Why Are We Astonished?
Good leaders manage expectations. Good leaders provide clarity and a path forward to eliminate surprise and disappointment. Since the beginning, the Lord makes it clear that all will be well for those who do His will.
As Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, He reiterates His Father's expectation. The crowds who follow Him are impressed with His prophesies, healings, and mighty works, yet they hold false expectations about entering the Kingdom. Jesus addresses their self-deception, "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." So why are the crowds astonished at His teaching?
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're 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 Fr. Timothy Lowe, retired priest and former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem brings you this episode today. Hello, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:29
Good morning, Hollie. Nice to be here again.
Hollie Benton 0:32
Good to be with you too, Father. So we've been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount or as you like to call it, the Mount of Instruction. And today, we will be hearing the end of it, the last few verses of Matthew chapter seven. As I prepared for today's conversation and read the passage in Matthew's Gospel, the leadership phrase that comes to mind is "managing expectations." Good leaders are good at managing expectations. They communicate with everyone who might be impacted by decisions or changes. They level set with everyone involved to help eliminate surprise or disappointment, and to provide clarity and a path forward. What's so interesting here at the end of Christ's instruction is that he senses people's self-deception, and he calls it out, he calls out their false expectations. People expect to enter his kingdom, if they call him Lord. "Lord, Lord," they carry his brand, they wear his jersey colors, so to speak, they use his logo to market and sell all the mighty works that they do in his name. But he warns them that he doesn't care about the image they project and the impressive fireworks, their shows of prophecies, their casting out of demons and mighty works. The expectation is simple and clear. He who does the will of my Father who is in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven. So Fr. Timothy, remind us again about the setting for Jesus's instruction that we hear from Matthew's Gospel, these chapters five, six and seven.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:11
Matthew is clearly connecting the setting with the setting of Mount Sinai, and the commandments given to Moses. But here Christ is the one teaching as if he is the one speaking the words himself. And therefore it is even more direct. And it's direct to the totality. It's not just Moses up there, and he brings down the tablets. But it is Christ directing his teaching to the disciples, and therefore, it is constitutional, formative. There is nothing like these three chapters in the entire New Testament, okay, they are completely and totally unique. Luke has a little bit of a section, they call it in quotes and it doesn't come from the text, but the sermon on the plains, it has nothing similar to this. This is immediately after Christ has been baptized, he's gone into the wilderness, he's begun his public ministry in Galilee. And immediately he goes into these three chapters. So as we begin to make some concluding remarks, I want people to remember this setting, and its formative nature. And so let us begin with the reading.
Hollie Benton 3:18
So here it is from Matthew's Gospel near the end of chapter seven, "Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day, nany will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers. Everyone then who hears these words of mine, and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine, and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority and not as their scribes." Again here, Fr. Timothy, the expectation is clear as Jesus wraps up his Father's instruction, the very instruction that he himself carries out by his every word, and his every deed, the same instruction that the scribes have access to in the Law and the Prophets. Jesus isn't saying anything new from what is already taught by Moses and the Prophets and yet, here the crowds are astonished. And then I have to pause, because the ironic thing here is that while I sit back and watch the story unfold, even knowing the whole story because I am taught it Sunday after Sunday, day after day in daily readings, I can laugh knowingly about the temptation of self- deception among the biblical characters. Yet, I probably stand condemned in my own self deception, pledging allegiance with my lips, but struggling to do the will of our Father who is in heaven. I think the biblical story here is quite powerful as it works on so many levels, making you feel like an insider on one level, yet pointing out the hypocrisy on another level so that you see yourself on the outside, to turn back in repentance yet again. So say more about this element of surprise and astonishment and how it works in the biblical story, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 5:52
