Matthew 7:13-29 – Wrapping up the Sermon on the Mount

In summary: “OK y’all, I just told you what to do. Now go put it into practice.”

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

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. 22 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?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “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. 25 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.26 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. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

To summarize these last verses: “Okay y’all, I just told you what to do.  Now go put it into practice.”

I wonder how much Jesus shakes his head and rolls his eyes at us. I can just see him sitting on his celestial throne, groaning “Come on, guys, get it together!” like you would do while watching your team lose because of a series of unforced errors.  Perhaps he leans over to God and says, “I told them.  You saw me tell them, right? I told them exactly what to do, but here we are anyway.”

In all reality I doubt it’s like that, but that is the first image that came to my mind.  What does happen, though, if we chose the wrong path? Listen to the wrong person? Put our faith (aka build our foundation) in the wrong thing?  Does this eternally damn us?  Jesus does say “broad is the road that leads to destruction,” which sounds pretty damn scary.

Here’s my take.  And again, this is just one layperson’s thoughts.  A layperson who isn’t particularly holy, doesn’t have any theological education, and hasn’t even been to that many Bible studies.  But here we go anyway.  I don’t think this life is our last chance.  Think of it like a college class, where your coursework counts for a large chunk of your grade, but so does the final exam.  So of course you want to do well on your coursework, to get that high mark.  But if you’re not doing great, you can still study really hard and do well on the final exam, passing the class.  And, if you have been doing well all semester, you’ll probably do well on the final exam, too.  This life is like the coursework, and our final hearing before God is like the final exam.  The Nicene Creed, which gets recited almost every Sunday at my Episcopal Church, says Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” so I do know he’s coming.  Beyond that, I haven’t read a lot of the Bible that deals with eschatological issues, so I don’t know if this judgement, this final hearing, if you will, is a big, grand Judgement Day or if it happens individually when each of us dies, but the point is we get one final hearing.

This final hearing is the main reason I don’t worry too much about the souls of people who aren’t Christian, why I’m not running around trying to “save” everyone.  To keep with our college class analogy, I’m keeping my eyes on my own work.  There are a lot of Christians out there (apologies for the jab, but mostly conservative and Evangelical) that would do well to remember this, because I believe it is them Jesus is talking about when he says, “many will say to me, ‘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.’ ”  Those who claim Christianity, but then deny the rights of others, say hateful things, support hateful leaders, discriminate and belittle all in the “name of Christ” are not true Christians.

I’ve quoted John 13:35 before, where Jesus says “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  So, if someone is spreading love and goodness in the world, even if it isn’t in Jesus’ name, I truly believe that God will see the good work they are doing, and count it in their favor.  It may sound hokey, and I’ll probably piss off some non-Christians with this next bit, but I’m going to say it anyway:  When said person comes before God and Jesus in their final judgment, they will be before God, which means God has revealed Xyrself to them, and they will get the chance to fall down and worship, or pledge their allegiance, or see the truth – whatever you want to call it.  Perhaps there are some that could deny God to Xyr face, in all Xyr glory, Jesus sitting right there, both surrounded by the Holy Spirit, but that would be a pretty magnificent sight to turn away from.

So, does it not matter at all what religion you are?  Or if you even believe in a God at all?  Yes and no.  One more time with our class analogy:  I feel like being Christian gives me a ready-made study guide, like I bought the textbook with the important parts already highlighted and noted.  That doesn’t mean you can’t pass the class without this extra help, it’s just going to be a bit more work to get that A.  But again, what we need to worry about is our own selves, keeping our eyes on our own work and not worrying about the unknowable depths of someone else’s secret heart.  God will know us, and them, by our actions, by our love.  So Jesus’ final assignment for you today, from this lesson called the Sermon on the Mount is to get out there and love one another.  Love the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Love the Salt of the Earth people.  Love those who adhere to a law of love.  Love those who live at peace with their neighbors.  Love those who uphold the rights of women and other minorities.  Show your love through simple promises and nonviolent resistanceLove your enemies, and guard your secret heartDo not worry, for God is with us, Xe alone will judge us, as we have judged.  By doing all this, we have already chosen the small gate and narrow path that leads to life, life everlasting.

Matthew 7:1-6 – Judging Others

And my true story about being gored by a boar.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

“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.

