Sayers, Hearers and Doers

Matthew 7:21-29

24 July 2011

St John's, Shottesbrooke

Morning Prayer

Note that I have also preached a fuller version of this sermon.


Here we find Jesus ending the Sermon on the Mount with two stern warnings. First a warning to those who profess with their mouths to follow him, which we are doing this morning as we meet to pray and sing to the Father. And, second, a warning to those who hear his word, which we have also done in the Bible reading. So we would do well to pay attention to him!

Jesus condemns sayers who aren't also doers

In the first part of our passage, verses 21 to 23, Jesus condemns "sayers" who aren't also "doers".

Verse21, Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.ref

There are people, Jesus says, who say they know him, who believe they know him, and have evidence of great works to back up their claim, but whom Jesus will reject.

These people are sincere. They are not heretics: they rightly call Jesus Lord. They are enthusiastic, "Lord, Lord" they say.

They are claiming to know Jesus, they are doing great deeds—prophesying and exorcising and working miracles—in his name. Verse 22, Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?ref

But Jesus does not know them. Verse 23, And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.ref

These people, then, are like a kind of conman. In one scam, men appear at your door claiming to be from the Water Company needing access to your house to fix a leak. But if you actually checked their ID and called the water company, they would say, "no, we don't know who they are". But these people are unwitting conmen: they actually think they are acting in Jesus' name, but Jesus doesn't know them. And they don't really know him.

The problem is that, while they say Jesus is Lord, they do not do things that are consistent with him being Lord. They are sayers but not doers. They have an outward profession of Christianity, but there is no change in their hearts. Fundamentally their hearts are hard; they are still serving themselves rather than doing the will of the Father in Heaven.

The real tragedy is that they take themselves to be genuine believers. They fully expect to be admitted to heaven. But Jesus will say, I never knew you: depart from meref.

This is alarming stuff, isn't it? But it's just the same point that Jesus has been making for the last three chapters in the Sermon on the Mount. It's not our outward appearance that matters. It's not the claims we make and the appearance of religiosity: it's the state of our hearts. Is there a coherence between our outward and inner religious lives?

So, where do you and I stand? Are we doers of the Father's will, or are we sayers only, however sincere and enthusiastic we may be?

Jesus condemns hearers who aren't also doers

If, in the first part of our passage, Jesus condemns sayers who aren't also doers, in the second part he condemns hearers who aren't also doers. Verse 26, every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sandref.

Of course we all know this story; it's a Sunday school favourite, and the story appears in all of my daughters' Bible Story books. But the way it's usually presented owes more the story of the Three Little Pigs than the picture Jesus describes. In the kiddies' version of this story the wise man always builds a beautiful, solid looking dwelling out of stone and cement, whereas the foolish man just whacks up a few planks of wood.

Needless to say, this misses Jesus' point completely. The point is not about the quality of the house, it's all about the quality of its foundations.

This is the difference that Jesus emphasises. When the wise man built his house he dug down deep until he found solid rock to build on. He put in good foundations and built his house on them. The foolish man didn't bother with all of that. He just put up his house on top of the sand, perhaps a dry river bed that will flood in winter. Outwardly the houses might have looked exactly the same: each finished with the same degree of care, each apparently solid and permanent. But, fundamentally, one is sound and one is not.

So, once again, Jesus is concerned not so much with the outward portion of our lives, but what is unseen: what lies beneath the surface; the state of our hearts and wills.

People who are hearers but not also doers are neglecting to build the foundation.

The problem is that, because much of our response to God's word is internal and unseen, it is easy to neglect. If you were to come to church drunk, it would be obvious to all, but nobody knows if you prayed this morning. If you were to punch somebody in the face, everybody would know about it, but nobody knows if you are secretly harbouring anger in your heart against someone else.

If you are a hearer who is also a doer, you listen as the Bible is read and preached; you may even seek to read the Bible for yourself. But you do more than that. You take what you hear, and ask "what do I need to do about it?" "What changes do I need to make in my life?" "What action do I need to take today?" Often, as the Bible is read, you will become aware of a sin, a failing, a shortcoming. You won't gloss over it; you won't overlook it. You will take it to the cross of Jesus and say to him, "Lord, I know my sin and I am sorry for it. Please help me to overcome it." You will do all this whether or not others know about it, because you care about your foundations.

If you are a hearer but not a doer, you will listen, and perhaps you'll say "that's quite interesting" . You may even know the Bible well and enjoy listening to sermons. But any passing impact it might have will wear off by lunchtime, and life will continue just as before. Outwardly, your life might look much like that of anyone else in church; but you have not invested in the foundations. And what costs us little is, ultimately, worth little.

One day, Jesus warns us, everything will be exposed. He speaks of a time when the rain will come, and the floods will rise and the wind will blow against the house which is our life. This might represent any number of crises in life, but ultimately it points forward to the final judgement.

So, at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leaves us with this question: Having heard all this, what are you going to do? Are you, with the Spirit's help, building a foundation that will survive the judgement? Will you be not only a hearer, but a doer as well?