(This isn’t part of the sermon proper for September 8, but I read it just before the sermon; I originally wrote it back in 2007.)
The day of the Lord is like three little pigs who went out into the world to make their fortunes. Knowing the stories, they traveled until they found a place where no wolf had been seen for hundreds of years; then they settled down to build homes and earn their living.
The first pig just wanted to enjoy life, so he wasn’t interested in spending too much time building his house. “What’s the fastest way to get my house built?” he asked himself, and quickly settled on a straw house with no real foundation. In a short time, his house was finished; it was a little flimsy, but that didn’t bother him—he was rarely there, except to sleep.
The second pig sniffed with disapproval when he saw the first pig’s house of straw. “That’s simply not appropriate,” he said to himself. “Granted, there’s no need to go overboard—you shouldn’t take your house too seriously—but it’s important to have a nice, solid, respectable house, as befits a nice, solid, respectable member of society.” So the second pig built himself a house of wood, with which he was very pleased. “It’s no flimsy, disreputable shack like the first pig built, nor is it overbuilt like the third pig’s house; it’s just a good, practical house, enough and not too much.”
The third pig, meanwhile, wanted to build the best house he possibly could; he made sure he had the best possible foundation, then built his house of solid stone—top-quality granite, in fact—doing everything he could to ensure that his house would stand no matter what happened. He knew the other two pigs thought he was taking this whole house-building thing much too seriously, but he didn’t care; he wanted a house worthy of honor.
The three little pigs lived for some years in contentment, each pleased with the choices he had made, until one day a great wildfire swept unexpectedly through the area. The first little pig ran to his house of straw to save his valuables; but while he was in the house, the fire swept over it and it immediately burned to the ground, killing the little pig. The second little pig ran to his house of wood to save his valuables; but while he was in the house, the fire swept over it and it began to burn. The little pig dropped everything and ran; he escaped alive, but with everything he owned lost in the fire. He ran to the house of stone, where the third little pig let him in; while they were in the house, the fire swept over it—and passed on by. The house was scorched by the flames and smelled of fire and smoke, but was otherwise undamaged, because stone doesn’t burn.
Having lived five years in British Columbia for seminary, I can tell you that if you ever think politics here is messed up, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The worst came when the provincial premier got himself indicted for corruption, which kicked off a leadership race within the party. The winner got to be premier, for a while, so a lot of people decided to run—including several longshot candidates who mostly provided comic relief.
One of those was the Agricultural Minister, Corky Evans; he came from the other side of the mountains and had a country-bumpkin image which he liked to play up for comic effect. In announcing his candidacy for party leadership, he told the story of the time he had decided to build a house for his family; being impatient, he didn’t want to take the time to put in a foundation, so he just built the house right on the ground. It seems to have come as a surprise to him when the house began to sink. As he told the crowd, this left him two choices; he could either tear down the house, or lift it up and put a foundation under it. Either way, it was going to be a very messy business.
Now, Jesus would have called him a fool, and Evans wouldn’t have argued; but you can understand his impatience, even if it was foolish to give in to it. And that’s with modern power tools and construction equipment. Imagine how it was in the ancient world, where you had to do it all by hand. The eleventh-century Arabic Christian scholar Ibn al-Tayyib opened his comments on this parable by saying, “Every Christian knows that building a house is not an easy endeavor. Rather, it involves exhausting and frightening efforts, strenuous hardships, along with continuous and life-threatening struggles.”
That was probably even truer in Israel than most places. In Matthew’s account of this parable, he shifts the focus a bit more to the storm, simplifying the depiction of the two builders and exaggerating the imagery a little; Luke gives us more detail on the building process, and in doing that he touches on the particular challenges of building a house in that country. The winter was unsuitable for building because it was the rainy season, with occasional snow in the hills. Summer offered a long dry period for building, but as the soil was mostly clay, those long dry weeks of hot sun would bake it hard as bronze. The true bedrock was down there somewhere, but how far down, you could only tell by digging; it could be many long days of backbreaking work in the sun and the heat, wielding pick and shovel against ground as unyielding as rock before you finally made it down to the real thing. As hard as that ground is—why not just build on it?
And yet, every wise builder in that land knew that if you’re building a house, you have to dig all the way down to the rock. It might be just under the surface, it might be ten feet down—or more—but it doesn’t matter: however deep you go and however long it takes, you keep going until you hit bedrock. However hard that ground might be under the summer sun, in the winter, the rains are going to come, and that ground will turn from brown concrete to chocolate pudding. If you haven’t built on the rock, the walls will shift and buckle, and when the winds blow and the floods come, the house will fall.
Jesus is drawing on the lives of his audience here, but also on the language of Isaiah 28. You might call that a parable, too; it’s certainly a word picture. This is the prophet’s response to the alliance made by the king of Israel with Egypt against the advancing Assyrian Empire. Israel believed it would save them, but Isaiah knew better: in allying themselves with a nation whose worship centered on death, they had made a covenant with death, and their doom was sure. It was like the three little pigs versus the big bad wolf. The king and his court saw the oncoming storm, but rather than turning to God for their protection and defense, they had tried, in the prophet’s words, to build a shelter for themselves out of lies and deceit. It was a building with no foundation, made of materials not even the first little pig would have used; when the big bad wolf came, it fell.
In the midst of this word of judgment, however, comes a word of promise: God is building his own refuge for his people, one of such strength and security that whoever believes won’t need to worry about anything. It will be built to the standards of justice and righteousness, and it will stand firm on a foundation laid by God himself—a foundation of no mere rock, but diamond.
That promise was claimed by later generations in Israel in various ways. In particular, Jewish sources from a century or two after Jesus tell us that “after the ark [of the covenant] was taken away a stone remained there from the time of the early prophets, and it was called ‘the foundation.’ It was higher than the ground by three fingerbreadths. On this [the high priest] used to place the fire-pan.” Kenneth Bailey comments, “For the Jews of the second temple the center of the holy of holies, with its raised stone, was the most sacred spot in the world, and that stone was ‘in Zion’ at the center of the temple complex. Later Jewish reflection decided that the whole world was created from that sacred stone. It appears that [stone] was understood to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that one day God would place a precious stone, a sure foundation in Zion.”
To Jesus’ contemporaries, then, the foundation Isaiah had promised was the heart of the temple, and the whole temple and system of Jewish faith were built upon it. That was what they were taught. Then Jesus comes up and says, “No—I am the foundation, the precious stone promised through Isaiah. Build your life on me by listening to my teaching and doing what I say, and you will not be shaken when the storms come. If you don’t, the ground on which you build may look like solid rock now, but when the floods come and the winds blow, it will betray you and turn to mud; everything on which you’ve built your life will be washed away.”
Now, it’s worth noting that Jesus understands how hard this can be. To hear his words and obey is like going out in the blazing sun to hammer away with a pickaxe, stroke after stroke after stroke, at clay soil baked hard as an anvil. It’s like digging this way in the furnace heat with no idea how long you’ll have to keep going, with nothing but faith that the rock is down there somewhere. And when you finally hit the rock, then you have to clear out all the rest of the space for the foundation; and then you have to haul great stones from the field, one after another, just to build your way back up to ground level. Only then can you actually start building the house—which means hauling yet more stones, and yet more, and yet more. This is what it’s like to take Jesus seriously enough to listen closely to him and do what he says.
