Matthew 7:15-20 – Life, Not Legalism

two trees

“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.

wolf in sheeps clothing

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.”

Luke 11:53-12:3 – Be Careful How You Bake

bad bread

When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed nor hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (NIV)

One Sunday, many years ago when I was a young pastor, I went to a church to fill-in and preach sermons both in the morning and evening. I had believed my morning sermon went quite well, until I walked into the church building for the evening sermon only to have the deacon at the door exclaim to me, “Man, did you stir up the pot!” When I asked him to explain, he said that a lot of people were upset because I walked around and didn’t stay behind the pulpit, thus losing my authority; and, what is more, I did not preach from the King James Version of the Bible. The deacon went on to explain that some complained I talked too much about grace and not enough about God’s law.

Indeed, much like Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today, I ended up getting deluged with questions before the worship service began. Frankly, I had just been myself, and it caused trouble to the point of families in the church being divided over what I did and did not do. So, I decided on the spot to purposely cause more trouble by preaching the Beatitudes of Jesus while walking up and down the aisle. I, of course, never returned to that church.

In biblical times, yeast was a common symbol for evil, which is one reason why the Jews ate unleavened bread.  Jesus was trying to get the point across to his disciples that, like yeast, just a little bit of duplicitous teaching can have the far-reaching effect of distrusting God.

It takes only a pinch of hypocrisy to work through the whole batch of dough.

Not long before this encounter with the religious leaders, Jesus had done the miraculous feeding of the five-thousand people. With only five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed a multitude – and even had leftovers afterwards. The math lesson that Jesus explained to the disciples at the time about the baskets of food they had gathered was that a little bit of Jesus goes an incredibly long way.

A small amount of Christ’s compassion was able to feed thousands of hungry people.

So, the issue really gets down to the ingredients. Are we baking the bread of our lives with compassion or hypocrisy? Speaking from my own experience, dealing with hypocrisy and hypocritical folks is a huge drag. Unless you can be on their page of promoting themselves and their agenda, they can make life downright miserable. Conversely, it feels like the balm of healing to be around compassionate people who are authentic and genuine with no pretense or posturing to get in the way of enjoyable relationship.

Eventually, sooner or later, the little bit of hypocrisy in the bread will get eaten. And it will taste awful. Like Ellie Mae Clampett’s homemade biscuits from the 1960’s show, Beverly Hillbillies, you might not even be able to bite into them because they are so hard and nasty. To avoid this, we need to be vigilant about the preparation process before anything unsavory gets into the oven of our lives. Enjoying a good bite of warm soft compassionate bread happens when we are careful and attentive to Jesus, the real source of mercy and grace. Jesus has the best recipe I know. Hypocritical religious teachers, not so much. Their bread is half-baked, at best, and not fit for consumption.

How do we remain on guard against hypocrisy and attentive to genuine compassion?

  1. Use the cookbook. Becoming familiar with Holy Scripture informs us as to the proper ingredients for baking. A straightforward reading of the Gospels enables us to focus on Christ’s compassionate and finished work, and not hypocrisy and keeping up religious appearances. With the help of the Master Chef we are able to: see the internal pain and hurt behind the outwardly obnoxious behavior of a co-worker; love a relative even though they have offended us; have a spiritual conversation with a neighbor; freely give to others what we have freely received; and, so much more. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17, NIV)
  2. Avoid condemning other’s methods. Be a champion of grace, not judgment. When in doubt about what to do or say, always default to grace because the world spins on the axis of mercy and love, not hypocritical judgments. Cooking and eating are meant to be enjoyable experiences, not frustrating encounters. Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV)
  3. Trust your nose. If you intuitively sense something does not pass the smell test, then be wary of putting it into your bread. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NIV)
  4. Be vigilant about conversations. The interactions we have with others while making our bread are significant. If you would not say something to someone’s face, then absolutely do not say it behind their back. Secret recipes in the form of hidden agendas are the stuff of hypocrisy. “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” (Ephesians 4:29, CEB)

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pure and pleasing to the Lord our God.

Blessed God forgive me for those times I have been two-faced and hypocritical. I want to honor you with every word that comes from my mouth and every action I take throughout the day. Holy Spirit give me a humble heart that lives to glorify you. Help me to become aware when I am being judgmental of others. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me that will not cease, will not end, and will not let me go. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.