A Father Who Gives God Gifts – Matthew 7:9-11

Jesus offers an intentionally humorous illustration: when a child asks for something to eat, a parent would not give then something bad (or dangerous). What did Jesus mean by this metaphor?

Bread was baked in a small round loaf, more like a dinner roll than a modern loaf of bread, so potentially it could be mistaken for a stone. Both fish and snakes have scales, so it is possible to confuse the two.

Luke 11:1-13 includes two of these analogies after his version of the Lord’s Prayer and the parable of the Visitor at Midnight. He adds a third substitution: a scorpion for an egg. This may seem strange, but Middle Eastern scorpions are small and resemble a bird’s egg when it is asleep. This is an even stronger metaphor than the first two since the scorpion is very deadly. The point is not “how could the two be confused” but “why would you do such a thing?”

In the illustration, the child asks for something good and necessary for their lives and even then worst parent has the sense to give them something edible (and hopefully healthy).  If evil humans know how to give good things to their children, “how much more” will God, who is the ideal good Father, give good things to his children when they ask?

It is important to see the child is asking for some basic need, their daily bread (from Matthew 6:11). They are not asking for their wildest dreams, or to be wealthy and have a great car and gorgeous spouse, or to “have their boundaries expanded” as in the Prayer of Jabez. They are asking for their basic needs.

There is a responsibility on our part as well, we must ask if we expect to receive, we must knock if we expect the door to be opened.

Our theology shapes our prayer (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 247). What we believe about God shapes the way we pray to God. If our view of God is similar to a child’s view of Santa, then we will be very disappointed when our prayers are not answered. (“I asked for a pony and got pajamas instead.”) What happens when a child is disappointed by Santa year after year? They “grow up” and quit believing in him.

If our view of God is similar to a vending machine, we will be very disappointed when our prayers are not answered. If I do the right things (rituals, devotionals, etc), or do not commit too many sins, then God must answer my prayer with blessings, right? Think of those credit cards with some sort of a reward for spending. If I spend money and make my payments, they will give me money back at the end of the year, a “cash back bonus.” God does not really work like that.

Jesus describes God as the ultimate, good heavenly Father who wants the best for his children, even if those children do not understand what is best for them.

If You Ask, You Will Receive? – Matthew 7:7-8

Along with Luke 11, this passage in Matthew 7 is usually used to teach persistence in prayer. If we consistently present our requests to God, he will answer them. This is foundational for the Prosperity Gospel and an anything-goes “name it and claim it” view of prayer. Many in the prosperity gospel movement believe it is God’s will for believers to be in good health, financially successful, and happy.

The problem is obvious, God does not always answer our prayer. We do not get the job, our sickness is not healed, etc. Sometimes pastors will say God always answers, but sometimes the answer is “no.” But that is not what this paragraph says. Jesus says “ask, and it will be given to you.” He then illustrates this and concludes that the Father will give good things to those who ask for them.

The result for some Christians is the fear their faith is not strong enough, perhaps there is unconfessed sin in their life, or they really are not persistent enough to attract God’s attention with their small problems. This is especially true if their pastor has told them God will give them whatever they want if they ask for it in the right way.

But is that what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 7:7-12? Does he say, “If you badger God long enough he will give you whatever you want”? Is the “name it and claim it” theology of the prosperity gospel right?  We need to understand what Jewish prayer was in the first century. Did they make prayer requests as evangelical Christians do today?

Jesus tells his disciples to Ask, Seek and Knock. To “ask God” is to expect him answer. But Jesus is speaking to his own Jewish disciples, the ones he has already instructed to call God “father” (Matthew 6:9).

Some kid might come up to you and ask you for some basic need and you are free to help them (or not). If the child is your own, you have a clear obligation to take care of your child’s need. [I imagine a child might come up to me and ask me to help them blow their nose, in which case I would help them find their mother. But if my own child asked, I would (probably) help them]

The unsaved can pray to God, and God might answer their prayer, but God is not in a parent-child relationship with the unsaved person. The Book of Jonah is an example in of a pagan nation with no idea what God requires prayed for mercy and received it. That God provides good gifts to all people is a clear teaching of both the Old and New Testament. Obviously God does hear the prayers of the unregenerate who ask for the forgiveness of sin and accept Jesus as their savior.

