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People of a certain age who grew up in going to Sunday School likely sang “the wise man built his house upon the rock,” using the hand motions and visual aids. I had a Sunday School teacher who had a paper house, and when the “rains came a tumbling down” we would blow on the house and knock it over. She also had a brick decorated to look like a house, so when the “rains came a tumbling down” we tried to blow down the brick house, probably hyperventilating in the process.

Because of this popular children’s song, we all know this very simple parable. In fact, the details of the parable are not difficult to understand at all. Jesus is quite clear, if you hear his words you much make the choice to either do them or not. The one who does them will stand, the one who does not will suffer a terrible disaster. Taken as a conclusion to the whole Sermon on the Mount (and the whole book of Matthew), the wise person will enter into the Kingdom of God at the final judgment, the foolish person will be left outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In fact, for those who have heard the teaching of Jesus, there are only two ways: to do the words or to refuse to do them. This “two ways theology” is based on the covenant in Deuteronomy or the wisdom literature (Psalm 1, for example).

Perhaps the children’s song has taken the edge of this parable. Jesus says you are either wise, doing his words, or foolish, not doing his words. As Scot McKnight has observed, this parable is “one of the severest in the entire Bible” (Sermon, 275).

The wise builder builds on the rock. Modern readers tend to think of a wise person (φρόνιμος) as possessing wisdom, sometimes mixing up wisdom and intelligence. But Jewish wisdom literature focuses on the ways in which a wise person acts in a particular situation.

For Matthew, the wise person is the one who responds properly to Jesus and his teaching. Matthew 10:6, the wise person is able to recognize a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Matthew 24:45 the wise servant hears what his master has said and is prepared. In Matthew 25:2, wise bridesmaids are prepared for a long wait.

Building one’s house on a solid foundation is simply the wise way to build a house. Often pastors will discuss the technical aspects of building a house on a solid foundation which goes down to the bedrock. To a large extent, this is all superfluous, since the point is the wise person builds a proper house in the proper place so that the house lasts for a very long time.

The wise person builds a house on a proper foundation, and as a result the house will be able to withstand the winds and storms.

In contrast to the wise person, the foolish builder builds their house on the sand. Why would anyone build on sand? They are foolish! Foolishness is not stupidity, but rather a conscious decision to reject the good and choose the wrong. In the Proverbs, foolishness is always a choice to not do the wise thing. The person knows what the right way to do things, but they choose to do otherwise. Think of every lazy thing you have done, but it worked. You need a screwdriver, but that is out in the garage so you use a butter knife instead.

When the storm comes, the wise builder’s house endures, the foolish builder’s house is a spectacular failure. The house of the foolish man is not damaged, but utterly destroyed. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount and almost all of the parables in Matthew, this anticipates the final judgment. The foolish person just does not suffer a slight setback, he is completely wiped out when the storm comes.

Although we tend to think of the Middle East as dry and arid, there are often torrential rains which cause flash floods. On November 5, 2015, torrential rains in Amman, Jordan caused flash floods in the city, sweeping away cards in the street. (Here is a video of a flash flood at Wadi Qumran).

Since Jesus is making a contrast between the wise and foolish, the disaster is what would be expected based on Jewish wisdom literature. In Proverbs, foolishness is always self-destructive (10:25; 12:7; 14:11). When Jesus told this parable, he may have had any one of these lines from Proverbs in mind. Any Jewish listener who were given a basic education in the synagogue would have known these sorts of verses, these are the sorts of verses a Jewish parent might quote when dealing with their rebellious teenager!

The challenge of Jesus is clear in this parable: the wise person build son the foundation of Jesus’s teaching beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. The foolish person will not build on that foundation. Jesus never promises his followers will not endure troubles in this world, the storms fall on both the wise and the foolish. But the wise are equipped to endure the storms of this life. These storms are not dystopian persecutions or attacks by satanic forces, but just the normal kinds of personal disasters we all face because the world is fallen: personal betrayals, financial setbacks, disease, death,

This is a challenge to the stereotypical contemporary American Christian who has a shallow faith and is quick to blame God when life is difficult.

