Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.-Matthew 7:15
One of my seminary professors, a mentor (and hero) named Christopher Morse wrote a book entitled “Not Every Spirit.” The title takes its cue from a New Testament passage (I John 4:1: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.). In that book, he made the point that part of the journey of faith, part of the responsibility of Christians, part of the work of discipleship is to evaluate the spirits at work in the world. It presumes that some spirits work counter to God’s purposes, purposes of love. Those spirits can look innocent, wrapped in sheep’s clothing. Underneath there can be danger. Ravenous wolves.
Dr. Morse also talked about the Christian responsibility to commit not only to what we believe but also to what we refuse to believe. As an example, he noted how the theology of apartheid needed its spirit tested. Followers of Jesus needed to reject it. We can apply those principles to our own time. We need to test the spirits, when so much of current public discourse seeks to wrap itself in Christian cloak, or perhaps more precisely, in Christian costume.
It’s tricky stuff. As I think about who I consider to be false prophets, in my experience, it’s usually folks who differ from me on theological, political or social issues. With that in mind, I need to mention again the wisdom of Anne Lamott who said: You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. So what might be the way to tell the difference between true or false prophet? Perhaps more to the point, in a culture that increasingly distrusts institutions and often speaks of fake news and alternative facts, what is the truth? Would we know a false prophet if we met one?
The Gospel of John provides interesting answers. One of the most riveting moments in that gospel for me is the private exchange between Jesus and Pilate, right before the crucifixion. The conversation ends with Pilate’s question to Jesus: What is truth? Jesus seems like he lets the question hang out there, but he’s said a lot about truth already.
Earlier in that gospel, Jesus said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. History shows that the message of false prophets often has the opposite effect. Curtailment of freedom stifles the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10.
In John 10, Jesus talks a lot about sheep, and who they follow. He contrasts himself, the good shepherd, to thieves and hired hands (a.k.a., false prophets). He invites followers into relationship with him, describing himself as the way, the truth and the life. He provides a guide to discernment. He said: By this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another. I was at a gathering recently where we sang: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I got the idea of making a video, playing that song, showing images of Christians (and other religious folks) in our world who preach and practice anything but the love of God. You don’t have to look hard to find them. (For my part, a look in my mirror might well reveal one of those.). Want to help me make that video?
In the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus the word is described as being full of grace and truth. We need both. The true prophet can provide both.
In my years in the church, I’ve met wonderful prophets. Some, for all their wonderfulness, have disappointed. Some have done harm, revealed to be ravenous. Which for me is all the more reason to do my level best to just hang out with Jesus, to savor his teaching, to follow his example, to celebrate and imitate his grace, to be in relationship with him (whatever that looks like). In my own journey, the eucharist taken regularly is a way to stick close. Rhythms of prayer and reflection on scripture do that. Service to those on the margin does that. What are the ways you do that? Let this week, the start of a new season, be a time to explore that question, to do that tricky and wonderful work of discernment.