Lectio Divina: Matthew 7:15-20
1) Opening prayer
guide and protector of Your people,
grant us an unfailing respect for Your name,
and keep us always in Your love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2) Gospel Reading - Matthew 7:15-20
Jesus said to his disciples: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them."
• We are reaching the final recommendations of the Sermon on the Mount. Comparing the Gospel of Matthew with that of Mark, one perceives a great difference in the way in which they present the teaching of Jesus. Matthew insists more on the content of the teaching and organizes it into five great discourses, of which the first one is the Sermon of the Mount (Mt 5 to 7). Mark says over fifteen times that Jesus taught, but he rarely says what He taught. In spite of this difference, both agree on a point: Jesus taught very much. To teach was what Jesus did the most (Mk 2:13; 4:1-2; 6:34). He does it always (Mk 10:1). Matthew is interested in the content. To teach is not only a way of communicating a truth in such a way that people learn it. The content is not limited to words, but it is also composed of gestures and in the way Jesus related Himself with people. The content is never separated from the person who communicates it. The person, in fact, is the origin of the content. Good content without intrinsic goodness is like milk spilled on the ground. It does not convince and conversion does not take place.
• The final recommendations and the result of the Sermon on the Mount in the conscience of the people are the points of the Gospel of today (Mt 7:15-20) and of tomorrow (Mt 7:21-29). (The sequence of the Gospel of the days of the week are not always the same as that of the Gospels).
Matthew 7:13-14: Choose the sure way.
Matthew 7:15-20: The prophet is known by the fruits.
Matthew 7:21-23: Not only speak, but act.
Matthew 7:24-27: Construct the house on rock.
Matthew 7:28-29: The new conscience of the people.
• Matthew 7:15-16ª: Beware of false prophets. In the time of Jesus, there were prophets of all types, people who announced apocalyptic messages to involve people in different movements of that time: Essenes, Pharisees, Zealots, and others (cf. Ac 5:36-37). When Matthew writes there were also prophets who announced messages different from the one proclaimed by the community. The letters of Paul mention these movements and tendencies (cf. 1 Co 12:3; Gal 1:7-9; 2:11-14; 6:12). It must not have been easy for the community to make a discernment of spirits. This marks the importance of the words of Jesus on false prophets. The warning of Jesus is very strong: “Beware of false prophets who come to you disguised as sheep but underneath are ravenous wolves”. The same image is used when Jesus sends the disciples on mission: “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves” (Mt 10:16 and Lc 10:3). The opposition between the ravenous wolf and the meek sheep is irreconcilable, unless the wolf is converted and looses its aggressiveness as the prophet Isaiah suggests (Is 11:6; 65:25). What is important here in our text is the gift of discernment. It is not easy to discern spirits. Sometimes it happens that personal interests or the interests of a group lead one to proclaim as false those prophets who announce the disturbing truth. That happened with Jesus. He was eliminated and put to death, considered a false prophet by the religious authorities of that time. Every so often, the same thing has happened and continues to happen in Christianity.
In our society today we experience false prophets in many ways. First, there are the obvious ones who proclaim ridiculous things in order to have some fame. There are others who use Christianity for personal gain. Those who get on television, or the Internet, or in a community and suggest that filling their bank account with money from the community members is what God wants. There are others who distort the word of God, or add to it or remove parts, in order to form their own separate community or beliefs. There are those that claim a personal revelation from God that is not consistent with Church teaching. Some claim to be God. The list can go on… Jesus warns us to not be misled. It is a wide road that carries all of these false prophets and teachers and their followers.
• Matthew 7:16b-20: The comparison of the tree and of its fruits. To help to discern spirits, Jesus uses the comparison of fruit: “You will be able to tell them by their fruits”. A similar criteria had been suggested in the book of Deuteronomy (Dt 18:21-22). Jesus adds: “Can you pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way a sound tree produces good fruit, but a rotten tree bad fruit. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit. Any tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. In the Gospel of John, Jesus completes the comparison: “Every branch in me that bears no fruit, he cuts away. Every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes to make it bear even more. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, unless it remains part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in Me. Those branches will be cut off and thrown into the fire to be burnt” (Jn 15:2,4,6).
Some preach that believing in God will make you wealthy and give you the easy life. This is not Jesus’ message. When the person saying this has used the charity of the community and the people to build a huge mansion for themselves and very little goes to the poor, this is contrary to Jesus’ teaching. This is a lack of the fruit of good works that Jesus talks about, so it is easy to discern if one looks. This form of teaching does not produce good works. The same applies to those who preach violence, retribution, and even death for others. This is not consistent with Jesus’ teaching. He does not advocate killing, nor does He ever suggest “getting even”. In fact, He teaches the opposite, no matter what the offense. This is another fruit that can be used to discern the truth.
A false prophet does not even have to claim to be a prophet. The culture of death through abortion is one example. The fruit of abortion is innocent death. It is even possible that those teaching the truth are labeled as false teachers by others. We can see this in the arguments among some in the Church and with various ecclesial communities.
4) Personal questions
• Do you know any case in which a good and honest person who proclaimed a truth was condemned as a false prophet?
• How do the fruits of your actions reveal yourself to others?
• Can we use the same criteria, fruits or results, to discern the truth from the collective efforts of groups as well? Are there groups within Christianity or the Church that are so closed in on themselves that they produce little good fruit? Are there groups in Christianity or the Church that end up distorting truth or doctrine in their zeal or confusion? Can you identify some?
5) Concluding Prayer
Yahweh, look at my suffering and rescue me,
for I do not forget Your Law.
Plead my cause and defend me;
as You promised, give me life. (Ps 119:153-154)