We need to be faithful, Pentecost 3, Proper 4 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 6: 9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19; Psalm 46; or Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31: 1-5, 19-24; Romans 1: 16-17; 3:22b-28, (29-31); Matthew 7: 21-29

Well, this is a rough gospel passage, isn’t it? It seems as if an awful lot of people are going to be disappointed when they come to enter the kingdom of heaven. It sounds as if Jesus is saying that even though some people think they’ve been doing good things, Jesus is going to say to them, “I never knew you.” And worse than that, Jesus will call these people “evildoers.”

That just doesn’t sound like the Jesus we think we know so well in the gospels. Shouldn’t people who claim to prophesy in Jesus’ name and to cast out demons be pleasing to God? And what does this say to us about the things we do? Could we be in danger of being rejected when we say, “Lord, lord” but don’t live the way the Lord would have us live? It makes us squirm a bit.

Certainly we all need to squirm at times – to look seriously at ourselves – and that’s really the bottom line of this particular passage. But there’s a lot more to these verses in Matthew than Jesus giving somebody the hard line; these verses are just a short bit of a much longer lesson Jesus is teaching his listeners. And unless we take a look at the whole teaching, we miss a lot.

This section comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began his teaching with the well-known Beatitudes, the “Blessed”s. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the righteous. Sometimes we tend to stop after the Beatitudes, but Jesus actually kept on teaching for three chapters.

If we read through Chapters 5, 6, and 7, we hear Jesus getting even more specific. He told his followers that they were to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world. He reminded them about the commandments, that they should love others as they loved themselves, and that love included their enemies. He talked about not showing off when they prayed or fasted, not parading their religion. But he also consoled them by telling them not to worry, because God loved them and would care for them much more, even, than God cared for the rest of creation – and they could readily see how beautiful and abundant creation was because of God’s blessing. “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,” he said, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”

Wonderful words. In those several chapters of Matthew, we hear Jesus being a real teacher. He offers them the Beatitudes, which are easy to remember but hard to do. He gives them specifics of how they should behave, he gives them the words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer, and he offers them the unconditional love of God.

So why, after all this, does he say, “Some of you will hear me say, ‘I do not know you’”?

He says that because even after all his teaching, even after all the things he did, some still didn’t believe. That’s hard to understand. These people saw him do miracles – they had Jesus in the flesh. What was the matter with them?

We might say to ourselves, “If I lived in that time, I certainly would believe everything Jesus told me.” But we mustn’t forget that those people were just as human as all of us. Isn’t it true that even today some folks miss the incredibly obvious? Some people – some of us, maybe – are so self -absorbed that they see very little around them. We read about lots of folks who were like that in the scriptures. Most often it’s the Pharisees and Scribes who get pigeon holed like that, but they certainly weren’t the only ones.

And it’s no different today. We don’t have to look far in our own society to find people who say one thing and do another, or even worse, who try to make us think they’re doing us a favor when they are really lining their own pockets. Jesus is saying to his followers – and to us – make sure your actions and your motives match.

Today’s gospel is a stern reminder that we can’t get away with appearing to do good while we pick and choose who it is we do our good deeds for. Jesus isn’t kidding when he says he won’t be pleased.

Jesus says over and over that all we have to do is hear his words and act on them, hear and believe, hear and obey. And the important thing is to remember that those early Jews already knew what they were supposed to do. Jesus wasn’t giving them a whole new set of rules to live by. He’d already reminded them at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that he hadn’t come to abolish the laws they already had, but to fulfill them – to help them live the life they knew more faithfully.

It’s the same for us. We know what we have to do. It’s just hard to do it all the time. Hearing the word of God, hearing what Jesus says to us, isn’t something we do once and then check off our list. We have to keep listening all our lives, learning more and more about how God would have us live.

We have our baptismal promises, we have the words and actions of Jesus, we have the commandments. What Jesus is telling us today is that we need to be faithful, that we need to examine our motives and make sure that what we do and say fits with the life God asks us to live.

The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.