There is no doubt that God made a covenant with Abram who became Abraham. We are told over and over again in the Book of Genesis about the call of Abraham, the promise God made to him, and the various ways in which this covenant was confirmed: from God's side, the mysterious sacrifice described in today's first reading, and the gift of Isaac; from Abraham's side, the decision to leave his own country, his acceptance of circumcision as a sign of the covenant, and his agreement to an even more mysterious sacrifice, the sacrifice of Isaac, which at the last minute God intervenes to prevent. Woven within these strange, primeval, tales, handed down from many centuries before Christ, is the story of a relationship, a friendship, between God and Abraham. Through a series of encounters and adventures this friendship is established, sealed, and strengthened so that Abraham becomes one of the friends of God and our father in faith.
Discerning the spirits is a perennial question, especially for religious people. There are many masters and teachers, many founders of churches and purveyors of spiritual wisdom. Sometimes these people ask strange things of their disciples, a loyalty to the leader that does not respect human freedom, sometimes immoral behaviour, the acceptance of peculiar teachings, and people have even agreed to commit suicide at the behest of gurus and cult leaders.
Jesus warns us about false prophets and the need to be on the alert for them. What can make discernment difficult is that true religion also deals in mystery, as we see in the stories about Abraham, and to the skeptical its teachings can also seem 'weird and wonderful'. But true religion is deeply rational and not at all arbitrary. True religion asks for faith, yes, but never for faith in human teachers, always only for faith in God. It is not right to make to anybody except to God the total submission which faith is. God alone, says Thomas Aquinas, is the object of our faith. Where teachers ask immoral things, or the acceptance of doctrines that are clearly not compatible with the teaching of the Church, then we know that they are false teachers, misleading prophets. Sometimes it is easy to know what you are dealing with.
But at other times it is not so clear. The prophets themselves may be sincerely misled. They may be sincere in believing that they are carrying the message of God for people, and that they are winning people for God and not for themselves. The power of charismatic personalities is very dangerous, and sometimes it is not easy to see when it is being used for good and when it is distorting truth and goodness. The mix of eros and religious devotion is particularly potent, and there are many examples in Church history, even in very recent times, of how this mixture can distort truth and goodness. Often such figures are attractive because they are concerned with reform and renewal, they invite people to live lives that will be more perfect and more spiritual than those of the generality of Christians. But there are dangers lurking in such spiritual quests and the devil has a particular interest in them.
Jesus offers a criterion in today's gospel reading: 'by their fruits you shall know them'. This is a criterion given already in the Book of Deuteronomy: a prophet whose words are fulfilled is a true prophet, whereas a prophet whose words are not fulfilled is a false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). We must wait, then, to see what the fruits will be. We must wait to see what comes from the spiritual teaching and actions of the teacher. It does not mean that things will be simple and straightforward, as we see from the disciples' experience with Jesus. We set off, like Abraham, like the disciples, with faith in God and in God's guiding light of truth. If it leads us along strange ways and unexpected paths we must, more than ever, keep our eyes, our hearts, fixed on that light of truth. Hold on to the truth of which you are certain and you are then equipped to discern the fruits that come from doctrines, practices, and people. Keep alive and alert the keen edge of your appreciation of the truth: this is the purity of heart which enables you to see not just the truth there is in the things of this world but to see God, as Abraham did, within the things of this passing world.