A Tale of Two Houses: Matthew 7:24-27

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Matthew 7:24-27 (NRSV)

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a story – a story that draws together the warnings of the past few passages.  The people who listen to Jesus and do what he says will survive the coming destruction; the people who do not listen (or only listen, but do not do) will be destroyed.

For various reasons, this illustration may take our minds back to the Flood story.  This is entirely appropriate.  Noah is told by God about the coming judgement, Noah believes God’s words and obeys his instructions and, as a result, he is saved.  Everyone else does not believe and just keeps living their lives as normal, and they are destroyed.  In fact, in Matthew 24, Jesus will explicitly compare the impending destruction of Jerusalem with the days of Noah.

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Matthew 24:37-39 (NRSV)

The potential problem here has more to do with the history of modern interpretation than the Bible.  The allusion to Noah often propels well-meaning interpreters to assume Jesus is talking about the physical destruction of the world, but this overlooks the point of the Noah story as well as how Jesus uses it.  The story of Noah was included in the Hebrew scriptures not to satisfy our cosmological curiosity about ancient world history, but to establish Israel’s identity.  Noah is a story about the salvation and deliverance of Israel-in-Noah specifically because of trust and obedience.  The important detail to Jesus is not the scope of the Flood, but rather that most people were just conducting life as usual and were destroyed, but the ones who believed and obeyed God were brought safely through the ordeal into a new world.

We have already looked at Ezekiel 13 as a point of reference for Jesus’ teaching on false prophets.  Not only is the warning about false prophets in common, but the imagery is as well.

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord God. Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord God: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord God.

Ezekiel 13:9-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

This is a warning about Babylon’s imminent destruction of Jerusalem.  Jesus has taken up this prophetic torch, warning the faithful – those who would believe his words and follow them – of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the false prophets who would ultimately destroy the people if followed.

There is, of course, a long tradition of prophetic and apocalyptic imagery that describes the destruction of invading armies as a flood.

For instance, also from Ezekiel, a prophecy about the destruction of Tyre:

See, I am against you, O Tyre!
I will hurl many nations against you,
as the sea hurls its waves.
They shall destroy the walls of Tyre
and break down its towers.
will scrape its soil from it
and make it a bare rock.
It shall become, in the midst of the sea,
a place for spreading nets.

For thus says the Lord God: When I make you a city laid waste, like cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters cover you, then I will thrust you down with those who descend into the Pit, to the people of long ago, and I will make you live in the world below, among primeval ruins, with those who go down to the Pit, so that you will not be inhabited or have a place in the land of the living.

Ezekiel 26:3-5, 19-20 (NRSV)

Ezekiel’s contemporary, Jeremiah, who has also been referenced in the Sermon, prophesying the destruction of the Philistines by Egypt:

See, waters are rising out of the north
and shall become an overflowing torrent;
they shall overflow the land and all that fills it,
the city and those who live in it.

Jeremiah 47:2 (NRSV)

Daniel in various chapters (and twice in chapter 11) during his overview of the various worldly powers rising against each other describes these battles as floods or storms.

This tradition is all very relevant to how Jesus’ hearers would hear him, and how we should hear him as well.  It is not merely a parable where foundations and storms made for a clever story, but it is rather a restatement of prophetic messaging for his own time.  The people listening to him are about to experience the very thing that faithful Israel had experienced in times before this, and Jesus issues the same clarion call – listen to the words of God as they come through His prophet, believe them, and obey them.  Whoever does this will survive the ordeal; whoever does not will be destroyed in it.

Obviously, the warning is clear, but we should not overlook the message of hope that sounded so clearly at the beginning of the Sermon.  For those who do listen and do believe and do obey, God has demonstrated that He is faithful to save and deliver, and just like previous iterations of Israel’s history, a new age waits for those brought safely through.

Consider This

  1. What are the warning signs present today of potential disasters waiting for the Church in the world?  What does faithfulness look like in the face of these potential disasters?
  2. The Bible provides us many stories that demonstrate God’s faithfulness.  Are there episodes from the history of the Church that are not in the Bible that still demonstrate this?

I Never Knew You: Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)

At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, these themes should be old hat to the listeners and certainly to readers of Matthew.

The kingdom of God is something that was established in Israel and dispersed in exile due to infidelity.  Jesus is here to reclaim the lost of Israel and rescue them from what their sins have brought about.  This kingdom is what God will bring safely through opposition and into an age of peace (shabbat – rest) by not only renewing the people but by displacing their oppressors.  This event is imminent.

When this event comes, the people of the region will be in one of two groups.  One group is a very large group consisting of people who just went about life as normal.  They did not listen to Jesus or obey his instructions.  The other group is a very small group who believed Jesus who repented, returned to faithfulness, and trusted God for deliverance.  They did what Jesus asked.  The first group is destined to fall in the judgement against Israel’s oppressors; the second group will be brought through that traumatic time safely.  Obviously, you want to be in the second group.

As has come up many times in the Sermon, Jesus points out that many in the first group outwardly appear to belong to the second group.  They say the right things.  They exercise authority in the name of the Lord.  The one thing they don’t do, however, is pursue faithful obedience.

There are two sides to this coin.  On the one side is a point that has been made many times during the Sermon – that the pursuit of the faithfulness Israel was always supposed to have is a hallmark of belonging to Israel’s restoration in Jesus.  At this point in history, God’s people are plagued with authorities who do not practice justice, mercy, and peace, but at the same time claim an outward form of holiness due to their keeping of traditions and the Law in its religious specifications.  They strain out gnats but swallow camels.  They won’t eat pork, but they will charge a fee for making the sacrifices at the Temple the Law requires.  They will not associate with an Israelite struggling in their sin to assist them, but they will buddy buddy with any Roman in power.

The other side of the coin is that there is a very direct relationship between believing Jesus, following his instructions, and surviving the upcoming days of trouble.  Jesus does not just lay out a moral program for his followers; he tells them what needs to happen to make it through the dark days ahead, sometimes in general principle, other times in weirdly specific terms.

“So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.”

Matthew 24:15-18 (NRSV)

If you believe Jesus and do what he says, you’ll survive.  If you don’t believe Jesus and hang out in Judea no matter what is happening with Jerusalem or the Temple, then you’ll be destroyed.

