Clearing a Path to the Sermon on the Mount
John, the one who baptized people, including Jesus, was a prophet. John dressed like Elijah, but he was referred to as “the Elijah that was to come” more for his message than his appearance.
Elijah challenged those who had the lineage of Abraham, including the rooted reminder that being be blessed was a call to be a blessing to all others. Where hypocrisy and corruption showed up Elijah spoke up. Where faith in God’s graciousness was expressed he shared blessings, both given and received. John does the same.
Come Out and Clean Up
John drew huge crowds away from the complex struggles of the surrounding city and towns. He called people away from their entanglements and proclaimed an available reality:
“Change your hearts; for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” — John the Baptizer (Mt. 3:1)
People went into the water as a response to his call. They confessed their sins as they expressed their faith in this Kingdom of the heavens. The exodus of so many people from where they were to this wilderness caught the attention of the teachers of Torah. They came out as well, but John did not receive them as graciously; he called them a bunch of poisonous serpents.
Can People Be Bad?
Over on Instagram this morning, tosin_akande shared a story where she was musing on how religious identity is often misused in ways to obscure whether someone is actually a good or bad person. She paused at the end to acknowledge the problems with using such language about people, particularly the blunt description of someone as a bad person. But then she looked into the camera and said “but I also feel like we know what I’m talking about when I say ‘a bad person.’” And she was right.
A Fruitless Life Is not Good
“So every good tree produces good fruits, but the diseased tree produces bad fruits.” — Jesus (Mt. 7:17)
The question of whether something is a good one of those, or not, depends on what something is intended to do. A good orchard is one filled with trees that produce good fruit. A good person, we will find out in increasing detail, is someone who produces gracious acts out of their character which is fed by God’s graciousness.
So, how do I figure out if I am a good… tree?
First I need to realize that defensiveness or weird religious posturing won’t help. John is prophesying about fulfilling God’s call to Abraham. He preempts the religious rationalizing of people who focus on their legacy by pointing out that God’s grace, received and shared, is what counts; just like with the original Abraham. That means whatever I tend to use as a signal to other people that my church credentials are legit may well need to be actively set to the side. Instead, I need to ask harder questions, like,
“If Jesus was to tell another parable like that of the Good Samaritan using me as one of the characters, would that character be a warning or an encouragement?”
The likely answer, at least the healthy-sounding answer, is that I am not as sure about that as I’d like to be. Such is the kind of posture the people who came out to get cleaned up had; a posture of humility infused with hope. We look to our shortcomings not to despise ourselves, but to find fresh ways to be renewed and to flourish. That is what John wanted for those who heard him, and that is why Matthew included him this way in the build-up to Jesus’ most foundational teaching. We are now following their lead.
Crown Heart World will meet by zoom at 3:30 CST to discuss these ideas more in preparation for a deep dive into the practical and productive use of the Sermon on the Mount.
More about the Tree metaphor for life: