Commentary on Matthew 7:21-29
Max De Pree, the well-known businessman and leadership author, is fond of saying that beliefs shape practices. If you want to know what you truly believe, you only need to examine your behaviors.
What De Pree is getting at is that we all have a set of assumed beliefs, what we think we believe. And then we have our real beliefs, which are revealed in our behaviors. A person can say, “I believe in truth, it is a core commitment of my life.” But in difficult circumstances the same person may lie to gain an advantage. Their real belief or core value is not truth, it is something else. For Christians in the West we affirm and make much of doctrinal statements, views on social justice, poverty, or even what it means to be truly spiritual. Our challenge, however, is to align our practices–the behaviors of our workaday lives–with our stated beliefs. It seems that this is the same problem that is articulated by Jesus here in Matthew.
Matthew 7.21-29 is divided into two parts. The first section, 7.21-23, addresses a problem with a specific group. The second, 7.24-29, serves as the conclusion to the first great teaching block in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (5.1 — 7.27). In the first section, which is an example of the canyon that can exist between saying one thing but really meaning and doing something quite different, Jesus offers a provocative statement that sharpens the discussion regarding who is truly a disciple. Not everyone who says or affirms that Jesus is the risen Lord and Lord of their lives will enter the Kingdom of heaven on that future day. It is only those who actually do the will of God who will be permitted entry. This sounds very similar to what we read in the Epistle of James. In other words, faith without works is dead. For Jesus, it is the manner in which life is lived out that demonstrates whether or not someone is honestly one of his people, his true disciples. Words, apparently, do not matter that much.
Then Jesus illustrates what he means in v.22. Even though one verbally affirms his lordship and does remarkable deeds identical to those Jesus, his disciples and the churches of the first century did, namely, prophesying, exorcising demons and other deeds of power, they will never spend eternity with God if they are not living the life of a disciple as articulated by Jesus. At the great judgment, Jesus will not recognize them as his own. This is quite a statement, since very often it is the performance of charismatic elements that receives all the attention.
This is a powerful passage that gets at the heart of Jesus’ message. To be a follower of Jesus means that behaviors and actions–the manner in which we live out our daily lives–are the artifacts of the inner life of faith. More to the point, mere words, performance of deeds, even miraculous ones done in the name of Jesus, or random deeds of mercy will not affect one’s eternal destiny. Religiosity will not help either. This will no doubt come as a surprise for many. And it raises the question, if these charismatic elements that seem to evince an alignment with Jesus and his movement do not demonstrate that a person is an insider, then what does? What does indeed? The next paragraph offers an answer to this haunting question.
Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount with the story of two people and the houses they have chosen to build. The metaphor of the building to describe a life is particularly powerful. One person hears Jesus’ words and acts on them, putting them into practice. The other hears Jesus’ words and doesn’t act on them. Two people, two responses to Jesus’ message. The first person is like a house that has been built on a rock. Its foundation is strong and secure and can withstand any assault. The second is like a house built on the sand. Its foundation is weak and unstable and will eventually be destroyed by the storm. This final story summarizes the entire Sermon on the Mount. The message is clear: discipleship occurs in the everyday practices of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ words here balance the misunderstanding of Paul in today’s Christian world that can be distorted into a gospel of grace without ethical demand. Jesus is not suggesting that a new law replace the old; rather, love for and devotion to God must be accompanied by a life that honors God. Or to put it another way, becoming a follower of Jesus is to decide to become a member of his society and is marked by a willingness to live one’s life according to the values and beliefs of that society. One becomes part of the people of God. Jesus’ invitation is an invitation to an encounter with God and a different way of living life. This life will provide not only strength in the present to withstand the various storms that come our way but also the final great storm that sees us through to an eternity with the Lord, to and for whom we have lived a life of devotion.