Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Wolves (And Mixed Metaphors)
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)
- “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Jesus coined this phrase that has become standard for us. It highlights the fact that Jesus was not being naïve about the whole “Love your enemies” thing. Even though he spoke of the transforming power of love, Jesus’s view of the world is not that everyone is basically good and doing their best. There are malicious actors and predators out there. There are conmen and grifters. And they will pretend to be Godly folk.
- Although Jesus told his followers not to call people “fools,” not only did he call some folks fools, but also vipers, foxes (or weasels), dogs, swine, blind guides, and wolves. I grow weary of Christians who present an idealistic milquetoast Jesus who never had a harsh word for anybody. Jesus, more than anyone else, knew how vicious humans can be. It is possible to love impartially and at the same time recognize the depths of human sinfulness and injustice.
- Jesus began his speech, way back in Matthew 5:11-12, by implying his disciples were a community of prophets. Now he is returning to this language. In chapter 5, he said that prophets can expect to be harassed for following Jesus. Now he adds that there are those who will try to slip into the community to do mischief.
- This stands in tension with how Jesus opened the chapter: “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.” Can we discriminate between sincere and malicious actors if we do not judge? Is it possible to regard an individual with love and equanimity, but also recognize the harm they can do to others?
- Jesus makes a classic preacher mistake here: Mixed metaphors. Wolves don’t bear fruit!
- I kid.
- But it’s worth noting that this wolf metaphor is all of one line, yet it bears so much. It’s like a haiku: short, yet packed with meaning.
- I’m reminded of my first year pastoring in a rural community. I once let a couple of local men who claimed to be part of a “fire safety ministry” come speak to small group of elderly people. What I didn’t know was that they were making a sales pitch. They preyed on old folks’ fears of being alone and not being able to hear a fire alarm. We were an easy mark: an elderly congregation with a newbie pastor. I was inexperienced shepherd who was not used to looking out for wolves dressed as sheep.
- My story is relatively harmless but illustrative. Religious con artists are everywhere, preaching a Jesus of nationalism, white supremacy, and colonialism.