In our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, last time we reached Chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel. The admonition – or commandment – Judge not lest thee be judged gave us two important themes that we should always keep in mind as we strive to follow Jesus. First, was the concept of like for like: If I really want my Father in Heaven to bless me, to take care of me, to be merciful with me when I need it, to rescue me when I have stumbled, to rescue me when I have fallen so far that I can’t even tell where I am, to feed me when I am starving, to give me shelter when the storm has just torn my life apart… if that’s what I want and what I need, then like for like: I need to turn around and do all these things for his children. It is a law of the universe our Father created. We cannot walk in the Kingdom and ignore it.
The second theme that admonition brought up was the issue of sin, other people’s sin. If Matthew 7:1-2 is so clear in its meaning, why is the accusation of being judgmental so often leveled against the Church? (https://www.barna.com/research/christians-more-like-jesus-or-pharisees/) Maybe there is a simple answer.
In one of the Philosophy classes I took in my undergraduate days, the professor was talking about Immanuel Kant’s version of the golden rule, his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The professor pointed out that if you own a bullet-proof vest and wear it everywhere, this rule does not mean that you can advocate shooting other people since it’s OK with you if they shoot at you (you have that vest, anyway.) To apply the rule correctly you have to say it’s OK with you if they to shoot at you when you are not wearing the bullet-proof vest.
Maybe our problem with Judge not lest thee be judged is that we tend to wear blinders. When another person stumbles over a type of sin that is not a challenge to me, I tend to feel superior, and judgment follows soon thereafter. We are not all the same. We do not all have the same weaknesses.
Today we finish Chapter 7.
3_5 How real is your Father?
Interleaved within the passage about judging (Matt 7:1-5) and the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12), Jesus says:
Matt 7:6-11 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
One of the important consequences of understanding that Jesus is systematically teaching us about the Kingdom, is the realization that He never abruptly changes the subject. Sometimes we get in the habit of reading Scripture the way we read the 10 commandments, as if what it contains is a list of stand-alone maxims that we need to learn, memorize, and abide by. In reality, the whole counsel of God is coherent and self-consistent. Every rule is connected to the others and they can all be summarized by key core concepts. Jesus just showed this when he said that the Golden Rule summarizes all the Law and the Prophets. So, why does Jesus all of a sudden talk about dogs and pigs?
Just before this point, Jesus told us what constitutes real treasure, and how we can accumulate it in Heaven. Furthermore, He told us that as children of the Kingdom we have a real hope that the world does not have: God, our Father, is determined to take care of our physical needs in this world. These two realities constitute our sacred treasure as children of God. But when we take our position as His children as an excuse to look down on others by judging them, it is like we are taking that sacred treasure and trashing it in the world. Are the dogs and the pigs going to rejoice in the fact that we claim to be children of God? I don’t think so. All we end up doing is giving the Kingdom a bad name.
Immediately after this, Jesus circles back to the theme that our Father is determined to take care of us. Why?
For one, repetition. But I think, more importantly, it is because as this teaching is progressing it is becoming more and more clear that it is hard work. We talked about this already. Choosing to obey Jesus is not the problem. The problem is keeping that commitment as its consequences challenge our human flesh. But, as Jesus told the disciples in the passage of the rich young ruler: Nothing is impossible with God.
We need help if we are going to walk as children of the Kingdom. And Jesus knows it. The only remedy is to trust that our Heavenly Father has our good in mind all the time and is ready to carry us all the time. For this to be real comfort and real strength we have to believe the Kingdom is real (that’s the way it all started). And that’s what Jesus is trying to get through to us. If your Heavenly Father is as real to you as your physical father was, if that relationship with Him is as real to you as the relationship between you and your children, then there is nothing extraordinary about going to Him in prayer and expecting, with hope and joy, His help.
Truth in advertising
Is it difficult? Yes:
Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
This is just “truth in advertising”. Jesus already told us this at the beginning, in the Beatitudes. If we choose this world, as opposed to the Kingdom, we are in the same boat as the vast majority of people. Yes, we are all at risk from the vagaries of fate; disasters can happen to anyone. This is a hard world; BUT, there are ways to deaden the pain. There are all sorts of treasures and pleasures to be had in the near term; especially if we are willing to take advantage of others, or “game the system”, whenever the opportunity presents itself. That’s life in the world. And we can see plenty of examples of people that look like they have succeeded at it tremendously… they seem like they have all they want. Maybe, if we try hard enough, we could get to be like them – or at least die trying.
But if we choose the Kingdom, and live according to it, there is a guarantee of a very different kind: we will eventually end up opposing what the world says is good. When we choose to take the consequences of that stand, we get to understand why the gate is narrow and the road is hard.
This is the turning point in the Sermon. Jesus has laid it all out and ended this section in a way no marketing school will ever teach you: Follow my teaching, and it will hurt.
If that’s the way it is, why should we? Isn’t that the natural question to ask? Actually, the real question is this: With what authority is Jesus speaking?
