There is so much in this section, Mike, and it is one of my favorite passages of the Bible, but it is also one of the most troubling.
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Who are the false prophets? I have heard preachers claim that Jesus is referring to the Pharisees, but this is hardly convincing. When denouncing the Pharisees Jesus and the Gospel writers always refer to them as Pharisees not prophets. And the Pharisees would never refer to themselves as prophets. So who is Jesus talking about?
Some scholars suggest that this reference to prophets was added long after Jesus’ death and refers to Paul and his followers, but I don’t think we have to stretch so far. It is not difficult to read this passage as Jesus imagining the future of his teaching when teachers use him and his words to further their own ends. How can we protect ourselves against being fooled? “You will know them by their fruits.”
This sounds right on the surface, but it is far more difficult than it seems. Take the preachers of the Prosperity Gospel, for example, those who use the teachings of Jesus to line their own pockets with gold. Their fruits are their own riches, yet their followers see those fruits as proof of the authenticity of the teaching. In other words, when bad fruit is defined as good fruit it is impossible to tell one from the other.
This is true in every religion. The people are convinced, ala George Orwell, that war is peace, slavery is freedom, and falsehood is truth. And once they are, the wolf can abandon the sheep’s clothing and no one will know the difference.
Shortly after George W’s revelation of preemptive war, Larry King hosted a panel of Evangelical Pastors to talk about war in Christian terms. When asked to explain how justify preemptive war with Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” one guest said that our soldiers were peacemakers because once they killed all our enemies there would be peace. No one challenged her. This was a wolf who no longer needed sheep’s clothing.
Jesus is warning us against placing our faith in human beings and human institutions. Jesus is warning us against the seduction of words and miracles. He tells us to look at the fruits. But what if we no longer know good from bad fruit?
“Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But what is that will? Every religion claims to be doing God’s will. The rampant torture and abuse of thousands of innocent children in Ireland’s Catholic orphanages was no doubt done under the aegis of God’s will. The murder of the doctor in Kansas, the slaughter of Shias by Sunnis and Sunnis by Shias, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the oppression of Palestinians in Israel’s occupied territories are all excused as God’s will.
False prophets are not without power. They “prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your power?” So, again, how are we to tell the true prophet from the false when the works of both are identical?
I agree, Mike, that we must remain vigilant, but according to what standard? Jesus may be able to say, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers," but the rest of us cannot be so sure. When the church (synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) itself is the source of so much evil, in a world where church, state, and marketplace have educated us to the point where we can no longer distinguish grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles, the only option we have is radical doubt. Trust no one. Not even yourself.
Five centuries before Jesus the Buddha warned us against listening to teachers simply because they are called wise, or following books simply because they are old. He admonished us to test every idea against our own experience: to see for ourselves what is wise and true; to trust our capacity to find enlightenment for ourselves. He may have had too much faith in humanity, but the idea that we must test teachings against reality rather than accept them on faith and insist reality conform to ideology is a sound one.
The problem today, however, is that ideology is reality. There is no objective standard against which to make a sound judgment. I always come back to Micah 6:8, “You know what God requires, Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly,” but the truth is justice, mercy, and humility are so open to interpretation that this text, too, is no longer sufficient.
Bottom line: I don’t know how we can protect ourselves against false prophets. In fact the very label “false” may no longer be meaningful. There are prophets of one faith or sect who argue against those of another faith or sect but there is no way to tell which is the truer.