This is an important interpretive piece of Jesus’ teaching that is easy to overlook in our modern day.  For Jesus followers to believe and obey him is not merely following a moral way of life that God will reward, although that is certainly an important part of it.  It is also quite literally the difference between life and death.  Jesus is telling his listeners how to make it through the coming days.  Those who have faith will obey him and live; those who scoff or ignore will not obey him and be destroyed.

And when that day comes, what will that first group of people possibly say that will save them?  What works could they possibly dredge up that will save them on that day?  Nothing, because ultimately they did not obey Jesus’ commands, which means they did not believe.

The dangerous, self-deceiving piece of all this is that Jesus’ hypothetical people in the Sermon profess that he, Jesus, is Lord.  They point to rather outstanding spiritual events such as casting out demons and prophesying in his name.

But Jesus knows Israel’s history is littered with people like this – false prophets and miracle workers who declare allegiance to the Lord with their mouths and lead His people to destruction.  He has literally just talked about this.  The iron core of kingdom membership is not what you claim or what amazing spiritual works you can perform, but something much humbler – believing Jesus, believing what God is doing in Jesus, trusting God, and obeying faithfully out of that trust.

The person who believes Jesus and what God is doing in Jesus will do as Jesus says, knowing that Jesus proclaims nothing of his own, but only the will of his Father.  This is the spiritual engine that drives the faithful.  This trust in God and His deliverance that leads to listening to and obeying God’s will has been the core of faithful Israel since the beginning.  While the particular applications of this core may look different from age to age depending on what’s going on with the people of God at the time and what God is doing, the core has always been that, from Genesis 1.  If you would be the kingdom of God, believe Him, trust Him, and do His will.

Given the radical universality of this factor, it behooves us to think about this, not just in our individual lives, but collectively as the people of God.  We are not free from people who profess Jesus as Lord and perform ostensibly impressive spiritual deeds or religious acts.  But do they trust God and do His will?  Do they believe what God has done in Jesus?  Does this translate into humble, faithful obedience?

If they do not, then we have every reason to believe such people will not lead us through our own times of crisis as the people of God, but rather will shipwreck us on the rocks of history.  They, too, will prophesy peace and safety when there is none, and they will prophesy calamity and disaster when there is none.  They will direct our attention to papercuts when a sword hangs over our head.  They, too, will claim followers for themselves that will build up their image, ego, and rewards.  Those people have always been numbered with the unfaithful – regardless of what they claim.

God does raise up people to carry the faithful safely through times of calamity.  Make sure you’re looking for the right things.

Consider This

  1. What are the crises that face the people of God in the world, today?  How have different voices responded to those crises?  What have the sources of those voices been like in terms of humble obedience to the Lord?
  2. How do you define faithfulness to God?  Where did you get that definition?  How would you apply it to yourself and others?

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Matthew 7:15-20

“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.”

Matthew 7:15-20 (NRSV)

Continuing in the portion of the Sermon that focuses in on the coming judgement, Jesus brings up the issue of false prophets.

We might immediately think of the Torah’s laws about prophets, such as not needing to fear a prophet whose prophecies do not come to pass, or even executing a prophet who claims to speak in the name of the Lord only to lead people away from the Lord.

It is that latter sort of bad prophet that Jesus seems to have in view, and there are great examples that come from Israel’s history that are directly pertinent to Jesus’ sermon.

Jeremiah 21 has already been alluded to in the Sermon, and in chapter 27, Jeremiah is warned by God about the prophets in Israel telling the people that they will not be subject to Babylon.  God warns that the might of Babylon will indeed fall on Jerusalem, and if these people listen to the false prophets speaking of peaceful times, they will surely be destroyed.  This culminates in a showdown between Hananiah – a false prophet who predicts that Babylon will fold in two years – and Jeremiah, who points out that all the prophecies before them point to war and famine for Israel.  Spoiler alert: Hananiah is wrong.  Also, he dies.

Jeremiah has a contemporary, Ezekiel, who dramatically enacts the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon with miniatures.  Beginning in Ezekiel 12, God castigates the false prophets who tell Israel that judgement is far off and the horrible things seen by the previous prophets will not come to pass.  They tell Israel everything will be fine.  God responds that the truth is that Jerusalem is about to become a wasteland, and these prophets are leading the people right into the mouth of the destruction.  This goes on for a few chapters.  My favorite part is the end of chapter 12, where God points out that the false prophets say that the judgement prophecies are for the distant future and not for their immediate historical context.  Yes, indeed.  Where’s Ezekiel when you need him, am I right?  Left Behind series, I’m looking in your direction.

Both of these men are prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, and both of them are surrounded by false prophets who tell Israel that there’s nothing to worry about, life will go on as usual, and all of those terrible prophecies are really about a Great Tribulation a few thousand years in the future.

It is this tradition that Jesus is summoning up for his audience.  He, too, is prophesying the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, but Israel is surrounded by leaders who tell her this is not the case.  They make themselves comfortable.  They like things the way they are, and nobody and noTHING is going to shake their world.  And like the true prophets of YHWH before him, Jesus will be persecuted by Israel herself who does not want to hear the message.

But Jesus takes the veil from our eyes.  These soft men preaching peace and safety are, in reality, rapacious wolves full of hunger and violence.  Their lives do not bear the fruits of repentance, as John the Baptist demanded, but they bear the fruits of fleecing the herd.  You can see them in their paneled houses, drinking rich wines, skimming off changed money, lounging on the Temple’s golden furnishings, securing lands and titles – all the while Israel groans in her poverty and oppression.

These wolves are fearless.  They believe nothing will happen to them.  If God disapproves, why isn’t He doing anything about it?  They have made friends with the occupying force.  All is as it should be.  Nothing is going to happen.  This is the way life will be for Israel, and you can run with the wolves or get eaten with the sheep.

