Easter Monday

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

One of my favorite Easter stories is from Luke. Two disciples walking along suddenly encounter the risen Christ, and he “explains everything to them.” After they realize their teacher was Jesus, and he disappears from their sight, they talk about their hearts burned within them while he talked (Luke 24:32).

This story illustrates that the disciples had two distinct impressions of Jesus. The first was pre-Easter Jesus, and the second was post-Easter Jesus.

The pre-Easter Jesus was an amazing teacher, to be sure. He changed their lives and helped them see the world in a new way. They would have followed him anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. 

The post-Easter Jesus completely transformed the way they understood themselves and God. They stood in a new relationship to history and to each other. 

On the other side of Easter, we can’t help but hear Jesus’s words in a new way. Our eyes are opened and we can receive the teaching at a deeper level. It’s with these newly-opened eyes that I invite you to go back and read the Sermon on the Mount again. Once more, with feeling!

Click here to read the Common English Bible version. Feel free to remember my favorite translation edits: “Y’all” and “in the heavens.”  

Read it out loud. Reading out loud makes a difference. Slow down and chew each phrase thoroughly.

Read it in one sitting, so that you connect the logic and follow Jesus’s train of thought. You can get through it in about twenty or thirty minutes.

It’s not a TED talk. It’s slightly too long, and Jesus doesn’t stick to one topic. His claims are not grandiose. He does not talk explicitly about the fundamental nature of reality, or what consciousness is, or what happens when we die. He just tells us what it looks like to live as authentically before God as possible.

He says simply, “This is The Way. Now go do it.” 

Way of Life and Love, keep me on The Way. 




I hope that you have found this devotional series on the Sermon on the Mount helpful. Since we are confined to quarters in this pandemic mess, I have decided to continue my practice of writing daily devotionals. We have just finished Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, so I thought it would be fitting to follow it up with Luke’s version: The Sermon on the Plain.

If you would like to unsubscribe, you can do so at this link.

If you would like continue receiving them, you don’t need to do anything, but I would ask that you consider making a donation to the ministry of Saint Junia by clicking here. We are creating a network of house churches that proclaim a liberating Good News.

I would also ask that you support my writing by buying my books. I have four available:
Church Comes Home, which is about how to start house churches. It will be released in September.
God Shows No Partiality, which is a biblical basis for a progressive, inclusive theology.
Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and the United Methodist Church, a small group curriculum (I contributed a chapter). 
What is in the Bible About Church?, another small group curriculum. 

Thank you for journeying with me.

Lent, Day 40 — Holy Saturday

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Holy Saturday

Today is the last day of Lent, the 40 days of preparation (excluding Sundays) before Easter. We are able to mark it on a calendar and know that a change happens tomorrow. Those of us in the church business—typically—have been planning for weeks. We know in advance that there is a surprise in store. 

But for the disciples, dead is forever, and they face a future without Jesus. Saturday, for them, feels like forever. Jesus is gone and he is never coming back. They sit with the trauma and the pain, believing that they will have to endure it for the rest of their lives. In such times, it is hard to hear “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

In the face of such grief, does the Sermon on the Mount have anything worth teaching? After all, it begins with “happy are the hopeless and grieving.” I picture the disciples sitting there, some weeping, some staring into space. One holds his head in his hands and another seems to be asleep. They do not look happy to me.  

Jesus had said, “Y’all are the light of the world.” He told them not to hide their light and let it shine before others. But they sit in the same dark in the room where two days earlier, they had celebrated Passover. All the windows are closed against the light outside, and they startle whenever there is a noise in the street. They are terrified that the authorities may come after Jesus’s followers next.

Jesus had said, “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.” Peter bitterly recalls the last three lies he told, claiming no, he didn’t even know his friend.

A few disciples are furious. I imagine them muttering that when they find Judas, they will kill him with their bare hands. (They don’t know yet that he has saved them the trouble). They recall the way Judas shared bread with them all right before he betrayed Jesus—the way he betrayed all of them—and they recall Jesus saying that there would be wolves dressed as sheep among them.