If you’re living for the short run, that hardly seems worth it. For the short run, the sun is shining and the ground is hard, and your house will hold together. But the storms will come—they always do; it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, no one escapes them. The life of a disciple of Christ isn’t worth it because it’s fun, or fulfilling, or because it makes sense to us. Often it isn’t, and it doesn’t. Look back at the Beatitudes—we saw in January that Jesus has to tell us these things are blessings because we’d never figure that out on our own. Committing ourselves to go where he leads us and do what he tells us is worth it even when it’s painfully hard because that’s what it means to build our lives on him; and that’s the only way to build lives that will stand through whatever this world may throw at us. Jesus doesn’t save us from the storm; he saves us through it, by making us people who can endure it.
I said in the first message of this series that the Beatitudes are the foundation for the whole Sermon on the Mount: we can only understand anything Jesus says in the Sermon if we recognize that he’s building on what he says there. Here as he concludes, he shows us the whole foundation for everything, including the Beatitudes: he is the foundation, and him alone. Nothing else, no one else; only what’s built on him will stand.
In Matthew 5:11-16, Jesus sets forth the marks of a true disciple—specifically, the qualities which characterize faithful disciples of Jesus as they interact with the world at large. A true disciple moves into the world to light its darkness, to purify its corruption, and to preserve what is good. In consequence, those who are walking “the Jesus way” (as Eugene Peterson put it) face resistance from the world, which erupts in slander, insults, and even active persecution. The closer we draw to him and the more we seek his face, the more we learn to rejoice in the face of such attacks, because we recognize them as signs that we’re faithfully representing Jesus to the world.
Note what isn’t there: great works or great success. Those are in the text we just read. I said last week that in this section of the Sermon, Jesus is drawing a distinction between two groups of people who are following him because there are in fact two groups—the disciples, who are following him for his own sake, and the crowds, which are following him for their own sake. In our passage this morning, he tells us how to recognize the difference. He’s not talking about people who are obviously godless and worldly; he’s talking about people who address him as Lord and claim to be prophets of God. They aren’t on the narrow way, they’re on the broad, easy way—but they’ll tell you they’re following Jesus, and they believe it. They’d probably be insulted if you didn’t take them at their word; but Jesus doesn’t.
That’s a radical position to take, these days. If you stand up today and declare that someone isn’t really a Christian because they’re disobeying God and defying his word, you’ll see folks popping up all over to denounce you as divisive and judgmental and—irony alert—non-Christian, because Jesus would never do anything like that. Jesus is loving and inclusive and welcomes everybody and so on and so forth. I know this from experience, because I’ve been lambasted merely for questioning a colleague’s theology, never mind their salvation. The idea seems to be that if anyone decides they’re following Jesus, whatever they may be doing, that’s good enough for Jesus, and so it ought to be good enough for us. Except—again—it isn’t good enough for Jesus.
Instead, he tells us not just to take people at their word, and not just to take them at face value. More than that, he tells us not to be too impressed by what people do. Jesus isn’t promising here that we’ll always be able to tell whether someone’s saved or not; that’s not his concern, though if anything, his words should tell us that making that judgment is beyond our ability. Jesus is warning us to be careful whom we follow.
Pastors and teachers and other church leaders will come along with impressive résumés who aren’t true disciples of Christ; their preaching may be powerful and dynamic, and they may even work miracles, but at the core, they won’t be proclaiming the truth of God. They may claim to be prophets, declaring, “Thus says the Lord,” and they may convince many that they speak with the mouth of God, but they will be false at heart: wolves in wool suits, come not to feed the Lord’s sheep but to devour them from within.
The problem is, we’re used to evaluating leaders by their résumés. It’s been over twelve years since I first sent my ministry profile off to a church looking for a pastor, and I’ve been through the process with hundreds of churches since; none was looking specifically for prophecies and miracles (this is the wrong tradition for that), but they all wanted lists of accomplishments and reasons to be impressed. Granted, some churches make an effort to go beyond that, but many really don’t. In truth, it’s hard to blame them too much; let’s face it, trying to figure out another person is hard enough when you’re around them every week, but at a distance? Pray hard, and good luck.
At the very least, though, when it comes to people, we need to learn the lesson that the map is not the territory. The reputation, the résumé, the public face, is not the man, or the woman. So what if someone claims to be a prophet? I see a number of folks go by on my Facebook feed who say they’re prophets—mostly what I see out of them is boilerplate positive-thinking stuff. I had colleagues in Denver who liked to say they were speaking prophetically, as they were promoting the straight-line Democratic Party agenda. Whatever you think of either party, I don’t see a single true prophet in Scripture who fit comfortably with any agenda. That’s a characteristic of false prophets, not true ones.
The Devil knows how to counterfeit prophecy, and he knows how to do miracles; he knows how to build résumés, and if you believe Dilbert, he pretty much runs most corporate HR departments. Just look at 2 Corinthians, where Paul is combating false teachers in the church in Corinth—and he’s struggling, because the false teachers look a lot more impressive than he does. He finally resorts to boasting in chapter 11, in perhaps the strangest boasting in recorded history; but before that, he writes, “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” The most powerful lie is the one that looks the most like truth, and the Devil is a master at that.
So what, then, do we do? Look past the luxurious growth of the leaves, and don’t be taken in by the flashiness of the flower. One of the prettiest flowers I’ve ever seen around my house blooms on an absolute weed. The plant’s pretty ratty, but I might have put up with it for the sake of the flowers. It was only when I saw the fruit—a huge, ugly, inedible, spiny seed-pod—that I knew I didn’t want that plant around. It was the fruit that was the true measure of the plant. So it is with people, and especially with leaders.
We need to identify those whose works are not from God, and who are proclaiming a message to the church which is not from God—not in order to condemn them, or to deny the value of their works in and of themselves, but so that we know not to follow them where they want to lead us. To do that, Jesus says, we need to look at the fruit of their message, and the fruit of their lives. That might make you think of the fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; as we are to let Scripture interpret Scripture, that’s good. More immediately, though, look up the page; look at what has come before this in the Sermon on the Mount. These are things the Devil will not fake, and cannot.
Someone is proclaiming a message to the church; is it from God? Well, are they calling the church to greater trust in God, or are they cultivating fear? Do they speak with humility and grace, confessing their own sins before calling out the sins of another? What do they value most—the things of the kingdom of God, or the things of this world? Do they inspire us to prayer? If they are asking the church to follow where they lead, we must ask whether they are a faithful and mature disciple following where Christ leads. Do they love their enemies and show grace to those who hurt them? Do they indulge their desires, or do they surrender them to the Father? Do they hang on to their anger and hold grudges, or do they forgive others and work for reconciliation? Is their greatest desire to do the will of God and be the man or woman he wants them to be, or not?
The true measure of a leader in the church of God isn’t whether they’ve grown their church to thousands of members, or whether they’ve been a member for decades. It isn’t whether they’ve written books or held a prestigious position, and it isn’t whether they’ve made a lot of money in business or through investments. It isn’t in their ability to boast of their accomplishments and strengths, but rather in their willingness to boast in their sufferings and weakness, as Paul did. The true measure of a leader among the disciples of Jesus is this: when you look at the fruit of their lives, how much does it look like the Sermon on the Mount? And where it doesn’t—for certainly, none of us is even all that close to perfect—do you see the humility to confess that and repent of it, and the desire to change and grow? Do they want their own way, or Jesus’ way? This is the measure for all of us who would lead, because it’s the measure for all of us who follow.
