Words of Warning
If you’re a habitual rule follower like I am, I know you can’t help but face something akin to a moral dilemma whenever you buy new throw pillows for your couch. It’s true. You know whenever you purchase a throw pillow—or any kind of pillow—they come with these big, white, ugly tags sewn into the seams. I think normal people don’t think twice about ripping these tags off—after all, they seriously impact the aesthetic of most any pillow. But the tags are emblazoned with a really serious-sounding warning: “DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.”
I fully confess that I remove the tags—perhaps risky to admit in this public forum (take me away!) because, after weighing the choice between ugly tags on my throw pillows and “penalty of law” (whatever that means in this case), the appearance of my pillows always wins.
But, I can’t say I don’t stop to think twice. I am many things, but I am not generally a law-breaker. And with such a stern warning as is printed on those tags, well, I can’t help but pause and wonder before I remove….
We encounter stern warnings in many different places in our lives, and one of them today happens to be the Gospel passage we are considering this morning. The verses we heard a few moments ago are part of the very end of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, part of a list of stern warnings that Matthew’s writer tacks on the end of two chapters that are a compilation of some of the most important sayings of Jesus.
If you’ve been hanging around here much the past few weeks, then you are already steeped in the content of Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.
And if you are not sufficiently sobered about what it means to follow Jesus, well, then, you have not been paying such close attention.
One after another, the sayings of Jesus challenge and stretch us, extending invitations to live our lives counter to the ways of this world but embracing the deep mystery of God’s plan for all humanity. Verse after verse we are presented with choices. It’s exhausting!
Matthew, remember, has offered us the longest account of the Sermon on the Mount in the Bible. We know, of course, that it’s likely Jesus didn’t walk up to the top of the hill and just spout off these two chapters in their entirety—no, Matthew and the church that he led worked very hard to compile what they remembered to be sayings of Jesus foundational to his overall message.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke also contain some version of the Sermon on the Mount, although in Luke’s account it’s not delivered on a mountain but rather on a plain. And Mark wrote it first, so Luke and Matthew borrowed most of their material from Mark. Each writer had a specific audience, and even a specific objective in his writing, so it has been our challenge to understand each week the context and audience of Matthew’s version of the sermon.
Of course, we are not Matthew’s—or Mark’s or Luke’s—original audience, but our study of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount these past weeks has given us the opportunity to consider the basic and important content that spans all three. And perhaps because we do not make up the crowd on the mount or on the plain or anywhere in Galilee during the first century at all, we can see with even more stark clarity the sobering seriousness of Jesus’ words…
…which is exactly why our culture has perpetually misinterpreted Jesus’ saying as a list we can boil down to a bunch of rules by which we can easily judge each other to see exactly how well we’re doing. That’s an attractive way to contain and explain Jesus’ sayings, an approach that gives us tools by which we can better judge everybody else and a black and white rule to measure the world. And that’s very nice, but it’s not what Jesus meant at all, nor what Matthew, Mark, or Luke intended. And that’s exactly why Matthew and his church finished up their long and detailed version of Jesus’ sayings with a list of warnings.
Think of it like a telephone conversation with your Mom when you were in college. I remember that my roommate’s mother called every Saturday to see how the week had gone, ask about classes and friends, check in with her on whether she was getting enough to eat, etc. Then, inevitably, the very end of the conversation she would sum up the things that she considered to be most important: get to the health center to get a flu shot and don’t forget to write a thank you note to your Grandmother—you know, things like that.
And so here it is, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount…three little warnings Matthew put in, saved for last, and maybe they could be considered most urgent…but at the very least they are summary statements that might represent the essence of things Matthew listed before.
First warning in today’s passage: choose the road less traveled and more difficult. On the way to utter destruction is where you are when you take the easy way out.
Second warning: don’t sum people up by what they say. What someone believes is always, always illustrated by her life. In fact, don’t give any credence whatsoever to someone whose life doesn’t reflect the things they say they value.
Third warning: don’t think just because you know religious language and you seem really pious that that matters at all to God. If there’s no substance to who you are, then when it really matters…when things are being sorted out in the end…God won’t even recognize you.
It’s quite interesting, these stark warnings Jesus issues. They are not muddled, difficult choices with varying degrees of concession. The choices are clear—one or the other: narrow gate or wide gate; easy road or hard road; good fruit or bad fruit; empty words or a substantive life.
In other words, the question is not if we understand what Jesus expects, that we’re clear on the exhaustive list of rules one must follow to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The question is, rather, whether we are willing to turn over our whole beings and embrace an entirely different way of seeing the world, of living in relationship with one another, of constructing our lives.
Because one of these choices leads us nowhere good. We work and work and work to follow a list of rules, but following rules is not what God expects of us, and this is the essence of Jesus’ words of warning. Hear the Sermon on the Mount and think Jesus was talking about certain boxes to fill or specific tasks to complete? You’ve missed the point altogether. A God-filled life does not come from following all the rules. It’s the other way around. Living a life in which one seeks to know God results in transformation…transformation of lives, of relationships, even systems.