Jesus is therefore talking about requests in prayer from God’s children. This is similar to Paul in Romans 8, the Spirit who helps us pray because we do not even know how to pray! Does a believer need to be in obedience to God’s will when they bring requests to God? Does the presence of sin in our life limit our prayers? Are your children always in perfect obedience when they ask you for things?

It is certainly possible for God to answer the prayers of a believer who is in sin. Like a human relationship, sin can cloud and disrupt a relationship. Even though God does not change, the believer may not be in a place to approach God in prayer. This is the reason the Lord’s Prayer included confession of sin (Matt 6:12). Virtually everyone who teaches on prayer includes confession as an important part of prayer. This is true for the Psalms, in the majority of the Psalms the author confesses his sin and the sin of his people before asking God to rescue him from his problems.

Does this mean a believer who is in sin shouldn’t ask anything from God until they have confessed all their sins?  Not necessarily, since it is impossible to confess every sin.

Even in our requests to the good Heavenly Father, we ought to be submissive to God’s will. Why do your kids ask you for things? Sometimes they have real needs and they need help, but occasionally they have an ulterior motive (greed, get their sibling in trouble, etc.) James 4:3 says those who ask and don’t receive are asking from wrong motives.  What might a “wrong motive” be for asking something from God?  Selfishness?  Greed?  Jealousy?

Our prayers are motivated by our desires, but the effective prayers in the Old Testament are always motivated by what is best for God.

As we mature in Christ, we will bring each area of our lives under greater submissiveness to God’s will and our prayer requests will be more in line with God’s will. Just as a child matures and better understands their relationship with their parent, so too the believer matures and better understands God and our relationship with him. Prayer is part of that process.

The Speck in Your Own Eye – Matthew 7:3-5

In order to illustrate the problem with judging others. Jesus uses a humorous, even absurd, exaggeration. It makes no sense to condemn someone’s small error if you have a larger error in your own life.

The word usually translated “speck” (κάρφος) is a bit of straw or word, a small splinter, or even “a tiny foreign object in a wine cup” (BDAG). The word translated “log” (δοκός) is a heavy beam used to construct a roof or to bar a door (BDAG). In Josephus’s Jewish War, this word is used to describe a Roman battering ram (JW 3.124).

Speck in the eye meme

The contrast is therefore between a tiny insignificant thing, maybe something that is irritating but not really that noticeable and a massive piece of wood that is impossible to miss. John Nolland says this is a scene of “grossly selective perspective” (Nolland, Matthew, 320). The hypocrite only sees one thing, perhaps an issue they consider to be the most important issue of them all, but it is a mere speck compared to a major sin (likely hypocrisy itself) in their own life.

If we deal with “the log in our own eye” are we permitted to condemn others for their speck? Probably not. Jesus is certainly exaggerating, and has been described as ironic or even sarcastic here (Geulich, Sermon on the Mount, 352-3). There are several important observations to be made here.

First, if one is able to actually see what sin they do have in their lives, then they should be more concerned with dealing with their own sin than nit-picking minutia in another person’s life. There is something essentially hypocritical about pointing out another person’s sins when you are unwilling to deal with the same sin you your own life.

Second, if one is dealing with their own sin, they ought to be more sensitive toward people with similar problems. This is of course not always the case, especially if a person is guilty of a “grossly selective perspective.” Jesus’s disciples need to deal with sin, but knowing the extent of one’s own shortcomings must lead to a sensitive and gentle correction.

Third, this is not “blanket tolerance or moral indifference” (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 230). Jesus is not saying “nothing offends God so love everyone and everything they do.” He is saying that in an ideal Christian community, there will be enough love and grace among the brothers and sisters that condemning one another will not even be a possibility.

Fourth, the follower of Jesus needs to think about the impact of our condemnation of sin. If a person has been caught in sin and is publicly shamed as a result, that is not permission to pile on our own gossip and rage toward the person. Likely as not, they are going through a personal hell as their life falls apart, the individual brother or sister in Christ does not need to fan the flames (probably through verbal sins of their own).