As I said at the beginning of this series, the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, the first two sections, describe for us the faithful disciple of Jesus. To commit to be a disciple of Christ is to commit to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; Jesus begins the Sermon by telling us what that looks like. It’s the life of the kingdom of God breaking in to the kingdoms of this world, and it’s characterized by the blessings laid out in the Beatitudes. It’s the life of God lighting up the darkness of this world, purifying it and attacking its corruption. If Christ is our Lord, this is who we are, and who we are being made to be; this is our life, however imperfectly we experience it as yet.
Now, why does Jesus begin there? In part, it’s to provide the proper context for the central part of the Sermon, which is generally focused on what a faithful disciple of Jesus does and doesn’t do. If we read those sections in the light of the Beatitudes, as we should, it reminds us that what we do and what we choose not to do flow out of who we are in Christ. Doing follows being.
I believe, however, that there’s more to the story than that. You see, the concluding theme of the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t return exactly to the place where it started; where the opening describes one way, the conclusion talks about two. The way of the disciple is the way that leads to life, but it’s a narrow way, winding and difficult, entered through the narrow gate. There’s also a broad, easy road, which begins at a wide gate which is easy to pass through and easy to find; that road leads ultimately to destruction, but to many people it looks a lot more like the good life along the way.
Why does Jesus talk about this? That might seem like an odd question, at least if you’ve grown up in the church. If you have, you’ve probably heard sermons on this, and you probably also had Sunday school lessons on this as a kid, if you went. I know I did. If you grew up in the church, this is probably familiar to you, so you just accept it. There are those who follow Jesus, and there are those who don’t, and those who follow Jesus go to Heaven, and those who don’t, don’t.
Now, I don’t disagree with that conclusion, but is that actually what Jesus is saying here? The problem is, everyone who hears this sermon is there because they’re following Jesus. He’s up in the high country, well outside of town—nobody’s there by accident. But many there need to hear the summons to enter through the narrow gate, because they haven’t. They’re following Jesus, yes, but not for the right reason.
To see what I mean, flip back a couple pages in your Bible—or if you want the pew Bible, they’re under the seat in front of you, right there where you’re supposed to store your carry-on for takeoff—and look at Matthew 4. This is the immediate context for the Sermon on the Mount. In verse 17, we see the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as John the Baptizer has been put in prison. The rest of chapter 4 shows us two groups of people who are following Jesus.
In verses 18-22, Matthew gives us his first account of Jesus calling his disciples. From the other gospels, we know this wasn’t his first contact with these four men, and it may well be that he’s already called other disciples as well, but that doesn’t matter; this was the decisive step for Peter, Andrew, James and John, as this was the point when they broke with their families, left their lives behind, and followed Jesus. They did so because this was the point when he commanded them to do so. It wasn’t because they wanted to get anything from Jesus, but simply because he called them to come.
In verses 23-25, we have a brief account of Jesus’ ministry: he’s teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news—a message which begins with the word “Repent,” as verse 17 tells us—and healing every kind of sickness. Do people respond to his call to repent? Some probably do, but by and large, that’s not what gets the response. Instead, it’s the healings that draw people; they flock to him, bringing epileptics, quadriplegics, the demon-possessed, and generally every sick friend and relative they can carry. The crowds are getting bigger every day, people are excited to follow Jesus, and why? Because they’ve been captured by his call to repent of their sin and leave their whole lives behind? No—because they want something.
And in response to the crowds, 5:1 tells us, Jesus went up into the hills, sat down on a mountainside, and began to teach. His disciples came to him, Matthew says; they were the focus of his preaching, and we see this in the fact that the opening of the Sermon is addressed particularly to them. They were not, however, the only ones there: the crowds came along as well. We know that from the end of chapter 7. So Jesus is preaching to two groups of followers, who are following him for two very different reasons. The disciples, as confused as they often may be, are seeking Jesus. The crowds are seeking miracles, whether for themselves or just for the excitement. They have expectations, and they’re with him as long as he meets those expectations. The disciples are with him even when he doesn’t, whatever comes.
Put another way, for the crowds, Jesus is just a means to an end; for the disciples, he’s the end in himself. The goal for them in following Jesus is just to be with Jesus—and that right there is the narrow way. That’s what it means to be a disciple. Remember what Jesus said in John 14: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He’s the way because he’s the life; he’s the way who is life. The narrow way is narrow because it leads nowhere and to nothing and no one but Jesus—and that’s why it leads to life, because life is to be found nowhere and in nothing and no one but Jesus. He alone is life; everything else is a counterfeit, a mirage, and a deception.
The crowds aren’t following Jesus for Jesus; they’re following him for something else. That’s why they stop following him when things get rough. That was true back then, and it’s true now. There have been a lot of crowds in the American church over the years; there have been a lot of leaders who have attracted the crowds by putting a Christian face on their desires. “Follow Jesus and you’ll get what you want,” goes the refrain. That’s not the way of the disciple; that’s not the way of the kingdom. That’s the world’s way dressed up in religious clothing and Christian accessories. The gate is wide, and the road is broad and familiar to anyone used to walking the ways of the world; it’s comfortable and affirming, most of the time, and it makes most people feel good. But it doesn’t lead to life.
If we would be disciples, we’re called to go a different way. We’re called to set aside our expectations, take our eyes off our desires, and fix them on Jesus. We’re called to have a single focus on him, that he may fill our lives with his light; we’re called to set our hearts wholly on him, with no division and no reservation. We can’t do that on our own, of course. It’s only the work of the Holy Spirit in us that enables us even to desire this, let alone to grow in this way, in purity of heart and eye. But as he enables us, step by step, this is the way of the disciple. This is the way the world cannot understand. This is the road less traveled; and believe me, it does make all the difference.
If you’ve been here for many of the sermons in this series, you know that I’ve done a fair bit with the structure of the Sermon on the Mount. I believe it to be a large ring composition, structured in parallel sections from the ends toward the center, and you’ve heard me say this makes a difference for how we interpret the various sections of the Sermon. If you were here last week, though, you might have noticed that I didn’t talk about this at all—I don’t know if anyone did, but you might have. This is because, as I understand it, verses 7-11 are an anomaly in the structure. They break the pattern, standing in parallel with the sections on prayer in chapter 6. I didn’t mention that last week because I don’t think it changes how we read that passage. Instead, I think it changes how we interpret verse 12, which we know as the Golden Rule.
As a side note, it’s possible that 7-11 don’t fit neatly into the structure I’ve outlined because I’m wrong. I don’t think so, though, because biblical passages often don’t have neat and tidy structures with everything fitting perfectly into place. The biblical authors use various literary structures to help express their meaning, but they never make the mistake of turning those structures into straitjackets for the text. Indeed, inserting a verse or a paragraph that doesn’t fit the structure can be an effective way to get people’s attention, because it’s unexpected—it sticks out.
I believe that’s the case with last week’s passage, and that it’s there for two reasons. One, it’s the very last word before Jesus brings the central section of the Sermon to a close with verse 12, and as such it changes how we understand this section. Without it, we would go right from verse 6 to verse 12, and that would make perfect sense. Don’t judge lest you be judged, take the beam out of your eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s, don’t cast your pearls before swine, do to others as you would have them do to you. It would all fit together, and that would be that. Instead, Jesus breaks that connection by going back to talk about the importance of trusting God in prayer, which reminds us that prayer stands at the center of everything he’s been saying.
