Thomas Aquinas: Sermon: Attendite


Preached July 26, 1271 at Paris

translated by Athanasius Sulavik


Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.

[1] The Apostle points out two contentious [desires] by these words: The spirit, he says, strives against the flesh and the flesh against the spirit, and yet sin arises from both: sometimes it arises from the weakness of the flesh and at other times through ignorance of the spirit;' therefore the Apostle says to the Corinthians: Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit. And just as sin arises from the flesh, out of the weakness of the flesh, thus in Matthew: The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak., so the sin of the spirit arises through ignorance of the spirit, namely when the spirit is deceived. And so on this Sunday we are strengthened against both kinds of sin. We are strengthened against that sin which arises from the weakness of the flesh by the words of the Apostle who says in his letter: We are debtors to the flesh, not so that we may live according to the flesh; and we are strengthened against sin that arises from the deception of the spirit, where it says in the Gospel: Beware of false prophets, etc.

[2] Let us ask our Savior, who wished us to be wary against both kinds of sin, to grant me something to say which that will be to his honor, etc.

[3] The responsibility of a good leader is to train his troops to be on guard against ambushes. To be sure we have a cunning and deceptive enemy, hence we read in Ecclesiasticus: Many are the ambushes of the deceitful. The Psalmist writes: He sits in ambush with the rich, that is to say, with the proud. The Apostle explains these ambushes, saying that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Through these words the Lord makes us wary of Satan's servants by teaching us four things.

[4] First of all, he instructs us as to the kind of enemies, here: Beware of false prophets; secondly, he teaches us about their strategy of ambushing, here: who come to you in sheep's clothing; thirdly, their menacing harm, here: but inwardly they are ravenous wolves; fourthly, he teaches us how to identify them, here: You will know them by their fruits.

[5] These enemies are false prophets, and being extremely dangerous must be avoided, because they are as dangerous to us as good angels are necessary and helpful to us, hence we read in Proverbs: When prophecy fails the people will be scattered. Jeremiah says this about false prophets: From the prophets of Jerusalem corruption has gone forth into all the land. And in order that we may discern who the false prophets are, let us first of all consider what the definition of a prophet is, and how he becomes a false prophet.

[6] There are four defining points of a prophet. The first is divine revelation, as we read in Amos: The Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.

[7] Sometimes certain divine things are revealed to someone who does not understand them, as when Nebuchadnezar saw a statue, and something was revealed to Pharaoh, namely ears of grain and cows, though he did not understand it. For this reason understanding is the second thing that is required, as we read in Daniel: A word was revealed to Daniel and he understood the word, hence understanding was needed in the visions.

[81 If a man were to receive a revelation from God and though he understood it nonetheless kept it to himself, no benefit would be derived from that; for this reason a third thing is required so that those things which are revealed to a man, which he himself also understands, will be announced to another. As it says in Isaiah: What I have heard from the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, I announce to you.

[9] There are certain divinely revealed and announced things beyond human comprehension that men would not believe unless they were given a sign, and this outward sign is the action of miracles, which is indicated in the fourth book of Kings, where it is said that when Naaman the Syrian had come to the King of Israel to be cured firom leprosy, Elias said: Send him to me so that he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.

[10] But according to what I have already said, I now add that the name of a prophet is understood in four ways.

[11] Sometimes someone who has received a divine revelation is called a prophet, therefore we read in Numbers: If there be among you a prophet of the Lord, in a dream, I will speak to him through a vision.

[12] At other times someone who has not received a divine revelation, [but has the ability to understand it] is called a prophet, hence we read in I Corinthians: Let the prophets speak; two or three, and let the rest judge. So he calls teachers and preachers prophets according to that [phrase] of Ecclesiaticus: All teachers will still pour out doctrine as prophecy.

[13] Sometimes those who repeat revelations are called prophets, hence in Chronicles: The sons of Asaph [and] of Jeduthun were prophesying.

[14] Sometimes those who perform miracles are called prophets, therefore in Ecclesiasticus it is said that the lifeless body of Elias prophesied, that is, he performed a prophetic miracle; in the book of Kings it is said that some frightened thieves cast the corpse of a certain slain man into the sepulchre of Elias, whereupon that man came to back to life. And so it is said in the Gospel that when Christ performed miracles, the Jews responded: A great prophet has risen up among us.

[15] Therefore it says: Beware etc.

But how are prophets understood here? Chrysostom says that what is meant here by prophets are not those who prophesy about Christ, but interpret prophecy about Christ, because no one can interpret prophetic meanings except through the Holy Spirit.

[16] Let us now consider those who are called false prophets. There are four ways of being a false prophet: firstly, by reason of their deceptive teaching; secondly, by reason of their deceptive inspiration; thirdly, by reason of their deceptive intention; and fourthly, by reason of their deceptive life.

[17] Now, in the first place some are called false prophets by reason of their deceptive teaching, as when he proclaims and teaches spurious things. It is a prophet's duty to announce and to teach truths, hence we find in Daniel: A word was revealed to Daniel, and it was a true word. And the Lord says: If anyone proclaims my words, let him speak truly. But many make false claims, and therefore we read in the Catholic Epistle: There were false prophets among the people, even as there will be among you lying teachers, who are not afraid to introduce a ruinous heresy. Was not Arius a liar and those like him who sought to correct Christ's teaching? Thus we find in Lamentations: Your prophets have seen false and foolish things. But what are these foolish things? Whoever speaks false things gladly, speaks pleasing things. We read in Isaiah: Speak to us pleasant things: see errors for us. Asked what false things the prophets saw, Jeremiah responds: They have not laid open your iniquity in order to incite you to penance. If anyone calls good evil and evil good: they are false prophets. As Jeremiah says: They have seen false revelations and banishments; what is accepted is approved and what is rejected is disapproved. Therefore when esteemible things are disdained and detestible things are esteemed, then you are witnessing false conclusions.

[18] It is evident through the Lord's teaching what is to be esteemed and what is to be detested. Living according to the ways of the world and leading a worldly life must be detested. If anyone says that it is better to fast without a vow, and leads others away from religious life where they are fasting under a vow, and persuades them to fast in the world without a vow, then he holds a spurious teaching. The Prophet says: Make a vow and perform it. He says this because it is better to fast under a vow than without a vow; otherwise he would only have said: "Make it". Anselm offers us an example in his book, De similitudinibus, explaining that whoever gives an apple tree gives more than someone who gives only apples; in the same way whoever makes a vow and performs it acts better than someone who performs a good deed without a vow. Nonetheless it is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.

[19] Moreover, they are called false prophets by reason of their deceptive inspiration. Where does the inspiration of true prophets come from? Certainly, it comes from God and the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Canonical epistle of Peter: Prophecy came not by the will of men but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Spirit. [Whoever can be deceptively inspired by the devil], can also be deceptively inspired by his own spirit; we find both in sacred Scripture.

[20] First of all, someone can be deceptively inspired by the devil, as we read in Jeremiah: His prophets were prophesying in Baal; in Baal, that is to say in the devil, to prophesy is to speak about secret things. Sorcerers, who, through the inspiration of the devil, inquire into the truth about dark secrets, prophesy in Baal. And among sins and particular sorts of idolatry this is a most serious offense, nor can anyone be excused from this just because they say that they are doing it to bring about some good, since an evil act should not to be done to bring about some good, as the Apostle says: Let us do evil that there may come good; the damnation of these people is just.

[21] Others are deceptively inspired by their own spirit, thus in Ezekiel: Thus says the Lord God, [Woe] to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing. And Jeremiah says: They speak a vision of their own mind, not from the mouth of the Lord. Those who follow human reasoning speak from their own spirit. People such as these speak according to platonic principles which cannot reach the truth; namely, they are like those who say that the world is eternal.

[22] We find that others, who study philosophy and advance some things which are not true according to the faith, who when told that this is repugnant to the faith, respond by saying that they themselves do not assert this, but rather they are only repeating the words of the Philosopher. Such a person is a false prophet or a false teacher, for it is the same thing to instill doubt and not to resolve it, as it is to affirm the doubt. This point is illustrated in Exodus where it says that if anyone digs a well and opens the pit and does not cover it, and if their neighbor's ox comes along and falls into the pit, the person who opened the pit is held accountable for its restitution. That person who instills doubt about those things which belong to faith opens a pit; he does not cover the pit who does not resolve the doubt, even though he himself possesses sound and clear understanding and is not deceived. Nonetheless the other person who does not possess such clear understanding is truly deceived, and so that man who instilled the doubt is held accountable for restitution, since it was through him that the other man fell into the pit.

[23] Consider this dear brothers: there were many philosophers who spoke many things belonging to faith, and you will scarcely find two philosophers agreeing upon one opinion; and any one of them that did say something true, did not speak without an admixture of error. A little old woman now knows more about what belongs to faith than all the philosophers once knew. We read that Pythagoras began as a boxer; he heard his teacher discuss the immortality of the soul, asserting that the soul was immortal, and he was so enthralled that after having forsaken everything, he dedicated himself to the study of philosophy. But what little old woman is there today who does not know that the soul is immortal? Faith is capable of much more than philosophy, consequently if philosophy contradicts faith, it must not to be accepted, as the Apostle to the Colossians says: See to it that no one deceive you by philosophy and empty deceit. Let no one seduce you, willing, walking in the things which he has not seen, in vain puffed up by the sense of his flesh, not holding the head, that is Christ.

[24] Others are called false prophets by reason of their deceptive intention. But what is a prophet's true intention? Certainly it is the welfare of the people, as the Apostle says in his letter to the Corinthians: He who prophesies speaks to men for their edification and encouragement and consolation. [He speaks] for their edification so that they may become devout; for their encouragement so that they may become ready to perform good deeds; for their consolation so that they may become patient in adversity. If anyone seeks anything from a teaching other than the welfare of the people, he is a false prophet.

[25] Every bishop who takes up the duty of governing and preaching must look to the welfare of his people. But if he is seeking anything else, namely temporal gain and empty glory, he is a false prophet, because he does not keep an upright intention; for this reason Chrysostom says that many priests are not concerned with how people live, but with how much they give. Therefore, in Ezekiel the Lord deplores such men: And they violated me among my people for a handful of barley and a piece of bread. Against whom the Apostle says: For we are not as many, adulterating the word of God. Gregory also says that "that servant is guilty of adulterous thoughts, if he desires to please the eyes of the bride when the bridegroom sends gifts by him to her. An adulterer is not looking to sire a child with his mistress, but he is only looking for a moment of pleasure. Likewise, that person adulterates the word of God, who is not looking to sire a spiritual child, but is only looking for temporal gain and empty glory.

[26] Others are called false prophets by reason of their wicked life, as when someone teaches one way but lives another way: then his teaching must not be accepted. It is for this reason that Christ began to do and to teach. And it says in Luke: As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning, as if to say: the prophets through whom the Lord speaks ought to be holy men. But the Lord deplores such prophets through his prophet Jeremiah: The priests, he said, and the prophets are defiled; in my house I have found their wickedness.

We shall ask the Lord, etc.


Beware of false prophets, etc.

[27] I have already spoken today about the enemies of the Christian people, namely about false prophets; now we must consider how they entrap us. The Apostle to the Corinthians exposes their traps, and likewise the Lord in the Gospel when he says: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, etc. Here the meaning of hypocrisy is understood because hypocrisy is the hiding place of false prophets. Therefore the Apostle in his letter to Timothy says: The Spirit manifestly says: in the last days mockers will come, departing from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in the hypocrisy. If anyone were to consider the life and character of others, those who lead an austere life by abstaining from marriage and extravagant foods will appear to him as good, but in fact they answer to the spirits of delusion and the teachings of demons.

[28] Turn your attention now to what he says: They come to you in sheep's clothing. The sheep are Christ's faithful who obey Christ, hence in John: My sheep hear my voice. Sheep's clothing are the moral examples of Christ. Thus it is that the Apostle says: Be renewed in the spirit of your mind and put on the new man, who according to God is created injustice and holiness of truth. Here he touches upon two points, because justice seems outwardly to belong to our neighbors, and holiness of truth seems to belong to the interior disposition of the soul. Hence that saying of Proverbs is fulfilled: Her entire household is clothed with double garments, namely, inwardly with the virtues of the soul and outwardly with good works.

[29] To be sure, if false prophets were clothed in both, they would be Christ's sheep. A person approves of others based on their outer clothing, therefore it says: They come to you in sheep's clothing, which means that they assume exterior activities by which they come to us, since they approach God by interior activities.

[30] And it should be noted that Christ's sheep are clothed in a fourfold way, namely with the clothing of worship, of justice, of penitence, and of innocence.

[31] The clothing of worship is the clothing of divine worship which Christ's sheep wear to concentrate on divine worship. Christ's sheep receive this clothing at Baptism, thus the Apostle to the Galatians says: As many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. Christ's sheep put on this clothing when they concentrate on prayer, as we read in Ecclesiasticus: In ascending the altar of incense, he honored God.