Well, your mentioning of the insider is also another point to remember that this is addressed to the church community, to the faithful. And even though we're reading it as outsiders, the text talking 20 centuries later, as the case may be, yet it is still an insider relationship. And so I always find it amazing how the Scripture squeezes us, and therefore renders us without excuse, without excuse. And it does this through this ability to teach in a way that's so descriptive, that no matter how we construct, we cannot misunderstand it. He's done - chapter five, chapter six, the teaching of the Our Father and chapter seven. And now we come to the final warnings. If someone does not listen to this instruction, he is a fool, and uses the image of the foundation upon which you build your home. And it's clear what the meaning is. Either you listen to these words, you make them the foundation of your life. Your house is a place where we live, we dwell. And it's the image of who we are. And so these words have to be the foundation of our life. The fact that we're reading them, hearing them again, and again, and again. You know, let's be honest, the Scripture is always repetitive, it doesn't tell us something once and assume we're going to hear it and do it. It tells us time and again, time and again, time and again, to further emphasize that it is squeezing us so that when we fail, we, and I liked the word here, appear foolish, stupid. So as we begin to talk about these words, our lives, I was thinking something St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, in frustration, and that is, "How long do I have to continue to labor over you until Christ is formed in you?" In other words, he's frustrated, and again and again, again, and people still are not responding. And these words still are not having the impactful formative value upon which we build our entire, not just worldview as if it's an intellectual, but as you keep pressing the point in the Scripture, is this is the will of God. And I liked that you brought in the branding images, which is so much a part of everything. It's in the church, its branding, and so on, projecting, and all the endless media ads, and it's just part and parcel of how one goes about doing business and quote unquote, doing outreach. And that's why the gospel is counterintuitive. And we're gonna see how this is important when we get towards the end. So Christ has done all of this, done all this, taught, taught, taught, and to emphasize it, squeezed us by saying, okay, these words, listen to them otherwise, or else. It's the ending that people will miss. But in fact, I think is amazingly sad. It's amazingly sad. And it's the response of the people. It says here, and when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowd were astonished at his teaching. Now this word crowd, is going to be used over 50 times in reference, we've seen it already. When Jesus started in chapter four, the crowds had followed him because he performed some mighty works. He cast out demons, He healed people, and so they were astonished or amazed. Now, this Greek word, it's a very intensive verb, which means to be struck, either with panic, amazement, to the point or shock of being dumbfounded, in other words, in awe. And then they even remarked for he taught them as one who had authority. This is also a technical word in Matthew, it is a word that often is associated with acts of power, demonstration of power. So it's by these exousia, this power that He cast out the demons, it's by this power that He heals people. It's about this power that He speaks. And so my point is people acknowledge and witness the power, okay, they witness the power, and therefore the authority. Who gave this man authority? It's a curious question. But the real question is the power with which he acts, and it is acknowledged. And it's acknowledged that the other teachers do not have this same power, therefore this authority, and so they are dumbfounded. But as we know, that's not the proper response. You used the word fireworks. It's not the proper response to sort of be amazed by the show, and then to go back to our business, whatever our business is. This is ultimately the sin. Because often I think sometimes Christians, Christians, let's only talk about Christians, insiders. They look for acts and demonstrations of God's power. We go on pilgrimages, we go to the tombs of the saints, we venerate the relics, we go to see if there's a holy man and we wander off to him. But the end is what? What is the end result? We want answers, and my point is, is that people must form themselves on chapters five, six, and seven of Matthew. If you do not know these chapters, if they do not inform how you live, how you think, how you address problems, how you deal with insecurities, fears, fright, the future and whatnot, then we are again, like the crowd. The crowd is a word that's perhaps one of the most used words in the Gospel of Matthew, the crowds that are praising him in amazement will be the same crowd (this is Matthew's point) will be the same crowd that will go all the way to Jerusalem, and ultimately say, Crucify Him, Crucify Him. And then as Pilot in the Gospel of Matthew washes his hands saying, Well, I'm not responsible for this man's innocent blood, which is a technical term, because innocent blood is something that is important in terms of justice, crying from the ground, starting with the blood of Abel, and it goes on all the way through in the Old Testament. So it's the technical term, which is why Matthew brings it in. I am not responsible for this man's innocent blood, and they say, of course, his blood be upon us, in other words they'll take