The result taking one’s own problem is that we will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). “See clearly” it to have one’s eyes open wide and looking intently at something (BDAG), perhaps with a clear understanding of what is being seen. Perhaps Jesus is suggestion the one who has dealt with a particular problem can gently correct a fellow disciple since they have experienced the same forgiveness. In fact, the very fact the Lord’s Prayer includes forgiveness ought to be a warning against jumping to judgment too quickly.

Maybe you have had an experience where someone was picking at some minor problem in your life and you knew the person was a hypocrite. Sadly this often is a parent, a pastor or teacher. It may have been a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” My sense is most people will read Jesus’s exhortation to “remove the log from our own eye” as referring to those encounters with hypocrites. But I do not see Jesus narrowing this down to only “those other people.” He tells his closest disciples they need to focus on their sin rather than looking for specks to pick out of someone else’s eye.

Judged By Your Own Standard – Matthew 7:1-2

American culture can fairly be described as a culture of condemnation and judging. Despite the pop-culture commitment to not judging others (“haters gonna hate,” “only God can judge me”), the culture we live in judges everything we wear, everything we say, and everything we do.

“Like it or not, you are being judged by how you look, how you dress, and how you carry yourself—and, if you’re lucky, how you do your job. As uncomfortable as it may be, we are under the microscope every day. Our employees, our colleagues, and our customers judge us by how we look, how we dress, our table manners, our grooming, and sometimes even how we do our job.” Ty Kiisel, Forbes OnLine, March 20, 2013.

These may be superficial judgements about fashion choices, but sometimes judgment runs deeper than the surface. Blondes are ditzy, fat guys are jolly, white girls like Pumpkin Spice lattes; tall people play basketball; people with glasses are smart, etc.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples they should NOT judge. For those who hear this teaching out of context, they assume Jesus means we ought not to judge anything or anyone as wrong. Pop-culture turns this verse into the central teaching of Jesus, despite the fact there are plenty of people Jesus judges (Matthew 23, the condemnation of the Pharisees, for example).

As in English, the Greek verb “to judge” has a wide range of meaning. The word can refer to deciding between two options, such as a decision in a legal matter or in an argument between two people. It would be virtually impossible to not judge between two choices in life (I judge apple pie is better than chocolate cake, and opt to eat the pie every time.) Society has to have some system of justice, which implies someone will have to judge between right and wrong legally. Christians have long struggled to work out how to interpret and apply this commandment to “not judge.” “All these examples show how this commandment of the Sermon on the Mount was ‘domesticated’” (Luz, Matthew, 350).

There is nothing quite like this saying in Jewish, although a few parallels are often suggested. m. Abot 1:6 B “And give everybody the benefit of the doubt” and m. Abot 2.4 “And do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

Often, “judging others” is taken as condemnation on superficial issues. If I do not like the way a person dresses, I ought to refrain from condemning the person. Think of the church’s attitude toward long hair and bears on men in the 1960s. People with tattoos used to be scandalous, now it is no problem if the pastor has a tattoo. In fact, a tattoo might be a job qualification for doing youth ministry.

Taylor glares

Rather than prohibiting any judgment of a behavior as good or bad, a follower of Jesus ought not to presume to be in the place of God and pronounce a person as condemned. The saying is less about “I think your clothes are ugly” than looking at a person’s lifestyle and judging them as condemned by God. Jesus’s followers should be more interested in reconciling people to God than condemning them as sinners in the hands of an angry God.

By way of application, “evangelists” who go to college campuses and hold up signs declaring homosexuals as damned to hell are not doing any good. Think of the typical rescue mission in movies like Guys and Dolls: you have to listen to the sermon condemning you for being a drunkard and gambler before you can get some soup and coffee. On the other hand, a ministry like Craig Gross’s XXX church reaches out as non-judgmentally as possible to people struggling with pornography and works with people in the porn industry (at their “Porn & Pancakes” events, for example).

The corollary of this is also true: judging someone by their lifestyle and assuming they are right with God. A person who appears to be a solid Christian may not have a relationship with God at all!

