By their fruits you will know them
Short Commentary on Matthew, No. 29

Anthony Zimmerman
Reproduced with Permission

Jesus had warned the disciples during this final part of the Sermon on the Mount to beware of following false prophets. He now tells us to follow a simple rule by which to distinguish true prophets from counterfeits:

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 (Matt 7:16-20).

What Jesus is saying is “Don’t just use your ears to learn what they say; use your eyes also to see how they live, what kind of people they are. Here in Japan a medical doctor who had converted to Catholicism told me that he had been going to two teachers to learn English, one a Protestant minister, the other Father Julius Holzer, SVD. At the same time the doctor was wanting to become a Christian, and while learning English, he was constantly comparing the two people. Finally he decided on Catholicism because Fr. Holzer impressed him as a thoroughly good man. Good he was as I know, beloved by his parishioners, beloved by the seminarians he taught in Nagasaki. Goodness is like grapes and figs that are found on sound vines and fig trees.

How many are the fortunate people of all ages who have found the faith because they were influenced by faithful priests, by wonderful nuns, by fervent and loving catechists. Most of all we are influenced by our parents who take care to be good themselves, and thus model the goodness on which the children then build themselves.   Chrysostom instructs us to learn true prophets from false by observing whether or not they make strenuous efforts. Impostors, he says, only wear a mask of virtue. Some false prophets actually have some goodness about them besides their false ways, but these impostors will not be seen walking painful and irksome ways, so they are easily detected as counterfeits. “The hypocrite would not choose to take pains, but to make a show only; wherefore also he is easily convicted.” Jesus condemned such hypocrites severely: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4). By this test we can also evaluate ourselves. Surely we all have our little faults of hypocracy and empty show, but if we take painful steps to obey the Ten Commandments and carry our daily burdens as we ought, then we also grow in goodness - into vines that bear ripening grapes and fig trees that yield good fruit.

Jesus next tells the hard truth about what will finally happen to people to make a show of obedience to the Ten Commandments, but do not actually do what they pretend to do:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers' Matt 7:21-23).

Children cry when their parents are angry at them, even if the parents do not punish them otherwise. To be disapproved by the parents makes them cry. How much worse it will be, comments Chrysostom, to see the face of Christ turn away from us because we are not to His liking:

No doubt hell, and that punishment, is a thing not to be borne. Yet though one suppose ten thousand hells, he will suffer nothing like what it will be to fail of that blessed glory, to be hated of Christ, to hear “I know you not,” to be accused for not feeding Him when we saw Him in a hungry person. Yea, better surely to endure a thousand thunderbolts, than to see that face of mildness turning away from us, and that eye of peace not enduring to look upon us.

The final words by which Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount are self-explanatory. If we build our lives on the Ten Commandments, and on the Sermon on the Mount, then we can outlast the storms that will hit us during our lives. If we build our lives on any other foundation, we will not survive the storms.

In Japan the example given by Jesus about building our houses on sound foundations is dramatized year after year during the rainy season and when typhoons blow with powerful winds, and clouds pour down gigantic floods. Houses that are built too close to steep hills and mountains rising abruptly behind them can become victims of mudslides. Old folks homes have been covered over by huge banks of mud and water in a few agonizing seconds, burying all within to sudden death. Much like this happens, warns Jesus, to those who hear His words but do not build them into their daily lives.

"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it felland great was its fall!"  Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matt 7:24-28).

The words of Jesus must have charmed the audience. How else would it have been possible for the disciples to remember them to eventually be incorporated into the Gospel. Great crowds gathered around Him from this time onward whenever and where ever He spoke. Something like this happened when Mother Teresa addressed immense gatherings of people in Japan in school auditoriums and civic halls, banquet halls and even on television. When the lilting voice sounded everyone fell into silence. She spoke in English, and even though they heard a translation through ear phones, her own voice probably carried the message even more powerfully though it was a foreign language. From this experience it is easy to imagine how popular Jesus became during His three years of preaching and working miracles in the beautiful land of Palestine.

In the third luminous mystery of the rosary we thank Jesus for spending three years with us to teach us all about the kingdom of heaven. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming down from heaven, sent by the Father, supported and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Not only do you teach us how to travel the road to our heavenly home, you also give us also strength and joy as we travel the miles, one after the other, one year after another, until we reach our destination there with you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, with Mary, with our families and relatives, and with all the angels and saints.