Fun side-story: I actually have been torn to pieces by pigs. At least, one pig took one piece of me.  One afternoon last summer I went out to do afternoon chores and saw that a sow had dropped piglets sooner than expected, so they were in with all the other pigs sans even a nest, which isn’t ideal.  I could see one piglet wedged up beside the feed trough and thought it might be dead, and wanted to get eyes on the other piglets.  I kept a wide berth because I knew the sow would be protective.  What I didn’t count on was the dad being protective, even from my far-away stance.  He gave me a warning gouge in the thigh.  I let all the pigs know who was boss with some wild kicks and a lot of screaming (side side-story: I’ve won two other intimidation contests with boars; I don’t recommend it, you have to be ready-to-murder-with-your-bare-hands angry), and then drove myself to urgent care where I got my giant puncture wound and trailing gash cleaned and stitched up.  Oh, the stupid piglet was totally fine, by the way.

I definitely tell this story to interns to boost my own bad-ass factor, as well as drive home how dangerous the pigs can be.  But you know what this story really is?  A series of stupid mistakes on my part.  Stupid mistake number one: I know what keyed up pigs sounds like, and should have been paying more attention to the others, not just the sow.  Stupid mistake number two:  a few extra buckets of feed dumped on the ground well away from the piglet might have allowed me a better (safer) look at it.  Stupidest mistake of all: trying to check on the piglet from inside the fence in the first place.  That definitely should have been an evaluate-and-strategize-from-the-outside sort of job.

This whole judging others bit of the Sermon on the Mount is an invitation from Jesus to check our egos and our stupid.  You do not throw your pearls to pigs, because they will trample them and they will turn on you.  You also don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk (a saying a first heard from my mother-in-law and absolutely adore).  These metaphors are telling us to save our wisdom for those ready to hear it, and to recognize that we don’t have all the answers, or even all the facts to make the answers.  I cannot tell you how many times I have gone off half-cocked, biting Chris’ head off for something I think he did. Just the other night I bitched at him for losing his temper with Betty over a little spilled milk while I was out of the room for less than a minute.  Turns out, it wasn’t just an accident, she was being a little snot, pouring it on her dinner, and then throwing the sippy cup when Chris transferred said milk into a less pour-able container.  We got in a huge fight, and I had to sheepishly apologize when I heard what had actually happened.  I feel like these sort of slap-down reminders from God happen to me a lot when I act out of anger instead of taking the time to consider everything that might be going on.

The best piece of advice when it comes to not judging others, or reserving your wisdom for the right time, may come from The Big Lebowski.  “New shit has come to light, man,” the Dude says, about a supposedly simple situation that just became a lot more complex.  We need to make sure we understand the whole situation before we start preaching.  In other words, don’t be like me: a maker of stupid mistakes and quick judgments that often leave me back-pedaling and apologizing, cleaning up messes both emotional and physical, and feeling pretty idiotic and petty. Be like the Dude: check your ego, check your stupid, and let all that shit come to light before you act on anything.  Who knew the Dude would end up being a spiritual role model?  God really does work in mysterious ways.

Matthew 6:19-34 and 7:7-12 – Money and Worry

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

7

“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? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 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! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

This is a rather wonky way to break things up, but I think it is best to discuss these verses altogether, as it all boils down to worrying about what money can buy.  Everything I’ve read on these passages assumes a rather privileged position of already having that money.  I’ll admit, the first question that came to my mind was, “Is saving for retirement Christian?” What about those who aren’t able to save for anything, let alone retirement?  Those living paycheck to paycheck?  The very idea of Godly saving is kind of a moot point.  We’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the easy one.  Let’s assume that yes, you do have the money.  I know, I know, we could all use more money, but hey, if you’re able to save at all for retirement, or your kids’ college, or really for anything, that means your basic needs are being met, and you have the privilege and responsibility to wonder, “If I’m saving up my earthly treasures to buy more earthly treasures, doesn’t this mean I’m serving Money and not God?”

The answer comes down to attitudes. As discussed previously, God knows our secret hearts. The question is, do we?  I don’t think saving is inherently un-Christian.  In fact, there are other places in the Bible that praise a wise man’s stores, such as Proverbs 21:20: “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.”  Let’s look closer at the example of retirement, since that’s (supposed to be) our largest savings goal.  First, I see saving for retirement as an act of love towards my children: I do not want to be a financial burden unto them in my old age.  Second, I don’t plan on just kicking back on a beach and frittering the last thirty years of my life away.  Of course I want some rest, but I’m the kind of person that cannot be happy without a project.  What that project might be, I don’t know, but as retirement draws near, I’ll be looking for that thing that gives me purpose, that keeps me young.  Perhaps it will be as “small” as just being there for my family.  Perhaps it will be something “larger,” like becoming a CASA volunteer.  Whatever it is, having some money in the bank will allow me to take on a project that may be one the world needs, but not one that could pay me a living wage.  Do you want to do nothing other than drink beer and sit on a lounge chair in your retirement?  I’ll be honest, God didn’t make you for that, and the proof is in the pudding: retirees who give up “doing stuff,” if you will, lose their health, and, quite frankly, die faster.  This article sums up the myriad of studies that prove seniors with a sense of purpose live longer.  However, if you want the freedom to pursue a passion and continue making a positive impact on the world in your retirement, then no, saving for retirement is not turning away from serving God.

