What do you wish for in this new year? Imagine if your every wish stirred an impulse to serve your neighbor with the very thing you first desire from them?
Fr. Timothy Lowe turns to Matthew 7 which challenges our presumptions and turns the worldly order upside-down. The easy path leads to destruction while the narrow gate leads to life. Those who look like sheep may be ravenous wolves, so you must know them by their fruits. And those who fall prey to false teaching may need to check their very wishes and desires against the fruit of Christ's teaching.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And co-host Father Timothy Lowe, retired priest and former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, brings you this episode with me. Good morning, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:31
Good morning, Hollie. Nice to be with you again.
Hollie Benton 0:34
You as well! Today, Fr. Timothy, I'd like to ask you, our listeners, myself, "What do you wish for?" We just went through a season of wishing one another a Merry Christmas, wishing you a Happy New Year, perhaps our children wished for particular Christmas gifts. So how often and in what ways are we expressing our wishes, our hopes, desires on a daily basis? So we're driving, I wish this guy would let me in. At home, I wish he'd pick up his socks. At work, I really hope for a raise or a promotion. In our personal relationships, I wish they would just listen to me. Perhaps we're managing a team and wish that our reports would be more accountable to their responsibilities. Well, the Gospel of Matthew flips it on us and says, "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law and the prophets." So I suppose the question I should be asking myself is not what I wish for, but for everything I wish, how am I turning that wish into a command to act toward my neighbor? Am I letting the driver in ahead of me? Am I picking up my socks? Am I giving more money and promotions to others? Am I listening? Am I accountable? So imagine if every personal inkling, wish, hope, and desire were followed by an impulse to actually do the very thing for my neighbor? What a different world this would be. So Fe. Timothy, what do you wish for? And be careful what you wish for because the Gospel of Matthew is in our midst, isn't it?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:14
Oh my, if I answer this question, Hollie, I might be exposed as just a complete fraud, which is what Matthew wants us to be confronted with, our fraudulent double standards. So what do I wish for? Obviously, I wish for the daily annoyances of life to be completely dispersed to someone else. So yes, people annoy me, I get impatient, I'm old. Now, technically, jokingly, which means I justify my fraudulent behavior by saying I don't have the energy or the strength to deal with nonsense. My filters are not quite well established anymore. So I speak my mind a little bit quicker. And I'll justify, which is, of course the joke, right? So in Matthew, we are getting towards the very end of what I call the Mount of Instruction, as opposed to the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. He's summing up. Lest people forget, "Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain. And when he sat down, his disciples came to him and he opened his mouth and taught them saying," and then begins the Beatitudes. "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are the merciful," and so on, and so on, and so on. You see, all these reversal of fortunes, because it looks like the poor, those who are humble and therefore not aggressive, those who hunger and those who are merciful, all these things that look like weakness, in fact, are turned on their head. That's what the Kingdom is about, turning everything upside down. When we think of how then is he going to end his teaching? Okay, and you're going to read it here in a second. And in fact, it's as comforting as the Beatitudes were, these are as discomforting. And it's smacks of, not just of irony, and of course, brilliant writing, and therefore shocking. So at the very end, after the blessedness, the good fortune of the poor and the weak and the promise of the Kingdom and the love of the Heavenly Father, and he'll take care of you, despite your physical circumstances and conditions, because most people in the first century were not among the wealthy elite, because they would not respond to such a content. This is not a gospel for those who have it good in life. This is for those that are suffering. And ultimately, again, the context is disciples. He went from the mountain and sat down and his disciples came to him. And again, we think of a follower, but no, a disciple is much more than a follower, fundamentally a student, a learner. If people are listening to this, they need to place themselves in that condition, not a casual listener, because the disciple ultimately has to be taught, and has to go forth and teach.