Two, this has a further specific implication for the meaning of our verse this morning. The Golden Rule requires trust—indeed, it’s a way of life grounded in trust. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we can’t wait to see who does good to us before we do good to them. This isn’t like Christmas in some families where the value of every gift is precisely calibrated so that everyone gets back as much as they spent. Rather, Jesus calls us to do good to others even before they’ve done anything for us at all, knowing they very well might not. Anyone who lives this way in trust that they’ll get back what they give is going to have some rude shocks, and probably end up cynical and rather depressed. But if we put our trust in God, that the Father will provide for us and reward us for our faithfulness, then living this way makes sense.
Now, that said, verse 12 raises questions of its own. One struck me back in January as I was laying out this series: if the Golden Rule sums up the Law and the Prophets—which is another way of saying, the whole word of God—then what do we do with the Great Commandment? If the command to love God with everything you have is truly the most important one, why don’t we see it here? Is Jesus contradicting himself? Is he really saying that all the Bible tells us is to be nice to each other?
The first thing we need to see here, I think, is a key difference between 7:12 and 22:40. In chapter 7, Jesus says, “This sums up the Law and the Prophets.” In chapter 22, after laying out the two greatest commandments—both quoted from the Old Testament, note—he says, “The whole Bible hangs on these two commandments.” In other words, to flip the metaphor, the command to radical love of God and neighbor is the root from which everything else in Scripture grows; the command to do to others as we would have them do to us is the one-line summary of what that looks like in practice.
The second point is illustrated by an episode from the life of the great rabbi Hillel, who taught Gamaliel, who taught the apostle Paul. On one occasion, the rabbi was challenged by a potential convert to summarize the Law while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” Slightly differently put, but the same intent; some folks call this the “negative version” and think it’s less demanding than the “positive version” Jesus offers, but if you look at them closely, I think he’s truly saying the same thing. And remember, this is coming from a Pharisee, and one of the greatest of them. There’s no way he meant to exclude Deuteronomy 6, with its command to love God with all that is in us. We may see a contradiction, but he didn’t.
Our problem comes, I think, from our practice of separating everything out into discrete categories, each with its own label and fact sheet. We think of “worship” as one thing and “how we treat people” as something totally different; and so we read verse 12 and we assume it doesn’t have anything at all to do with worship or how we relate to God. I don’t believe Jesus thought that way, and I don’t think Hillel or the other Pharisees did either. They saw the Law holistically—that’s why they were so fond of reducing it to one-sentence summaries.
They understood that the Law works in the vertical and horizontal dimensions simultaneously. Everything the Law commands us to do for others flows out of what it commands with regard to God, and neither can exist without the other. We can’t love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t love God with everything in us; and while we never really get to the point where we truly love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, the closer we get, the more we will love those around us as ourselves. The Golden Rule doesn’t ignore worship or exclude prayer—it presupposes them. It is the expression in our relationships with others of a pure heart which hungers and thirsts for righteousness and seeks first the kingdom of God; it’s the fruit of a life that is characterized by worship and prayer.
We can see this if we look at the context in which this verse sits. Again, we have this tendency to separate everything out, and so we take the Golden Rule and put it on a plaque all by itself and hang it on the wall—but that’s not how it comes to us. I noted a few minutes ago that Jesus has inserted a section on prayer into the Sermon right before saying this, to help us understand that the Golden Rule only makes sense if we trust God absolutely, for everything; we saw last week that that’s only possible if our lives are filled with prayer, if we give God all our desires and hopes and wishes and dreams. More generally, remember that verse 12 closes out the great central section of the Sermon on the Mount, and remember what sits right at the center: the Lord’s Prayer.
The Golden Rule doesn’t sum up the Law and the Prophets because it’s all the Law or the prophets care about. Rather, it sums them up because it’s the fruit of a life lived according to the Law and the Prophets. This isn’t what you do in order to live a life pleasing to God; it is the result of living a life pleasing to God.
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and everyone who knocks has the door opened for them.” And the people of God said, “Um, Jesus, we asked that our sick would get better, and some of them died, and others are still in pain; and we went seeking for new jobs for those who are jobless, and some of them are still unemployed; and we knocked on the door of opportunity, and it’s still bolted shut.” And the preachers of the prosperity gospel rose and said, “Ahh, but you weren’t really asking, seeking, and knocking, because you didn’t have enough faith. If you didn’t get what you asked for, don’t blame God—it’s your fault.” And the people of God hung their heads and went away, depressed.
So goes much of the discussion about this passage, and so all too often the preaching of it is not good news but a stumbling block; many have fallen here, and some have never gotten up again. I don’t believe the problem is with Jesus, however, or with the actual meaning of the text; I think we misread it because of a couple assumptions we make that don’t actually fit with Jesus’ intent.
First, this passage is not about faith. It’s a subtle distinction, but important: this passage is not about faith, it’s about trust. These concepts are closely related, but think about the way we use them. When we talk about faith, we tend to be thinking about what God is going to do, or what another person is going to do; I have faith that so-and-so will do what I tell them, or that God will give me what I ask. It’s outcome-based. That’s why, when we pray for something and God doesn’t give us what we ask for, we call it an unanswered prayer. It’s also why our focus shifts so easily from God to our faith—we come to see faith as a power we exercise to make our desired outcome happen.
Trust, by contrast, is more oriented to the character of the person. I don’t trust my wife because she does what I want her to do; sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. You know her, she’s not exactly a pushover, and she definitely knows her own mind about things. But while I have faith that she will do what she needs to do and what God has gifted her to do, I trust her because of who she is in Jesus Christ: a woman of integrity, honor, and wisdom who does not play people false. If I ask her for something, it isn’t in faith that she has to say yes, or that she’ll say yes if I just want it badly enough; rather, I ask in trust that she wants what’s best for both of us, and that her judgment in such matters is sound. So it is with God, only far more so, for his judgment is infallible, his wisdom is infinite, and his love for us is limitless and perfect.
Praying in trust, then, means setting aside the second assumption we typically make: that Jesus means, “Ask, and you will be given exactly what you ask for,” and so on. He doesn’t actually say that. He says “it will be given to you,” but he doesn’t say what it is—there’s not even a subject there in the Greek, just the verb. He says those who seek will find, but not what they’ll find; for those who knock, something will be opened, but he doesn’t even say it will be a door, let alone the same door.
As I say this, you might think I’m just splitting hairs for no good reason, but look at verses 9-10, because there’s more going on than we see at first. There are two pairs here—bread/stone, fish/snake—and the parallel passage in Luke 11 adds a third one, egg/scorpion. These look like random pairings, but they aren’t. One, bread, eggs, and fish are staple foods in the Near East. Two, as the Arabic Christian commentator Ibrahim Sa‘id points out, the round loaves of bread villagers would bake in their ovens look very like common round stones, and what looks like an egg on the table might very well be one of the scorpions of the region curled up to sleep. As for the fish, there’s a type of catfish in the Sea of Galilee called the barbut which grows to about five feet long and looks very like a snake; by the Old Testament law, it’s an unclean fish and not to be eaten because it doesn’t have scales.
