Epistle: Romans vi: 19-23
Brethren: I speak in a human way because of the weakness of your flesh; for as you yielded your members as slaves of uncleanness and iniquity unto iniquity, so now yield your members as slaves of justice unto sanctification. For when you were the slaves of sin, you were free as regards justice. But what fruit had you then from those things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of these things is death. But now, set free from sin, and made slaves to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and as your end, life everlasting. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is life everlasting in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Gospel: Matthew vii: 15-21 + 22-23
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so, 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. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,` shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father in heaven shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to Me in that day: «Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Thy name, and cast out devils in Thy name, and work many miracles in Thy name?» And I will declare to them: «I never knew you. Depart from Me you workers of iniquity.»"
Our Lord's admonition today -- about evaluating people on the merits of their "fruits" -- is familiar to most people in our culture; even to many who do not practice the Faith. It comes from our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, and serves to help us know who can be trusted to direct us in the spiritual life.. But such it is such a commonplace, it is good, once in a while, to step back a bit and ask ourselves exactly what our Lord means by "fruits." I've included the two verses that follow the Gospel reading in the Missal, because they seem to help answer the question.
It should be obvious that we can rule out the possession of material wealth as a "good fruit" in the sense meant by our Lord in the Gospel. It is not that material wealth is bad in and of itself, but just that it is not a sign of holiness or spiritual wisdom. If it were, surely our Lord would have gone around in sumptuous robes, would have worn at least a quadruple crown of the finest gold, and would have traveled in whatever the equivalent of a chauffeur driven limousine might have been in His time. Instead, we hear -- in the very next chapter of the Gospel -- that "the Son of Man has no where to lay his head" -- not even a nest like the birds of the air; not even a hole like the foxes of the earth. So, in trying to distinguish the holy from the unholy, we ought not be mislead by the outward appearances of worldly success.
But, on the other hand, ugliness and impoverishment are no guarantees of holiness either. Our Lord also warned us of "the hypocrites [who] disfigure their faces so as to appear to be fasting." Anyone can put on a coarse robe in imitation of our Lord or Saint Francis, but, once again, the outward appearance is no guarantee of holiness and wisdom.
Some can speak eloquently about holiness, but just talking about holiness is not the same as being holy. Saint James puts it into practical terms: "if a brother or a sister is without clothing or food, it accomplishes nothing to say `«Go in peace, and be warmed and filled » if you do not give them what they lack." In the same way, a person can demonstrate great knowledge of theology and of the worship of the Church -- but what good does such knowledge bring if it is never channeled into actual experiences of prayer and union with God. It is kind of like owning the finest leather bound prayer books and missals, but never taking them from their display case in order to pray or to assist at Mass.
Had our Lord not told us otherwise, we might be more impressed than we should with those who prophesy, cast out devils, or work miracles in His name. To His list, I would suggest that we must add some priests and bishops to those whom He never knew. One can appear to do God's work in a functional way, yet be far from holiness and completely unsuited to the guidance of souls. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anything worse than misleading God's faithful in their worship, their doctrine, or their morality, while preserving the outward appearances of doing God's work. "It is better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck, and to be cast into the sea." There are other sins that may seem more horrible and more gruesome, but none seems to be more insidious today than the sin of those in various forms of authority leading the innocent into sin.
So what are the good fruits for which we should look our spiritual teachers (and in ourselves)? Saint James is rather brief: "Religion pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to give aid to orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep one's self unspotted from this world." Our Lord said the same thing when He told the Pharisees: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
The fruit of holiness, you see, depends on actually loving
God, and consequently loving one's neighbor -- and then in actually doing the
things that come naturally from that love. Prayer and the Sacraments, keeping
the Commandments, combined with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are
the fruits of the holy person:
In today's Gospel our Lord was admonishing us as to our choosing of those from whom we take spiritual direction and advice. But let me close simply with the suggestion that we must apply precisely the same standards in evaluating our own selves. It is, after all, a waste of time to find good and holy teachers if we have no intention of learning from them!
Together with Saint Paul, "we must have our fruit unto sanctification, and as our end, life everlasting. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is life everlasting in Christ Jesus our Lord."