[32] Hypocrites assume this clothing for two reasons, namely for empty praise and money. For the sake of vainglory they put it on by praying publically and openly, hence in the Gospel it says: They love to pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men; in the synagogues, that is to say publically. But is it a bad thing to do this, since it is written: All you angels, bless the Lord, etc.?" Chrysostom says that this has not so much to do with the place than with the soul. The one who prays in secret directs his attention, not to men, but to God. If someone prays alone in his room and he wants to be seen by men, he should pray in public. What then is being forbidden? Namely, that people should not intend to be seen by others when they pray; for this reason Christians must avoid this. Therefore Chrysostom gives this advice: "Let the one praying do nothing unusual so that he may not be able to be seen by men, neither by crying aloud, nor by beating his breast, nor by raising his hands." But if you are praying in the same manner as the others in your community, then you are praying in secret; however, looking for new methods and gestures applies to what is said about praying in synagogues. When praying, a person ought to pray in unison with others, and not look for novel methods as the hypocrites do who pray publically for the sake of vainglory. And moreover, they pray long prayers for money, thus it says in the Gospel: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour the houses of widows praying long prayers, namely, they pray in order to obtain money. Some, in a most shameful way, obtain money from defenseless women: they pray long prayers so that they may become devout women and receive gifts from them. But is there anything evil in praying long prayers? Augustine answers by saying: "Verboseness should be absent from prayer, but much prayer should not be lacking, if only the intention continues steadfastly; for very often this work is accomplished more by sighs than by words, more by tears than by speaking".

[33] Another clothing of Christ's sheep is the clothing of justice and mercy, about which Job says: I was clothed with justice, as with a robe, I was an eye to the blind and afoot to the lame; I was thefather of the poor. The hypocrites assume this clothing, therefore we read in the Gospel: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; when you give alms, sound no trumpet, as the hypocrites do. Chrysostom says that the trumpet is every deed or word by which boasting is shown. For example: you give alms, but you would not give it except to a more reputable person who can repay you: this is a trumpet. Moreover, you act like a trumpet when you wish to give alms secretly so as to appear more praiseworthy.

[34] The third clothing of Christ's sheep is the clothing of penitence, about which the Psalmist says: I made haircloth my garment. The hypocrites use this clothing, namely a deceptive and austere way of life, thus we find in the Gospel: When you fast, do not look sad, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. They seek and crave this so that their fasting may be seen by men. Augustine writes: "In this chapter we must turn our attention to the fact that it is possible to boast not only of the splendor of material things, but even of filthy squalor, and that this is all the more dangerous when it is disingenuously done in the name of the Lord's service." The Philosopher says that [if] a man were to wear apparel that is beneath his station in life, this can be considered a form of boasting. These exterior things act as certain kinds of insignias: in an army every battle line carries its own standard; this is not presumptuous. In whatever state of life a person finds himself, he should be content with ordinary things and not seek too much after worthless objects, for as Augustine says: "We should neither make too much use of expensive things nor of cheap things". And why is this? Because we are able to seek glory in these two ways. Concerning this cheap clothing it is said in Zechariah: They shall not put on a garment of sackcloth, namely, so that they do [not] pretend.

[35] The fourth clothing of Christ's sheep is innocence, which is clean and beautiful, thus we read in Proverbs: Strength and beauty are her clothing. The hypocrites assume this clothing, namely by feigning piety and purity, as we read in the Gospel: Woe to you hypocrites who are like whitewashed sepulchres, namely those things which appear to men to have been whitewashed, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all filthiness, that is, violent theft and indecency. And Chrysostom says: "If it is vile to appear to be, it is even more vile actually to be so; if it is beautiful to appear, it is even more beautiful actually to be so." Such as these come in sheep's clothing.

[36] But it should be noted that others, who are not sheep, come in sheep's clothing, such as those who seek temporal gain and honors for themselves. Augustine distinguishes them by saying that one plays the part of a thief, another of a wolf, another of a shepherd, and another of a mercenary, since a shepherd seeks the good of his sheep, a wolf and a thief seek the sheep's destruction, and a mercenary seeks his own gain from the sheep. Augustine says that "We must tolerate the mercenary, love the shepherd, and flee the wolf," and this is what our Lord says: They come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

[37] It must be noted that hypocrites are like wolves for four reasons, because wolves snatch away sheep, they do not spare them, they scatter them, and they persist in their own evil.

[38] Now in the first place, hypocrites are like wolves because wolves snatch away sheep, and hypocrites snatch away the goods of the soul and body, they lead men astray, and physically pursue them and deprive them of their possessions; therefore we read in Ezekiel: Her princes in the midst of her are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying souls to get dishonest gain.

