Today’s the last Sunday of our eight-week worship series on the Sermon on the Mount, and we’re into Jesus and Matthew’s conclusion to that Sermon. “Enter through the narrow gate,” we read, “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The image is that of a walled city—of the roads leading to that city—of the gates through which the roads enter the city. We don’t have walls around cities anymore. We have perimeters and beltways—often just as daunting! And you can merge off the beltway onto 83 and take the four lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway right into the heart of the city, or you can get off the beltway at Falls Road going the wrong way—heading north—away from the city, then turn across traffic—turn around, to get on the two lane Falls Road to cross back over the beltway and meander your way in—stopping at lights—dealing with the traffic in Ruxton, and Mt. Washington, and Hamden where, with the way people park, there are places it’s a one and a half lane at best. And then Falls Road ends, only to start again—according to google maps—a completely different road but also called Falls Road to end again, turning into East Lanvale, and you end up having to turn down Maryland Avenue or St. Paul’s to get into the heart of the city. I asked Greg if he knew about this (he’s the one I always go to to ask about back roads), but he didn’t know. “I’ve never gone down there that far,” he said. Well who would? When there’s such an easier way.
And part of the truth of this observation is that more people than not will choose the easier way (“there are many who take it”)—the easy way requiring less discipline—less commitment. It’s the wide array of options all justified by what you want just because you want it. It’s immediate gratification. It’s consumerism. It’s materialism. It’s a trip to Target with a four or a five-year-old. So it’s (verily, verily) the way that should be outgrown by six or seven, except for the fact that it’s also the way on which capitalism runs so smoothly. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot worse out there than capitalism, but let’s not give it a free ride just because of that. And it does rely on attitudes, we can admit this, right?—attitudes one would hope to outgrow. And if we’re not going to give capitalism a free ride, we might as well not give democracy one either, and I share with you an interesting comment I came across in the commentaries, one scholar noting “when you do what the majority does you destroy your life”! (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook: Matthew 1-12: Revised & Expanded Edition [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1990] 350) Another good reason for avoiding polls!
Another part of the truth is that the expectations and commandments of God do narrow our way in the world. Amidst all we can do—amidst all the options we have, there’s what God wants us to do—how God wants us to be. It’s what Jesus has been teaching, right? “Thy will be done.” And so that wide array of options is limited by the discipline imposed on living by the children of God. And while it might be more fun to claim the moral minority is the greater truth than any moral majority, what’s more true (and more sad) is that the faithful minority is the greater truth than any faithful majority.
Now that’s all true. And it’s all important. But here’s the thing—the thing that has struck me in particular—that you can take most of the exits off the beltway and make your way into the city—that that would have been true of the ancient cities too—those of any size or significance. One city, many roads. One city, many gates. And so part of the truth here seems to be that everyone thinks they’re going to the same place. But most people pick the easy road, and it leads to destruction, while others pick the hard road less travelled by, and it leads to life. And so, there are going to be a lot of people mad at google maps! Or, more to the point—mad at the people of God who led them to believe they could follow an easy way of God.
Now very literally, do you think maybe Jesus might have possibly been thinking about Jerusalem? According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ ministry was almost entirely in the Galilee up until the last week, but even so, according to Luke, Jesus’ family made their way to Jerusalem each year for Passover (Luke 2:41). He knew the city—its walls, its gates. As well as he knew Scripture, he probably sang the songs of ascents on his way into the city for the festivals—songs with lyrics like: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it” (Psalm 118:19-20). “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers” (Psalm 122:2, 7).
Do you think Jesus maybe perhaps was possibly thinking about Jerusalem? The city of God. Think about that, because it makes the question explicit: are there ways of trying to get into the city of God itself that lead to destruction? Are there ways of thinking you’re following God that lead you astray? And haven’t we seen all too much destruction in the name of God? Historically, I dare say, more atrocity has been committed in the name of God than any other rationale I can think of. Never mind the rhetoric, it’s always been the case that the name of God is more abused in the name of respect than in disrespect and rejection. So was that an awareness Jesus had? Sure.
Because we go on to read Jesus’ warning about false prophets—those claiming to speak in the name of God who don’t—those purportedly leading people down the right road who aren’t. We go on to read of the need to assess (that would be judge, right?!)—the need to judge the fruit of those who claim to speak for God. And we read that not everyone saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the ones who actually do the will of God.
