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 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

A Heart for God – Session 4 – The Narrow Way

Read Matthew 7:1-12                                                                     Audio I                    Audio 2

The sections of the sermon on the mount that we’ve been through so far, have very much emphasised the importance of relationships to the life of the kingdom of heaven. The same is also true here, in this first section of chapter 7. The section ends in verse 12 with the phrase, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’ This so-called golden rule is universally acknowledged in all sorts of moral philosophy but the ‘so in everything’ suggests that Jesus is applying the golden rule to what has gone before. Unless we address the attitudes that Jesus has already flagged up in his sermon, we will not be capable of doing to others what we would have them do to us.

The section starts ‘Do not judge’ and it is perhaps this common tendency that most reveals the self-centred orientation of the human heart. We’re back in the region of condemnation, blame and prejudice. Jesus is flagging up our inclination to jump to conclusions about the worth of a person based on all sorts of criteria of our own making. When people do not behave in the way that we consider right and proper, we readily go down the track of condemnation. Jesus has to this point in his sermon, tackled many issues of the human heart; anger, lust and greed, power and control, vengeance, the need of affirmation and the fear of not having. All these things prompt us to judge others, because when we judge, we justify ourselves. When we judge people as fools, we justify the anger we hold towards them and we justify our right to pester them into adopting our much more righteous ways. When we judge people as undeserving, we justify holding onto the wealth that we consider we have rightly earned. When we judge people as intellectually inferior, we justify our right to dominate and control them. When we judge people as our enemy, we justify our right not to show them love.

For a while, the tactic of judgment might seem to work in our favour, but Jesus identifies the very real problems that emerge for the individual judge and a judgmental society. In the same way as you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. This should cause us to stop and think, for we are every bit as vulnerable to the failures that we see in others. I have to remember that if I count someone a fool for being impatient, bad mannered or ill-tempered, then I am also pronouncing the same judgment on myself, for there are going to be times when I behave in the same way. The measure I use (that is the degree of impatience or rudeness that I consider takes the person into the bracket of being a fool) is also the degree that I have to apply to myself. Of course we seldom see our own failings as clearly as we see them in others and we do not realise that when we judge others, we also judge ourselves, but we can be sure that others will do that job on our behalf. No-one likes the hypocrite and the one who judges is the one who will be most open to judgment by others. People seem to naturally respond to judgment through counter-judgement. The first priority of the judged person is to defend their reputation, and the most effective form of defence is often attack. A person that is judged can render the judgment invalid and vindicate themselves through a weightier counter-judgment, especially if they have evidence to back their call.

This tendency to judge and counter-judge is an alarming feature of the society in which we live today. It is not enough to criticise a person’s actions, decisions or thinking. In order to prove our point and make it stick we have to go further and condemn the person as being someone who is incapable of any positive action, decision or thinking. Casting judgment though, is an inappropriate way of pushing forward our opinions and gaining power. It is utterly harmful to individuals and society as a whole as the labels we attach to people or people groups tend to end up defining them. There is a place for correction of wrong and harmful ideals and actions, but we need to learn the way of critique without degrading the person. It is something to do with humility and recognition of our own weaknesses and failings. We need to recognise the plank that is in our own eye, in order to see clearly, the speck that is in our brother’s eye. It is particularly easy for religious people to forget this. This is the criticism that Jesus had of the religious leaders of his day. They mistakenly assumed a moral superiority. Religion for its own sake, as we will see later, does not affect the heart and can be a sham for true discipleship. Furthermore, we cannot use religion to judge others or force them in conforming to our ways. This is what Jesus is getting at in his words concerning pearls, pigs and dogs. Many people interpret this statement in exactly the opposite way that he intended. They seem to suggest that the pigs and dogs represent people that are not worthy of the sacred pearls of the kingdom of heaven. This interpretation though, carries in itself, the spirit of judgment. It is exactly what Jesus has been telling us not to do.

I am convinced that in this illustration, Jesus is still speaking about judging others. He is reminding his hearers not to use sacred teachings and religion to pronounce judgment on people or to let them know how wrong or bad they are. These things cannot be used to judge or control. We cannot invoke the name of God to manipulate people into doing what we want them to do. It is like throwing sacred things to dogs or feeding pearls to pigs. Sacred things and pearls are to be valued and cared for, not simply thrown to the animals. When we try to use the riches of our faith to judge and coerce, those riches will be lost like pearls trampled on by pigs. I have heard many stories of people that have been so condemned by the church that they quite understandably, cannot contemplate that there may be any good in it. As Peter reminds us, we should always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give a reason for the hope that we have, but we must do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Disciples of Jesus (people that are salt of the earth and light of the world) should simply have no need to judge others. Secure in the knowledge of our relationship with God in Jesus, we should not have to put others down in order to justify ourselves or gain power and we should be secure enough in our faith not to need to be in control of how others behave.