Jesus’ point here is not simply that if your child asks for something good, you won’t give them something bad instead. When my son asks for candy and points at one of my pill bottles, am I going to give him a pill? No way. (I might not give him candy either, but that’s another matter.) If he asks for food and points to something that isn’t food, am I going to give that to him? No, I won’t, because for all my faults, I know how to give good gifts to my children. He asks wrongly, not because it’s wrong for him to ask or because I don’t want to give him what he wants, but because he doesn’t understand what he’s looking at. I’m not going to give in to his misunderstanding; instead, I’m going to tell him no, and then give him something else that will actually meet his need.
Again, so it is with God, only far more so, because he knows far better than we do what’s good for his children, and how to give us good gifts. Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and you will see something open up. It may not be what you wanted, or what you thought you needed, but it will be what you actually needed. Seven years ago, I was praying hard that things would work out in Colorado; I pointed to that, over and over, and said, “Father, that’s bread—I want it.” God knew it was really a stone, and said no. I hammered on that door as hard and as long as I could, and it didn’t even dent, let alone budge; instead, God opened up a trap door, and I landed here. I only realized after we’d been here a while how badly we had needed God not to give me what I was asking; if I could go back and change the ending to that story, I never would.
Jesus’ purpose here isn’t to promise us that God will give us whatever we ask for if we do it “right”; it’s to free us from the idea that prayer is about us doing it “right.” The prosperity-gospel types teach you to ask for anything and everything so that God can give you anything and everything, because he wants to say yes to whatever we ask. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the folks who say that we really shouldn’t ask God for anything much, and they’re making the same basic assumption. As they see it, asking God for things is dangerous because we’re liable to ask wrongly—for something that isn’t good for us, or out of selfish motives—and so he’s only going to say no. Either way, our prayers are really about us and how we’re praying.
Jesus wants us to see that prayer is really about God, and he invites us to ask freely. He doesn’t set any limits at all, he just says, “Ask—seek—knock.” Ask for whatever, and trust the Lord for what he gives. Seek, and let the Father lead us. Knock, and be confident that God will open up our way. If we’re asking, seeking, and knocking, we might have the wrong idea, but at least we’re moving, and moving toward him. God can always fix our steering problem. We don’t have to figure out in advance what we ought to ask for, because he doesn’t only answer prayers that are in accordance with his will, and he doesn’t punish us if we ask unwisely. If we ask him for bread, he intends to give us bread—if the particular loaf we want is actually a boulder in disguise, he won’t give us the boulder, but he will still give us bread. His answer might come in a different way than we expect, from a different direction, but it will come.
The key, again, is trust. Jesus is teaching us to depend on God and God alone—not our resumé, not our income, not our family and friends, not our skills, not our investments, but only our Father in heaven. If things are going well and we have more money than we need, still we put our trust in God to meet our needs—money is fickle. If things are going badly and our income is dropping, still we put our trust in God to meet our needs—he has more than enough money, even if we can’t see it at the moment, and he will never leave us in the lurch. We should strive to live our lives in such a way, and to live as a church in such a way, that if the Father ever failed to come through for us, we would be ruined; because everything else will fail us in the end, but he never will.
This is why Jesus tells us to ask freely, for anything and everything, because it teaches us to depend on God for anything and everything. It sounds very spiritual to say that we shouldn’t ask God for stuff because that’s selfish and materialistic—but the fact is, we still want stuff even if we don’t ask him for it. That just means we put our trust in ourselves to get ourselves the stuff we want, and the stuff we think we need. Asking God for all of it teaches us to put our trust in him instead of ourselves. The more we trust him, and the more we see him answer our prayers—and the more we see him do things that are better than what we asked him to do—the less we think of God simply saying yes or no to our requests, and the more we trust him to answer our prayers however it may be best for us. The more all of this happens, the stronger our relationship with him grows.
In the Authorized Popular Culture Version of the Scriptures, also known as the Buddy Jesus Bible, Matthew 7 begins, “You’re not allowed to tell me anything I do is wrong. Jesus said so. And if you do, you’re a hypocrite.” That’s why a lot of folks who mostly wouldn’t give the Bible the time of day are nevertheless fond of this passage. I trust it won’t surprise you when I tell you that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. In truth, there’s a fair bit of judgment, in one form or another, in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage, verse 5 makes it clear that we aren’t just supposed to ignore the sin in a brother’s life; but how to fit all this together has troubled many people.
To understand this, it helps once again to see how this fits into the greater structure of the Sermon on the Mount. Our text this morning stands parallel to a longer passage in the center of Matthew 5, in that both these passages deal with law and judgment, and both are concerned to correct misuses of God’s law. Their purpose is to teach us how we ought to use his law, and his word more generally.
In Matthew 5, Jesus takes aim at an approach to the law that says, “How can we interpret the law so that it doesn’t stop us doing what we want to do?” The Pharisees had effectively been doing that by focusing on superficial obedience, which they could then define and interpret to suit themselves and their purposes. Jesus corrects that by driving down to the true meaning and purpose of the law; to make it vivid, he goes case by case, bringing home the real force and significance of the commandments against murder and adultery, and the laws about divorce and the taking of oaths.
Here, he’s taking on the tendency to treat the law as a tool to be used on others—to control their behavior, to manipulate their actions, to punish them, or simply to beat them up and demonstrate their moral inferiority to oneself. It’s a much briefer section, since there’s no need to discuss this case by case, but it’s a complex argument for all that, and we do well to read it carefully.
First, a principle I’ve noted before, that God doesn’t give us his commandments for us to tell others what to do, but for us to know what we’re supposed to do. We see this with special clarity in Paul’s words to husbands and wives. He doesn’t say, “Husbands, expect this from your wives and make your wives do this,” or, “Wives, you should be getting this from your husbands”; he says, “Wives, you do this,” and “Husbands, you do this,” and each of you let God worry about the other one. So it is here.
We read God’s word to ourselves, and for ourselves; to understand it, we stand under it, and we look at our own lives in its light. We apply it to ourselves and let the Holy Spirit speak through it to convict us of our sin. This is hard; it requires us to humble ourselves to admit and accept that we’re being convicted, rather than denying that conviction, working to make excuses for ourselves, or proudly defying it. We have to admit, not just intellectually but down deep in our souls, that we need to be convicted and corrected. But that humility isn’t just a byproduct—it’s part of the point. The conviction of the Holy Spirit, humbly accepted, moves us to repentance; and when we’re humbly repentant and aware of our own need for grace, then we can correct one another as Christ calls us to—not as something we have the right to do, but as an expression of love.
You see, we don’t have the right to use the word of God as judges, pronouncing others guilty and handing down sentences. We’ve talked about this before, that judgment comes down from above, from a position of moral superiority; that’s why in a courtroom, the judge sits well above the floor and looks down on everyone else. It’s a symbol, and a powerful one. We don’t stand above anyone—we’re sinners saved by grace, that’s all, and that’s everything. There are certainly many people who’ve done worse than we have, but even so, our need for grace is no less than theirs. We aren’t qualified to pass judgment on anyone, and we don’t have the right. Only God is, and only he does.