So this really isn’t about criticizing those from whom you would never expect to hear the word of God anyway. This is not a cultural critique. Not a critique of other faiths. This is Jesus saying the greatest harm—the greatest danger to the people of God comes from within. This is about the terrible need to judge those speaking in the name of God. This is about all those thinking they’re going to the same place, but so many on the wrong road. Surprise! This is about not accepting at face value—about not hearing the language of faith and assuming faith. All too often these days, all too many don’t look for fruit. We’re far too enamored with soundbytes. We hear what we want to hear—we hear what we expect to hear (Lord, Lord), and that’s good enough. Well it’s not. Not according to Jesus.
Jesus goes on: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord—” (so we should already be suspicious, right? not everybody who says, “Lord, Lord” ….) “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
So these are folks with a three-fold claim to fame in Jesus’ name: they look genuine, they sound genuine and they even act genuine (Thomas G. Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997] 84), but they’re not. “They own Jesus and Jesus disowns them; they honor him, and he dishonors them; they work for him, and he separates himself from them” (Bruner, 357).
Jesus raises questions about precisely those in the faith who will have status and prestige—those who will be in the limelight—who will wield power and authority. One commentary referred to such folks as the spectacularists (Ibid.). They’re the ones you might even dream about being: preaching for thousands, universally admired. You dream about that? No? It’s just me?! Jesus is reiterating, it’s not the stuff that gets you an audience that matters. Remember the audience you choose is the one you get. And we’re not—we’re not condemning out of hand everyone you would have heard of—everyone impressive and popular. We are saying no one gets a free ride, and those who speak for God all need to have their fruit assessed. Maybe if we had more of an expectation of the need to assess fruit, we wouldn’t have leaders in the faith so regularly messing up!
It doesn’t matter how pious someone sounds. Doesn’t matter how respectfully or how often they refer to God. Doesn’t matter how respected they are by the religious establishment. Doesn’t matter if they’re the ones most regularly quoted as representatives of the religious establishment. If what emerges from them is poisonous, toxic vitriol, self-righteous disrespect, intolerant belittling, mean-spirited mocking, ignorant dismissal or rejection, self-important posturing, it’s bad fruit. I’ve said it before. I say it again. I’m not saying (hear me clearly)—I am in no way saying not to disagree, and not to disagree vehemently and passionately—I’m not even saying don’t actively resist that and those of whom you disapprove, but the way in which that’s done matters. There is no issue important enough not to care about the means by which you honor it.
Anyone whose ends justify their means (whatever they say, whether you agree with their ends or not) is on the easy road to the wide gate that leads to destruction—the destruction of possibility—the possibility of transformation—of reconciliation—of redemption—of love.
Jesus started this Sermon with tender, unexpected blessings. He’s not at all worried about harshly leaving us unexpectedly scared here at the end of the Sermon! Remember when considering the Lord’s prayer, we noted the feel-good addition the church felt the need to add at the end (“for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever”) while Jesus was quite comfortable with a messy ending (“deliver us from evil—or the evil one”). Well hello!
It’s that easy road. It’s that wide gate. It’s the devastating appeal of power—the audience of others. It’s the disastrous appeal of status and prestige and the limelight. It’s the desire to be great. Like I said, that easy road, that wide gate.
The easy road into Jerusalem was from the west. More of a level entry into the city. That was the road from Caesarea Maritima, the seat of the roman governor—presumably wide enough and even enough to accommodate horses and chariots and soldiers marching in file—with a gate correspondingly wide enough. The easy road, the wide gate were on the western side of the city. Jesus entered the city from the east—making the steep descent down from the Mount of Olives, making his way through the Kidron Valley, and then tackling the steep ascent back up the slope to Jerusalem. Now did Jesus mean that in his teaching? No, I don’t think he did—looking ahead with some kind of prescience, but Matthew might have meant that—looking back knowing the whole story. There are two opposite ways into the city of God—opposite in every way.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
Now on the one hand, this concluding story is a fairly straightforward story from Palestine about two houses built during the dry months—which was when houses were built. And everything, in both households—everything about both houses, seems fine. The problem lies in the future when the rains come—when the rainy season hits. (M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VIII [Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 218) Then, the fatal flaw of one of those houses will be revealed.