Hollie Benton 4:58
So from the Gospel of Matthew chapter seven, starting at verse 12. "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law and the prophets. Enter by the narrow gate for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit. Nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will know them by their fruits." Fr. Timothy this passage is just really rich with imagery. And I'd like to understand better how it all links together. So we've got a wide entry versus a narrow gate. We've got false prophets who look like sheep, but are inwardly ravenous wolves. And then we have sound trees with good fruit and bad trees with evil fruit. So the first section seems a little more focused on your own behavior, do whatever you wish men would do for you and enter by the narrow gate that leads to life. I can't help but think of that passage later in Matthew that speaks of entryways connected by this Greek word for enter, "eiserchomai." It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. That imagery further describes that narrow gate, so to speak. And then we have the second section that seems to warn about others' behavior, warning us about false prophets in sheep's clothing, "and you shall know them by their fruit," and so on. But I suppose it can also be taken as a warning to reflect on the fruit of your own tree of your own behavior, the fruit of your own behavior. I myself can think of times where I fooled even myself convincing myself that I'm being kind by saying what I think people want to hear, only to behave passive aggressively, manipulating people so that I can get what I wish for, and then come the shame of recognizing yourself as a ravenous wolf parading around in sheep's clothing. Is this how the images and passages are linked, Fr. Tim, do we really have license to judge the fruit of others?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:32
Well, ultimately, it's not about us judging per se, but seeing what is actually there in front of us, that the gate is narrow, and the way is hard that leads to life. Matthew is sobering us up, even the poor need to be sober, false prophets, i.e. false teachers, those assuming to proclaim the teaching in sheep's clothing. We have this powerful image of the Lord as shepherding us as His sheep. In other words, sheep follow, they do the Master's bidding. And so this is ultimately the criterion that exposes us for what we truly are. So this idea of fruitfulness, it's first mentioned in Matthew in a very powerful opening. It is John the Baptist saying, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. And everybody out from Jerusalem, including the Scribes and the Pharisees are coming to be baptized responding to the call of repentance. John takes one look at the scribes and Pharisees and says, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Okay, so this idea of judgment. In other words, there's an accounting coming. Wrath isn't just God getting angry. Now, everything is coming to a point. And there will only be a point of accountability and judgment. This is also a contextual point that Matthew carries on. And then he simply says to them, "Do not claim to have Abraham as your father." Notice he takes a dig at what they think is their identity. And he says, "I tell you even from these stones, God can raise up children to Abraham." So again, it's not about who your father is ultimately, because there's only one father, that's God. And then he says, "Bring forth fruit that befits repentance." In other words, we're not playing a game here. He literally body slams them, if you will, and then challenges them to not be presumptuous. So sometimes self-judgment, while it can be critical in terms of being sober and honest about who and what we really are, and what we're really doing. And that's quite frankly, I would say essential. If you can't self-assess based upon the teaching then what hope of repentance? Where is the point of return? My focus here is the warning given to the disciples after the teaching. We're not playing. We're exposing already hypocrisy on all kinds of levels. And we are called again to act. And then also to caution. The idea of false teachers, leading others astray. I mean, this is not a simple issue. Paul will address it in many of his epistles, in fact, even says, if anybody preaches another gospel other than what I have preached, in Galatians, let him be accursed. Corinthians, it comes up again. So the issue of division and people being naively led astray. How is it possible to be led astray? What is inside of them that causes them to follow wrong teachers? False prophets? Our latest permutation of a politician, as I absolutely crack up over George Santos, or Anthony Devolder, or maybe he's got a third name, we still don't know about it, but they're digging now. So they're bound to find other permutations of who this guy is. We don't know who he is. But it's a bit of a national joke. Tragedy on the one hand, but for those of us that don't care about national politics, in the end, it's absolutely Saturday Night Live on steroids, without the production team and the script. But my point is, what is inside of us that causes us to follow teaching, content, not creedal statements, none of that stuff, because Matthew's not interested in that. That's not his focus. It's on what we must be doing as followers of Christ as ones who are hearing the teaching and the sermon on the mount, and therefore not just merely responsible, but want as sheep to follow. Okay, as sheep to follow. Okay, we don't need to hang out all the Orthodox dirty laundry of leadership and bishops and priests and bad behavior, bad examples, people who have pretended to be something and you know, we've had enough this year in 2022, and 2023, we now wait for the next round. But that ultimately, is hearing what the servant is saying. And then simply doing it. And that will guide us. That will guide us in our choices. That will guide us in who we follow or don't follow, whose voice we listen to, whose we don't. It is a razor's edge of understanding and clarity. So if we're distracted by the abundance of words, and Matthew says, limit your words, just say the Our Father, look at its content and follow it and be comforted and secure in it. But my problem is, or sometimes my evaluation, judgment, dangerous word, of others, is that we're always looking for something, we're looking for something else, we're looking for signs, we're looking for miracle workers, we're working for quick fix solutions. Alas, I didn't win the $1.35 billion last week. So I have to have another game plan for sustaining my meager life. Whatever it is, we're looking for all kinds of things. And the teaching here eliminates all of that. This knowledge, you must find the narrow way that leads to life. It doesn't say the Kingdom of Heaven. Leads to life. Oh, and by the way, few are those who find it, which means our quick sell, let's make America Orthodox, or whatever, fill in the blanks you see. Let's make America great, again, maybe 2024, whatever it is, it is long and narrow. And that in itself should be written on our forehead. So that anytime we are tempted to look in the mirror, see how we look today and how we present ourselves, we say, oh long and narrow, long and narrow. It simply is a corrective to our personality and our flaws and our weaknesses. It gives us correctives and warnings. And so it's interesting this has happened at the end, after he's given us the whole thing which had been mostly positive. And now he says, Oh, by the way, it's more difficult than I'm presenting it to you. It's more difficult. And oh, by the way, I've been teaching you to watch out for the false teachers. Okay? Finally look more deeply. Don't be another shallow human being. Okay, come on. Do you look at the news lines every day? I do. But I look at them quickly. I look at them to see which ones titillate me, just because it says something about their ability to get my attention and to see if I'll click and open it up and read it. Okay. The nice thing about getting older is not as much stuff titillates, or you just don't have time, or you don't care anymore. Actually, it's quite liberating. Because at the end of the day, I should just stop scrolling and clicking. Okay, it's a young people sport.