3_6 Either Or
If we have been sitting there throughout this whole sermon really listening, pondering the hard questions that pop up in our hearts, we come to this question of Authority with mixed feelings. I mean, I cannot deny that what he has taught is self-consistent and logical, but it does put a serious burden on me. He has made no bones about it. Ok, maybe I can take those pieces that I like, that I know I can do, and leave aside the ones that are going to be too much trouble. At least I would be doing something. That has to be better than not responding at all; it would certainly count for something, right? Well, it depends on what I believe is Jesus’ authority. If He is just a teacher, a philosopher, a Rabbi, a man just like me, interpreting the Scriptures for us… well then maybe I can pick and choose.
Then Jesus says:
Matthew 7:15-20 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Now the question of his authority gets a little trickier because he has just brought up the concept of the prophets. And if I remember all that I have read in Scripture about this subject, one thing is for sure: it’s bad news to reject the words of a prophet. Remember Moses, Elijah, Elisha… Nature itself bowed down to them, and their enemies met spectacular ends: plagues, fire raining down from heaven. And even the prophets that did not do miracles, their words always came true because they spoke with the authority of God Himself.
So now the question becomes: Is Jesus a real prophet or a false prophet? Well he has just given us the way to tell: He says judge them by the fruit of their lives. That’s the way it has always been.
In the Old Testament if a man claimed to be prophet and predicted accurately a future event but at the same time told the people to break the laws of God, that prophet was stoned to death – by his deeds he proved he was a false prophet. If a man claimed to be a prophet and predicted a future event and it didn’t happen, that guy was also stoned to death. The point is God stands by His prophets and His prophets stand by God.
So, Jesus is saying, what do you see in my life? Am I living by God’s standards, am I doing His will? And notice He is not talking about miracles at all. Because right there in the middle, He implies that everybody is subject to be examined by the same rule: What fruit does your life bear? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So, make a decision! He’s saying. You must examine what you have seen; you can tell, you can figure it out. Choose: Either Or. Either I am a prophet of God or I am a false prophet.
And so, Jesus has taken away the middle ground. If he is a false prophet then nothing he said should be accepted. But if He is a true prophet then I cannot dare to pick and choose among His teachings. It’s all or nothing.
Narrow is the way that leads to salvation. And it’s about to get even narrower:
What is Jesus?
Matthew 7:21-23 21 “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 who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
If you thought deciding whether or not Jesus is a true prophet raised the stakes, I bet you weren’t ready for this one. Notice how he said that: Not everyone who says to ME, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Wait a minute, Jesus, are you saying you are the gatekeeper of heaven? Are you telling me that you have the power to keep me from entering heaven? Are you saying you are going to be the one that judges whether or not I did the will of the Father in heaven?
It couldn’t be any clearer, could it? Many will say to ME on that day, ‘LORD, LORD, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Not only is Jesus assigning Himself a unique position in the Final Judgment, he is assigning to himself in that setting the appellation Lord, in Greek Kyrie, the translation word used in Greek to render the Hebrew Adonai which is Lord as a title applied to God. It’s hard to overstate the importance of these statements: When you get to the Throne of Judgment, as soon as you call out the name “Lord”, guess who is going to answer?
And if there was any doubt how far He was pushing this concept, note that the ultimate reason those rejected are rejected is because they never had a relationship with Him: “I never knew you.”
Now imagine you are there in that crowd listening to Jesus, maybe wondering a moment ago how much of this teaching you really could live with, and then he hits you with the Either-Or of the prophet question. And before you have a chance to make up your mind, he drops this bomb.
Ok, he does miracles, he heals the sick, he speaks like no one I have ever heard… but he is a man just like me! He’s a carpenter, I have seen the callouses on his hands. He gets tired, just like me. He has to eat, just like me. He is a man. How can a man claim that kind of authority? No wonder when he overturned the tables of the money-changers at the Temple, last Passover, the religious leaders challenged him to produce a sign to prove he had the authority to do what he was doing.
But he gave them an answer impossible to verify: “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”
It’s the same here. How can I know that what he is saying is true? That he really has this authority? I know what he will say if I question him… Don’t you recognize me by my fruit? And then it all circles back to that Either-Or. Either He is who He says He is or he isn’t.
Jesus comes now to the end of the sermon. He has told us: If you want to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, Follow my teaching. It will be hard. But I know what I’m talking about, I have the ultimate authority.
3_7 Therefore, we all have a choice:
Matthew 7:24-27 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Storms will come and beat against our lives. But if we hear and obey, we will be living a life that can survive anything that this world throws at us, and then endures to eternal life. That is what Jesus promises.
But the value of that promise and everything he has said up to this point now all hinges on one choice: The answer to this question: Is He the ultimate authority – even in Heaven – or isn’t He? That is the crucial choice. How we go from this point forward is up to us.
And this is the bottom line of why I wanted to go in detail over this Sermon. Not only does Jesus lay out for us the rules for living as Children of the Kingdom, not only has he given us the way to live meaningful – even joyful – lives in this world, under the care of our Heavenly Father, he has told us that this way, His way, is the way for eternal life (narrow as it is); and the guarantee that it does lead to that eternal life is that He is the gate. The right relationship with Him guarantees the right and enduring relationship with the Father.
He is asking us to choose the Salvation that only He can give.
It will take continuing through the gospel if we want to understand how it is that he can guarantee that Salvation, but at this point He has said enough for us to make the choice to follow Him or not. We don’t have to understand everything. But one thing we cannot ignore is the fact that none of this makes sense – following him makes no sense – unless we are ready to accept that He is the Ultimate Authority.