So there’s the fairly straightforward teaching about building your living upon the teaching of Jesus. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong about that. But consider as well (since very little about this sermon has remained at just being straightforward!)—consider as well (do you remember how Jesus would say you have heard it said, but I say to you, and there was no disrespect—no rejection of the old law intended, but within respect for Torah, the suggestion that beyond obedience, there is fulfillment, so too, respecting the straightforward (build your living on the teaching of Jesus) but also, because we’ve been considering Jerusalem as model for some of Jesus’ imagery, consider (just for fun!) that Jerusalem is built on a rock surrounded by desert sand.
Is Jerusalem, the city of God, the house built on the rock? That would be appropriate, don’t you think? Until we remember that there are different roads even into Jerusalem. There’s the road of empire’s power and the hard road from the Mount of Olives. So then we have to consider Jerusalem’s fruit. Nothing just by virtue of who or what it is gets a free ride—a pass from the careful assessment of its fruit. And, in fact, all of Jerusalem’s fruit is not good. In fact, Matthew will later record the story of Jesus entering the city, and he was hungry, and he saw a fig tree by the side of the road, but when he went to it, he found nothing on it but leaves—no fruit (Matthew 21:18-19). And we have talked before about the mixed reaction in Scripture to Jerusalem. How it is, on the one hand, the great city of God, the center of the world, but is, also, the great disappointment—the city whose fruit doesn’t live up to the tree it’s supposed to be.
So there’s another dimension to the conclusion of this sermon. In keeping with warnings about different roads apparently leading to the same place that don’t—about false prophets, about needing to assess the fruit, about not accepting the appearance of faithfulness—especially when it all appears to be so good. There is sand that appears to be rock. And there is rock that appears to be sand. The wisdom of the world appears solid and wise, a prudent foundation, whereas the wisdom of God seems foolish, dangerous. Nevertheless. The wisdom of the world is the fourlane highway with lots of traffic on it, and the wisdom of God is a hard and narrow road.
Then after three chapters of Jesus’ voice, the narrator returns to note, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching—.” Not while he was teaching. When Jesus had finished they were astounded. They were spellbound during the sermon. And they were astounded “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” They were more amazed at how he taught them than at what he taught!
What does that mean? In part, it’s Jesus claiming the authority not just to speak for God, but to speak as God. There’s a high Christology throughout this sermon as Jesus teaches how to fulfill the law rather than just obey it, as he claims to be in the position of judgment “on that day not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. But it’s also the willingness to submit his own living to the assessment of his own teaching—to submit to the assessment of his fruit. And this again, may be Matthew looking back as much as Jesus looking ahead, but there’s the inescapable affirmation of Jesus’ living that he knows this hard road of which he speaks. He will walk the hard road of which he speaks. It means the cost is known right from when the expectation is named. Jesus and Matthew have a sense of what this way of being in the world will cost. It means the rock that is Jesus—the rock that is the teaching of Jesus, will appear to be sand in the eyes of the world: stupid, unrealistic, maybe idealistic, at best.
And so this conclusion to the Sermon is not meant primarily as a warning (though it is that), but as encouragement. The road is hard. The gate is narrow. The expectations are high. But remember these guidelines. Because what we have discovered is that the Sermon creates the hard road and the narrow gate. If you take it to heart, if you live this stuff, then you’ve rejected the easy road—the emotional reaction with immediate gratification—the undisciplined, but easy and so often immediately satisfying. If someone hits you, you won’t respond in kind. You will love more than just those who love you. You will pray regularly and honestly, but even in your prayers, you will pray for God’s will before your own—will pray, “not what I want, but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). You will submit your living to the discipline of the faith you claim that claims you. You choose God as your audience. You choose God as your validation and you choose God as your reward. It’s not spectacular. It’s not done for show. It’s not the big, flashy things. It’s not the things you might think would make someone great. It’s (of all things) the things of relationship in the day-to-day. It’s love. And the foolishness the world thinks is sand, is rock solid. And the wisdom the world thinks is rock is but shifting sand.
Surely it’s significant that the last word out of Jesus’ mouth in this great teaching is the word “great.” (Bruner, 361) It’s what so many strive for. It’s the priority—the audience so many choose. It’s the way of being so many aspire to. But what is great at the end of the Sermon on the Mount? The spectacular fall—the destruction of the assurance people had ….