But Jesus’ message is that this situation is about to be radically reversed.  The sheep are to be collected and protected by their shepherd.  The wolves, on the other hand, are about to be dragged out of the pasture and killed.  The judgement image in verse 19 is unmistakable – these men will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This puts the teeth on Jesus’ warnings and ethical instructions all through the Sermon.  It’s what he’s been saying a dozen different ways.  If you join the wolves, those false prophets bearing the fruits of this world, you will be destroyed with them.  If you join the sheep, those humble, meek, and poor who are seeking after being faithful, you will live and be rewarded with them.  The wolves will tell you none of this will happen, but Jesus and his hearers know what has happened to such false prophets and Jerusalem in the past.

Consider This

  1. What do false prophets of this sort look like in our world?  Is it those who preach wealth and prosperity?  Is it those who say Christianity is still in fine shape in the postmodern world?  Is it those who deny climate change?  What messages are coming to the people of God that obscure upcoming troubles, and who is sending them?
  2. How can we know how God wants us to respond to contemporary challenges to the welfare of the Church?

The Narrow Gate: Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14 (NRSV)

We are now on a trajectory in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus starts bringing in more directly the idea of the coming judgement.  Here, we have people being destroyed who take the broad and easy path.  In the next section, it’s false prophets.  In the next, it’s people who outwardly profess allegiance to Jesus but who are actually disobedient.  In the next, it’s people who hear Jesus’ words but do nothing about them.  And on that happy note, the Sermon on the Mount ends.

It’s pretty clear Jesus hasn’t read any good books on preaching or taken a homiletics class in seminary, because everyone knows you’re supposed to end on something upbeat and encouraging.  Also, he does not have clearly signposted points, and very rarely does anything start with the same letter.  There’s an incredible lack of funny stories.  Who taught this guy how to write a sermon, anyway?

Ahem, getting back to the narrow gate.

Throughout the Sermon, Jesus has urged his listeners to strive to belong to the humble, faithful group who will come through the judgement and be rewarded by God with a reversal of their fortunes.  This is in contrast to Israel’s oppressors, some of whom might appear religious but in actuality are fully allied with the present evil age.  This is the group who will be brought low by God, and the prosperity they have enjoyed via their hypocrisy will be small comfort on that day.

Here, Jesus illustrates this with two gates.  One gate lay at the end of a hard road.  It is narrow and admits few.  It is a struggle to use this gate.  The other gate is wide and the road is easy.  It admits many, and many take advantage of the ease of this route.  The problem is that the hard road you walk that brings you to the narrow gate admits you into life, whereas the easy road that ushers you through the broad gate admits you into destruction.

This may be an allusion to Jeremiah 21.  In that passage, judgement is going to come upon Jerusalem via the invasion by Babylon.  God, through the prophet Jeremiah, assures the hearers that Nebuchadnezzar’s victory is certain, and when the Babylonians show up, they will kill everyone in Jerusalem.  Thus, God puts two paths before them:

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out and surrender to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have their lives as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.

Jeremiah 21:8-10 (NRSV)

I find it highly likely that Jesus, as God’s prophet to Israel, uses the same motif for the same warning.  Matthew loves doing this with the Old Testament.  Luke, in chapter 13, will tie this saying of Jesus directly to the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, but he omits the “two paths” motif that Matthew includes.

Jesus’ use of Jeremiah’s imagery is obviously very appropriate when dealing with another army who is coming to destroy Jerusalem and kill everyone in it.  In this age, Jesus will urge his followers to flee the city and not surrender to the occupying force, but the net effect is the same.  Destruction is coming to Jerusalem, and God sets before them the two paths – one that leads to life, one that leads to destruction.

It is those who will listen to Jesus’ words and follow his instructions who will find that they will live through these days and emerge on the other side of this great tribulation.  They will find themselves in a new age where there is no Temple and no Jerusalem hegemony.  There will be no Sanhedrin prosecuting Israelite sharecroppers for Torah violations.  There will be no Sadducees lounging in their manors fashioned after Herod’s.  There will be no Pharisees and scribes condemning their fellow Israelites and boasting of their righteousness and claims to God’s favor.  There will be no tax collectors.  There will be no money changers.  There will be no collaborators with the Empire in Jewish clothing.  All this will be swept away like a flood.

And all it takes to be swept away in that destruction is: nothing.  All you have to do is make a comfortable life for yourself.  You don’t have to be evil.  You don’t have to kick homeless people.  All you have to do is ignore Jesus’ call to repentance and faithfulness in the face of a coming judgement.  All you have to do is eat and drink and live your life and chill on your couch.  And the Romans will come for you.  The road to destruction is easy and the gate is broad, and many are those who will pass through it.

By contrast, Jesus calls the faithful to repent and renew the relationship to God Israel lost a long time ago.  Jesus warns them of a coming judgement, but he also promises life in a new age.  And for those who hear his message and follow, he does not turn anyone away.  The sick are healed.  The poor are fed.  The sinners are forgiven.  The outcasts are welcomed and loved.  Whosoever will come is welcome, and they carry with them in their hearts the very seeds that will blossom into the new world waiting for them in a post-Temple world.  It all sounds nice, but it involves discomfort.  It involves selling your possessions to take care of the poor.  It involves leaving behind the intoxicating, sinful ways of life that Israel has fallen into.  It involves getting back up and being a new creation.  It involves being ready to leave when Jesus tells you.  It involves giving up the rewards the world offers to accept poverty and humility.  This gate is narrow.  The road is hard.  Few will choose it.

This immediate, in-their-face dichotomy influences everything Jesus has to say.  This is not to say that everything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth directly relates to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, but that eschatological event is like the banks between which a river flows.  Jesus’ sense of urgency, his warnings about destruction, his claims that he is the only way his hearers will be saved, his weeping over Jerusalem, his urgent pleas for people to listen to him and believe him – all these things are said knowing that a dark, devouring day is slowly creeping up onto the world stage of history.  And if you can put yourself, even for a fraction of time, into the heads of that Judean villager sitting on the mountainside listening to this sermon – with all of your (then) present-day concerns and the world as it was all around you…

Or better yet, if you could see through Jesus’ eyes, and you see before you great crowds.  People of a nation that was once called Holy to YHWH.  A nation of kings and priests now eking out an existence as sharecroppers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and fishermen under a Gentile reign that flies its Eagle over the Star of David.  You see these – the lost sheep of Israel that God wants so dearly to reclaim – and you know what is coming for them – the darkness and the fires and the blades and the blood that are about to swallow them up.  Perhaps you can feel your heart start to break, and the urgency rise up in your chest, and the determination that you will win these people back and save them.  No.  Matter.  What.

