Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Matthew Chapter 7

Matthew 7:1-5: Don’t judge! Does that mean we are to be without opinions, without some sense of judgment? I don’t think so. The verb used here could be translated “be critical of” or “condemn.” Jesus is not against making discerning judgments in life, but he has a problem with people who are judgmental. Jesus is not discouraging us from being discerning people, but encouraging us to look more at our own lives, our own spiritual journeys. If we keep comparing ourselves to others, we won’t get very far. I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the first verse. “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults” (The Message). I also love the image Jesus uses. Why are we worried about the speck in someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own (try to picture that!). The term “hypocrite” which has been used quite a bit in this section of Matthew means a stage actor. To be a hypocrite is to play a role, rather than to be transformed. Paying more attention to how others are doing seems to be a sign that one’s own transformation in love needs some work. Don’t be judgmental. Pay more attention to your own spiritual life than trying to find fault in the spiritual life of others. If you really want to help others in their spiritual lives, begin by growing in your own. There are a couple of interesting parallels in Buddhist literature. “Look not at the faults of others nor at what they do or leave undone; but only at your own deeds and deeds unachieved” (The Dhammapada, 50). “One who is about to admonish another must realize within herself or himself five qualities before doing so. He or she must intend thus: In due season will I speak, and not out of season. In truth will I speak, not in falsehood. Gently will I speak, not harshly. To one’s profit will I speak, not to one’s loss. With kindly intent will I speak, not in anger. (Vinaya Pitaka).

Matthew 7:6: Egad, what a verse! Why Matthew would put this here is a bit of a mystery, following Jesus' words on being careful in making judgments. The word “holy” here refers to meat offered on the altar in Temple worship. Don’t throw such meat to dogs. Pigs have no use for pearls, so giving them some appears foolish. Here are three views of this verse. “The general proverbial meaning is clear enough – the truism that holy things should not be profaned – but the particular meaning remains unclear” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “We should simply acknowledge that the saying is provocatively obscure” (New Interpreter’s Bible). The Message translation: “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce the holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.” This verse is found only in Matthew (and in the non-biblical Gospel of Thomas). It should not be considered the centerpiece of the message of Jesus. We will get closer to the heart of Jesus message in verse 12.

Matthew 7:7-11: It is sometimes difficult to understand why Matthew put together these sayings of Jesus in the way he did. Sometimes the transitions are just hard to comprehend. Jesus circles back to talk about prayer. Ask, seek and knock are all Jewish expressions for prayer. In this “sermon,” Jesus sets a high standard for his disciples – love, gentleness, peacemaking, hungering for what is good and right and true. We are invited to be changed, to be different, to let love and light shine, and that is no easy task. Prayer is essential – opening ourselves to God in new ways, stilling our minds so that our responses to life are more considered, thoughtful, mindful. Jesus has a sense that when we struggle with being the kind of people he, and God, call us to be, we should pray – ask, seek, knock. He even uses a bit of sly humor to make his point. In these verses we read the phrase, “if you, then who are evil…” Is Jesus painting the whole of humankind as evil? I think that is too strong. Jesus seemed to think that we all managed at times to lose our way, to do things we ought not to have done, to have messed up. I find that pretty true to life. With these verses, Jesus says something like: “look, as bad as you are sometimes, as messed up as you sometimes can be, don’t you try, most of the time, to give good things to your children?” If our love is sometimes faltering, even as we try and do the right thing, God’s love never falters. Open yourselves to that love in prayer (and if you need one to pray, remember, Jesus has already supplied one).

Matthew 7:12: Now here is something we can grab hold of, and this gets closer to the heart of the teaching of Jesus. That forms of this "Golden Rule" are found in other spiritual and moral traditions does not make it any less an important feature of the teaching of Jesus (e.g. the teaching of Buddha, “consider others as yourself” The Dhammapada, 129). Jesus says that we should do this “in everything.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Again, here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering. Here is a simple rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.

Matthew 7:13-14: Just like verse 6, these verses have often been inappropriately used against people. Insiders label outsiders as dogs or swine or those on the wide and easy way. The primary meaning here is encouragement, not judgment. The spiritual life is a journey, and one can lose one’s way. The spiritual life can be challenging (the way to life – to God – is vigorous and requires total attentionThe Message), so hang in there. Again, there are some striking parallels in Buddhist literature. “Few are those among people who cross to the other shore. The rest of humanity just runs about on the bank right here before us” (the other shore is a metaphor for the Buddhist notion of nirvana, The Dhammapada, 85). “Diligent among the negligent, ever vigilant among the sleeping, the wise person moves on like a swift horse who has overtaken a weak one” (The Dhammapada, 29). One other comment I want to make about this metaphor. The Romans were well-known for building wide roads. The way of discipleship, as Jesus lays it out, has some stark contrasts with the way of the empire and its values.

Note: I seem to be making a fair number of references to Buddhist literature. The point in doing so is not to equate Buddhism and Christianity, or deny their significant differences. My point is to show how other traditions can illuminate our own and to show that there are some common themes which can pave the way for interfaith dialogue in our religiously pluralistic world. If you are interested in looking at some parallels between Jesus and Buddha, I would recommend Marcus Borg, ed. Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings).

Matthew 7:15-23: The bottom line for Jesus is not eloquent teaching (like the kind you are reading here!!!) but a transformed life. Walking the walk – being kind and loving, making peace, seeking justice – is more important than talking the talk.

Matthew 7:24-28: We come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The final verses of chapter four were a summary statement – people were amazed by the teaching and work of Jesus. Matthew then inserts this extended compilation of the teaching of Jesus into his gospel, ending with a note of astonishment at his teaching. But before that, there is the final word Jesus offers – “take my words and act on them. Let my words move you, guide you, transform you.” Here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering of verses 24-27. These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, home-owner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit – but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.

1 comment:

Teri Tangen said...

David, could you explain in a bit more detail your thoughts aroung Matthew 7:13-14. You indicate that the statement here is more for encouragement than judgement. I fail to grasp the encouragement of these words. These verses and other similar verses in the New Testament have always made me feel like I may be taking the easy path, I am not doing enough or the right things. Yet, I believe God loves and accepts me for who I am and what I can do now. The judgement verses always leave me feeling not quite good enough. So I would love to be able to see these verses as encouragement vs judgement. Teri