Sermon on the Mount: False Prophets
One thing that makes walking the narrow path difficult (Matt. 7:13-14) is that the wide path has a lot of hype men. They’re not hard to find.
Thomas Keating recounts a story about Sufi master who was outside on his hands and knees sifting through the grass looking for the key to his house. Some of his disciples came along and asked if they could help. So there they were, all on their hands and knees, wandering around his house looking for his key. Eventually, one of them asked, “Master, do you have any idea where you might have lost your key?” The master replied, “Of course. I lost it in the house.”
Happiness is getting inside the house. One point of the story is that you can always find plenty of people who will help you look for happiness in places you will never find it.
As we mentioned in the last article, the wide path is easy because it’s more-or-less automatic. It’s like stepping onto a conveyor belt. You just go with your gut, and your gut takes you along for the ride. This means that you are never going to step onto the narrow path unless you get challenged in some way. Someone needs to point out that the wide path is taking you somewhere you don’t want to go, and so something needs to change.
“You are never going to step onto the narrow path unless you get challenged in some way.”
A “false prophet” won’t do that. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15). God calls a true prophet when there’s a message people need to hear. A false prophet tells people what they want to hear.
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush” (Jer. 6:14-15).
Whether our prophets nowadays claim to be speaking for God or not, they sure fit this pattern. In our culture, we’re more likely to call them “con men.” Good con men are very skilled at reading people. If they wrap their scheme in something people already want to believe, the message sells itself. Con men aren’t magicians. They succeed because people to lie to themselves.
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3).
This is called a “confirmation bias.” We’re less critical of things that fit what we already believe (or want to believe).
“Con men aren’t magicians. They succeed because people to lie to themselves.”
Moreover, we are naturally inclined to trust people who are “like us.” So false prophets figure out how to camouflage—how to look like “us,” act like “us,” and talk like “us.” They put on sheep’s clothing. They can actually get so good at this that they do it better than we do. Then they become leaders. Think of the Pharisees. What they’re saying sure sounds right. They can quote Torah better than anyone.
But their character doesn’t resemble the Kingdom of God at all. “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16). We don’t have to wonder what this “fruit” is. Remember, Jesus is concluding his sermon, here. Jesus’ concern throughout the Sermon on the Mount has been character that mirrors the heart of God. Do these people show the character of God in their own lives? Does their message foster that character in others? That’s the fruit we’re looking for.
A few years ago, I saw a news clip in which a child asked a political leader how they can know what authorities to trust. It’s actually a powerful, profound, and desperately timely question. This paragraph is Jesus’ answer. Do these “authorities” display or produce the kind of character Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? Do they treat all people—men and women—with respect? Do they speak sincerely? Do they live from a heart of grace? Do they love universally? Are they unconcerned about putting on a status show? Do they hold money and possessions lightly? Are they empathetic? These things show a heart that has good roots (Matt. 7:17-18). I’m very interested in what a person like that has to say.
“By their fruit you will recognize them.”
But what if a person shows the opposite of these characteristics? They regularly name-call others and objectify women. They treat words as mere tools for manipulating people. They seek revenge for the smallest slights, and their love has clear limits. They’re all about the show and all about the Benjamins. Their gut reaction is to point the finger at everyone else.
That person is not to be trusted. Most likely, they will use you up and spit you out, just like the teachers of the law who “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40; cf. 2 Pet. 2:3). No matter what, they have a date with a furnace (Matt. 7:19). Hitching your wagon to that train is not a winning strategy—for this life or the next.
But again, Jesus is not looking for perfection. He’s not out to cancel someone for a single failure. In Matt. 7:17-18, “fruit” is plural, but in 7:19, it’s singular. The tree that is cut down and burned isn’t producing any good fruit. No one gets to be 100% on point. But what’s the typical fruit you see from this person? What fruit does listening to this person tend to produce in your own life?
“Most likely, they will use you up and spit you out, just like the teachers of the law who ‘devour widow’s houses.'”
You decide who speaks into your life. Their fruit will become your fruit. Look for good fruit in the people you surround yourself with. In your news, in your entertainment, in your friends, in your leaders, seek voices that are calling you to the right path. The more familiar you are with the path Jesus lays out—the more you know what fruit to look for—the clearer that search will be.
 Thomas Keating, The Human Condition (New York: Paulist, 1999), 8-9.