Dear Sisters and Brothers,
With just a few more passages left to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us some warnings and guidance. He speaks of the narrowness of the path of righteousness and how to recognize false prophets. For the sake of clarity, let’s look at a few sentences at a time.
[Jesus said] “Enter through the narrow gate: For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
In many parts of the world that built walls of stone, it was normal for a city or village to have a wall of defense. Like Jerusalem, many cities had multiple gates, but the gates were not all the same size. The largest gate (with heavily defended doors) would be on the main road and would be big enough to allow a couple lanes of the ordinary traffic of carts, horses, and groups of walking people. The other gates tended to be much smaller: Too low for a horseman to ride in seated on his horse, and too narrow for a chariot. This protected the city from a major attack if the doors were taken. There were even very narrow gates that armed soldiers would not be able to squeeze through. In many cases there would be a space between a first gate and an inner gate, so if some enemy made it through the outer gates, archers could shoot them before they could enter the city. So, the people Jesus spoke to knew all about narrow gates and wide gates. Wide gates were easy and for everyone. Narrow gates could be a tight squeeze.
So, Jesus says that the path to destruction (the path of unrepentant sin) is wide and easy. You go with the flow of the traffic, but the traffic might not be headed where you want to go. This is an easy metaphor of giving into peer pressure or joining into herd mentality. The wide path that leads to the wide gate is the path of least resistance: You act like your neighbors, do as your neighbors, and think as your neighbors.
The path to God is straight and narrow. If you sin, you need to repent. “Repent” literally means “to turn back.” When we deviate from the narrow path, we turn back to the correct path and destination. We walk upon the narrow path by being upright, righteous, virtuous, and keeping the commands of God. All people sin and stray from the path, but determined people backtrack from their mistakes and bad choices and walk the moral path once again.
We do not seek to be righteous to earn God’s love, but to show our thanks for God’s love. Rather than rebellious and selfish children, we seek the narrow path in thanks for what God has done for us in Christ. We all stray from this narrow path, but we keep trying to follow it. We do this to please our loving heavenly Father. To enter by the narrow gate is an achievement of being wholly conformed to the will of God.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
The people who would lead us onto the broad path or away from God, are called false prophets. A false prophet is anyone who pretends that their own words are righteous when they are self-centered and self-serving. People become false prophets to have the adulation and support of a crowd. They play on false hopes and easy answers to make people do things for them. A prime example of this would be Jim Jones, the 1970’s cult leader that led his followers to Guyana and eventually ordered their mass suicide and murder. Other examples of false prophets would be Adolph Hitler, Mao Zedong, or Nathan Bedford Forrest (the founder of the KKK). But most false prophets operate on a much smaller scale than even Jim Jones.
Jesus tells us that these false prophets look innocent, respectable or even harmless. To some people, Hitler was first seen as a “ridiculous little man with a Charlie Chaplin moustache.” Later, Hitler’s speeches were said to be reminiscent of “fire and brimstone preaching.” In the 1930’s many people saw Hitler as a very moral and self-controlled leader. This is an example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The most dangerous people can appear like anyone else.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
This is not to say that God judges us by outward appearances or according to our works, but a righteous person, like a good tree, produces good works. You do not need to dissect a tree to see if it is healthy or not. The proof of its health is in its fruit. By looking at and tasting an apple, you can tell a great deal about the tree it must have come from. A good apple can only come from a reasonably healthy tree that has been well tended.
Jesus is also saying that you can tell a tree by the fruit it produces. You do not need to see the leaves of the bark of a tree that produced an apple: It is an apple tree. So, we can judge false prophets by the majority of the results of their teachings. Various people through history have produced things that have proved them to be false prophets. You don’t need to look very long at the Mafia that it must have started with men of evil inclinations.
The sad truth is that anyone with enough followers will have some that produce good works and some that produce bad. As Christianity spread through the World, it brought many benefits through good people who shared the loving message of Christ. Church History is full of people like Saint Clare, Saint Francis, Count Zinzendorf, and Mother Theresa, but it also has an incredibly long list of misguided leaders and false prophets. The atrocities done in the name of Christ have taken many millions of lives and brought pain, suffering, and persecution to many more millions. Events like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the invasion of South America lay heavily upon the church of Jesus Christ. Most of the countries involved in the First World War identified themselves as Christian and fought with pocket Bibles and crucifixes. Even in the Second World War, Germany identified itself as Christian. Hitler himself was a baptized Christian from Austria who had served as an altar boy in his youth. Hitler gave up his faith in Jesus to have faith in himself but he worked with German Christians who supported the Third Reich.
Jesus tells us the signs of a false prophet, but we need to look close at the first fruit and the tree it bears witness to. For the first three hundred years of the church, it was primarily non-violent and seeking peace and healing to lost souls. Signs of the health of the church and the goodness of God are in those early days and in times of repentance and restoration with people like Francis, Huss, and the Wesley brothers.
You can judge the spiritual health of someone by what they do and what they say. No one is completely healthy and without physical flaw, and the same goes for spiritual health. No one but God is completely good. But what a person does and says tells you as much as a good peach tells you of the health of the tree and the kind of a tree it came from.
Take a moment and imagine that you are a tree that wants to produce good fruit. You can’t make better fruit until you cured of some of your diseases and blights. Your health partly depends upon the soil you are planted in, the nutrients laid at your roots, the quality and abundance of water, and whether you are planted in sunshine or shade. The best option for a tree would be to pray that someone would knock down the wall that leaves you in shade and that someone would tend and water you. It is extreme, but some trees have benefitted from being uprooted and replanted.
You can’t produce good fruit by a force of will. You produce good fruit by allowing God to tend you and to receive his healing touch.
Questions to Ponder: What healing do I need, today? What people or things are signs of my spiritual health?