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Lectio Divina: “sheep’s clothing”

Lectio Divina: “sheep’s clothing”

Gospel reading: Matthew 7.15-20

[Jesus said] ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, 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. Thus you will know them by their fruits.’


‘Wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is one of those colourful idioms in the English language that have come down to us from the Bible. It speaks of the mismatch between the inner and the outer person, between the reality and the presentation, and of the deviousness of pretending to be something you’re not.

I have been trying to think of Bible stories elsewhere of bad guys pretending to be good guys. For example, Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But then again Jesus chose him as one of the Twelve in full knowledge of what he was. Or, in the story in Genesis 27, Jacob pretended to be his brother Esau by wearing the skin of a lamb or kid on his hands and neck, and so tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have been Esau’s. Although this story speaks of externals only. No-one was in any doubt that Jacob was devious. I need to keep thinking!

How much better to be a sheep in sheep’s clothing! Assuming that being a sheep is good. Sheep do have negative connotations. For example, Isaiah 53.6 compares the people to “sheep [that] have gone astray.” However, Jesus often used sheep as a metaphor for human beings in need of a shepherd, and Jesus himself is given the name ‘Lamb of God’ by John the Baptist, referring back to the “lamb that is led to the slaughter” of Isaiah 53.7.

I wonder instead whether it would also be better to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing? At least then what you see is what you get! Or any better to come in wolves’ clothing but inwardly to be a sheep? To present as vicious and ravenous, threatening destruction, but inwardly to be a big softy. But it’s no good being a sheep inwardly if no-one can see it, let alone access that reality.

It’s possible that the good or bad fruits of a good or bad tree won’t be known until much later. Seeds collected from a plant are said to ‘come true’ if they grow into plants with the same characteristics as the parent plant. Every good tree bears good fruit that contains true seeds. Seeds that ‘do exactly what they say on the tin’, rather than do what the seeds saved from a supermarket butternut squash do… which is to produce insipid green fruit that don’t in any way resemble the original.

Jesus’ metaphor doesn’t just function as a warning, then. It also contains a call to be true, to have integrity and simplicity, like a stick of seaside rock to have the word (Word) running straight through from one end to the other, and to follow the pattern of Jesus the Lamb of God.


Since April 2020, I have been jointly hosting a shared Lectio Divina group on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. These are my reflections only, during the prayer session and as I wrote them up. Please see my separate commentary and leaflet for more information about shared Lectio.