O God, whose providence faileth not in its designs, we humbly entreat Thee: to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us all things which be profitable for us.
– From the Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday’s readings revolve around the imagery of fruit. Although it might be obvious, we should first be clear what fruit is: it is the result of some process of growth and development. An orange tree doesn’t start with oranges—they come about as the result of the natural growth of the tree. If anything harms the growth of the tree, then fresh, healthy oranges won’t be produced.
In Sunday’s Gospel Our Lord uses the imagery of fruit to warn us about false prophets. False prophets are not men who are outside the community—they are fellow members of the Church, perhaps even legitimate leaders. They come “in the clothing of sheep,” and appear on the surface to be trustworthy. They even call Jesus their “Lord” (cf. Mt 7:21). However, they are “ravening wolves” who bring about destruction.
How can we distinguish between true sheep and those who only appear to be sheep? Christ tells us it is through their fruit: the result of their teachings. Are people converted to Christ through them? Do people embrace the Cross through their preaching and example, or do they instead follow the wide road that leads to destruction? A false prophet may sound holy, may even have a short-term or shallow impact on the lives of people, but ultimately a bad tree cannot produce good fruit and so a false prophet will not produce Christian disciples.
In Sunday’s Epistle we hear St. Paul also referring to fruit, but he is more concerned with the ultimate end for those who produce bad fruit: “the end of them is death.” A life of producing bad fruit in this world will lead to spiritual death, or, as Our Lord says, the one who produces bad fruit and leads people astray will “be cast into the fire.” But the one who stays close to Christ and produces good fruit will have a different end: “life everlasting” (Rom 6:22). The ultimate fruit that results from a life lived in conformity with Christ is eternal bliss and happiness in heaven.
It is no secret that there are many false prophets in today’s Church. At every level of the Church are those who would lead people astray. Their words may sound beautiful, compassionate, and loving, but the fruit of following them is death. The way we can determine who is a false prophet is looking at their fruit: not how many may follow their words and example (for the path is wide that leads to destruction, as Our Lord says just before his warning about false prophets [cf. Mt 7:13]), but determining whether their words and example lead others to conformity to Christ, especially his suffering.
It is suffering from which the false prophet particularly recoils; he wants the Christian life to be easy and comfortable. As St. John Chrysostom preached, “The nature of this road upon which [Jesus] commanded us to walk is toilsome and hard. The false prophet would seldom choose to toil but would prefer only to make a show. For this very reason he is easily detected” (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 23.6).
If a leader’s teachings do not lead people to take up their cross and follow Christ in his Passion and Death, then we know that he is a false prophet and should be resisted. For only in embracing Christ’s suffering will we one day be resurrected with him to eternal life.
Finally, we must not just look at the fruit produced by our leaders; we must also look at the fruit produced by ourselves. By my words and by my example, do I lead people closer to Christ? Does my life help others to love the Church more, or become disillusioned and angry? If we are not always striving to do the will of the Father in charity and love, then we too might join the false prophets and be cast into the everlasting fire.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.