That said, this doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to call sin sin; in fact, we’re supposed to. We just need to remember that the judge isn’t the only person in the courtroom. Often during any trial, the most important person there is the witness on the stand, telling the court what they have seen and heard; and that’s our role. We witness to what God has done for us, and also to what he’s taught us about himself and ourselves and the world. Part of that is declaring the holiness of God, and our own sinfulness; part of that is straightforwardly naming sin as sin, without beating around the bush or trying to redefine it for our own comfort. But if we do so humbly and graciously, not because we want to cause hurt but because we want to bless others, that isn’t judging or being judgmental. It is, rather, warning others of the standards by which God judges, and will judge.
That’s uncomfortable, if you’re not self-righteous about it—and it’s a service the self-righteous cannot perform, because their spirit negates the service. In Jesus’ parable, the log in the eye draws our attention for the sheer ridiculousness of the image, and rightly so; but we shouldn’t miss the reality that a speck in the eye is a painful problem that can cause a fair bit of damage. Helping to remove such a thing is a good work, if you can see clearly to do it. If your vision is obscured or distorted—by the log of self-righteousness, for instance—then you’re only likely to do harm; that’s the reason for Jesus’ injunction. Challenging a fellow believer about an area of sin in their life should be a work of healing, restoration, and reconciliation, and it is, if we do it humbly and graciously, in an attitude of service. It’s only when our heart isn’t right that it’s a problem.
You’ll note that I said, “a fellow believer”; so did Jesus. He could have said, “the speck in another’s eye,” but he didn’t—he specified “your brother.” He expands this in verse 6, which is pretty harsh in its language; pigs were the very worst animals to a Jewish audience, and dogs were maybe a half-step above pigs, if that. What is holy, and what are your pearls? The word of God is holy, and the kingdom of God is the pearl of great price (though that parable doesn’t come until chapter 13). To your brother or sister in Christ, you go and you help them remove the speck from their eye, because they know the value and the power of the word of God and the promise of his kingdom. But outside the church? Maybe so, maybe no.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean we never talk to anyone about their sin if they aren’t a Christian. If we did that, a lot of folks would never hear the gospel because they would never see the need. It does mean this, however: we should try to do so only with people whom the Holy Spirit is preparing to be receptive. That’s a matter of spiritual discernment, learning to follow God’s leading, which comes only by much prayer; even the wisest and most godly will sometimes get it wrong, but they’ll tell you it’s better to get it wrong sometimes than to never speak. This isn’t a call to be hyper-cautious, but it is a command to be thoughtful, because there are a lot of people out there who are closed of ear, mind, and heart. If we try to convict them of their sin, they aren’t going to listen: they’re going to trample the message underfoot, and probably attack us for our trouble.
If that happens, one thing they’ll probably do is accuse us of being judgmental. Our culture likes to do that, because it’s committed itself to the proposition that what I want to do is who I am, and so if you tell me it’s wrong to do what I want to do, you’re telling me it’s wrong for me to be who I am, and that’s judging me. With that, we’ve come full circle on this sermon; and we’ve come as well to the paradoxical title I’ve given it. We cannot truly judge another from our knees, for that’s the posture not of arrogant judgment, but of humble service. We also cannot turn away from serving another because we fear to be accused of judging them, and we know that some people will do that. It’s a risk. It’s one we need to take, because as the last verse of James tells us, “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
A couple years ago, I read a post on a blog called Pursuing Titus 2 that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a post called “Fear and Grace,” and after telling the story of a time when she almost died from pneumonia, the author says this:
When we are simply imagining chilling scenarios, we are facing the horrible emotions without any of God’s sustaining grace. Every time we imagine something, we put ourselves through agony of a kind we will never have to go through in real life. Because when awful things are actually happening, God walks with us through them and gives us His grace and strength. The peace of God’s presence through a trial is something I can never conjure up in my imagination, and something that only comes with real trials, not the pretend ones I make up while driving. Now I know the difference.
This is why anxiety is spiritually lethal, and why Jesus commands against it: it pitches us out of the present, and out of dependence on God in the present, into a future of our own imagining—which is to say, a future that does not actually exist. God is present in every place and time that exists; if something does not exist, God is not there. If we project ourselves into a future that does not exist, we go alone—and this is what we do when we worry, when we let anxiety rule in our hearts. When we do that, we are refusing to trust God, we are refusing to live by faith in him; by our actions, we are denying that he can be trusted, asserting that we will only make it through the trials and troubles of the future if we’ve solved them ahead of time by our own wits, and prepared ourselves for them by our own strength, out of our own resources.
Like last week, Jesus is talking about money here, but not for its own sake. In the previous passage, he’s talking about money as treasure, inviting us to treasure God rather than our earthly possessions; here, his concern is with money as security, teaching us to trust God rather than our earthly possessions. This fits with the parallel passage at the end of chapter 5, where Jesus asks us to trust that if we give up our claim to punish our enemies ourselves, but instead show them grace and give them over to God, we will not end up victimized, but vindicated; here, he asks us to trust that if we give up our claim to use our wealth for ourselves, and instead live by faith and give it over to God, that we will not end up bereft, but blessed.
This is alien to our culture. I think most of us were taught as kids that we needed to do well in school so that when we grew up, we could get a good enough job to “earn a living,” or to “make a living.” Not everyone has that sense of responsibility, of course; what do we say about those who don’t? “They think the world owes them a living.” (The apostle Paul would say, “If they refuse to work, let them not eat,” but that’s another discussion.) In discussions about the economy, we talk about the “standard of living.” In all of this, what’s a “living”? It’s whatever amount of money is enough to “provide for our needs,” however we choose to define them. The essential assumption is that we keep ourselves alive and provide for ourselves by our own efforts; and it’s an assumption which most of us in the church share. Sure, we would affirm that God assists us and his help is important, but at bottom, we still believe it’s basically up to us.
Jesus tells us something very different: this is God’s work. He gave you your job, your income, and all the things you possess, and he didn’t do it so that you can provide for yourself. He didn’t give you the ability to have pension plans and savings so that you can store up to provide for yourself in the future. God gave you all those things so that you could use them to his glory. Full stop. God provides for us because he loves us, and to show his faithfulness. Yes, he does so mainly through our own work—but he is the one who gave us our abilities and our skills, he is the one who gave us our opportunities and our connections, and he is the one who put the circumstances together so that we could succeed. Our hands, God’s provision.
Now, I’m not naïve; I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night. I’ve been preaching regularly for over a decade now, I’ve preached in a lot of churches, and I know what some of you are thinking: this is fine as far as it goes, but I can’t possibly mean—. Yes, I do. One of the great problems with the rich church in the First World is that most of us are nowhere near radical enough about this; we’re like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, we want to keep something back for ourselves. So let’s up the ante here: God didn’t give you money and possessions so that you could keep yourself alive. Keeping you alive is his job, and he’s better at it than you are. Our job is to lay down our lives for him, as Jesus says in Mark 8: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.”
Just look at the parallel to this section, verses 38-48 of chapter 5. As we saw some weeks ago, it isn’t about rolling over, being a doormat, or letting yourself be abused—far from it; it’s about trusting God in the face of human evil and fighting it his way. But to do that, we have to reject our instinct to protect ourselves or defend ourselves and go out on a limb—we have to trust that if we take the radical step of leaving ourselves apparently unprotected and defenseless in the face of evil, that opens up a conduit for the power of God to attack evil through us. We have to trust that by not protecting ourselves, we will be better protected, and by not defending ourselves, we will be better defended, because God will do what we cannot. Jesus teaches us to leave our vindication and even our safety completely in God’s hands.
