Where does this language about “false prophets” come from? I thought prophets belonged in the Old Testament.
The word “prophet” means someone who claims to be speaking on God’s behalf—in other words, almost any religious leader. Mostly, Jesus’ contemporaries used the word to refer to people who lived hundreds of years before their time, but Jesus is using it here in its more basic sense.
And there was a revival of prophetic claims at the time—especially among Jesus’ own followers, after his death. Sometimes, scoundrels found it pretty easy to impose on innocent Christian congregations by claiming to be prophets. The second-century Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (not himself a Christian) tells an intriguing story about just such a “prophet” in his satire “The Death of Peregrinus.” One might almost feel that Jesus was warning, in advance, against exactly such people.
Prophets made their impression through speech, often with the suggestion that they were in a trance or had been taken over by a spirit that was merely speaking through them. Accordingly, they claimed a degree of authority that was more than human. Jesus says, in effect: “Don’t get swept up in the words; wait to see how your ‘prophet’ lives.”
That means making judgements about people.
Yes, even after we just heard “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged” (7:1). But the judgement is to be based on works of love. Just as we can tell good fruit from bad, we’ll know the true prophet when we see that this person is motivated by God’s love and does works expressive of that love.
Jesus threatens the impostors with hell-fire! Not so very loving, is it?
He gets very angry about abuses done in the name of religion by religious leaders. And it’s clear that he fully expects that such abuses will crop up among his own followers, just as in other religious groups. (Of course, he’s been proven right again and again.) He was also talking about this in chapter 6, where we saw warnings about religious behavior being misused for personal aggrandizement. He sees that no arena of human existence is immune to abuse. That includes religion.
Is he against religion?
No. His teaching is itself religious. It’s about our relationship with the God who is the power behind the creation, the lover of the world, and the Pole Star of our human lives. But he has no illusion that religion is always good in itself. And he’s trying to give us a way to distinguish good from bad in it.
Later Christians have sometimes treated Jesus’ attacks on religion as attacks on one particular religion—Judaism. It’s a nice trick for shifting people’s attention away from our own misdeeds. But it’s nonsense. Jesus never separated himself from Judaism. That separation between Christians and Jews happened only in the generations after Jesus. His strictures apply equally to all religions. In fact, he applies them quite explicitly in this passage to his own followers as well.
The people who say, “Lord, Lord”?
Exactly. And this applies not just to ordinary believers but quite specifically to the elite who have prophesied in Jesus’ name and exorcised and worked miracles. If they haven’t done the will of the Father—haven’t led lives founded on love—he rejects them absolutely: “I never knew you.” We’ll hear a strong echo of this same attack on loveless piety near the end of Matthew’s Gospel in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (25:31-46).
He’s getting quite peremptory here at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Everything seems to be either/or, doesn’t it? He didn’t seem so angry at the beginning of the sermon.
Yes. He says, in effect, that either we hang on to what is really central or our lives will fall apart like the house built on sand. The point, though, isn’t that we have to reach perfection immediately. Jesus’ inner circle of disciples certainly didn’t, as Matthew will point out again and again. In practice, human beings are seldom if ever completely good or evil. We are a mix of wisdom and folly—a constantly shifting mix. But the question remains: Where do our central commitments lie? Where is the foundation?
Remember, too, that God sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (5:43-48). God continues to love us, even when we misstep. But Jesus wants us to understand that the foundation for a wise, centered, enduring human existence is here in these teachings, waiting for us to explore and learn and practice more and more deeply with our lives.
I can see why “the crowds were astounded.”
Yes. These three chapters that make up the Sermon on the Mount still astound. And the attentive reader never gets to the end of finding new insight into them. Each return to the text is apt to open up something we hadn’t noticed or understood before.
Was this really so different from what other religious authorities were teaching?
There is much in the teaching of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries that agrees with the Sermon on the Mount. The difference isn’t primarily one of content, but one of focus and certainty. Matthew’s phrasing here is key; “he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” The scribes, like the clergy of other religions, taught on the basis of an existing religious consensus, which existed in written form in the scriptures of Israel and also orally in the form of opinions offered by a long series of esteemed leaders. The scribes would have been less likely to say “I tell you” than to say “The Torah tells you.” That can tip over all too easily into the creation of an inflexible system that demands obedience and is willing to skimp on less sharply defined values such as love.
Jesus speaks like a prophet himself, claiming direct access to God. He was even wiling, back at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, to contrast what he said with what “was said to the men of old.” No wonder he was willing to make distinctions between authentic and inauthentic prophets! Unlike the false prophets, he is transparent to the gospel of love. The fruits of this tree are good. And they are on display for all to see. In fact, we’ll be seeing more of them in the next two chapters of Matthew.
So that’s the Sermon on the Mount? It’s very dense, and it doesn’t exactly leave you with three clear points or an agenda for concrete action.
You could say it even resists being reduced to a few clear points. Oh, the Golden Rule is clear enough. But putting it into action requires a lifelong process of learning how to love one another, of understanding the peculiar circumstances in which each of us lives, and choosing the loving course in those circumstances. We don’t find a simple set of rules either here or elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew.
Still, we will come back again and again to the themes that these chapters have raised for us, and it is worth the time we’ve taken to look at them closely as part of trying to understand this gospel. Next, Matthew will turn to showing us how Jesus behaved toward the larger public. Here are the “fruits” that authenticate his prophesy.
Next up: TROUBLESOME MIRACLES