full responsibility for the outcome of the innocent blood, which ultimately has to cry out for justice. So my point is, how do we respond? How are we responding to chapters five, six, and seven? Is it a passing phenomenon that we look at and we move on to chapter eight? Are we passive observers and say, Well, that's nice, but it's really too idealistic. Because Matthew five, six and seven is idealistic. Okay? Do not worry about what you should eat, drink. Your heavenly Father knows, just look at the birds of the air. He knows what you need, he'll take care of you. Don't heap up empty phrases. We're going back to things we've mentioned already, Hollie, and prayer, for your Father knows what you need, just the simplicity and the power of the Our Father commending yourself in trust and faith to the one who is your Father, and thus is duty bound to provide for you, according to how he understands your needs. I'm saying that as idealistic as it is, and trust me, I believe it's idealistic, and therefore its maximalistic, yet, it is the way. Now, when they cry out and say, Oh!, they're amazed and dumbfounded by his teaching, and then I smile to myself, and ask, did they really hear it? Did they really hear it? The way is long and narrow that leads to life and few are they will find it? I mean, really, that's depressing. I walk every morning. And you know, when you walk every morning in the same area, you get to know other people that are walking around. It's a recreational field and they're empty and so some of us have dogs that run loose, and the dog is a perfect segue to get to meet people. So this one guy I've met, and we've talked several times, he decided to go on a radical diet. And maybe it wasn't so radical. He just started eating better, taking care of himself, and he's lost 80 pounds. He's a transformed human being from a guy who could barely walk who now trudges faster than I do. My point is beginning this way that we must go as Christians in the world. And ultimately what happens, it's God's business. We have his will, we do it, and the rest is up to him. The irony is, okay, we know we are a stressed out, worried, chemical dependent culture, and the future looks more in middle class America looks as bleak as we can ever imagine. Oh, we're not talking about where there's upheaval and civil strife and civil war and wars between nations. And yet we whine about the price of groceries going up or now the cost of comfort because of the price of electricity and heating and all of which are just part of our ticky tacky day, but we still are missing the complete notion that ultimately, that is not our business. Oh, property values fell for five straight months. So the house that I bought . . . really is that our focus? My point is, brothers and sisters, build your house on the rock, which is the teaching. Okay, that's the point, the rock is the teaching, the foundation is the teaching. That's what we should be about. And not some of the other silliness that comes from us priests who are preaching or teaching or talking about Orthodox theology, or the meaning of this or that or the icons and whatnot, it has nothing to do with it. So, you and I have been holding on to a quote to give to our listeners at some point. I think now it is time to share this quote. It was sent from a friend of ours, mutual friend. It's from a Protestant minister, a woman, which even makes it more powerful. Okay, because we might get disturbed at women reverends. Robin Rex Meyers, she says, "In the Sermon on the Mount, there is not a single word about what to believe, only words about what to do, and how to be. By the time the Nicene Creed is written, 325 for those who forget, only three centuries later, there is not a single word in it about what to do or how to be, only words about what to believe." I understand the history of the Ecumenical Council and Constantine and the complexities and wanting to come up with a single creed, blah, blah, blah. But it is not about what to do or how to be. It is only words about what should be in our mind. And I think that is a weakness, as you said, and as Christ warned us, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord enters the kingdom of God." The fireworks isn't going to help us. It is simply about what to do and how to be. So there we are, Hollie.
Hollie Benton 16:51
Pretty powerful indeed. Yes, it's not about the what to believe, but the what to do, how to be, if only we could get it through our thick skulls to motivate our hands and feet.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:01
There you go. And not to be in a discussion of defining myself visa vie, the Muslim or the Buddhist or the Protestant or the Catholic, you know, I'm Orthodox. No, it's not about that. Okay. And I think so much of our identity sometimes going on in our brain is reactive, and the common ground is what to do, how to be. Trust me, I led an ecumenical Institute with people from all corners of the world. And most of them, obviously in ministry, priests, nuns, it was interesting, which ones could find the common ground of what to do and how to be as opposed to, Well, that's not canonical or no, the Canon lawyers were always the worst. That's to be expected. But anyway, we know what we would need to do. Let's do it.
Hollie Benton 17:49
Let's do it. Let's get at it. Thank you, Fr. Timothy.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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