauds by most people.
For this reason Jesus continued by saying, “By their fruits you will know them.” For it is possible to find some virtuous persons living among heretics. But among the corrupted of whom I speak it is in no way possible. “So what difference does it make,” Jesus says in effect, “if even among these false prophets some do put on a hypocritical show of virtue? Certainly, they will soon be detected easily.”
The nature of this road upon which he commanded us to walk is toilsome and hard. The hypocrite would seldom choose to toil but would prefer only to make a show.
For this very reason, the hypocrite is easily detected. When Jesus notes that “there are few who find it” [v. 14], he distinguishes these from those who do not find the way yet pretend to find it. So do not look to the mask but to the behavioral fruits of those who pursue the narrow way. “
(Homilies on THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 23.6)
Let us take care to beware of false prophets in our own communion who say the right things but do not do them, and let us take care not to be false prophets ourselves, but to live the Faith we speak of fully from the heart.