In the same way, this passage doesn’t justify irresponsibility, or never bothering to plan, or freeloading on other people and contributing nothing in return; it’s about trusting God in the face of evil circumstances and dealing with them his way. Again, we have to reject our instinct to protect ourselves and go out on a limb: we have to trust that if we take the radical step of putting God first with our money and our assets, using them to seek his kingdom and his righteousness, that he will in fact add all these things to us that we need.
I can illustrate this from the life of this congregation. As I think most of you know, our budget is much larger than our congregational giving. Our mission giving, our office wing, the founding of our preschool, and most of our staff have been made possible by large financial bequests to the church, most notably that of Harriet Gawthrop; interest from our investments and the sale of investment principal each cover something like a third of our spending. The elders of this congregation have recognized this as God’s money which he has provided to us to advance the work of his kingdom, and so that’s how they and we have striven to use it.
From a worldly point of view, from a purely business point of view, this is foolish; from a spiritual point of view, it’s profoundly wise, and I commend them for it. They have sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and God has continued to give us our bread that doesn’t run out. Should God stop providing, it would, and so we’re compelled to acknowledge our dependence on him. Because we’re human, sometimes we’re anxious, saying, “How long shall we have enough money?” and “How long shall we be able to keep going?”; and yet, God continues to show himself faithful, and by and large, we remember that today has enough troubles of its own. We keep our focus on the challenges God has given us right now, and leave the troubles and challenges to come in his hands.
And why shouldn’t we? And why shouldn’t you? We don’t; we get anxious because we don’t fully understand what’s happening and we don’t know what’s going to happen, we worry because we think we have to figure out what to do and how to do it or else everything’s going to come apart, and when we get that way, we may talk like Christians but we walk like atheists. Why do we do that? Do we really believe that God values us so little that he’d just let us fall, that he’d let us go smash like a carton of eggs on the sidewalk? Do you really believe he values you less than you value yourself?
You have all your self-doubts, all your fears, and all your regrets, and you have the Devil perched on your shoulder speaking through all of them to pour his poison into your soul. God knows about all those things—indeed, he sees your darkness far better than you do—but he also sees the light he has made to shine in your heart. He knows, not just who you are now, but who you will be by his love and his grace and his power, and he’s heaven-bent on healing and purifying and perfecting you; he made you and he loves you, no matter what you’ve done and no matter what you’re going to do. And so, consider the corn of the field: yes, there are tough years, when it’s hot and it’s dry and there isn’t much of a harvest, but the farmer doesn’t just pave it over and set up a fireworks shop; he keeps planting, and next time, it grows tall and green and golden. So it is with God: he who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. He cares for you, and he will provide for your needs, if you trust him to.
You may say this is impractical, that I’m being unrealistic, that I don’t know what I’m asking; from a worldly point of view, this is impractical. But we are in Christ, we no longer live according to the flesh, we’ve been given a better point of view and a deeper understanding.
As we read through our passage from Matthew this morning, it might have seemed like a jumble of unrelated stuff. After all, Jesus is talking about fasting, and then he’s talking about money, and then you have whatever verses 22-23 are about, and then he’s back to money again; and what do all those things have to do with each other? In fact, though, this whole passage is about one thing, which relates to each of these areas.
If we look at the Sermon on the Mount as I’ve laid it out, we can see that it’s carefully structured as one large ring composition—working in parallel sections from the outside in. With such a structure, the climax comes in the middle, and so it is here with the Lord’s Prayer; that marks the turn, and then you begin working back through the same themes as the first half, only in reverse order. This passage stands in parallel to the first six verses of this chapter—which also, on the surface, dealt with two different things: giving to the needy, and prayer. In both, however, if you look at what Jesus is saying, you find one central question and one primary concern: do you want your reward from other people on this earth, or do you want it from your Father in heaven?
Jesus spends the greater part of these two passages asking that question about our religious activities. Partly, that’s because of the Pharisees; not only were they his loudest opponents, they were past masters at spiritualizing everything, and completely blind to the issue he’s raising with their religious behavior. More than that, it’s because it’s so easy to spiritualize things, and assume that if what we’re doing looks religious or spiritual, we must be pleasing God—we don’t need to examine our hearts or question our motives. Fact is, though, just because we look like a Christian doesn’t mean we are.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, however. It’s interesting, if you compare these two passages, you can see some additional inverse parallelism going on. The inner sections, 5-6 and 16-18, deal with fasting and prayer, which traditionally go together; in the outer sections, Jesus talks about money. In verses 2-4, as noted, his concern is with giving money to the needy; in 19-21 and 24, his focus is broader. The issue is the same—are you using your money to earn an earthly reward, or a reward in heaven?—but he appears to have more material rewards in mind; and more than that, Jesus expands on the warning he gives in verse 1. It’s not just that if we get our reward in this world, we miss out in the long run; there’s a greater spiritual cost attached.
The rewards you seek become your treasures. If you win them, they become your treasures in the present, the things to which you look for meaning and satisfaction in your life now; if you don’t win them, they become your treasures in the future, or perhaps in the past, leaving you dissatisfied with the present because of something that didn’t happen, and may never. Either way, you set your heart on them, and so that’s where your heart is to be found.
Now, remember, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart”; and if you were here when we looked at that verse, remember two things we saw then. First, when the Bible talks about the heart, it doesn’t mean our emotions, it means the core of our being—the center of our intellect, the wellspring of our emotions, the root of our will. Where your treasure is, that’s the center of your life. Everything else falls into place around that, and that’s what drives your decisions. Second, a pure heart is a heart which is all good, because it’s completely devoted to God; it has no additives and is completely unadulterated. It is single, all one thing—there are no conflicting loyalties, no contradictory desires. That’s why Psalm 86 says, “Teach me your way, O Lord . . . give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”
Why does this matter? Well, verse 22 literally says, “If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.” No one translates it that way because people would take it badly, but if we think of it in terms of focus—which is a metaphor we take from eyesight—it makes sense. Light enters the body through the eye, and God is the source of all light. If we have a single focus on God, our eyes are open to his light, and it fills us. If we focus away from God, we turn our eyes into the darkness, and our lives go dark. The heart focuses the eye on what it desires; through the eye, the heart is filled. Where your heart is, your eye follows; and where you look, your heart follows.
If, then, you fix your attention on the things of this world, it is the things of this world that you treasure; if your heart is set on this world and the things of this world, then your focus will be on the things you have and the things you desire, and your concerns will be all for them—which means it will be this world that owns you, not God. And ownership is precisely what’s in view in verse 24, for this is the language of slavery, not employment: either the world owns you, or God does. You can’t divide your loyalties between this world and God, because they pull in opposite directions, and both demand exclusive allegiance; to obey one is to defy and reject the other.
If your goal is to have treasures on earth—whatever they might be: money, expensive things, success, a good reputation, marriage, family—then the desire to get and keep those treasures will run your life; they will be your idols, the gods you really worship. You will obey the Lord and believe in him only as far as who he is and what he tells you to do fit with what your idols demand of you—which is to say, you won’t really believe in him or obey him at all. You might say you love him, but you won’t love him as he truly is, only as you want to believe he is; in truth, you will despise him.
