Matthew 7:21-29

Today’s reading:

We have just heard the ending and summary of the Sermon on the Mount. Call it the caboose. Way up in front, pulling the whole train, chug the Beatitudes. In between, like closely coupled cars, come Jesus’ core teachings. Brief, but heavily loaded, they whiz past: “no one can serve two masters”, “love your enemies”, “do not judge”, “enter through the narrow gate”, “do not resist an evildoer”, and so on, clickety clack. Finally, bringing up the rear, comes today’s puzzling, and even troubling reading. It suggests the following dialogue at the pearly gates.

Us: Here we are, your disciples. Let us in.
Jesus: I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers!
Us: But Lord, we did so much good in your name. We gave to the poor, we supported your church and in your name we welcomed into it all who came to us. We volunteered in soup kitchens; we taught in prisons; we built houses with Habitat for Humanity.
Jesus: Sorry; go away. Only those who do the will of my Father can come in.
Us: Exactly! What is the Father’s will if not helping the poor, visiting prisoners, ministering to the needy? We did all that.
Jesus: Get lost you evil doers!
Us: Huh?

If that is a fair translation of Jesus’ words, I have three questions. First, about consistency of character. Second, about entrapment. Third, about the purpose of this teaching. As for the first, consistency of character, can this be the Good Shepherd speaking? The one who left the ninety-nine sheep on the mountains in order to seek the one who went astray? The one who said to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.”? To be rejected hurts like blazes, and doubly so when one you love rejects you. Can this be Jesus speaking such hurtful words? “I never knew you.” When we give our trust to a person, we say in effect: I believe your character will remain consistent and you will care about me – not because I deserve it, but because of who you are. This passage does not seem to invite such trust in Jesus.

As for my second question, entrapment, imagine that you are a girl or a boy scout. You want to earn your first-aid merit badge. You download the requirements and set about learning what you need to know and do. When you feel confident that you have mastered the material you schedule an appointment with your counselor. Then you do your stuff. You apply a tourniquet, you demonstrate CPR, you list the symptoms of heat stroke and what to do for it. To every question you give the correct answer. For every skill you give a good demonstration. At the end you look up eagerly and the counselor says, “You failed.” “Failed?” you say, “I did it all.” “Yes,” the counselor replies, “but you didn’t do it the way I wanted you to do it.” You turn away feeling whip-sawed. So again, the passage does not seem to build trust.

My third question asks about the purpose of this teaching. Since the story turns on what it means to do the will of the Father, then the purpose of this teaching must have to do with making that plain. What is the will of the Father if it is not good works? Perhaps this vignette will help. One of the great 19th century evangelists, I think it was C.H. Spurgeon, said something to this effect: there are two ways to kill Christ. The first is to crucify him; the second is to worship him. The first is obvious. The second takes explaining. He was speaking of setting Jesus apart from ourselves as an object. We can praise him and pray to him; we can burn incense before him, create gold and marble sanctuaries around him and adorn them with fine linens; we can write hymns to him and sing them. We can even copy him in visiting the sick, tithing our income, volunteering in prisons, serving at the altar. The list has no end. Yet no matter how much we devote ourselves to good works, Jesus is still “out there,” an object to be worshiped and even emulated. We are in relation with him, but we are not in communion with him.

That does not begin to express the will of the Father. God wills Christ to live in us; so that, just as Jesus and the Father are one, so too are we. Nature gives us an image of God’s will for us when larvae are transformed into butterflies. From earth bound to wind borne. Jesus spoke of this transformation when he said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [10:39] In other words, if I cling to the life in which I am the center – no matter how devout I am or how many good works I do – I will die. To live, I need to let go of self and live out of a different center, which, paradoxically, is no center at all, but simply love – wind-borne love.

As an illustration, a priest told of this experience when he lay as a patient in the hospital. Each afternoon a candy striper wheeled a cart into his room to bring him tea. “Usually,” he said, “they would ask what I wanted, slap the cup down on my table, and leave. One day, a new girl came. Instead of the usual slap bang delivery, I was given not just tea, but love. She did not say a word. She spoke with the care she took in pouring; with the way she handled the cup, as if it held communion wine; with the gentle grace she used to slide it onto my table. Even before I took the first sip I felt tranquil and at peace.” Mother Theresa said, “What counts is not how great are the things we do for God, but how great is the love with which we do them.” Let me put it this way: if we study with an eye to that red and gold first aid merit badge, even if we score 100%, the word to us will be, “I never knew you.” If we study with an eye to relieving suffering and saving lives, no matter the score, we shall hear instead, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your master.”

So what was Jesus’ purpose when be brought the Sermon on the Mount to a close with these dire words, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil doers”? Not rejection, but a warning born of love. An anonymous verse puts that warning this way. “Sow a thought and reap a deed; sow a deed and reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character a reap a destiny.” Sow a thought: this does not mean that I shall suffer for any random thoughts that may cross my mind; it means I should beware of the thoughts that I entertain and nurture. If my thoughts center on myself, they will lead to deeds, possibly even deeds that earn me a merit badge. Deeds lead on to habits and character. My character may bring praise, but if self is at the center character will bring me to that scene at the pearly gates. It is not that Jesus does not want me to come in; he does with all his heart. It’s just that I do not fit. My thoughts and their consequences have shaped me. Try taking a piece of a jig-saw puzzle, a piece that was shaped to fit one puzzle, and whose pattern melds with the whole surrounding picture of that puzzle, and try fitting that piece into a whole different puzzle. It simply does not go.

Friends, do you hear the tremendous good news here? There are no merit badges to earn! We need only sow a thought. We do not even have to make it grow. In this context that thought is called prayer. Or silent contemplation. Or quiet listening for the still, small voice within. Or inviting Christ into our hearts, and giving thanks. Or reciting a mantra. We have many, many ways to sow that thought. But, don’t we all know all this? Why the need for a warning? This is why. To sow means to be intentional, to be regular and faithful. A regular, daily, faithful practice of prayer, carried on day after day, year after year, will bring that transformation that God wills for us. And this new life – from earth bound to wind borne – rises up in us, vastly larger and freer. This can frighten us. In fact, it can make us so uneasy that we let go our practice of sowing prayer. So Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a loving warning: fear not; stay intimate with me; stay strong in prayer, and I will be sure to know you when we meet at the pearly gates. Amen.


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