We are studying Matthew 7:1-6 & 15-23 for Sunday, July 28. This is some, not all, of the concluding section of the Sermon on the Mount. [Some discussion questions for this text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our fourth [and last, for awhile] week studying the Sermon on the Mount, the first of Jesus’ long teaching discourses in the gospel of Matthew, which is organized around a series of Jesus’ seminars on various topics. This one, the inaugural one, focuses on the nature and demands of the Kingdom of the Heavens.
We’ve looked closely at most of chapter 5 – the beatitudes, that outline “true blessedness,” the salinity and brilliance of the citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens, and the nature of a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” finishing up with loving our enemies. We’ve skipped over the material in chapter 6, which focuses on how to practice: not for the sake of being seen by our neighbors, but for the sake of cultivating a relationship with God. Now, the focus turns (arguably) to how all of this works itself out in our relationships with other people.
The discourse as a whole is one that establishes Jesus as one whose teaching is “astounding” and uniquely authoritative, so, not what people were used to (Matthew 7:29), and the emphasis on Jesus’ authority seems (according to our study Bible commentary) to be a special concern of Matthew’s gospel – though it’s certainly not absent from the other gospels.
CLOSER READING: Verse 1-2 start out with a five-fold repetition of words that sound like judge – even though the word for judgment is technically a different word from the verb “judge.” The word for judgment seems to have more of the sense of legal judgment, or sentence, than it does of discernment, even though the verb judge can have either sense – the sense of separating or preferring, as well as the sense of condemning. But since Jesus is later going to stress the need to pay attention, to differentiate between bad and good fruit and between sheep and wolves, the context suggests that Jesus definitely means here to forgo condemning people.
In v3, “you” sees the tiny sliver in the neighbor’s eye, but fails to turn the mind, or attention to the 2×4 in your own. It’s a nutty image, but it at least implies that you wouldn’t be able to see that 2×4 any how, it’s something you have to think of to be aware of. Like … perspective, maybe.
V4 takes the idiocy a step farther, as “you” offers to be helpful but bam (something like the way the Greek word here is used, apparently), there’s that 2×4 in the way …
So … don’t do that. And according to Dallas Willard’s reading, the 2×4 just is that tendency to condemn the neighbor or the brother in the first place. If you could manage to get that [social?] construction material out of your point of view, maybe you’d have a clearer picture of the situation.
Verse 6 poses a definite challenge. It’s pretty clear what Jesus says here; but what does it mean? It may be worth recalling that the dogs come up again in Matthew – specifically in Matthew 15:21-28, when Jesus says it’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. In that context the dogs seem to be Gentiles. But in that context, Jesus seems to change his mind about them; some dogs can appreciate bread from heaven, maybe.
The pearls – literally margaritas, which is evocative – come up again, too. Jesus tells a story about a merchant who is shopping for them (Matthew 13:45-46). There, the pearl seems to be a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven itself. The pearls may have a strong whiff of “wisdom” about them, too – Job said “the price of wisdom is above pearls” (Job 28:18).
We might also recall that just a few verses ago (Matthew 5:13) it was salt – salt that had lost its saltiness, anyhow – that was going to be trampled on.
Does any of this help? Willard’s commentary stresses the obvious fact that dogs and pigs cannot eat pearls. So, giving them that kind of thing is unhelpful – and perhaps even disrespectful. No wonder the hungry animals try to eat the pearl-casters, instead.
Maybe. That reading might lead us to notice that, in the context of Jesus’ instruction not to condemn, throwing your pearls at pigs might be another form of condemnation, something like assigning textbooks that are too advanced for your students, and then complaining about how stupid they are, or like being disappointed when your toddler doesn’t appreciate that really good blue cheese.
The dogs and the pigs, whoever they are, if they are anyone, aren’t the ones with the problem here. And if “you” were motivated by kindness and were more interested in being appropriate than in keeping up some kind of appearance of holiness and wisdom, “you” might see that.
So, there’s that 2×4 again.
God doesn’t act that way (7:9-11). “You” don’t even act that way, when you respond to your children.
So v12 seems to sum all this up, by instructing “you” to be about extending the attentive consideration that you want for yourself to others. You want people to listen to what you’re asking for, and to give you what you ask for, not something different. That attentive consideration requires … judgment (in the sense of discernment, not condemnation). And paying attention to other people means meeting them where they are.
We skip the instruction about the strait gate and the narrow way – I don’t know why. [At Mammoth Cave one of the tours takes people through a spot called “Fat Man’s Misery”, where the channel through the rock gets down to something like 12 inches. This is one way to think of the image. But recently, we went to visit someone whose home has brick pillars on either side of their driveway – I got a little worried about the side view mirrors. If the gate had been strait enough, I suppose, we would have had to park the car and walk. That may be another useful way to think about Jesus’ image here.]
The warning about the strait gate seems to be the context for verse 15, the warning about false prophets, who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. [That is, presumably, wearing sheep-shaped clothing, rather than wearing clothing that is made for sheep.] The false prophets, perhaps, advocate the wide gate and the easy way.
What precisely we make of this image may depend on whether we think of the reader/listener as a sheep, or a shepherd, or someone else. That is: do the false prophets disguise themselves as one of “us”? Or, as one of “them,” dependent and harmless and our responsibility? Or as one of “them,” that is, not our problem/nothing to worry about?
This must be linked to the way we need to think about fruits, which is the criterion for whether the prophet is or isn’t false. Jesus’ example of grapes vs. thorns and figs vs. thistles seems to emphasize fruit that is nourishing and tasty vs. plants that are prickly and weedy and a lot of trouble to eradicate. [Ignoring the possibility of artichokes.]
It might suggest that prophetic ministry ought to help people, and that people are in a pretty good position to know whether they are being helped, and will like it when they are. If the grapes and figs are anything to go by. But that might be reading too much in to that example.
The idea of people showing up with Lord, Lord on their lips and long resumés in their hands only to be disavowed as strangers is disturbing, because it suggests that people can know Jesus, at least in some sense, without being known by Jesus. That opens up a whole set of 2 a.m. questions. I might feel better about those if I had a pantry full of good fruit myself. Maybe.
The point of discernment is whether people do the will of Jesus’ Father, and it will be determined on that day – we probably think of the day of judgment here. And there’s that judgment again, which is how this text began.
And we might recall that Jesus’ Father, whose will is being invoked here, is the one who shines the sun on the just and the unjust, and sends rain on the righteous and the rest.
So the main point, once again, seems to be loving people. Hard as that is.