As God will reveal in the unfolding of time, this is the heart He has for all of the old creation.

You are a part of this story, now.

Consider This

  1. Although Jesus had something specific in mind with his illustration of the broad and narrow gates, are there other events in the life of the people of God this could be used to describe?  Are there crossroads in the life of the contemporary church where this idea might also be descriptive?  Can it describe the progress of new creation and, if so, how?
  2. What does it mean to be “lost?”

Golden Rule: Matthew 7:12

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)

There are some who have suggested the Sermon on the Mount might follow a sort of chiastic structure where the sermon list some main points, comes to a crux, then backs out to the end discussing those same points in a slightly different format.  I don’t know that we can make the Sermon work out exactly like that without using some very vague categories, but what we can say is that we see similar issues brought up in different ways with different thoughts or different applications.

This sentiment could generally capture a lot of the ethical instruction in the Sermon, but it probably has its strongest corollary to Matthew 5:38-38:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)

While certainly the principle applies to all the other ethics taught in the Sermon, it’s here that the principle is put to the test – the principle of retaliation (which is also in the Law) and treatment of enemies.

It is in these areas where the listener is asked beyond what the specific wording of a case law implies and examine the heart or intent of the Law.  The Law may permit divorce, but the intent is not to create a culture of casual “marriages” for your personal gratification.  The Law may require just compensation for injury, but the intent is not to create a culture of vengeance where you take wrongdoing out of someone’s hide.

By doing this, Jesus sums up the intent of the case laws as he is wont to do in various places.

It’s difficult to think of something to say about this that hasn’t been said already many times as we’ve gone through the Sermon.  Faithful Israel is under the thumb of an oppressor, and she’s about to be delivered and the oppressor is about to be judged.  How then should she behave?

Jesus, wisely, exhorts his listeners to follow the lines of the core of the Law, which is to deal in justice and compassion and mercy even when the other party is neither just nor compassionate nor merciful.  Behaving in this way is a testimony to your own desire to be the faithful people of God in the world and your trust that God will judge.  It’s a way of behavior that protects both you and the community until such time as God repays those who have treated you badly.  And who knows?  Perhaps by your behavior, they may be compelled to join your side.

There is an interesting, if subtle, unique contribution this saying brings into the mix.  Jesus doesn’t say, “In everything, do to others as the Law requires,” or even as he will suggest elsewhere, “Do to others as I have commanded you.”  Instead, he exhorts listeners to behave toward others the way they desire someone to behave toward them.

In other words, Jesus is asking them to create with their own behavior the world they want to live in.  Do you want compassion for your situation?  Be compassionate, even to those who are not.  Do you want forgiveness for your failings?  Forgive, even if others will not forgive you.  Do you want to be dealt with in peace?  Do you want to be treated both justly and mercifully?  Do you want someone to intervene in your time of need?  Be that.  Be that person.  Be those people.  Be that world.

Jesus says that this sentiment is the Law and the Prophets.  We could probably find particular case laws or declarations of prophets that would call that into question, but what cannot be called into question is that this is the core of the mission of the kingdom in the Old Testament brought into individual ethics: be a new creation.  Incarnate that creation.  Bring it into reality through your life and the life of your believing community, and trust that it is this creation that God will deliver, vindicate, reward, exalt, and finalize.

When we look at the spread of the church in the first century, we do not just see the spread of a message or an establishment of doctrine, we see faith communities being something.  They are being what Israel was created to be, and this is supposed to be a declaration, call, profession, defense, and invitation to the nations deeper than words.

Consider This

  1. What are the times in the Old Testament where Israel had been basically observing the Law in its details but had overlooked the heart of it?  What kinds of virtues and characteristics do the prophets tell us define that heart?  What does God really care about?
  2. What do you think God wants for your life above and beyond spreading a message and abstaining from evil?  What does he want churches to look like?

Ask, Seek, Knock: Matthew 7:7-11

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:7-11 (NRSV)

As has been noted several times, it can be very easy to lift passages from the Bible out of their historical and/or textual context and apply them as general truths about the universe.  The passages in the Sermon on the Mount lends itself particularly well to this operation and church history bears that out.

Our passage today is one of those passages in the constellation of Passages That Are Often Taken Out of Context to Apply to Varied Situations.  It’s the same constellation that contains Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

While we can obviously disagree on the meaning of texts and/or how (if at all) they might apply, today, I hope we’ve come far enough in this journey that we’ve seen the value of viewing the Sermon on the Mount as a coherent whole with main ideas as opposed to a collection of Jesus’ thoughts on a wide variety of topics.

And so, when we come to Matthew 7:7-11, we have to understand this in the thread of the whole sermon and not a generic assurance that God will give us whatever we ask for.  If anything, the normal experience of prayer and life should tell us that interpretation is false.  Despite what certain best-selling books might tell us, there is no guarantee that if we pray fervently or often enough, or visualize enough, or release our wishes out into the Universe enough that the outcomes we desire will certainly be realized.  And given the selfishness or shortsightedness with which we define what we want, this is probably a good thing.

The teaching we have here most closely resembles what we saw in Matthew 6:25-34, which shows us that God will take care of His faithful even though their faithfulness will seriously disadvantage them in the world.  The pursuit of the kingdom of God will inevitably put Jesus’ listeners in with the poor and disadvantaged and they will soon face a great time of tribulation, but by pursuing faithfulness and trusting God to take care of them, He will. (SPOILER ALERT: He did.)

The faithfulness that saves is something that any of Jesus’ listeners can pursue and obtain.  Indeed, to seek the righteousness of the kingdom is something Jesus asks all of his listeners to do in this very Sermon.  The urging to the steadfast and comprehensive pursuit of faithfulness as God has defined it for Israel is perhaps the major “practical application” of the Sermon on the Mount.  This is achievable, and the rewards and approbation they will receive from God will more than make up for what they haven’t gotten from the rest of the world.

These values and behaviors may not in themselves be amazingly difficult, but the temptation is to leave them behind to pursue the kinds of things that the world system will reward.  Being faithful becomes difficult because faithfulness puts you at a disadvantage in the world; being unfaithful (or simply not caring about it) means comforts and rewards from the world.  When the rewards of the kingdom are something that you hope for because of a promise, but the rewards of this world are right in front of your face, it can be very tempting to abandon what you hoped for to receive the goods of the here and now.

Jesus, better than any of his listeners, knew this temptation deep in his bones.  He was tempted in this very manner in the wilderness, and it wouldn’t be the last time.  But what he wanted was the approval of God and God’s promised rewards, and he knew that if he faithfully pursued these things, he would obtain them, and God would take care of the things he needed in the interim.  He was able to endure the hardships of faithfulness because of the joy that was held out before him.

Jesus is sharing this motivation with his listeners.  This is not abstract theology, but reasoning and faith that has sprung up in Jesus’ own life as Jesus tries to live out the faithfulness of the kingdom despite the hardships this causes.  Jesus is giving his audience a first hand look at the “reason for the hope that is in you” as Peter will encourage his congregation to have.  This reason is the promises made by a trustworthy God in whom Jesus has faith.  Jesus will stake everything in his life on this faith, up to and including his own execution, trusting that God – as a good Father – will take care of him and make good on those promises.

And perhaps, there in the depths of Jesus’ own heart, might we find a torch that we can pick up and carry as well.  Do we also trust God in this way?  Is He a good Father who will care for us and make good on His word, or is the sureness – the solidity – of the rewards the world system has to offer a surer bet?  Will we try to hedge our bets by keeping a foot on both tracks just in case one doesn’t work out?  Jesus assures us this is impossible and, honestly, the idea had probably already occurred to him somewhere between the bread and all the kingdoms of the world being offered to him in the desert.  He rejected such a plan and, not without compassion and empathy, asks those who would be his followers to do the same.

Consider This

  1. How do you think your life would look different if you fully trusted God to take care of you during a full pursuit of the righteousness of the kingdom?
  2. Is it possible to carry a belief about God’s trustworthiness but still not actually trust Him?  Perhaps this is something you could ask God to show you and help you with in your own life.

Pearls Before Swine: Matthew 7:6

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

Matthew 7:6 (NRSV)

This passage has historically given interpreters fits.  Who are these dogs and swine and what exactly is supposed to be withheld from them?  Like many other passages in the Sermon on the Mount, this one is often taken as an abstract fragment with the categories filled in by whatever suits the interpreter.

The issue is further complicated if one brings the assumption that Jesus is primarily concerned about delivering a message about spiritual salvation to all mankind.  Passages like this, which seem to indicate withholding something from a group of people, are difficult to reconcile with this assumption.

There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but I think we can at least point ourselves in the right direction by using the context of the Sermon to help us see more clearly where this thought fits in.

So far, we have seen that the Sermon is given to Israel on the occasion of Israel being at an eschatological crossroads.  Judgement is about to fall on the present world system, and the Old Testament hopes for Israel’s repentance, renewal, and restoration as the kingdom of God are about to come to fruition.  This is all slated to happen very soon, from the standpoint of the Sermon.

In light of this historical situation, what should these Israelites be doing to make sure they end up on the right side of this great realignment, what kinds of behavior does this situation make wise and unwise, and what comforts and hopes can they take from this new situation?  Whatever other thoughts or implications we tease out of the Sermon on the Mount, we should start at the first point with this original audience listening to Jesus, their situation, and their concerns.

As part of this message, Jesus has drawn a contrast between the present world powers that will be brought down and the humble faithful who will be exalted.  The “present world powers” is most immediately defined by the Roman Empire, however we have seen that Jesus repeatedly comes back to a certain segment of Israel that, while appearing to belong to faithful Israel, actually belongs to the present world powers.

This particular group (in the Gospels, this group is comprised primarily of members of the Sanhedrin, Pharisees, and scribes) is especially dangerous because, outwardly, they appear to be the faithful people of God, but inwardly, their hearts belong to the world.  As leaders of Israel, they have led the people into more oppression for their own benefit, inviting a special level of ire from God.  We know from the Gospels that not every leader or teacher in Israel suffers from this condition, but it is widespread enough that Jesus can refer to them in this way.

It is following the path of this group that constitutes some of Jesus’ most dire warnings, because the temptation is so great and the packaging is so fair.  Come be “righteous” like us, and be rewarded by God as we have with riches and power.  In Jesus’ mind, this is a deathtrap.  Becoming complicit with “the world” as these leaders have will surely result in being judged along with it.

With this as our backdrop, this helps suggest certain options for Matthew 7:6 that are possibly closer to Jesus’ mind than others.

For instance, in both metaphors, the consequence Jesus lays out is the same: the animal in question will trample what has been given and will destroy the person who gave it.

This does bring to mind an image that Jesus will use much later when talking about the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-24), but I think Jesus has something more proximate in mind for this Sermon.  Nothing is going to prevent the destruction of the Jerusalem, but here, Jesus urges his listeners to withhold their holy and valuable things lest the dogs and the pigs destroy them.

The good news of the kingdom for Israel is bad news both to the Roman Empire and the segment of Israel that is benefiting from their rule.  As the message goes out, this is certain to invite retribution from these groups.  Yes, here and there will be exceptions where people from these groups encounter the coming kingdom and are changed by it – the odd Roman centurion or Pharisee or Sanhedrin.  But such stories stand out in the Gospels specifically because they are unusual, not because they are exemplary of how those groups typically respond.

Jesus, himself, will conceal himself or his message from time to time to avoid unwanted attention prematurely.  For instance, in Matthew 16, he instructs his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ.  In Mark 1, Jesus won’t let the demons say who he was or let those miraculously healed tell anyone about it.  In Mark 4, Jesus lets the disciples know that the reason he speaks in parables is not to communicate spiritual truths in stories everyone could understand and relate to, but rather to conceal the spiritual meaning from listeners who were slated for the coming judgement.  The idea is that faithful Israel would understand the secret meaning of the parables, but everyone else would just hear some story about vineyards or farming.  It is only toward the end of Jesus’ ministry that he begins to instruct his disciples to be open with his message, and it is toward the end that he is arrested and executed for insurrection.

It is this principle, I believe, Jesus is teaching to faithful Israel.  God is going to judge the power structure in Jerusalem and, eventually, the entire Empire.  He is making way for His kingdom.  If you just waltz on up to the powers that be and unabashedly or defiantly tell them this, you court not only your destruction, but the destruction of the entire movement.  This has come up other times in the Sermon, and the sentiment even seems to precede the Sermon in John the Baptist’s startling question to the Pharisees and Sadducees who show up at his baptism: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7)

On the basis of the context of the Sermon and Jesus’ own actions during his ministry, I think the most likely option for interpreting this verse is something like, “Don’t proclaim the message of the kingdom to those who will destroy you for it.”  Not only does this look out for the safety of the faithful Israelite, it also looks out for the surviveability of the movement as a whole as well as giving Jesus the time to do what he needs to do, which is spread the message subversively to call in the lost sheep.

Does this have any impact for how we conduct ourselves, today?

I would say that, for the most part, it does not.  The cat is already out of the bag.  Toward the end of his life, Jesus shifted from a position of keeping things under wraps to telling the whole world, even in the face of persecution – a mission kept up by the disciples.  The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD has come and gone.  The Christianization and eventual decline and fall of the Roman Empire has come and gone.  What remains is the kingdom of God throughout the world, living lives that testify to the Way – an entire mode of life that is the new creation present among the old.

There could be resonance with those groups of believers who are in countries where these faithful communities are still actively persecuted by powers at large – these communities that have to recreate that delicate dance of spreading the message of the kingdom subversively without attracting undue attention from the authorities.  Even though they aren’t poised in front of the same immediate historical event Jesus’ audience is, the situation on the ground is very similar and it may be wise to adopt the methods and mindset of the followers of Christ when they were a group that could be snuffed out at any moment.

But where that is not the case, we find ourselves in a mode where the good news of the kingdom is something that needs to be uproariously public, and not just (or even primarily) in verbal declaration, but in incarnation.  We need to be this people and these communities actively, vibrantly, and publicly.  And in many places, we just aren’t.  We are known publicly for all the wrong things and very few of the right ones.  How many non-Christians in America do you think would say, “I wish we had more Christians in America, because they really do make the world such a better place?”  How many do you think would say, “Every time I run into a Christian, I am struck by how thorough and sacrificial their love is?”  How many would say, “I don’t agree with their beliefs, but I can’t argue with the fact that they have created communities that have succeeded in creating a good life for all in ways that the rest of the world has failed?”

I do not think we are known for those kinds of things in most places.

And perhaps that is the predominant challenge of the Church in the West – not to figure out who shouldn’t hear the Gospel, but to figure out what we’re actually saying.

Consider This

  1. What sorts of things define the public discourse Christians have with the rest of the world?  Are those the kinds of things that define our identity?  Are they the kinds of things God wants from His people in the world?
  2. Way back in Genesis, God formed Israel to be a special community of people in the world.  What were the things He was looking for?  What was the hope of the effects on the rest of the world?

Judge Not: Matthew 7:1-5

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV, with footnoted translations preferred)

In this passage, I have preferred the translation of “brother’s” to the NRSV’s “neighbor’s.”  The reason for this is not because I have some reservation about gender-inclusive language in Bible translations.  I’m all for it, actually.

But in this passage, I believe the term brother (adelphou) is being used the way Jesus uses it elsewhere – to restrict the teaching by ethnicity, not by gender.  Your “brother” is your fellow Jew, in distinction from the Gentiles.

This reading makes a lot of sense in the context of the rest of the Sermon, where Jesus has warned about the coming judgement on the existing world powers and the need for Israel to be faithful above and beyond anything she’s dared, before, here in the hour of crisis.  He has exhorted this community to unity and had sharp words for those leaders of Israel who have, more or less, “defected” to the side of the Gentiles, who are the oppressors.

If we broaden the reading, then it becomes a generic instruction to avoid ever making a judgement about anyone or possibly anything, and this has led into all kinds of bizarre speculations and mitigation as Christians have struggled to hold this teaching in unity with the many teachings about judgement and discernment used elsewhere in the Bible, even from Jesus’ own lips.

What Jesus has in view, here, are those in Israel who condemn other Israelites as being unfaithful in various things while, in the process, their own unfaithfulness is like a solar eclipse.  It is very likely the epitome of the people Jesus is thinking about are the religious leaders of Israel.

Take, for instance, Jesus’ extended tirade against some of the scribes and Pharisees later in Matthew in chapter 23.  In just one sample passage:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)

In this chapter, repeatedly, Jesus refers to them as “blind” and “hypocrites” who are fastidious about tiny observations of the Law while at the same time ignoring the large core of virtues that define the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ teaching here, consonant with the rest of the Sermon, is for his hearers not to be like these people.  Rather, they should take care that they, themselves, are being faithful Law-keepers as God defines it.  Their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees.  They are to reject the dead shell of the religion that rots in the whitewashed Temple and instead embrace all the qualities of their God that they are to model in the world as a testimony that YHWH is the Lord and they are His people.

It is only that sort of person, who has rigorously sought the faithfulness of the kingdom of God (as instructed in the last passage) and filled themselves with justice, mercy, and faith who is in a position to help the others who are weaker and stumbling.  This, in fact, is the very tack taken by Jesus himself among the lost sheep of Israel.  A brother who stumbles is someone to help from a position of love, mercy, understanding, and restoration – not a person to be condemned, snubbed, and shunned so that your own “righteousness” might shine all the brighter by comparison.

It is that latter group of people – those who believe themselves to be righteous but have bypassed the core values of the kingdom – who will themselves be judged.  It is those who cry in the street, “Thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like this man,” who will find themselves on the outside of the kingdom.  It is those who call Jesus their Lord but who do not feed, clothe, or comfort their persecuted and needy brethren whom Jesus will not acknowledge.  They will fall with the very Temple that has supported their hypocrisy this whole time.

And for us?

On our side of the story, all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus.  The Roman Empire fell to his banner and eventually faded into the distance.  YHWH is no longer the God of the Jews only, but of the whole world.  Jews and Gentiles alike come to faith in what God has done in Jesus and are both given the promised Spirit.  We do not have a holy city that is about to fall or an Empire that is about to be overturned.  But we continue in this world as faithful communities that testify that Jesus is King and his God is God of all and the project of new creation has not been abandoned, but continues forward in hope.