They find it harder to remember Jesus saying, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

The true test of the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount happens on Saturday. The man who said those beautiful words about the transforming power of God’s indiscriminate love—that same prophet—had been tortured to death by people defending religion-for-show. The man who told his followers to be different from both religious hypocrites and gentiles was put to death by religious hypocrites and gentiles. He told us that a house built upon the firm foundation of his words would stand up to the storms. But on Saturday, his own house lay in ruins. He said we would know true prophets from false ones by their fruit—and he was lynched for his words. Strange fruit indeed! The disciples must have wondered, even if they were afraid to ask: Was Jesus a false prophet after all?

Jesus preached his Sermon, and the world answered with a teaching of its own: “This is what we think of your pretty words.” I think this is one of the hardest lessons of the Sermon on the Mount: What do we do with the teachings when they seem to have failed us?

It seems we’ve all been cooped up with the disciples during this pandemic isolation. I relate to them in their fear, in their grief, in their anger and helplessness. Two thousand years later, on this side of Easter, I believe that the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are a true and worthy way of shaping my life. I believe that they are gospel, good news. But I know that I sometimes find myself on Saturday, believing Jesus is dead forever, and his words an empty dream.

It is important to go through this time of disillusionment and dread. It is a lesson that needs to be learned, otherwise all of those pretty words are simply trite clichés. This is where the Master steps back and lets the students practice the lessons on their own. It is a vital part of learning this teaching not just with our heads, but deepest selves. 

Holy Week Prayer:
Wait with us, Lord, as we wait for you.

Lent, Day 39 — Good Friday

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Good Friday

With the words of the Sermon on the Mount still fresh in my ears, I read the events of Good Friday differently. You can read the story yourself in Matthew 26:57-27:61.

You probably remember most of the story. There’s a sham trial. They accuse him of blasphemy, even though he said,
Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. (5:17)

The religious and political leaders collaborate to find an excuse to do what they want to do anyway. Their lying incompetence is revealed as Jesus is shuffled from one petty tyrant to another while they try to figure out under whose jurisdiction his murder belongs.
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (5:10)

Jesus barely answers his accusers. He says almost nothing to Pilate.
Don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs. (7:6)

Pilate’s lackeys mock him and beat him.
But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. (5:39)

They lead him out of the city, pressing Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross.
When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. (5:41)

They crucify him at Golgotha. His male followers have fled. Women who followed him watch and mourn from a distance.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. (5:4)

Jesus did not just preach the Sermon on the Mount with his mouth. He lived it. He was a living example of The Way, and he was The Way, and he intended the community of his followers to embody The Way.
But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the [way] difficult, so few people find it. (7:14)

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes up a mountain, sits down, and his disciples gather around him (5:1). But on Good Friday, he goes up a hill, is buried under ground, and his disciples scatter.

Yet he is still teaching.
Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (5:3)

Holy Week Prayer:
Teacher who teaches in life and death, thank you for your teaching.

Lent, Day 38 — Maundy Thursday

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Maundy  Thursday

For these last few devotionals, we are viewing the events of Holy Week through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Tonight is Maundy Thursday, when we remember the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples. Maundy is the same root word as mandate, and it refers to Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John: “I give you a new commandment (mandate): that you love one another” (13:34).

These words are from the supper portrayed in John’s gospel, but they reflect the substance of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be “complete in love,” as God is complete (5:46-48). Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets hinged on treating others as we would be treated (7:12). It’s fitting that Jesus’s last words to his disciples echo this central theme of his teaching. It’s like he’s saying, “If there’s one thing I want to leave y’all with, it’s that love is central. Love fulfills the Bible. It is why you are here. It is the power of God in the world, and it is why religion-for-show is useless and hurtful. Whatever else you remember about me, remember love.”

