Towards the conclusion of Jesus Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount”, he gives the following teaching: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:19-20) This remark occurs in the context of Christ’s discussion of false prophets, which suggests that the point of this teaching is to beware of those who give advice, who attempt to explain existence, who afford some type of knowledge to others: instead of merely taking such teachings at face value, one has to instead look at what the deeds and teachings of these so-called “prophets” produce. One therefore has to separate the temporary words of the “prophet” and then see what these words produce, so as to then judge if these prophets or spiritual teachers are true or false.
The imagery employed by Christ regarding the tree and the fruit communicates a clear image to the listener: it should also be taken into the context of the “Sermon on the Mount”, i.e., an account of Christ’s audience at the Sermon, since most of the human population at this time had rural backgrounds. By communicating this message about false prophets in this manner, Christ presents a lucid image to the audience, based around the following distinction: the distinction between the tree and the fruit. The tree here would represent the source of the words of the prophet, i.e., the prophet or the words him or herself, whereas the fruit is what this “tree” itself yields. Accordingly, what can not judge the “tree” without an understanding of the “fruit”; furthermore, it is entirely the “fruit” that will determine the status of the tree as a potential false prophet.
Hence, applying Christ’s definition to other “prophets” and religious leaders, the intent here is to show that many such spiritual figures often speak words that seem lacking any hostility: but one has to separate these words from what these words produce. One can think of the various religious cults that have yielded horrific terrorist acts, despite messages of apparent peace: for example, the Aum Shinrikyo cult that produced the sarin gas attacks in Japan in the 1990s. The religious message of Aum Shinrikyo yielded an aggressive terrorist activity.
Furthermore, it could be suggested that Christ is specifically warning against the danger of any religious institution, of any religious figurehead: these institutions and figureheads are dangerous precisely because they attempt to offer to their adherents a particular world-view and way to approach life. Obviously, if these world-views and ways of life are negative, the “false prophet” will introduce terror and suffering into the world by manipulating the mentalities of those who adhere to them.
Nevertheless, Christ gives the potential or rather the method to avoid such teachings: one can be aware of these possibly dangerous influences to the extent that one understands the effects of these actions. It is not enough, in this sense, to merely consider the cause, i.e., the speaker who issues prophetic words, but also consider the effects of these words.
Certainly, this interpretation of Christ’s words could be turned against the Christian Church itself: has the Church not been involved in scandals of corruption and of religious violence in the name of God? From this perspective, Christ would seem to be warning against himself, if we consider his “fruits” to be that which has resulted from his teachings. However, this account places too much emphasis on Christ as the source of these actions, overlooking the community of the Church that has produced beautiful works of theology, art, and examples of the contemplative and monastic life.
Nevertheless, Christ’s basic point holds true: one must be wary of words and also consider the effect of these words. The legitimacy of an individual will be shown in the results of his actions – this has relevance on the political, religious or even personal levels.