This week we’re talking about “false prophets.” We’re talking about the value of honesty, the value of truth, the value of living a life in line with Jesus. And, of course, what does Jesus say about this? “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
However, I can’t help but notice that, since I became a parent, I’ve been lying WAY more than I used to. Like, that’s most of what I do in my role as a father. Some are simple, like “If you don’t hold my hand while we’re crossing the street, the wind is going to blow you away.” Others, though, are more serious, like “If you don’t eat your dinner, your head is going to fall off” or “If you kids don’t stop yelling, daddy’s going to have an emotional breakdown.” Stuff like that.
Now, whether or not this is the most effective way to communicate such things, I think it’s clear that these little falsehoods I tell my kids are because I love them and I want to keep them safe and all that good stuff. But there’s a big difference between that kind of thing we do as parents and caregivers, and the thing we’re talking about today. Because what we’re talking about today is a kind of intentionally malicious misleading of people away from the ways of Christ and towards something else.
So, last week we talked about judgement and how we shouldn’t attempt to take the splinter out of someone else’s eye while there’s a log in our own. Jesus was talking to us about our fellow brothers and sisters within the Christian community and how we should and should not go about offering them our loving correction. But today, we’re talking about something a bit different. We’re talking about people who identity with the Christian community, who try and pass themselves off as a disciple of Jesus, but in fact aren’t. This may sound contrary to the radically open and welcoming message of Jesus, but I actually think it’s a necessary component of it, and we’ll get to that soon enough.
Now, Jesus starts off by saying this: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” This is probably something we’ve all heard before. It’s become quite a commonplace saying in society, but it actually traces its origin back to the ancient poet of Aesop. Aesop was an ancient Greek poet who lived about 600 years before Christ. He’s one of these figures that we’re not even sure if he was a real person or if he’s just a character we’ve attributed all these different writings to. But anyway, this is one of his little fables about a wolf in sheep’s clothing: “A certain Wolf could not get enough to eat because of the watchfulness of the Shepherds. But one night he found a sheep skin that had been cast aside and forgotten. The next day, dressed in the skin, the Wolf strolled into the pasture with the Sheep. Soon a little Lamb was following him about and was quickly led away to slaughter. That evening the Wolf entered the fold with the flock. But it happened that the Shepherd took a fancy for mutton broth that very evening, and, picking up a knife, went to the fold. There the first he laid hands on and killed was the Wolf. The evil doer often comes to harm through his own deceit.”
Now, I feel like there are a couple aspects of this story that actually call into question the “watchfulness” of the shepherd. First of all, look at this wolf. I mean, I’ve never been a shepherd, but I feel like this isn’t really going to fool anybody. And just like I’ve never been a shepherd, I’ve also never “taken a fancy for mutton broth.” But if I did, and I went to slaughter a sheep, I feel like there would definitely be some red flags between grabbing the wolf in sheep’s clothing and actually killing him, namely the fact that it’s not a sheep and it’s a wolf. It seems like something would have tipped the shepherd off to that fact. Anyway, Aesop was probably well known at this time and that’s probably why Matthew puts these words into the mouth of Jesus. But Jesus goes on to say a bit more: “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.”
Now, just like I’ve never been a shepherd, I’ve also never been a farmer. You all should know this about me. I don’t like nature; I like showers. I like air conditioned spaces the way God intended it. But I know enough about nature to know that the fruit a tree bears is directly related to the kind of tree it is. An apple tree bears apples. An orange tree bears oranges. A watermelon tree bears watermelons. The nature of a thing determines what will be borne from it, and the same is true for disciples of Jesus. Now, in the Old Testament, prophets were a dime a dozen. They were everywhere, so the testing of prophets, and the fruit they were supposed to bear, was actually really important, and there are three primary ways we see people do this.
First, there’s the “test of subsequent events,” and it’s pretty much what you might think it is. If the prophecy doesn’t come to pass, then the person is deemed a false prophet. It’s as simple as that. We see this in Deuteronomy 18: “You man say to yourself, ‘how can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” Second, we have the “theological test”. This is basically a question of whether or not a prophet leads people toward YHWH or away from YHWH. We see this in Deuteronomy again: “If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and...they say, ‘Let us follow other gods’ (whom you have not known) ‘and let us serve them’, you must not heed the words of those prophets.” Finally, we have the “ethical test,” and I think this is really what Jesus is getting at here. We see this in Jeremiah: “In the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from their wickedness...Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the works of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you.”
If we’re to believe someone is a prophet among us, then the way they live should be important to us — not only the things they say. In a way, all this is saying is that you need to decide whether or not you want to be a Christian. And when we say that, it may not mean a whole lot. Like, “Yeah, I’m a Christian. I go to church and stuff.” But what I want to know is whether or not you really want to be a Christian. Are you willing to sell all you have and give it to the poor? Are you willing to leave your home and family and friends and go where Jesus is calling you? Are you willing to be crucified along with him, or will you deny him like many of his disciples did? Those are the questions we should be asking. Christianity is inherently costly and we should be weary of anyone who’s preaching a gospel that isn’t costly.
