‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy[d] that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Beware of false prophets! When I was an undergraduate there was an election for the largely ceremonial position of Rector. I went to see one of the candidates speak, a young and radical politician; a superb orator with a fiery and exciting message, and he remains perhaps one of the most charismatic people I have ever seen address a crowd. I could feel myself being convinced as he talked and he seemed absolutely sincere, and I have no doubt he won over many people that night (though not enough to win the election.) I expected great things of him, but his reputation was destroyed when around ten years later he ended up in prison after being convicted of perjury.
How do we decide which messengers to trust? Which are true prophets and which are false? It’s possible to strongly disagree with someone but respect their integrity, or conversely to hear a message truly from God from someone with deep flaws as an individual. There are figures who sincerely believe they are speaking God’s truth, but promote a hate-filled version of Christianity I don’t recognise. Sometimes, as Yeats wrote, ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’ and it can be easy to confuse passion with authenticity. Can we tell a true prophet from the fruit they bear? After all, grapes are not gathered from thorns, but blackberries are. Perhaps the answer is we should question whatever we hear, from any source. There’s an old Peanuts cartoon where the canine polymath Snoopy announces he has the perfect title for his work on theology: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?’ That’s a good question for us all to ask of ourselves, and anyone who wants to convince us of something.
God of truth, help us to always be seekers of the truth of your love and grace. May we be humble and ready to question ourselves and others, trusting always in your mercy and compassion. May your holy spirit guide us to listen to prophetic voices, however they reach us. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Nick Jones is minister of Heswall URC & Chester Road URC Ellesmere Port, in Mersey Synod.
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