Spring 2001

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 6

Face to Face

David Hulme

In concluding the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus unmasked hypocrisy, encouraged sound judgment, and revealed the substance of godly character.

What was it that made the Sermon on the Mount so memorable?

In Part Five we saw that what Jesus gave were universal truths—principles that not only cut to the heart of human weakness but also showed the way ahead. Jesus spoke of those essential Godlike qualities that make our frail humanity surpassable: humility, for example—recognizing where we fit in the grand scheme of life—the relationship of human beings to God. He also explained how to gain forgiveness and to be forgiving, the importance of honest intentions, and the power of the peacemaker’s frame of mind.

All of these aspects were reinforced with practical examples in Jesus’ sermon. At times He was unrelenting in His description of how far we fall short of the spiritual standard God expects of us, of how easily we slip into playacting.

As He began the conclusion to His message, Jesus singled out the hypocrisy of those who professed religious belief and lived otherwise. In the Greek language of the New Testament, the word for “actor” has become our word hypocrite, meaning one who wears a mask, as the Greek actors did.

So when Jesus spoke of insincere acts of charity, prayer and fasting, He showed that it’s possible to act out religious sentiments and be nothing more than a performer on a stage.

Charitable acts, He said, should be done without show: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Apparently it was the practice of some, as they gave gifts at the temple in Jerusalem, to have a trumpet blown to attract attention to their charitable giving. That’s why Jesus said: “When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (verse 2). Their reward, He said, is the acknowledgment of men but not of God.

Jesus said such charitable works should be done in secret so that only God sees, and then He will reward accordingly.

Prayer, too, can be a vain show. “When you pray,” He went on, “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (verse 5).

Rather, Jesus taught that prayer should be a private communication with God. As recorded in the next verse, He said, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

He was clear, too, that hypocritical fasting should be avoided: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (verses 16–18).

These were words that cut to the heart.

First Things First

In the next part of His discourse on primary values, Jesus turned to another subject that haunts our age: materialism. There are, He noted, more important riches than those found on earth.

The wealth He recommended was eternal and spiritual. He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (verses 19–20).

When all is said and done, it’s a matter of where the heart is. If the human heart is seduced by the appeal of money, materialism and riches now, then the important spiritual treasures will be ignored.

Jesus said it’s impossible to be equally attached to God and to wealth. “No one can serve two masters,” He said. “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (verse 24).

But if Jesus taught that material possessions are a diversion in life’s spiritual quest, how are such everyday needs as food, clothing and shelter taken care of?

Jesus’ answer was, as usual, straightforward. He said: “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Worrying about the things that God knows we need is futile. “Why do you worry about clothes?” Jesus asked. “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (verses 25–30).

The most important thing in life, he said, is to get our priorities straight. 

The most important thing in life, He said, is to get our priorities right. Jesus put the capstone on this discussion of materialism with the words, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these [material] things will be given to you as well” (verse 33).

That’s a promise that requires faith on our part, and Jesus had much to say about faith.

Learn to Discern

In the final sections of the Sermon on the Mount, there’s advice on godly and wise judgment, on how to find and retain truth, and on the need to heed Jesus’ teaching.

The issue of making wise judgments includes not condemning others as long as we have our own problems to deal with. In other words, as long as we’re all still human, Jesus said, we should not be so quick to condemn others for their failings. We all have our failings.

On the other hand, we must discern between right and wrong actions without condemning the individuals involved. So 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).

This kind of instruction is certainly serious; it carries an obvious gravity. But sometimes we have the impression that Jesus was only a “man of sorrows.” Did He have a sense of humor? In this passage about judging others, He told us to take the plank out of our own eye before we try to rid our friend of the speck of dust in his or her eye. It’s a humorous comment that demonstrates a vital principle.

But then Jesus immediately went on to say we should be sound in judgment. It’s not that all judgment is to be avoided; for example, we should discern to whom we should give spiritual truth. In the strongest terms, He said: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (verse 6).

In the same way, He warned about false prophets or false teachers. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (verse 15).

It requires discernment, or judgment, to identify such impostors. So how can a person recognize false teachers?

Only by the effects of their words and actions: “By their fruit you will recognize them,” Jesus explained. “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, 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” (verses 16–20). This is powerful encouragement to learn discernment.

To emphasize the deception that abounds when religious deceivers are active, Jesus continued: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Even those who might claim allegiance to the Christian way could be left out in the final judgment. Jesus added, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (verses 21–23).

When Jesus said these things, He was surrounded by spiritual charlatans, hypocrites, and selfish, politically motivated individuals. His message was a penetrating one: It’s possible to claim to serve God, yet not be recognizable to Him.

Spiritual Truths

What was the antidote for such people? Stressing the need for earnestness and devotion of the wholehearted kind, Jesus said: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (verses 7–8). God is a loving Father who will give His children everything they need.

Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 7:12

In the same way that God shows outgoing concern for others, so should we. Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (verse 12).

Jesus knew that living the Christian life would be difficult in a secularized world and a world also fraught with religious antagonisms. That’s the essence of His popularized statement, recorded in verses 13 and 14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

That clear image ties in with the final words of the sermon, which are an encouragement to heed Jesus’ words: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (verse 24). Then follows a parable about building on good foundations. Those who build on sand (this world’s secular or pseudoreligious beliefs) will suffer great loss when the storms of life come. Those who build on the rock of Jesus’ teaching, on the other hand, will cope with the turbulence of life.

As Jesus completed His discourse, the people’s reaction reemphasized the great difference between His instruction and that of their regular teachers. In verses 28 and 29, we read that “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

Their teachers apparently quoted other commentators and thinkers to support their arguments. Jesus quoted nothing but the Scriptures themselves, reiterating their spiritual truths in His own words.

Here again, the importance of honesty and integrity in dealing with the Word of God and its principles is clear. Just as Jesus Himself was prepared to treat God’s truth with complete sincerity, so must we. The value of the Word of God is for all to acknowledge: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).