The picture of the Last Supper has another similarity with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is together with his closest disciples. In both places, we are “overhearing” his teaching—although it is addressed to us as well. He tells this community of prophets what will happen to him: That he is about to be handed over and crucified.

He even tells them how it will happen: One of them will betray him. With the Sermon on the Mount recently in our ears, we can hear echoes of “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves” (7:15).

The Passover supper that they celebrate is still practiced in Jewish tradition today. It commemorates the big Exodus event, when God set the Hebrews free from Egyptian oppression. Jesus’s thoroughly Jewish theology sees God consistently doing the same liberating work. That’s why he says, “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them” (5:17-20).

Many Christians hear the verb “fulfill” as if it means to confirm a prediction, or to finish something that’s incomplete. For example, prophecy gets fulfilled if a prophet predicts a city’s destruction, and then it happens. But Jesus seems to view fulfillment in a different way. He sees his action in giving himself up to the authorities as part of God’s long, unbroken action in history. God is doing the same kind of thing in Jesus that God did at Passover, when God freed slaves. Jesus is expressing God’s love for the world. That’s how he “fulfills” the Law and the Prophets.

In other words, the commandment to “Love one another” is not really new. It’s been implicit there, in the Bible, the whole time. Jesus is simply making it explicit, both in his words and his actions.

Holy Week Prayer:
Love who gave birth to Everything, reveal yourself to us.

Lent, Day 37 — The Sermon on the Mount During Holy Week

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount During Holy WeekRembrandt_Christ_Driving_the_Money_Changers_from_the_Temple
I was in my second year of pastoral ministry, and already I found preaching Easter to be a challenge. I had trained for a dozen years in homiletics (the art and theory of preaching), but found it overwhelming to think about trying to cram the meaning of resurrection into a twenty-minute sermon year after year for the rest of my life. A friend told me a story about another pastor who simply read the Sermon on the Mount each Easter. “If there’s only one time someone’s going to be in church each year, they ought to hear a good sermon, especially straight from Jesus’s own mouth.”

It helped me realize our main job as pastors is to direct people toward Jesus and then get out of the way.

So I memorized the Sermon on the Mount. I didn’t want to read it, but to really preach it. And as I memorized it, it changed me. Although I grew up with Bible memory verses in Sunday school, I hadn’t realized how much the process of memorizing something shaped my own thought processes.

That’s part of what I wanted to share with you by going through this sermon, verse by verse. I want folks to understand Jesus’s pattern of thinking. Because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Now when I hear about how Jesus strode into the Temple on Palm Sunday and turned over the tables of the money-changers, I hear echoes of what he said about religion-for-show and about his hopes for his community of prophets. I hear him saying, “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full” (5:6). For people who might be shocked at seeing him attack a religious institution, I hear him saying, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (5:17). And to people who think his turning over tables justifies any expression of righteous indignation, he says: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment” (5:22).

Was Jesus angry? Sure. Did he insult the religious leaders? You bet. But Jesus’s anger is directed toward systems of exploitation that hurt people. Another gospel tells of religious leaders like Nicodemus, who could be decent human beings and were open to change (John 3).

But Jesus spent the first part of Holy Week making enemies of the religious leaders who would ultimately conspire to kill him. Matthew 23 is a chapter-long rant about the moral failings of the “actors” (hypocrites) who “lock people out of the kingdom of the heavens.” It makes it clear why Jesus told his disciples, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

This is why they looked for a reason to take him out. They feared not only him, but what a community of prophets like him might do. They figured if they took out the leader of this movement, it would wither and die.

And it helps me understand that when Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” it means rejecting the lie of religion-for-show, and being hungry and thirsty for something better and more filling. 

Holy Week Prayer:
Disruptor of religion-for-show, give me the kind of enemies
who help me live at peace.