The difficult problem is balancing moral discernment and personal condemnation (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 227). It is easy enough to state the Bible condemns a particular sin (adultery, drunkenness, etc.) but quite another not to personally condemn the sinner. Pennington adds the word “unfairly” to his translation: “Do not judge unfairly.” (Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 256). Since the English word “judge” is almost entirely negative (practically equally to “condemn”), Pennington adds the modifier to get at what Jesus meant.

If we judge, Jesus says the same standard will be used against us. This saying implies the person who presumes to stand in the place of God and judge whether a person is condemned or not does not live up to their own standards. There are plenty of examples of evangelists or politicians who condemn some sexual sin as loudly as possible and are later caught in the very sin then condemned.

The ultimate example of non-judgmental outreach to sinners for the purpose of their reconciliation with God is Jesus, a “friend to the sinner.” Jesus eats with tax collectors and other sinners (Matthew 9:9-13, for example). This is more complex than “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we model our lives after Jesus we will treat everyone with respect regardless of our view of their lifestyle.

How does this work in the real world? Is it possible (for you) to reach across cultural, social and religious lines and “be the love of Christ” to someone who is radically different? How does a Christian make a moral stand on an issue while also treating a person who disagrees with that moral stand with love and respect?

Seeking the Right Goal – Matthew 6:31-34

Jesus contrasts how the Gentiles seek after material needs with his own disciples (6:32). A Jewish writer would contrast Jews and Gentiles in this way. Jesus says the Gentile world frets over their needs (and more, they seek treasure on earth, they serve Mammon (6:24). This is more than materialism, the verb is “eagerly seek” (ἐπιζητέω). The word has the connotation of craving for something, an earnest pursuit of a goal.

In contrast to what the Gentiles seek, the disciple of Jesus is to seek the kingdom of God (6:33). Jesus uses a similar word “seek” (ζητέω) for the pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

Defining the Kingdom is a difficult problem since it can refer to the Old Testament kingdom of God, or God’s general rule of the universe. For a Jewish disciple of Jesus, the “Kingdom of God” would be the coming restoration of a kingdom to Israel, ruled by a messiah who will in many ways be a new David, or a new Joshua in that he rescues Israel from her enemies. But in other ways he is a new Moses or a new Aaron, leading Israel out of the wilderness of her long exile, providing a new covenant which God will enable his people to keep (he will fix their hearts, Jeremiah 33, Ezekiel).

In many ways, the death, burial and resurrection resulted in an inauguration of that Kingdom. In the Ascension Jesus is enthroned in heaven ruling, but there are other ways the kingdom is absent from the world. We do not live in a world in which all people acknowledge the lordship of Jesus (Phil 2:5-11). This is an in-between-time: God has inaugurated his kingdom with Jesus’s death, but will consummate it at some point in the future.

Two important observation follow from this. First, the disciples did not know about this lengthy gap between the inauguration and consummation of the Kingdom. Second, the church is not the kingdom in any real sense and does not fulfill the prophecies of the kingdom from the prophets. We can draw some application from “seek the kingdom of God,” but it is wrong to read this line as commanding the Christian to “establish the kingdom.” That is not even what Jesus says!

In addition to seeking the kingdom of God, the disciple of Jesus is to see God’s righteousness. This could refer to the righteousness of the kingdom of God, “its righteousness.” Most recent translations understand this as “God’s righteousness.”

Righteousness is an action in Second Temple Judaism. For example, in Micah 6:8 God has shown man what he is to do, the first is to “act justly.” This word is translated as either righteous or just, even if these are different categories in English. A righteous person (in the context of Micah, the Old Testament, and Second Temple Period Judaism) did righteousness, they took care of the poor, the widows, the orphans and immigrants.

Christianity tends to think of righteousness as a state of being, we “are righteous” by not sinning or doing acts of spiritual discipline. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not what Jesus would have meant when he said “seek the righteousness of God.”

There are many examples of how a disciple of Jesus pursues the things of God in a way that is countercultural to the world. That Jesus welcomes tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners to eat with him is a clear act of mercy towards those who are on the fringes of Jewish culture. The way we think about social issues can be “seeking God’s righteousness” that flies in the face of the modern, western worldview.

Perhaps the application of “seeking the kingdom” ought to be doing real acts of justice toward those who are in need, so they do not need to worry about what they will eat or drink. How can local churches become involved in local acts of mercy which impact their community?