“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (NIV)
There was once a pastor who found the roads blocked one Sunday morning and was forced to skate on the river to get to church, which he did. When he arrived the elders of the church were horrified that their preacher had skated on the Lord’s day. After the service they held a meeting where the pastor explained that it was either skate to church or not go at all. Finally, one elder asked, “Did you enjoy it?” When the preacher answered, “No,” the board decided all was good.
Nothing can choke the heart and soul out of true spirituality like legalism – a precise extra-biblical list of do’s and don’ts. For many folks, it seems easier to live by the list than to pursue the harder road of developing character qualities. Christian discipleship involves growing into spiritual maturity and allowing a seasoned character to shape how we make decisions. We must patiently and consistently follow in the way of Jesus, which is the way of grace and of life.
Today’s Gospel lesson is Christ’s conclusion to his Sermon on the Mount. It is a sermon that sets forth the values of God’s kingdom and devalues the core of legalistic thought. I define legalism as a compulsion to spell out every detail of how everyone is to live a godly life, going beyond the stated commands of Holy Scripture. The problem with this approach to the Christian life is that godliness is merely an outward expression of our ability to hold to the list. This legalistic way feeds human pride and boasting, going against the inner heart values of humility and meekness in Christ’s Beatitudes. The teaching of Jesus ends up getting lost in trying to do everything right or perfect.
Jesus, through the Sermon on the Mount, led the crowd to a point of decision, letting them know they are at a crossroads. There are only two alternatives: Either choose the way of life as expressed in Christ’s teaching, or else choose the way of destruction through the legalistic list. To press the crowd toward the necessity of choosing wisely, Jesus used metaphors to make his point.
False teaching in the form of legalism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We need to be wary of people who seem pious and sincere, yet who do not quite pass the smell test. After all, Satan himself, the Apostle Paul once said, masquerades as an angel of light, appearing righteous, yet, is intent on deceiving many (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
So, how do we recognize a wolf who spiritually and emotionally devours people, instead of altruistically helps them? Look at the fruit of the tree. Jesus is the good tree. Christ advocates for a searching of the heart, which results in the fruit of righteousness. The bad tree is also seen by its fruit. Anyone who fails to uplift and live the Beatitudes of Jesus will be seen by the rotten fruit of boasting and pride.
False teachers believe they are above others because of their expertise at keeping the list of do’s and don’ts. A false disciple will always be shown by their profound lack of grace, gentleness, and genuine humility. They inevitably advocate for holding to their brand of religion and keeping the non-biblical list. The profound lack of Christ’s Beatitudes in their lives will eventually result in their being cut down and thrown into the fire.
For Jesus, there is no riding the fence between the two alternatives he presented – and it is a matter for him of life and death. The way of Jesus ends in life, good fruit, entrance into the kingdom of heaven, and stability. The other alternative ends in destruction, bad fruit and fire, exclusion from the kingdom, and being ruined. These are solemn thoughts from our Lord Jesus himself.
The sobering reality of Christ’s teaching is that many people can be deceived with a devil’s bargain: take the nice handy list and you will become godly; here are twelve principles to change your life; follow these rules, pray this prayer, give your money to this, and all will be well. It is, however, a highway to the grave. The false teacher proclaims himself a “fruit inspector” and then goes on to judge everyone by the legalistic list.
There is a need to repent of religious lists, political agendas, and teachings which ignore and demean Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. One of the telltale signs of holding to a conjured list is when we are not honest with one another about our struggles. The bald fact of list-living is that we cannot fulfill it. So, when we know we are not measuring up to the list, the temptation is to keep up appearances as if we are.
List-living eschews showing any weakness or imperfection. I cannot admit my sin to anyone because the list pronounces me a failure if I do. I cannot enter a deep and prolonged grief over my loss because the list says I need to stay strong. I cannot profess my doubts about God because the list says if I doubt, I am not a real Christian. Just tell me what is on the list, and I will do it – even though I cannot.
Here is my response to legalistic list-living: To hell with the list! Instead, give praise to Jesus Christ who has given us the way of grace! It is grace which transforms hearts, turns lives around, and provides genuine joy and satisfaction. If grace is not the answer, we are not asking the right question. The tree of life has an abundant supply of gracious fruit.
The greatest anti-legalistic prayer we can pray is the tried and true ancient prayer of the Church:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”