Lent, Day 36 — The Crowd Responds

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
The Crowd Responds


When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts. (Matthew 7:28-29 CEB)

  • For the last three chapters, all of the words belong to Jesus. This is the first place the camera turns back to his audience.
  • Remember, there are actually two audiences here: a) “the crowds” (more on this word in a minute), and b) the disciples. Way back in chapter 5, when Jesus started preaching, Matthew wrote “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying…” (5:1-2).
  • I have been contending in these devotionals that Jesus’s teaching is not for “the crowds.” It is for his disciples, because Matthew’s Jesus fully intends to start the church. The church, at least for Matthew, is not an accidental byproduct of people chasing spiritual enlightenment. The church is a community of learners (the word “disciple” means student) who are studying The Way.
  • So Jesus, as a teacher, has a particular pedagogy (a theory of learning). He has been teaching his disciples in public.
  • I think this pedagogy is directly related to the way the disciples are supposed to “let [their] light shine before people” (5:16). Jesus does occasionally teach his disciples privately, away from the public eye. But this most famous discourse is done before “the crowds.”
  • This community of learners is also a community of prophets—for in the same way, they will be harassed for righteousness’ sake, as were the prophets of old (5:10-12).
  • “The crowds” is an interesting word. Why not just singular, “the crowd?” Most scholars think the plural version implies a disorganized, factionalized group of people. John’s gospel calls them “sheep without a shepherd.” This also makes it stand out that the community of disciples Jesus has formed around himself is a contrast to the way the world practices social relationships.
  • The crowds are amazed because of the authority with which Jesus speaks. Remember, he had a whole section where he said, “You have heard it said_______, but I say to you_______” Like today, many religious folks would be shocked and offended at such language. “I know the Bible says _______, but I’m telling you _______.” The more traditional and humble way to teach was (and is) to cite your sources, and to acknowledge opposing views: Rabbi Hillel says _______, but Rabbi Shimei says _______.
  • So much of what passes for religious truth is cliché and conventional wisdom. Jesus’s words turn conventional wisdom on its head (“happy are the hopeless”) and express a truth that speaks to our souls. See, there is a place inside of us, where God has always lived, that resonates with truth that comes from God. It vibrates at the same frequency. We feel it in our bones. Many religious leaders, wolves in sheep’s clothing, tell us to mistrust that intuitive, ancient wisdom. But it resonates in harmony with what Jesus says.
  • From my perspective, Christians who affirm LGBTQIA folks (like myself) do so with a variety of faithful readings and interpretations of scripture. I believe in digging in and wrestling with the Bible and acknowledging the multiple ways it can be read. But I also believe Jesus gives us this precedent: “I know you’ve heard it said that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that Paul said a wife should submit to her husband; but I’m telling you that a genderless God who liberates the oppressed, and in whose image we are made regardless of our gender, is far more concerned with equity and justice in our relationships than with how our genitals fit together.”
  • If Jesus were to return and say these words, I would not be the tiniest bit shocked. But I bet there’d be folks ready to crucify him.

Holy Week Prayer:
Author of truth, set me free.
Author of truth, set us free.

Lent, Day 35 — Two Houses

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Two Houses

Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise [person] who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed. (Matthew 7:24-27 CEB)

  • Sometimes Jesus ends his parables and teaching moments with “Let the person who has ears, hear” (11:15). We can read this phrase a couple of different ways. One way is, “This may not make sense to some of you, but those who have the ability (ears) will get it.” I’ve seen people do something similar on social media: “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…”
  • The other way to understand “Let the person who has ears, hear” is this: “What I’ve just told you is significant. Anyone who has ears should Ignore it at your peril.” This is the way Jesus chooses to conclude the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is not an elective: it is a required class.
  • Jesus was a builder by trade. The Greek word is tekton, which we often translate as carpenter. But wood is scarce in the Middle East, and most homes are built out of stone. The subtext may be, “Look, I know how to build houses—literally and figuratively.”
  • I think there are a couple of ways to read the parable of the two houses. The first way is individualistically: The storms of life happen to each of us, and how we weather those storms depends on how deeply we put the words of the Sermon on the Mount into practice. For example, religion-for-show will not get you through a crisis like a pandemic. Anger, greed, and worry will not sustain you in a crisis. The transformation of the heart that Jesus talks about is practical, not just abstract.
  • While I appreciate this common way of reading the parable, I think there is another way to understand it. I’ve said repeatedly that Jesus is speaking to the ekklesia, and he envisions the church as a community of prophets. I think the house, as a metaphor, makes more sense if we read it as being about a community. It’s literally a place where people live.
  • If your community is not built on a foundation of spiritual enlightenment, if it is built on religion-for-show, if people carry petty grudges, if they are anxious about the future, if they try to judge or psychoanalyze each other, your community will collapse when crisis hits. And crisis is inevitable.
  • Matthew’s original audience, hearing reference to the collapse of a building in a flood, might make a connection to the destruction of the Temple by the Roman authorities. If so, Jesus’s last words here would be heard as an indictment of institutional religion. I can’t hear these words without thinking of today’s schism in the United Methodist Church.
  • I’ve often been told that whatever you preach, you should end on a note of hope. “Leave people feeling better when they leave than when they came in. Otherwise they won’t come back.” Jesus does not follow that advice!

We’ve finished Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. Tomorrow, I’ll look at the crowd’s response. Then I’ll turn to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount as a whole during Holy Week, and how we see Jesus’s sayings reflected in his last days.

Holy Week prayer:
Foundation of our lives, help me build on nothing but you.


Lent, Day 34 — Fakes

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

 Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of [the heavens]. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in [the heavens] will enter.  On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong.’ (Matthew 7:21-24 CEB)

  • Having begun by addressing the community of prophets, Jesus ends by drawing a boundary around it. He has just said that wolves will try to infiltrate the flock, and that we can tell them by their fruit.
  • Jesus has just said “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit” (7:18). I said yesterday that this statement seems too black-and-white, and apparently Jesus agrees: some folks will do “good” and still not know the Lord. So apparently we can’t simply know a tree by its fruit?
  • I’m not trying to trap Jesus, here. I just think Christians need to read this stuff critically, even if it is printed in red. Too often Christians read the Bible as if a single verse can be spoken as if it is a TRUTH FOR ALL TIME, especially if Jesus says it. But there is nuance even–especially–in the words of Jesus.
  • This final judgment scene sounds a lot like the one later in Matthew, when neither the sheep nor the goats recognize Jesus in “the least of these” (25:40).
  • Look at the language: not everybody will get into the heavens; only those who do the will of the Father in the heavens. This echoes the language used in the beginning of the sermon. The poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of the heavens. Those who are harassed for righteousness’ sake have a great reward in the heavens.
  • It also echoes the language from the middle of the sermon: those who give, pray, and fast in secret will be rewarded by the Father in the heavens.
  • Taken together with these other references and what Jesus has just said about knowing a tree by its fruit, I believe Jesus is saying something like this: You can tell false prophets from real ones by the effect of their lives; not in showy or flashy religion or even in miracle-working, but in the quiet cultivation of their soul. This is about knowing me in your deepest self. Apart from that knowledge, even prophecy, miracles, and exorcisms are “doing wrong.”
  • Jesus seems to recognize this danger: Even his new community of prophets must guard against hypocrisy. He has spent this entire sermon talking about the difference between religion-for-show and real transformation of the heart. But 2000 years later, we see the problem replicated. “Christian hypocrisy” should be an impossibility, but it is instead a cliché.
  • I think this judgment day saying should go hand-in-hand with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Some who call Jesus “Lord” will not enter the kin-dom. But some who didn’t recognize him will: “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison, or a stranger?”