But anyway, I'm making a joke, but that's okay. We can make jokes here. So the difficulty then, you've linked it of course with the camel and the eye of a needle, which is an exaggeration, making something that cannot happen, a camel cannot do it. And so it's to get our attention. In the Gospel, there's exaggerations going on all the time, so that we cannot miss the point, because when you're making fun of something or painting a picture, you can't miss it. Everyone can understand, even a five year old child can see. How can this camel get through an eye of a needle being the largest land mammal, at least in the ancient Near East? Okay, forget about the elephants, it cannot be done. So the difficulty, it's again, it's always to sober us. Because, you know, by definition, at least Americans are cocky and full of ourselves and self assured. And you asked what do I wish for earlier on. And I still amazed at how much I can whine when things aren't perfect, or as they should be, I still fall prey to the expectation that it should be or could be better or it can be fixed or the drivers can drive better. I won't say where I live, because that would be regional prejudice about how slow the drivers are. I mean, I passed someone yesterday, because I couldn't take it anymore. But I'm just talking nonsense. Let's get back to this idea of the impossibility. Therefore, therefore, when something is impossible, we can only throw ourselves onto the mercy of God. And this is the last point I want our hearers to hear. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God. If he is not merciful, then there is no hope. And now we're talking about judgment. God be merciful to me, a sinner, beating our breast, the Publican as opposed to the Pharisee. Another parable of exaggeration. The Publican knows he has only one hope. Ask for mercy. It's up to God to decide. The Pharisee still thinks he's righteous. He doesn't have to ask for mercy and he doesn't even pray, okay. God, I thank you I'm not like this, it's not a prayer. Okay. It is a presentation of his case. I'm not like the other man. So we do not judge in that sense of one's ultimate place because we throw ourselves at His mercy. Now this is obviously a mindset, it does not necessarily mean we have captured it. The way is long and narrow that leads to life, and few are there to find it. So last image I went to leave with people is ancient cities. I've been to enough ruins where the main entrance is wide, colonnaded, there's the Agora and where does it lead? It usually leads, to not just the center of town, but to the place of the king. Very easy entrance to have access. Is that the way? No, the way is long and narrow, the more dangerous, difficult way, circuitous, going through back alleys, maybe dangerous places, or possibly also awaits the Christians of the first century in terms of the difficulty of persecution, because that's addressed in the Gospel Mount as well. Again, where do we situate ourselves? What do we focus on? What are our expectations, wishes? Minimize them, especially the shallow ones about slow drivers and the imperfections and difficulties of daily living. See, I'm talking as a first world, upwardly mobile, middle class person who really thinks life should be as easy as possible. And I have a whole army of people in companies and building machines to make my life as easy as possible, as opposed to the grind of people who live in poverty. But that's another story. Long and narrow that leads to life. Few are they who find it. Let us be sober as we continue our beginnings in this new year, Hollie.
Hollie Benton 18:55
Yes, thank you, Fr. Timothy, I love the link between what you wish for and how that implicates the willingness, the wishing to follow false prophets, the newest politician, the newest marketing campaign, people who are telling you what you should wish for, what you need, what you want, and we get distracted by that. The problem with following false teachers is what is it that we're really wishing for, and is it about serving the neighbor?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:24
Yes. So people need to find the mute button in their soul, on the remote. Turn off the radio because you're being endlessly bombarded with silliness.
Hollie Benton 19:39
Thank you, Father Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:40
Ok. Absolutely. You have wonderful day.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai