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 6:1-18 – Secret Hearts

Having a private relationship with God means we have one that is more real.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

We’re going to pick up the pace (a little) for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, as some broader thematic topics are being addressed now.  In study Bibles, the passage above is often broken into three headings: “Giving to the Needy,” “Prayer,” and “Fasting.” And those are good headings, but I want to focus on the broader message here, which is how God knows our secret hearts.

Having a private relationship with God means that we have one that is more real.  If the Pharisees were around today, they might be part some of the worst of the Selfie generation:  posing outside the synagogue with ashes on their head, or a shot of them ladling something onto a plate at the soup kitchen from an up-high angle while the people in the background are serving people three times as fast.  In modern terms, they’re just there for the photo op.  Any accolades they receive are their just reward, and nothing deeper is going to come from it.

This doesn’t mean we can’t share about our Faith, it just means don’t be an ass about it.  If you’re just out there virtue signalling, you have some spiritual growing up to do.  The “likes and comments” test, if you will, is actually a pretty good one.  Are you just doing this for the attention, to belittle someone, or make yourself look better? Then keep it to yourself.  Are you doing this because you genuinely want to share something you think might make a difference?  Are you raising awareness for a worthy cause? Do you want to share your joy over God’s creation?  Go for it.

God knows our intentions, and if our intentions are good, then our actions will be also.  This is why it is so important to keep coming back to love.  Are our actions coming from a place of love?  It sounds so simple, but it’s really very divisive.  In fact, I think this may be my biggest beef with much of Conservative Christianity.  They say that their beliefs, their actions, come from a love of Jesus, and a want to uphold his teachings.  But Jesus taught us, above all, to love our neighbors, love our enemies. So if we love Jesus, then we should be focused on that, right?  And loving someone does not included forced conversion therapy, denying services to someone who isn’t the right religion or sexual orientation, or a paranoid guarding of this country’s borders.  Loving means making sure everyone has enough to eat, and a safe place to live, access to care, the ability to work and to love and to build a family unmolested, regardless of how different they are from us.  Actions creating that kind of world speak to loving intentions.  If we build our walls, deny our brothers and sisters their rights because they are “other,” we will get accolades from like-minded (small-minded) people.  And that is all that we’ll deserve.  But, if we help lift up everyone, even if it means working quietly and in small ways that only God may see, then we will be rewarded by God.

Matthew 5:43-48 – Love Your Enemies

How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for ALL of mankind?

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And now we come to the crowd-control portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s really quite a brilliant speech, structurally, let alone it’s actual message.  Jesus just spent over 40 verses (I know, he didn’t actually talk in verses, but that’s how they’ve since been recorded) recognizing those who have traditionally lacked agency in society:  The poor and meek, those that hunger for righteousness, women, slaves, anyone who has taken issue with the Pharisees.  By acknowledging them and their plight Jesus got their attention.  They’re probably getting a little riled up, seeing a Rabbi (a person of some position) who is willing to take up for them, and beginning to ponder the possibilities of what that might mean.  I’d be like, yes, finally, here’s a guy who gets it.  Now, what establishment are we going to go tear down first?

Then this pivot to love your enemies.  It makes the crowd a little more introspective, turns their attentions to their own hearts and calms some of the “let’s-go-show-’em” attitude that might have been building up.  And it sets an introspective mood for the second half of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ll start examining next post, which deals more with one’s secret heart only God can see.

But this well-placed crowd control isn’t without its virtues.  It is a reminder we still need to hear today, perhaps particularly today.  It would be really easy to write a blog post today validating my own viewpoint, spending 500 words or so bashing conservative viewpoints and admonishing them to love their enemy. While I think those people definitely need a reminder about loving their enemies, Jesus is asking me to love my enemies, not go out and convince my enemies to love me.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve been harboring a lot of anger over the restrictive abortion bills that have been passed, as have a lot of us.  And yes, I do feel under attack, and like these lawmakers are my enemy.  I don’t really feel like loving any of them.  I’m guessing you don’t either.  So don’t worry, no one, least of all Jesus, is asking you to go give them a hug.  What he is asking for is a peaceful, constructive way forward.