Seems most of the time we miss the words of warning and head off to follow a whole list of rules, only to fall flat on our faces and lose sight of this Jesus we set out to follow in the first place. I wonder if we can read the Sermon on the Mount, hear these words of warning, and take a different way, a way that reorients the very source of what moves and motivates us?
Four years ago for Christmas our family got a dog. While I was sure this was an ill-advised decision from my standpoint, I knew full well I was better off intervening at the outset to have a say in the age, type, and acquisition of said dog, thus avoiding what I knew could be a really, really bad canine experience.
Thank goodness for our church family, filled with people who not only love dogs but also know a lot about how to train them. In the ten days leading up to Christmas that year, Katie and Ryan Harvey dog-sat our little puppy, and by the time he came home for Christmas he knew his name and he was almost completely housetrained.
Thank goodness for the Harveys. They knew all of the best approaches to training a dog—how exactly to reward for good behavior and punish for bad so, even though he was only about seven weeks old and about five pounds, he learned quickly what was expected of him.
And when he came to live at our house on Christmas morning, Katie and Ryan patiently showed us how to train him. Thanks to their tips, I actually kind of like our dog, who is very well behaved and completely housetrained. And, while he is not as talented, say, as Gracie the Wonderdog, star of Calvary’s Got Talent every year, he can do some pretty cute tricks.
I thought of the strategies we learned for training our dog when I read the distinction one commentator made between those who read the Sermon on the Mount but don’t pay attention to the words of warning at the very end. That commentator said it’s the difference between being a dog and being a tree.
As we learned with our little puppy, dogs learn to obey by positive or negative reinforcement. A dog’s behavior is directly related to what he knows about how to get a treat or avoid a punishment.
A tree, on the other hand, produces fruit, like apples or oranges. These apples and oranges do not appear every year on a fruit tree because the tree is afraid of the farmer punishing it, or even because the tree is trying to make the farmer happy. There’s something in the very essence of the tree that makes it want to produce, say, apples. It was created to do that very thing. And because of the nutrients in the water and the soil where its roots dig down deep and anchor themselves, that tree grows and thrives and produces exactly the kind of fruit it was created to produce.
Following Jesus is not like being a dog, where our behavior is motivated by the desire to get something from God, or even a fear of being punished by God. Rather, following Jesus is like being a tree, where when the very essence of who we are is planted in the soil of God’s grace and watered with the example of Jesus Christ, then we grow and become exactly who we were always meant to be: people created in the very image of God himself.
You know, I was so bothered by my plans to publicly confess about the pillow tags this morning that I did a little bit more research into exactly why pillows have tags that we can’t remove, and what exactly the “penalty of law” in the case of removing one of the tags might be. Thank goodness the Arizona Republic newspaper published an entire article in 2007 devoted to this pressing question.
I learned when I read this article that back in the early days of manufacturing some manufacturers were not too picky about the materials they used to stuff things like pillows and mattresses. So, for example, you could go to the store and purchase a perfectly lovely throw pillow for your couch, come home, and find that you have inadvertently ended up with a pillow full of disease-causing vermin.
To make sure we were all safe from potentially deadly pillows, the federal government required manufacturers to put a tag on the product listing its contents and carrying the warning “Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law.”
This warning was meant for manufacturers and dealers; it was never intended for law-abiding, compulsive rule-following citizens like myself. Turns out we CAN take the tags off of our throw pillows; the warning was never intended to be followed to the letter by consumers. All this worrying (and apparently if the Arizona Republic found it newsworthy, it’s not just me), but all along I was missing the point.
So it is with the Sermon on the Mount, so listen up to Jesus’ words of warning. Jesus is far, far more concerned with right actions than lofty words. He wants lives that reflect the God who created us, not pious pronouncements intended to make us look better than everybody else.
Why? Because knowing Jesus changes us. If we enter into relationship with the living God we are transformed by his love. And that love, so powerful and life-changing, sets the agenda for every part of who we are. A holy life, a life in which we reflect God’s greatest hopes for the world, emerges spontaneously from relationship with the one who created us with highest hopes and dreams for our lives in mind.
Here we are at the end of our series on the Sermon on the Mount, and I think we can all agree: there’s more than enough here to keep all of us busy for our whole lives long if our objective is to follow Jesus. But if we had hoped to emerge from these weeks with a list of rules to follow or formulas to use to make God happy, then we will have missed the words of warning at the very end. Listen again:
Go the right way, even when it’s the harder way.
Judge your life and the lives of those around you by how they reflect God’s love for the whole world.
Don’t subscribe to the mistaken belief that a life of rule-following is what God expects.
Heed the warnings of Jesus and go out to live what Jesus intended: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?