Now, let’s get to the real worrying.  Again, in the grand scheme of things, I’m guessing most of you, dear readers, have your basic needs being met.  Maybe not as comfortably as you might want, but they are being met.  That being said, who hasn’t worried, in a very tangible way, about having enough money?  I recognize my privilege in that.  Yes, we have debt I’d like to clear up, and I can’t make large – or really even medium – purchases without planning for them, but I can go through the grocery checkout without worrying if I need to put some things back.  You know how many people can’t do that?  But even from this place of relative privilege, I know viscerally what it feels like to not have enough.  Just this year, with the government shutdown in January, Chris and I were in very real danger of having to deplete our savings, max out our credit cards, and possibly shut down the farm.  It didn’t come to that, but we had some stark conversations about what no contract work (on which we still rely) would look like.  As it was, our finances still took a hit.  (Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry, we’re fine!) Our debt went up instead of down, and we had to skip a rent payment.

In trying times it is easy to forget to pray, but this is just when we need to pray the most.  And I believe God will come through for us – I have to.  It may not be as soon (or as much) as we would like, but Xe will.  We are Xyr children, and Xe wants to see us thrive.  This small slice of the Bible contains many of my favorite verses.  High on the list is this one:

“Which of you, if his 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!”

God wants to provide for us, but even Jesus says we need to ask.  Let’s make a parenting analogy!  I have the capacity to get my kids just about anything they want for snack.  They probably want ice cream sandwiches and gingerale.  What I’m going to give them is pita and hummus and apple juice.  And I’m going to make them say “please, Mommy” when they ask me for more.  God has the capacity to provide us with anything, but Xe’s going to provide us with what we need.  Rest assured, even if it’s not exactly what you thought you were going to to get, Xe wants to see our needs met.

Also, not worrying does not mean we can just sit back and wait for the free blessings to rain down upon us.  “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us.  “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  True, but they also spend their whole day in search of seed.  The birds are working, but in an in-the-moment sort of way.  One of my other favorite passages (one I need to remind myself of often) is this one:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus isn’t telling us to not worry at all, but just to not worry needlessly.  Perhaps this whole passage could be summed up as: Do what work is in your power, pray for God to fill in the rest, and all will be well.  Simple to say, hard to do, but I have to believe it’s true.  Let’s look at my own personal example again, of how the government shutdown effected us.  Our debt went up, but now the farm is doing better than ever before, and we are slowly working it back down.  My side hustles look like they might start making some money in the not-too-distant future, too, something I never would have expected in January, so relief is on the horizon.  As for skipping a rent payment, we are fortunate enough to live in a house owned by my very generous father in law, and he made it clear to us that he did not expect rent that month.  Now, is any of this how I would have chosen to be provided for?  No, I would have had that money and then some in the bank so I could pay down the debt right then and not have to worry about relying upon the generosity of family, but that is how God chose to provide for me.  Who knows, maybe Xe did it exactly so I could write this blog post – to testify how I know what it’s like to have to pick which bills to pay, to worry about the money running out, to have to humble myself and ask for help from family.  And how even from that low point,  I was able to trust that God would provide for me, and that you can, too.

I can hear the doubters now: “So what about all the untold millions who have died throughout history waiting for God’s mercy, for God’s provision? Did they not pray hard enough? Did God not love them?” To be honest I don’t have a good answer, and it troubles me, deeply.  The only thing I can say to that is I believe this life is only temporary, and perhaps God provided for those mentioned in ways that we cannot see or comprehend – maybe even beyond the bounds of this life and this world.  This in no way excuses the evils that mankind can visit upon each other, or grants us immunity from trying to rectify those evils, but I must believe that there is something greater at work, and that those who have suffered have not suffered in vain, but are now with God, who wipes every tear away.

My closing plea is this: Just try it.  Try turning to God with your needs.  What can it possibly hurt?  I’m not asking you to stop working, saving, paying off your debt, or even to stop wanting the things you want. Really the only thing I’m asking you is to stop worrying, and that’s behavior that even non-religious people would agree is detrimental to one’s mental and even physical health.  I know it’s hard, and the results may not be exactly what you’d thought, but try praying for what you want, what you need.  Do it with an open heart, and with patience.  Seek God first, and the rest will fall into place.