In such an environment, I would offer that it is a common malady of God’s people in the world today to use an external conformity to morality as a platform for thinking oneself righteous and declaring others to be excluded from the kingdom or unfaithful, while at the same time ignoring those things that God has always wanted His people to produce on Earth – justice, mercy, compassion, provision, restoration, healing, faithfulness.

I can’t speak definitively for other countries, but America is full of Christians just like this.  The Christian life is defined by conformity to a moral code, much of which may actually be in the Bible somewhere.  If you do not conform to this code, then you aren’t a faithful Christian in their eyes.  Meanwhile, these same people will happily tell the homeless to get a job so as not to be a drain on society, turn away the immigrant, and tell the sinners with barely concealed glee and not at all concealed fury that they will surely find themselves on the wrong end of God’s judgement, unlike themselves.

Folks, that is a very, very, very dangerous place to be.

But if what you love is mercy.  If what you love is justice.  If what you love is healing.  If what you love is reconciliation.  If what you love is compassion.  If you can look at someone wallowing in what you consider sinful behavior and say, “Come to my house, friend, and eat with me.  Talk with me.  I have a world for you that will make all these trinkets seem like dust.”  Then you sound like somebody else I know.  And maybe, just maybe, if you have sought with all your might to be a person who embodies those rich, kingdom values in the world – maybe you might be able to remove a speck from your brother’s eye, and you both can see.

Consider This

  1. What is on your list of things that Christians “don’t do.”  How do you view people who do those things?  Is that how you imagine God views them?  Is that what Jesus demonstrated?
  2. What do you envision the “Christian life” to look like?  Is it a moral code?  Is it the pursuit of justice and mercy?  What are the values God has always asked for from His people in all historical ages?  What does he want His community of followers to look like?  What does He want them to be known for in the world?
  3. What does it mean for the Church to be a blessing to all nations?

 

Lilies of the Field: Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Matthew 6:25-34 (NRSV)

When I was a child, the part about the lilies not spinning seemed weird to me.  I imagined flowers spinning around in fields in wild abandon.  It was only later that I put two and two together and realized Jesus was talking about the lilies spinning thread.  Incidentally, they don’t do that, either.

This admonition comes to us after a long contrast between the hypocrites who strive after the rewards the world offers versus the humble faithful who, instead, serve God.  Here, Jesus is setting minds at rest that pursuing faithfulness to God instead of pursuing worldly gain means God will provide for their needs.  One almost wonders if, “What will we eat?” and “What will we wear?” were questions being shouted up at Jesus as his sermon was progressing.  Indeed, if one turns away from the pursuit of wealth and instead throws one’s lot in with the poor and oppressed of Israel, and one pursues faithfulness to God instead of compromise with the Empire, then it’s virtually a given that you’ll be poor, yourself, with very little prospect of earning any money.  These would be natural objections.

If I refuse to bow to guild idols and lose my job, what will I eat?  If I will no longer be a tax collector, what will I wear?  If I proclaim that God’s kingdom has come and Jesus is the king, and I go to prison for insurrection, who will take care of me, then?  Who will take care of my family?

In the first century, the pressure to conform to Empire is overwhelming.  It affects all aspects of life.  Following Jesus is not just a private spiritual decision that means you treat other people more nicely.  In the first century, it is more or less a declaration of rebellion and sedition against both the religious authorities and the civil ones.  Faithfulness will cost them all – their wealth, their livelihoods, their families, their homes, even their own lives.  These are all very valid concerns, and Jesus elsewhere will even advise potential followers to consider the cost of beginning this project, lest they find that they cannot pay it and fall away.

But it is not merely the present situation Jesus is talking about.  The Sermon is eschatological.  There is coming very soon a great tribulation upon Jerusalem like nothing before.  Jesus-followers will need to flee the city.  They will have no homes, no income, no stored up food or drink.

So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.

Matthew 24:15-22 (NRSV)

We’ve seen this all throughout the Sermon.  The listeners sit at the crossroads of crisis.  The coming judgement and deliverance is at hand.  A new age awaits the faithful on the other side, but what dangers and suffering they must experience to get there.  What paths of suffering must they tread awaiting glorification.

Here, Jesus offers a comfort, but it is a comfort based on faith.  He tells the anxious would-be followers that if one pursues the faithfulness of the kingdom, God will take care of the rest.

In the modern West, we tend to think of faith as “belief” or even “assent to unproven propositions.”  This seems to fit our fascination with propositions, but it seems distant from the ancient Semitic world.  Faith is trust.  Faith is reliance.  The demons have beliefs, but they do not have faith.  Faith is a movement beyond assent into practical, concrete reliance on the object of your faith.  It is trust in God.

This is the faith Jesus calls for in his Sermon.  He does not tell them things will all be fine.  He does not tell them things will be ok in the long run.  He does not give them a theodicy where he explains how a good God could allow them to suffer.  No, instead he tells them to trust – pursue the faithfulness of the kingdom and take whatever consequences that brings, and God will take care of you.

But this is not a blind faith.  Jesus does not ask them to trust in a stranger or an untested or unknown quantity.  Great crowds are around Jesus, and he appeals to the environment around them – how the birds and the plants survive even without wealth or jobs or guaranteed means of food or income.  God, who is the Father of the listeners, knows they need food, shelter, and clothing, and would see to it they had what they needed just as He provides for birds and flowers.

If Josephus and Eusebius are to be believed, the believers fled the city prior to its destruction after selling all they had.  Some fled to distant cities.  Others formed communities nearby.  They cared for one another, and the good news of the kingdom spread.

It would be risky to lift this (or any) portion out of the Sermon and apply it generically to all situations assuming that, if we do the right thing, everything else will be fine.  Jesus was the most faithful person there was, and although God certainly took care of his food and shelter, he endured much suffering and, ultimately, execution.  And whom among the Apostles led comfy lives?  And even those Christians who fled Jerusalem in the first century, it’s hard to imagine that every individual in that group led lives of comfort and died naturally of old age.

