Today’s Gospel passage comes from the last section of Matthew’s famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’. It is Matthew’s intention to present Jesus as the lawgiver of the new Israel, much as Moses was in the Old Testament. The Sermon which begins with the Beatitudes, concludes with a collection of random sayings of Jesus, the common theme being that the disciple will be judged on how he acts, not on what he says, or on how he appears.
Beware, says Jesus, of “false prophets” – that is, of those who appear to be better than they actually are, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, as we’d say today. In the turbulent times during which Jesus lived, there were a number of Jewish revolutionaries who claimed to be the messiah (or saviour) of their people. They attracted followers to their groups, and seemed to succeed for a time, but were invariably crushed by the Roman legions.
The other metaphors in this passage come from an agricultural setting: “grapes” from “thorns”, “figs” from “thistles”, and good fruit from healthy trees. The similes reiterate something that Jesus would always emphasize: it’s performance that matters, not appearances, not flashy words. The disciple will be judged on what he does, not on what he claims to be, or appears to say. “You will recognize them by their fruits”.
These teachings may be ancient, but their relevance is quite modern. Today’s age is that of the image, of the attractive but superficial appearance, of visual effects easily mani-pulated. We are easily taken in by what we see, because so much of advertising and marketing emphasizes presentation, and form over substance.
So it is good to be reminded of Jesus’s words: ultimately what you do is more important than what you say .