A word or two on translation may help, here.  Again, I’m no ancient language scholar, so I’m taking this on faith in others’ translations:  There are two particular words that make a difference here.  First, the word for “love” used here is “agape,” which if you are a church going person, you may have heard before.  Agape is different than “philios” (which, as you might have guessed, means brotherly love) and certainly isn’t “eros” (romantic love).  “Agape” love is an all-inclusive love.  A love of everything, if you will.  It is an overarching wish for benevolence and goodwill.  That sounds super hard to attain, but I think it’s actually something we’ve all experienced.  Have you ever just had a really good day?  It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so great, but you’re just really happy and feel like spreading that happy around?  Perhaps you’re extra-smiley to people in cross-traffic, chat with the checkout clerk, and give you’re partner an extra kiss because you’re just happy that you all are both there in the same place at the same time.  I think this is Agape love.  Now, holding onto that feeling may be hard, because there is a lot that can come in and derail it (like a speeding ticket, or an obnoxious customer in front of you, or your partner bringing up *that* sore subject again), but you know the feeling I’m talking about, right?

Second, “perfect.”  The word is “teleios,” and can also be translated to “whole,” or “complete,” which I think is a much better translation.  Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, because come on, he knows we’re human, right? He’s asking us to be all-inclusive.  We need to love everyone.  That means people that aren’t our race, or religion, or nationality.  That means sexual minorities, poor people, that annoying coworker who just won’t stop talking and that nosey neighbor who let’s you know the minute your grass gets above two inches high….and the Alabama congressmen who passed the abortion law last week.

So how do we “agape” in a “teleios” manner?  How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for all of mankind?  Practice.  I think agape love is a practice kind of like forgiveness: it’s an ongoing learning process in which we might sometimes fall of the wagon, but we have to keep trying, we can’t just one-and-done it.  Just keep practicing, and we’ll get better at it.

But what TF to practice?  “Love thy enemies” is ripe for saccharine platitudes that just paper over the hurts caused by said enemies, allowing those that hold the power to keep trampling over the rights of those that don’t.  Unfortunately nothing is nearly as satisfying as the realization that Jesus is actually telling us to take a stand when he says to turn the other cheek, but there are a few things that we can do that will help.

Praying, for one.  I know, that sounds like the most saccharine of all. “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers” are the empty words used after every school shooting that just make my blood boil.  But again, if we view agape love like we view forgiveness, it is just as much (if not more so) for ourselves as it is for our enemies.  When we pray for our enemies, we change ourselves into better people, not to mention set a good example for our kids, our enemies’ kids, and anyone else who might be watching.  Make it a selfish prayer: “God, I hate this person and I do not want to.  Please help me find a way to find love in my heart for them.”

Also, remembering them as human helps, too.  Actually, I’ve become a lot better at this part since becoming a mom.  Remember that even the most abhorrent person was once a child, once a baby, helps frame them as just another part of the system that raised them, not an evil monster.  That doesn’t mean we can’t vehemently oppose whatever heinous things they do, or even advocate for fair retributions, but realizing that they are human, too, helps in our own practice of agape love.

Pivoting the focus away from a person and back towards the issue can take a lot of heat out of things.  This is tricky, and I’ll be honest, as a middle-class white woman I’m uncomfortable writing about it.  So let me just come out and say, I’m not telling anyone not to be angry.  I’m not telling anyone to “calm down.”  There is a time and place for anger, for strong language, for sweeping movements and statements.  If you are oppressed, use those tools.  But if you’re just angry, especially if you’re in a place of privilege, leave those tools for those who really need it.  As my mama always taught me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Whenever possible, focus on the issue and don’t make things personal.  You’ll look like the bigger person and I guarantee that will win you points in the long run.

Finally, show compassion. To your friends, to you enemies, to everyone you possibly can.  It’s the best way to lead by example and help be a positive change in the world.  It is  hard to hate someone offering only love.  Sure, there will be people that manage to harbor that hate, but there will be others who let it go.  Again, think of your enemies’ kids:  What better victory would it be to win them over?  And it’s happening.  Take acceptance of gay marriage for example.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2004, 60% of Americans disapproved of gay marriage.  In 2019, 61% now approve of gay marriage.  In the time it takes for one generation to come of age, that flip has happened.  Yes, there were people who fought vehemently for that change, but you know what I think was the most deciding factor in this change of opinion?  Compassion, or lack thereof.  I think people, particularly young people, saw the nasty vitriol with which many conservative leaders were attacking gay rights (mostly in words, but sometimes in deeds), and saw the love and acceptance that gay rights advocates were upholding, and the choice was clear – go with the love.

It is hard, and even disheartening, to be asked to love our enemies when they are spewing so much hatred.  But their hatred is exactly why we have to keep loving them.  We will “win” in the long run if we do so, as I hope the example above illustrated.  Keep protesting, keep speaking your truth, keep advocating for those who can’t.  But remember that the world is watching, and will judge our actions towards our enemies just as much as they judge our enemies’ actions.  Let’s make those actions compassionate and loving.  Doing so, we will win.