This is true even if your idols are religious. If your treasure is having a big church with lots of programs, if it’s the church building or having lots of money in the church’s bank account, then you’re not actually loving or serving God—you’re trying to serve two masters. The fact that you might be doing this in the name of God doesn’t change that any; it’s no better to make an idol of the church than to make one of anything else.
Does this mean it’s bad to have money and a good career, to be married with kids, or to have a big church with a beautiful building and lots of money in the bank? Of course not. The problem isn’t with having any of these things, it’s when they become our treasures. It’s not what we own, it’s what owns us. God gives us many good things, and he wants us to enjoy them and to use them well—but he wants us to hold them lightly. He doesn’t want us to treasure them, he wants us to treasure him, alone. The question for us isn’t, “What do you have?” or, “What do you want?”; it is, simply, “Where is your heart?”
Why do we call this the Lord’s Prayer? Have you ever wondered that? I’ve been asked that before, but I only recently found an answer to the question, in a book on this prayer called Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, by Westmont College theology professor Telford Work. You may remember I mentioned this book a few weeks ago. Dr. Work notes that many of us who consider ourselves theologically conservative assume that this is just a prayer Jesus is teaching the disciples—sure, Jesus prayed, but his prayers were different. He meant something different when he said, “My Father” than we do when we say “Our Father. After all, we’re clearly very different from Jesus, and why would he need to ask forgiveness for his sins? And so, for the best of reasons, we “separat[e] the Father’s relationship to Jesus from the Father’s relationship to us.”
That’s a grave mistake, because it effectively pitches the gospel out the window. “If that were the case,” Dr. Work says, “Jesus would have come and gone without changing much of anything. God’s relationship to us would be no more than a Creator’s relationship with his creatures. Still aloof from his fellow human beings, the Son would not truly be one of us, not Emmanuel, not God with us.” He’s right. The gospel rests on the fact that Jesus became fully human, completely one of us. He identified himself totally with us—that’s why he could take our sins, and their punishment, on himself. He prays this prayer along with us—yes, including “forgive us our sins,” not because he committed any, but because we have committed many, and he became sin on our behalf. He prays with us still, and for us, as our great High Priest in heaven, beside the throne of God the Father. We talked about that a few years back as we worked through Hebrews.
The key point here is something we keep coming back to as we spend time in the Sermon on the Mount: this is all about relationship. Above all, prayer is about relationship, and our relationship with God first and foremost. That’s why, when Jesus teaches us to pray, he tells us to begin by saying “Our Father”: we begin by claiming that relationship which is ours by his grace, and acknowledging that relationship which is supposed to be the most important reality in our lives, from which everything else finds its meaning and significance. That’s why he teaches us to ask God to reveal himself in us, to bring us into full submission to his authority, which means ultimately to remake us according to his will, not ours; it’s why he teaches us to confess our total dependence on our Father in heaven, both for our physical needs and for our spiritual ones.
And it’s what finally makes sense of this verse, and especially the first part of it. We commonly say this, “Lead us not into temptation,” but the New Revised Standard Version translates it, “Do not bring us into the time of trial,” which should give you a pretty good idea of the problem here. Temptation, trial, testing, all of those words translate this one Greek word; and all of them pose difficulties. We already know that God doesn’t tempt anyone, so asking him not to tempt us makes no sense; and on the other hand, he makes it clear that he does test us and he does send us trials, and that he does so for our growth, so why would we ask God not to do something he’s already said he’s going to do? Especially when he says it’s for our benefit in the long run?
Part of the problem is that “lead” isn’t a strong enough translation for the verb here, which means “to bring” or “to carry.” It’s the verb used in the Greek version of the Old Testament when they bring the sacrifice into the presence of God. This is a prayer that God would not put us in harm’s way—we’re perfectly capable of doing that all by ourselves. We already lead ourselves into temptation without any trouble, we certainly don’t need the help.
But doesn’t that make this an expression of distrust in God? No, it doesn’t, once we remember that this is a personal and relational prayer. That’s easy to lose sight of; I’m grateful this week to Andrea Skowronski for pointing me back to this. With her permission, I’m going to quote her here, because I don’t think I could say it better:
“Lead us not into temptation” is an appeal to God’s very nature as holy and separate from evil. Lead us not into temptation, because the evil one does that. Lead us not into temptation because You are holy and apart from the evil one. Lead us not into temptation because we are weak and small and afraid, and we need You. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one, because if You don’t, we are (and I say this with no trace of flippancy) damned. We know You are holy. Be holy. Show us You are holy. Act according to Your nature. And also, we know You do act according to Your nature. We know You will act according to Your nature.
Some years ago, in Egypt, my friends and I made a number of extended trips into the Sahara to visit a famous well, named Bir Shaytoun . . . For that particular journey, we always selected “Uncle Zaki” as our guide. . . . As we would leave the village on the edge of the Nile and head out into the almost trackless Sahara, each of us in turn felt the inner pressure to say, “Uncle Zaki, don’t get us lost!” What we meant . . . was, “We don’t know the way to where we are going, and if you get us lost we will all die. We have placed our total trust in your leadership.” . . . [This] phrase in the Lord’s Prayer expresses the confidence of an earthly pilgrim traveling with a divine guide. The journey requires the pilgrims to affirm daily, “Lord, we trust you to guide us, because you alone know the way that we must go.”
This fits with the one change I would make in the way we say the Lord’s Prayer—you saw it in the NIV: not “deliver us from evil,” but “deliver us from the evil one.” Jesus isn’t teaching us to ask God to keep evil things from happening to us, or to keep our lives from being affected by the power of evil, much as we might wish that. Rather, he tells us to ask God to set us free from the power of the evil one in our lives. This is in part the power of temptation, and in particular those temptations to which we fall again and again, but it’s far more. It’s the power of lies, about ourselves and others. It’s the power of fear, of all the fears that hold us captive—of rejection, of loss, of inadequacy, of pain, and on and on and on. It’s the power of despair, and its minions sloth and burnout, that tell us to give up because it’s all just wasted effort anyway.
We know those powers, and we know they affect us. Whatever we pray, whatever we do, temptations come, and trials come, and we are tested, and sorely. Has God ignored our prayer? No. First, we remember that God does not tempt us; he allows the temptation, but he isn’t trying to make us fall, he wants us to overcome it. Second, we remember that in every temptation and every trial, Jesus is right with us by his Holy Spirit. We are not alone, and we do not face trials and temptations in our own strength alone.
And third, we remember that we do not pray, “Keep us safe from the evil one,” but “Deliver us from the evil one.” We can run away from some temptations (and when we can, we usually should), but the root of temptation is in each of our hearts, and we carry it with us wherever we go. The only way we might ever keep the evil one from going after us would be to make ourselves completely harmless to him—to abandon our liberty in Christ for the sake of a little temporary safety—which would mean turning away from the one who said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
We look at that, and we look at our struggles with temptation, and the ways the enemy attacks us and our families, and all the ways the world is at war with the church—and don’t imagine it was any less so thirty years ago, or sixty, or a hundred sixty; there has never been a time the Devil has gone easy on the people of God—we see all that and we want to pray, “Deliver us from evil”; we see the battles raging and we cry out, “Father, lead me around all that.” It’s perfectly understandable that we look for the wide gate and the easy way. But Jesus looks at us and says, “No, when you pray, pray this way: Father in heaven, I see the battle up ahead, I see the valley of the shadow on the horizon; please stay with me all the way to the other side. If you lead me in, please lead me through.”