Lent, Day 33 — Fruit

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount

You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit.  Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.  (Matthew 7:16-20)

  • I made the point yesterday that Jesus only spends one line on “wolves in sheep’s clothing” before quickly moving on to fruit. Although Jesus has a clear-eyed assessment of human evil, he doesn’t linger, as I do, on talking about how scummy people can be. He spends more time developing this fruit metaphor, so we can see how the inner life affects outer behavior.
  • It reminds me of Jesus’s words in John: We are the branches, and Jesus is the vine. We bear fruit when we “abide,” stay connected to the vine.
  • Jesus is talking about how to identify false prophets: look at what they produce.
  • In one way, Jesus may be moderating what he just said about wolves in sheep’s clothing. You think someone is a false prophet? You think they are a religious charlatan? Well then, how do you account for the fact that they do so much good in the world?
  • But what qualifies as “fruit?” Some Christians would point to Paul’s words in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. Although I think this is a good perspective, Paul is writing decades after Jesus. Jesus himself doesn’t define “fruit.”
  • Some Christians believe fruit is a “successful” ministry: X number of believers baptized, large, full worship buildings, and lots of people helped. Maybe. But in Alabama, one of the most “Christian” states in the country, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, 60% deny that climate change is a problem, and a majority favor the death penalty. While I can’t deny the good that some Christians do, it is certainly a mixed bag.
  • Which makes it hard to see things in the black-and-white terms Jesus is laying out here. He says “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit.” Can’t? At all? I usually operate on the principle that bad people certainly can do good things, and good people can do bad things.
  • But maybe that’s the tension Jesus is trying to create. If I disagree with him here, what is it that bothers me? That someone I want to write off as a “not a real Christian” because they do bad things is, in fact, connected to the vine? Or does it bother me that I recognize how often I don’t demonstrate good fruit?
  • In this way, Jesus moves us from focusing on the bad people in the world “out there” to what is going on inside of us. It’s easy for us to commiserate on how awful religious charlatans are. It is more uncomfortable to consider when we are the fakes.

Lent, Day 32 — Wolves (And Mixed Metaphors)

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Wolves (And Mixed Metaphors)

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)

  • “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Jesus coined this phrase that has become standard for us. It highlights the fact that Jesus was not being naïve about the whole “Love your enemies” thing. Even though he spoke of the transforming power of love, Jesus’s view of the world is not that everyone is basically good and doing their best. There are malicious actors and predators out there. There are conmen and grifters. And they will pretend to be Godly folk.
  • Although Jesus told his followers not to call people “fools,” not only did he call some folks fools, but also vipers, foxes (or weasels), dogs, swine, blind guides, and wolves. I grow weary of Christians who present an idealistic milquetoast Jesus who never had a harsh word for anybody. Jesus, more than anyone else, knew how vicious humans can be. It is possible to love impartially and at the same time recognize the depths of human sinfulness and injustice.
  • Jesus began his speech, way back in Matthew 5:11-12, by implying his disciples were a community of prophets. Now he is returning to this language. In chapter 5, he said that prophets can expect to be harassed for following Jesus. Now he adds that there are those who will try to slip into the community to do mischief.
  • This stands in tension with how Jesus opened the chapter: “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.” Can we discriminate between sincere and malicious actors if we do not judge? Is it possible to regard an individual with love and equanimity, but also recognize the harm they can do to others?
  • Jesus makes a classic preacher mistake here: Mixed metaphors. Wolves don’t bear fruit!
  • I kid.
  • But it’s worth noting that this wolf metaphor is all of one line, yet it bears so much. It’s like a haiku: short, yet packed with meaning.
  • I’m reminded of my first year pastoring in a rural community. I once let a couple of local men who claimed to be part of a “fire safety ministry” come speak to small group of elderly people. What I didn’t know was that they were making a sales pitch. They preyed on old folks’ fears of being alone and not being able to hear a fire alarm. We were an easy mark: an elderly congregation with a newbie pastor. I was inexperienced shepherd who was not used to looking out for wolves dressed as sheep.
  • My story is relatively harmless but illustrative. Religious con artists are everywhere, preaching a Jesus of nationalism, white supremacy, and colonialism.