The way for us lies not in judgment or in manipulation but in being straightforward. Just as Jesus earlier said let your yes be yes and your no be no he says here to simply ask, seek and knock. It is the way forward in our relationships with others as it is also in our relationship with God.

Read Matthew 7:13-29

Listen to the song: With all I am

Throughout this series I’ve tried to make the point that life in the present day matters very much to Jesus. I often think that churches have placed too much emphasis worrying about how we get to heaven, when we die. Jesus, in his death and resurrection has taken care of our eternal destiny and he did in his life-time make that clear to his followers. The majority of his teaching though concerns how we can experience heaven in this life, on earth. It is primarily concerned with how people live in the present. The sermon on the mount is possibly the clearest example of this and it is in this last section that Jesus sums up what it means to genuinely be his disciple, on earth, in the here and now.

Jesus urges his listeners, in the light of what he has already said, to follow him because, according to Jesus, those who most meet the requirements of discipleship are the ones that will best experience the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and thus find life in all its fullness. There are many ways, many philosophies, many prophets willing to offer their own take on how to get the most from life. Today, self-help guides are among the most popular books and many people are drawn to the various techniques and methods that promise happiness and success. Our age is characterised by relativism (the denial of fundamental truth) and pluralism (that all things are acceptable). People are searching and the wide gate and the broad road allows for many possibilities and offers many cheap and attractive ways towards self-actualisation. Jesus’ claim though is that his is the only that way counts. It is a narrow way. It allows for no options outside of what is permissible in God’s kingdom. It is also costly. We should remember from last week’s reflection, the parable of the man who had to sell everything in order to buy the field that contained the hidden treasure. Many of the things that Jesus would have us do, lack wisdom in the eyes of the world.

Jesus acknowledges then, that there will be false prophets and false disciples. They are people that claim to be the real thing and even look like the real thing, yet their hearts are not in the right place. They are not aligned with the ways of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus warns his listeners not to be fooled. If you are a sheep, a wolf is dangerous enough, but if you think that the wolf is a sheep like you, it is much easier to be caught off guard and eaten up. These false prophets and false disciples make out, through pious behaviour and legalistic religion, that they are genuine, yet their motives are flawed and they pose a threat to anyone that might oppose them. They can though, be recognised by their fruit, their character. Character and not religious behaviour is the indicator of what the person is like on the inside. Grapes do not grow on thorn bushes nor figs on thistles. When we see grapes, we know that the plant they are growing on, is a vine. Likewise, when we see figs on a tree, we know that the tree is a fig tree. The fruit reveals the nature of the plant it grows on. If a tree produces bad fruit, we deduce that there is something wrong with the tree. Only a healthy tree produces healthy fruit.

This analogy then reveals the crux of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The authentic disciple is the one who has yielded to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, died to the old self, and emerges with a heart conformed to the ways of the kingdom of heaven. The authentic disciple inhabited and led by the Holy Spirit, produces quite naturally, the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). This is not to say that the authentic disciple will never do anything wrong. In this life something of the old self continues to prevail. There will be conflict within the heart of every Christian. Just as the kingdom heaven has not yet fully broken into the kingdoms of the world, so it has not yet fully broken into our own personal kingdoms – that part of the self which says, ‘my will be done.’ We are not the finished article, yet we do now, through relationship with Jesus, possess the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome our selfish desires in a way that was not possible before. We now have access to healing in all the broken aspects of our lives, but we need to allow Jesus to do that work of healing in his way and in his time and it is not always comfortable. If though we are prepared to let him in, we can become the type of people enabled to do the will of the Father and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

As I finish this series of reflections, I go back to the concluding comments I made in the first of them. I refer to the challenge that Jesus makes to his listeners at the end of the sermon; ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.’ It is an extraordinarily bold statement. Who on earth would have the confidence to effectively say to crowds of people ‘the best thing for you is to do what I tell you’? I can think of a few world leaders who might come out with such a statement and possibly believe it, but they are generally deluded. The crowds on the mountainside though were amazed at the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching and recognised the authority with which he spoke. From their perspective Jesus could say those things because they came with the authority of God. They recognised in his words a wisdom that shatters any confidence that one might have in the worldly foundations of self-protection and self-actualisation. The teaching of the sermon on the mount exposes the shakiness of the foundations on which the worlds kingdoms are built.

We have the same challenge then as the disciples on the mountain. Will we make it our habit to visit regularly, the words of Jesus, hear them, and put them into practice?

Listen to the song: The perfect wisdom of our God

Reflect on the following:

Where does the kingdom of heaven come into conflict with my own personal kingdom?

Where in my life might I need the healing or transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

Pray that God might bring you the healing you need but recognise that such healing usually comes through process and not in an instant. Ask Jesus to give you the faith to trust him and allow him to work in you in his way and in his time.

Listen and pray through the song: More love, more power

the narrow way - audio1.mp3 the narrow way - audio 2.mp3