Wolves in sheep’s clothing: sermon on the seventh Sunday after Pentecost

“By their fruits you shall know them.”

Our Lord wants us to know how to distinguish between true and false prophets. But what does He mean by a “prophet”? He doesn’t mean only someone who foretells the future, but anyone who speaks, or claims to speak, the words of God. So a prophet here means anyone who teaches the faith, or who claims to do so.

In the Old Testament, God said to Samuel, “Man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart”(1 Sam 16:7). Our Saviour knows that we are in danger of being led astray by false teachers who have an agreeable appearance, so He says, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing.” What is this sheep’s clothing? A false teacher — someone who corrupts the word of God — can be, humanly speaking, attractive. It is said that Arius, the priest in the fourth century who began the Arian heresy, was a charming speaker. In fact it is not likely that anyone would be successful in spreading a heresy unless he had some attractive or at least impressive qualities. Yet such people are, in God’s sight, “inwardly ravenous wolves” — they are not motivated by the love of God, but by what they can get from their hearers, such as their money or their praise, and so it is as if they live by devouring their followers.

How then can we guard against false teachers? Our Lord tells us twice, “By their fruits you shall know them.” What does this mean? It has several meanings, but I shall speak of only one. Whenever any Catholic doctrine disagrees with some other teaching, if we put the Catholic doctrine into practice we shall grow in holiness: we shall begin to yield what St Paul calls “fruit unto sanctification”. On the other hand, if we put into practice the other teaching, the one that contradicts the Catholic one, we shall find it an obstacle to sanctification, and it will make us more likely to finish as what St Paul calls “slaves of sin”. Let’s see some examples.

In our Lord’s own day, there were certain heretical teachers among the Jews. For example, the Sadducees taught that man has no immortal soul. This is contrary to divine revelation, which says that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God”. But it also tends to produce bad fruits: when people believe that there is no life beyond this one, then they will be likely to seek as much pleasure and success as they can, while they have the chance, even if it means breaking the commandments of God.

Some other Jewish teachers also taught a false doctrine. This is the doctrine that a man may divorce his wife and marry another one. Some of them even taught that he could do this for some trifling reason, for example if her cooking was bad. But this was contrary to the word of God, since, as Jesus says when He is asked about this question, “From the beginning, God made them male and female, and they shall be two in one flesh.” The false teaching, as well as being contrary to divine revelation, also tended to undermine virtue; where married people believe in what an English writer has called “the superstition of divorce”, they will be less likely to practise that fidelity and mutual forbearance that are essential to conjugal life.

If we turn to the heresies of the Christian centuries, what do we see? One of the worst heresies of the first millennium was iconoclasm, which literally means “the breaking of images”. It prevailed for a while in the whole of the eastern part of the Church. The false prophets of that time and place, including some bishops, said that there must be no more icons, no more pictures of our Lady and the saints. They put forward a reason that sounded pious (they were wearing their sheep’s clothing): they said that it was too similar to idolatry. But their teaching was a tree that bore bad fruit: because where Christians no longer see images of the saints, they quickly forget about the saints. They stop asking for their prayers and trying to imitate their virtues, and they begin to live like pagans. By contrast, the Catholic doctrine about the veneration of saints and their images is a good tree; it makes people love the saints and want to copy them, and be with them in heaven; this tree bears good fruit.

But perhaps the best example of what I am saying is the Protestant Reformation. Think of any of the subjects on which the first Protestants diverged from the Church: the real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, the duty of confessing mortal sins to a priest, the possibility of gaining indulgences by certain good works. In all these questions, the position that was contrary to the Church could be made to sound edifying, but it was always, to say the least, an obstacle to sanctification. The Catholic doctrine, on the other hand, is sanctifying. When we know that Jesus is waiting for us in the tabernacle, we go to Him there and He helps us. When we know that mortal sins must be confessed then, if we have no better motive for avoiding them, that at least is a great incentive not to sin. If we know that the Church can give indulgences that will help us to pay the debt of temporal punishment due to past sins, for example, the indulgences for saying the Rosary or making the Stations of the Cross, we will make these exercises of piety more often and thus give more glory to God and draw closer to Christ.

Finally, the same is true of our own day. Is there any heresy that is characteristic of modern times? Perhaps we could name several — but one that is widespread, it seems to me, is to deny the retributive justice of God. What does this mean? It means to deny that God rewards good deeds and punishes bad ones. It is the heresy that speaks only of the mercy of God, and thereby distorts this mercy. God is merciful because He is very willing to lessen the punishments due to sin, when we ask Him. But if there were no punishments due to sin, how could He be merciful? And if we think only of His mercy and never of His justice, then we shall forget to pray for the poor souls in purgatory, and we shall do no penance for our past sins, and so we shall grow more worldly, and we shall be less apt for the kingdom of heaven.

Thanks be to God, who has not left us in the dark, but who has given us the Catholic faith as a tree of life. Other trees, Jesus tells us, will one day be cut down and cast into the fire, but from this tree we shall find only what is good. Let us believe it and do it, and thus we shall certainly enter where the saints have already entered, into the kingdom of heaven.