In 1926, Sinclair Lewis published a satirical novel which followed the career of the unethical, immoral—yet utterly charming and handsome—fundamentalist Baptist evangelist Elmer Gantry. When actor Burt Lancaster won a 1961 Oscar for his portrayal of Gantry, his performance felt less satirical and more descriptive of the fall (and rise again) of several big-name evangelists. Now, almost a century after that first publication, the predatory behavior of endless religious and political Elmer Gantrys feels altogether familiar, warranting only a passing headline or a single news tease. But false prophets and messianic charlatans didn’t just appear with the advent of fundamentalism in early twentieth-century America. There were numerous “messiahs” traveling about the Holy Land in the centuries leading up to and during the lifetime of Jesus. Remember, even John the Baptist sent his disciples to inquire, “Are you the one, or should we look for another?”
Jesus knows how easily we are fooled. Here in the closing paragraphs of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his followers not to be taken in by those who wrap themselves in the mantles of religious position and high-sounding words. Don’t be misled by a slick performance and misdirection, he urges. He reminds us there is one test of authenticity: Only the one who does the will of my Father will enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 21). What is God’s will? “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Otherwise, Jesus says, “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’” (v. 23). Are there any more damning words?
What strikes you with fear? Who seduces you to doubt?
Holy, loving Shepherd, you tell us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your presence (Micah 6:8). Yet like foolish sheep, we get distracted, we wander, we go our own ways. Find us again, Lord. Draw us back into your shelter. Remind us whose and who we are. Amen.