Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Whose Fruit Are These?!

Posted by BrianJ on July 12, 2009

How do you know whether a prophet is is true or false?Jesus warned against “false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Such a warning would only be good to cause worry if he hadn’t gone on to tell how to identify false prophets:

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Great, now we know how to identify a false prophet—or do we? The answer hinges on what Jesus meant by “their fruits.” I present two interpretations:

1) If a vine is bad then the fruit will be bad; if a man is bad then his actions will be bad. It doesn’t matter whether the vine looks like a good vine—healthy leaves, sturdy stem, pretty flowers that remind you of the flowers on good vines—if the fruit is bad then all that other “good stuff” is beside the point. Likewise, false prophets might quote true scripture, build up pretty churches, etc., but you’ll know they are false because their personal lives will be a mess (e.g., adultery, graft, gluttony). And just as a false prophet will necessarily have a shady personal life, so it is that a man with a shady personal life is a false prophet. To stress the point: a true prophet cannot lead a shady personal life.

2) Fruits are to a vine as disciples are to a prophet. The definition of a good vine is one that produces good fruit—no one cares what the vine itself is like!  True prophets  affect repentance, inspire humility, and increase righteousness in their listeners. Forget about where a prophet comes from, his name or height, and what he does on the weekends, and look instead on how his words influence you. To stress the point: if my personal life improves, then the messenger was a true prophet.

I was told recently that #2 is an unorthodox interpretation of Jesus’ words, and that #1 is the standard. I confess that part of what Jesus says seems to support #1: when he asks, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” The implication seems to be that false prophets will have some “thorny issues” in their personal lives—and hey, if you had some thorny vine growing in your grape arbor, you’d chop it down, right? Or , to jump back to Jesus’ other metaphor: sheep don’t have fangs.

Fair enough: #1 is the correct reading. But wait a minute—that doesn’t fit the rest of the chapter, which is about hypocrisy, including the hypocrisy of judging others. How can Jesus, on the one hand, warn us against “beholding the mote in our brother’s eye,” and then turn around and tell us to sift through our prophets’ garbage cans for damning evidence?


Now let’s step back from this sermon in particular and consider #1 and #2 in practice. Just how thorny can a vine be before we cut it down? Personally, I love raspberries, boysenberries, and blackberries—all of which have thorns (especially blackberries—yowza!). Even strawberries, tomatoes, and squash have little prickles. If someone teaches me to show more charity to my neighbor, should I disregard that message if the messenger cheated on his wife? or lied on his taxes? or drinks too much? What if his only real sin is referring to grilled foods as “barbecue”? {shudder}

I can understand approaching the fruit on thorny vines with added caution, but cutting it down altogether?

5 Responses to “Whose Fruit Are These?!”

  1. ed42 said

    “To stress the point: a true prophet cannot lead a shady personal life.”

    Does this include being secretly married to other men’s wives and young girls?

  2. BrianJ said

    Ed42: It’s not essential to my question.

  3. ed42 said

    “If someone teaches me to show more charity to my neighbor, should I disregard that message if the messenger cheated on his wife? or lied on his taxes? or drinks too much?”

    This is your question is is not? Is not another example “secretly married other men’s wives and young girls”? It might be an embarrassing question, but surely it is germane?

  4. joespencer said


    I like this post. I’m especially intrigued by the questions you raise toward the end about judgment, which I want to inflect as follows: how can a bad person tell whether the fruits are good or bad?

    In the end, I think this is why you respond the way you do to Ed42, no? How do I know whether I am rightly judging anything—even something so apparently horrible—correctly? That, it seems to me, is a much more difficult question than we are wont to think.

  5. BrianJ said

    Ed42: “Essential” and “germane” are not the same. We could go on for days with you asking me if ‘A’ is included in my question, then you could ask about ‘B,’ and so on until we had an exhaustive and thoroughly useless list—“useless,” because the whole reason for compiling the list was to answer a question that could have been answered in the abstract.

    Do you think “being secretly married to other men’s wives and young girls” should be included as a shady behavior? Whether you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (or not at all) you can still answer my question.

    Joe: While that wasn’t exactly how I was thinking, I like the way you rephrase the question of judging. Of course, if #2 is what Jesus meant, then this question of how to judge others is ruled out anyway.

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