[39] Secondly, hypocrites are like wolves because wolves scatter sheep, hence it says in the Gospel: The wolf snatches and scatters the sheep. The Lord says: He who is not with me is against me; therefore and he who does not gather with me scatters. But what does it mean to scatter? Certainly when someone departs from what the Church teaches, he is scattered.

[40] Thirdly, hypocrites are like wolves because they are altogether merciless; hence in Acts the Apostle says: I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Whoever would murder a man and not spare him as long as he could gain one penny would be called extremely cruel; this is the way hypocrites act. Since the life of the soul is more precious than the life of the body, hypocrites seduce souls in order that they may have honors and adherents.

[41] Fourthly, hypocrites are like wolves because wolves persist in their own evil, as it says in Sophonias: Her judges are wolves even until evening, that is, even unto the end. Therefore, for the preceding four reasons, false prophets, like wolves, must be avoided.

[42] But how are wolves identified? This is shown when it says: You will know them by their fruits. Augustine says that many people are deceived when they mistake sheep's clothing for fruits. Some simple people see others performing good outward actions such as fasting, praying, and other such things which are sheep's clothing, but it is not their own clothing. However, Christ's sheep should not have a hatred for their own clothing, even if wolves do cover themselves with it.

[43] But what properly speaking are the fruits of sheep? We can say that sheep possess four fruits, and that from them we can identify wolves or hypocrites. The first fruit consists in affection, the second in speech, the third in activity, and the fourth in tribulation. The first is the fruit of the heart, the second of the mouth, the third of action, and the fourth of patience and fortitude.

[44] Now in the first place, Christ's sheep or saints enjoy the proper fruit of the heart, which is the love of God and neighbor; thus the Apostle says: But the fruit of the Spirit is joy, charity, and peace. But hypocrites, because they love honors, have another fruit, namely, the fruit of ambition; thus Isaiah says: I will visit the fruit of the proud heart of the king of Assyria. Hypocrites love the first places at feasts and the first chairs in the synagogues. If anyone wishes to be honored and he displays humility outwardly, then his clothing does not correspond to his fruit.

[45] Another fruit of Christ's sheep is in their speech, since good men always say something good and speak about good; thus the Apostle to the Hebrews says: By him let us offer the sacrifice, the fruit of lips corresponding to his name. If anyone says something that is incongruent with his actions, then his clothes do not correspond to his fruit, thus we read in Proverbs: Of the fruit of a man's mouth will his belly be satisfied. It is difficult for a heart filled with jealousy not to let anything slip out from it at any moment, since out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Therefore Gregory says: "While depraved people do speak openly about suitable topics, it is only with the greatest difficulty that they do not let roving secrets spew forth."

[46] The third fruit of Christ's sheep by which we can identify hypocrites belongs to good actions, because in good actions there is good fi uit, as the Apostle says: You have your fruit unto sanctification. However, in bad actions there is bad fruit, as we read in Proverbs: The fruit of the wicked is to sin, that is to the work of sin. In a certain sermon Augustine says: 'When anyone in the profession of Christianity draws men's eyes upon himself by an unusually filthy and foul garment, if this is done voluntarily and is not suffered out of necessity, then by his other activities it can be determined whether he is doing this out of contempt for stylish dress or whether he is doing it for adulation." It sometimes happens that a man will put on an attractive garment out of humility, but at other times he will do it for adulation. Consider his activities among other men: if he is among other men and spurns their adulation, then he is doing it out of humility; if not, as Augustine says, it can be determined from his activities: because those, who on the one hand wear cheap garments, but on the other hand prefer the signs of penitence and gentleness are the sheep of Christ; if not, they are frauds. "Therefore it is said that a hypocrite is easily recognized. The way through which we have been commanded to walk is an arduous one; and the hypocrite does not choose it".

[47] Again, hypocrites make a display of their meekness, but when they have the opportunity of persecuting, then they do their utmost to persecute, hence Gregory says: "If any trial of faith occurs, immediately the wolf ravenous at heart strips himself of his sheep's skin; and shows by persecuting how great his anger is against the good".

[48] A fourth sign by which hypocrites are recognized is in time of tribulation, therefore as it says in Proverbs: In the fruits of the wicked is trouble: the learning of a man is known by patience. Augustine commenting on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount, describes hypocrites this way: "For when by any temptations those things began to be withdrawn or denied, which they either attained or desired to attain under this cover, it must appear to be either a wolf in sheep's clothing, or a sheep in its own." For this reason James says in his canonical letter: If any man therefore will clean himself from these, he will be a vessel unto honor, prepared to the Lord. May he grant us to stand before him who with the Father, etc.