But that doesn’t change the fact that God’s answer to starvation, deprivation, and persecution is ultimately a new creation.  The story of those people listening to Jesus’ Sermon is a keystone point in that larger story.  What is even death itself on the day when death is defeated?

You and I do not have a guarantee that faithfulness means everything else in our lives will fall into place.  Perhaps faithfulness will mean taking a place with the starving or the homeless.  Perhaps it will mean torture.  Perhaps it will mean exile.  Perhaps it will mean waking up in the morning and not knowing if you’ll survive to see another sunrise.

But every day of faithfulness proclaims to all creation that new creation has begun, and that you are a part of it, and that you know the destiny that awaits it.  And that same deity that led our forefathers through the desert extends His hand through all the suffering and asks you, “Do you trust me?”

Consider This

  1. What parts of being a faithful follower of Christ are uncomfortable for you?  Are there any that make you feel afraid?
  2. Do you trust God?  Do you have trust issues with God?  Are there things in your past or things in the world at large that make it difficult to trust God?  In what ways has He proven Himself trustworthy?

Two Masters: Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Matthew 6:24 (NRSV)

If you have been following along through this entire stretch on the Sermon on the Mount, you probably already know what’s coming.  You also probably deserve a medal or a plaque or at least a video game achievement of some sort.

Up until this point, the Sermon has done a lot of line-drawing: you’re either on this side, or you’re on this side.  You’re either the poor, or you’re the rich.  You’re either the oppressed, or you’re the oppressor.  You either belong to the new creation, or you belong to the world system as it is.  You will either be suffering now and rewarded later, or you will be rewarded now and suffer latter.

In between all this line drawing, Jesus reserves the sharpest criticism for those who try to keep a foot in both worlds.  It is this group who has been his target when talking about people who have all the external trappings of God’s faithful, but in their hearts they love what the present world system will get them.

In case the argument has been too subtle for anyone, Jesus brings the point home with clarity and directness: you cannot serve both masters.  You love one and hate the other.  You don’t love one more than the other.  You don’t love one and feel casually about the other and everything is ok because the other isn’t your main priority.  It’s this or that.  Jesus’ listeners cannot keep up a certain level of service to one while also trying to serve the other.

In Jesus’ world, this division was certainly and clearly the case.  The impoverished peasantry of Israel was light years away from the rich and the gap was widening all the time.  It was a Marxist’s dream case study.  The laborers became poorer and more numerous and lost the means of their sustenance to the wealthy.  There was no sizable chunk of the population that you could describe as, “not rich, but still doing ok for themselves.”  Doing ok for yourself meant that you were allowed some level of subsistence off the land you worked that used to belong to you and you stayed out of debtors’ prison another year.

There was only one way to escape that state, and that was to ally yourself with the other side.  You had to adopt their practices and their values.  You had to win their approval and their allegiance.  That involved cozying up to the right people, saying the right things, doing the right things, and you might find yourself in nice clothes living in the part of Jerusalem closest to the palace with a nice position in the Roman hierarchy.

There was a segment of people who wanted that life of prosperity while still keeping their “religious” life going.  They still wanted their Israelite membership card, but they didn’t want to actually throw their lot in with them.  “Of course, the Holy City and her people mean everything to me,” they might say, “but have you seen these people, recently?  So dirty, and far more concerned with bringing in a harvest than purchasing appropriate sacrifices.  Barely spiritual at all, really, so unlike myself.  Many sinners.  Lamentable, really.  And of course it’s just terrible that we’re under Roman occupation.  Grrrr.  But one does what one must.  The show must go on, and if we want to keep our Temple, we need to place nicely.  And have you seen the wines Herod has been bringing in from Italy?  Faithfulness deserves a reward from time to time, don’t you think?”

Jesus has no patience for this.  Jesus is dirty and poor eats leftover wheat lying around in fields.  Jesus, the most faithful of the faithful, eats and drinks with the lowly and diseased sinners.  He looks around at this group of farmers and tradesmen and prostitutes and failed revolutionaries and pronounces them the new Israel – the ones who will be comforted, filled, and inherit the world – the ones who will enter the Kingdom ahead of scribes and Pharisees.

And any who would consider themselves Israel have to make the same decision.  Where is the kingdom of God, who are the faithful, and will they align with that group whatever it costs them?

Outside of first century Israel, the situation is more complex, especially if we consider the Church globally.  We certainly do have countries where the situation looks very much like first century Israel, and in those contexts it may be much easier to identify whose “side” Jesus identifies with and calls us to identify with as well.  We should continue to testify to the world that wealth is not God and what we have is a gift to be used for meeting the needs of others, and the integrity of this profession is weakened when we see how thoroughly wealth and the valuing of wealth and the individuation of wealth has permeated much of the Western church.

But we also have to acknowledge that, in many other places, the lines are drawn in a much more complicated manner.  Many countries have a very broad middle class that cannot be easily defined as “rich” or “poor” in the stark categories of first century Judea.  In other countries, power and wealth is in the hands of corporations or private individuals and not an oppressive government per se.  While we don’t want to take any teeth out of Jesus’ teaching, we also have to acknowledge that transposing his ideas into our political and economic situation may take some serious thought and prayer as we discern these things in our own age without falling into the trap of “discerning” ourselves right into a nice, comfortable situation that affirms our prejudices.

Perhaps the challenge of the Western church is to discern what this phenomenon looks like in our own cultures and contexts.  Where do we have powers that oppress the people of God while at the same time having a powerful temptation to cozy up to those powers?  Who are our undesirables and outsiders?  Who have we mentally excluded from the kingdom because of our own assumptions?  Who is about the work of new creation, and who is working to keep the status quo running, and what role have we played in that?

We might find ourselves, in the name of Jesus, lining up yet again with those who might be considered undesirables by the world at large.

Consider This

  1. Think of the groups of people off the top of your head that you are sure are outside the kingdom of God.  Now, think through those groups more carefully.  Are you sure?  How are you sure?  What criteria are you using?  If they come from the Bible, are there other things in the Bible that might call your criteria into question?
  2. Which people do you most desire their respect?  Why is that?
  3. Where does most of your time go?  Your money?  Your talents?  Your thoughts?  Are those your highest priorities?  If you don’t think they are, why would you think that?