Now, if we believe that, it would behoove us to look at what comes immediately before this passage in verses 13 & 14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Perhaps the false prophets we’re talking about in this passage are the people who are ushering folks through the wide gate. These are the folks who preach more about infatuation than love. I call this “Jesus is my girlfriend” Christianity. The Christianity that says, “Listen, it’s all about you and we just want you to be comfortable. We don’t want you to feel challenged or convicted; we don’t want you to worry about your prejudices or your racism or sexism or your compliance in an immoral capitalist system. We don’t like talking about that here; we just want to talk about love. Just come along and live the good life.” The second you start hearing that, you need to start being suspicious. Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum; love is never not contextual and it’s not easy when that context thrusts us into uncomfortable situations. That’s why the Christian faith isn’t one that should inherently appeals to the masses. When it’s preached correctly, it should make the masses question why anyone would go along with it.
I know I’ve said this over and over, but we’ve gotta take sides. I know you’re probably sick of hearing that but you just need to get over it because I’m not going to stop saying it. If we’re not taking sides – if we just want to be with everyone, even the wolves – then we’re not doing anything but ushering people down the wide and easy road. And sometimes, even though it’s hard and it’s awkward and we don’t like to do it, we have to call out the wolves. And very often, if not most often, there are the ones who use the church as their base of power for turning people against others. You can’t be a true prophet and say it’s okay to hate Muslims. You can’t be a true prophet and discriminate against LGBT+ people. You can’t be a true prophet and demonize immigrants and refugees. And it’s not enough for us to merely “not-preach” these things; we have a responsibility to adamantly preach against them. False prophets are the folks who not only preach in favor of these hateful ideologies, but also tell you, either implicitly or explicitly, that it’s okay to continue holding them.
Now, you may be thinking, “but Pastor J.T., you start off every service by saying that all are welcome here. Doesn’t that include the oppressor as well as the oppressed?” And my answer to you is: “yes!” Jesus’ message is for everyone: the oppressor and the oppressed, the Nazi and the Jew, the racist and the person of color. The problem is that we often confuse “inclusivity” and “openness” with “never being challenged or convicted.” We’ve become such a divided and exclusivist society, that we either need to welcome someone and promise to never cause them offense, or we need to not welcome them at all. But, the fact of the matter is that we see a pattern in the Bible. We call this the “Jesus pattern.” It’s basically a pattern of death and resurrection.
All over the place in the OT and all over the place in the ministry of Jesus, we see that God has a preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, the subjugated, and the disenfranchised. Jesus stands first and foremost with them. Period. There’s a lot of questions about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about God, but that God stands first with the oppressed isn’t up for debate — that’s just a fact. But, every now and then, we see someone who was once an oppressor walk the length of the room and stand with the oppressed, too. Sure, the wolf in sheep’s clothing is one who intentionally tries to deceive the sheep so as to harm them; but it doesn’t mean the wolf can’t expose itself as a wolf and use it’s power to protect the sheep instead. Every now and then, we see God call someone out, and then we see them die to the false prophet they were in the past, and resurrect to the true prophet God has called them to be in the future.
This can happen to us as individuals, and it can happen to whole societies and communities. And the first step in this direction is the admission, right? One of the ways we, as individuals, can own up to the fact that we’ve been wolves, that we’ve been false prophets, is to acknowledge it, to die to our old self, and commit to the new self. An example of how we’re starting to do this on larger scales is through what’s called “reparations”; an offer of compensation from the oppressors to the oppressed in an effort to make it right. And this is biblical!
Look at the story of the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, in Luke’s gospel. He meets Jesus, realizes his wrong doing in taking advantage of the poor through a corrupt system, and commits to pay back those he defrauded, not only what they’re owed — but four times as much as they’re owed. My alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, recently completed a multi-year study into Princeton’s ties with slavery in the 1800s. And one of the conclusions was that, in one way or another, approximately 15% of our annual endowment is historically tied to those who profited from slavery. And myself, as well as hundreds of other students and alumni, have signed onto a plan to pay that 15% out in reparations to the African-American student population, and to continue to do so every year until that African-American student population says it’s enough.
No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve been tied up in or the hate that may have characterized your life, you’re not beyond the reach of God’s transforming love. The pattern of creation is a cycle of death and resurrection. We see this in the earth through the cycles of the seasons; we see this in our relationships with our anger gives way to forgiveness; and we see this in ourselves and in others in the moments we stand with Jesus and not against him. The false prophets we need to be worrying about today are the ones who don’t buy into this pattern; the ones who only want to dwell on death and never see beyond and into resurrection.
And I want you all to hear this: you were created for resurrection. You were created to know the love of Jesus that continually resurrects and remakes the world. Don’t ever buy into the message of the false prophet that living and dying is all there is, so we shouldn’t worry about anything but ourselves. Jesus resurrects in the Christian community every time we rally around the people he rallied around, even when it’s costly and inconvenient and difficult. As we prepare to turn our faces towards Easter and the empty tomb, always remember that the resurrected Jesus should be at the center of everything we do. You can’t preach resurrection without preaching liberation and forgiveness and love. These are the marks of the true prophets. And we’re all called to be prophets, with our words and our actions. And as long as we’re preaching the gospel of loving god and loving our neighbor, we can be sure that the Spirit is at work in us, with us, and through us.