Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.
Late last week I published a number of posts. I couldn’t get the words out fast enough! However, in doing so I think I burnt out the blog-writing node of my brain. Today, purely out of a desire to be disciplined in writing, I dive back into the book of Matthew. (In other words, I’m in no mood to write today but I’m doing it anyway.)
Summary of Matthew 7
Do not condemn others, but be aware of the deeds (and consequences) of false prophets. Living the kingdom life is hard, but the Father responds to those who ask and search for it. Your life’s foundation is solid when you follow the principles of God’s kingdom.
Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 7
Jesus tells his listeners not to condemn others, because God “will treat you exactly as you treat them.” He equates condemning someone with trying to remove a speck from someone’s eye when you have a log in your own eye. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the eye as the basis of this metaphor: noticing the “log” in one’s own eye takes a great deal of humility and self-reflection. It is a lifelong process. Kingdom-living includes having a pure heart (5:8), and it’s no coincidence that the result of having a pure heart is that they will see God.
The “do not condemn” verses are some of the most overused, proof-texted verses in the entire Bible. Many use these verses as a shield against any type of criticism. But throughout this sermon, Jesus has a LOT to say about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the day. In fact, Jesus warns his followers to be very aware of false prophets, and that one can tell false prophets by their deeds (vs. 20). It isn’t too difficult to see the damage that has been wrought in the name of Christianity: spiritual and sexual abuse, corrupt political coalitions, gender and racial inequality, the oppression of the poor (and the rise of expensive mega-churches), and the continuous amoeba-like splitting of denominations and sects, just to name a few.
The question I ask myself then is: am I condemning these people, going against what Jesus teaches? I can see the “bad fruit” (vs. 17-19), and Jesus tells his followers to watch out for those that produce these consequences. If I’m honest, there is definitely a tension between these two sets of verses. I know that people have condemned ME in the past for a variety of reasons. But I think it’s important to call out “false prophets” when their deeds/bad fruit are obvious, such as those I listed in the previous paragraph. But what about individuals we know and love? What about those we run across in day-to-day life or even encounter online? In these instances, with individuals, Jesus' message of “do not condemn” becomes clearer. We don’t know everyone’s story, background, challenges, hurts, trigger points, or the specific point they are in their life’s journey. It’s a wretched thing to be shamed or accused of being a “bad person.”
It’s also kind of interesting that Jesus refers to the speck in your friend’s eye. We can only see clear to help a friend when we have a continuous spirit of self-reflection, humility, and love. Relationship is vital!
And look! Look what’s there in verse 12! The Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. This is what the Law and the prophets are all about. That statement is crazily profound. I know that I don’t want to be condemned for the long, arduous journey I’ve taken as a gay man navigating the mysterious nature of life and God. But I would want others to defend me and stand up for me against the power structures that exist today, whether these structures are religious or political (or a combination of both). Furthermore, as someone who does have a certain amount of power (white male American citizen), I appreciate the opportunity to understand how I can support others who are more oppressed, and even how my action or inaction might be part of the problem. Of course I don’t enjoy hearing that, but it makes it easier to hear when it’s coming from a friend or at least from someone who I know is trustworthy. Perhaps this is where vs. 6 comes into play: do not throw your pearls before swine. Interestingly, this verse comes right after the “do not condemn” verses. That is, if you are speaking truth to someone with a loving intent and a pure heart (very hard to do!), make sure that the person is in a place where they can listen. Better yet: someone who trusts you/is a friend.
I’ve skipped around a bit because of the interesting tension between verses 1-6, 12, and 15-20. Let’s look next at the verses I skipped. First, vs. 7-11: these verses are very encouraging to me, because Jesus reassures his listeners that if they will search for the truth, if they ask for it, they will receive it. Continuous self-examination and living out the kingdom life is difficult and can be very discouraging. But there’s no better foundation for life (vs. 24-25) and in fact is life. In vs. 13-14, Jesus talks of the narrow gate leading to life and the wide gate leading to destruction. The narrow gate is living as a member of God’s kingdom: it goes against the conventional wisdom of the day, even (especially?) the conventional wisdom of the typical American church. Following the Jesus way leads to LIFE, to meaning and fulfillment. I truly think this is the reward that Jesus talks about throughout his sermon.
Close to the end of the sermon, Jesus gives a dire warning. Vs. 21-23 is a favorite passage of pastors that like to use to scare their followers to obedience. However, can it be that he is talking mostly to those types of pastors? With all that Jesus has preached in the last three chapters, with the contrasts he’s given between kingdom life and what the religious leaders of the day taught, I’d say it was very likely.
In conclusion, Jesus says that those who follow these principles are wise and have a strong foundation for life; those who don’t will lack this foundation. Matthew remarks after the sermon is complete that the people who listened were surprised at his teaching, and that he taught with “authority” and “not like their teachers…” Again, we see the contrast of Jesus with the religious leaders of the day.