Jesus warned his followers to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-20). In 7:21-23 Jesus takes this warning a step further: not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord, Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven. For example, In Matthew 25:11 the five foolish women who were not prepared to wait a long time for the bridegroom call out to the groom “Lord, Lord” when they want to enter the wedding feast.

Hypocrite SelfieThe warning is clear. People are not “right with God” and true disciples of Jesus by acknowledging that God exists or that Jesus was a good teacher or even by trying to live the words of the Sermon on the Mount (those “Red Letters”). Some people will claim to follow Jesus and do miracles in his name, ye ton the great day of God’s wrath, they will be outside the Kingdom because they were never really followers of Jesus.

“On that day” refers to a judgment prior to entering the kingdom of heaven. John Nolland suggested the phrase “on that day’ (ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ) can be a fixed eschatological expression.” The Body of Christ is judged at the judgment seat of Christ prior to this general judgment, we do not need to worry about being sent away when the kingdom comes. However, the warning is still important, at the rapture many who were thought to be Christians will not be raised to new life.

These false disciples claim to have prophesied, done miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. If they were not true followers of Jesus, how did they do miracles in the name of Jesus? Lying signs and wonders are common in descriptions of the last days prior to the return of Jesus.

Jesus reverses the expectations of these reputed followers of Jesus: “I never knew you” (v. 23). Although they thought they were doing the very things that merited their inclusion in the kingdom, their deeds were actually fruitless.

This conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount is similar to the conclusion of the Olivet Discourse, the other “sermon on a mount” in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 25:31-46 many will stand before the throne of the Son of Man and find out they will not enter the kingdom of heaven, but will go to “eternal punishment” (25:46), where there is darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30). The Son of Man also says to the goats “depart from me” in Matthew 25:41. In this case the dismissal is to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  A similar phrase appears in Psalm 6:8 (LXX 6:9): “Depart from me, all you workers of evil” (ἀπόστητε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, πάντες οἱ ἐργαζόμενοι τὴν ἀνομίαν, LXX Ps 6:9).

The shocking moment for these false disciples is Jesus calling them “evil doers.” This is another phrase which turns up in the conclusion of a speech in Matthew. At the end of the Parables of the Kingdom the day of the Lord begins with God sending his angels to gather up all the causes of sin and law-breakers (τοὺς ποιοῦντας τὴν ἀνομίαν, 13:41), a similar phrase as Matthew 7:23 (οἱ ἐργαζόμενοι τὴν ἀνομίαν).

It is unlikely these false disciples were sinning as pagans, like a modern televangelist who preaches against the very sins he is committing. But their failure to uphold the whole law is shown in their treatment of the poor and needy.

The follower of Jesus must make a faith commitment, believing Jesus’s death on the cross pays for their sin and his resurrection gives them new life (2 Cor 5:17). This new life ought to natural grow and develop over time, there ought to be a maturing process similar to a child growing and developing normally. Jesus’s call to his disciples at the end of the Sermon is to “be what they are,” growing and developing fruit in their personal lives and living out their faith through concrete actions directed at people who are in genuine need.

Jesus describes false prophets as “ravenous wolves” (7:15). The metaphor of wolves attacking sheep is drawn from the Old Testament. Ezekiel 22:7 describes wolves attacking on the poor and needy. The verb in Ezekiel 22:27 (טרף) is the same word used Jacob used to describe the fate of his son Joseph, he has been “torn apart by wild animals” (Gen 37:33). But these dangerous wolves are disguised as sheep. A wolf disguised as a sheep is trying to look and act like his prey, to lull them into a sense of safety before attacking them.

Paul uses this same metaphor in Acts 20:29-31 when he warns the Ephesian elders of false teachers who will appear within the church seeking to distort the truth and draw disciples away. In this case, the sheep are the members of the church under the care of these elders.

Who are these ravenous wolves? Commentators have suggested virtually every Second Temple period group as the false prophets in Matthew 7:15-23: the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, Bar Kokhba, Simon Magus, Gnostics, representatives of Pauline Christianity, a degenerate form of Pauline Christianity, antinomians, and Jewish legalists (Nolland, Matthew, 335). Urlich Luz says “In my judgment the intensive Matthean redaction is understandable only if the struggle with false prophets is an actual problem in his community.” “The community obviously knows of whom the text is speaking.” (Matthew, 376).

These false teachers appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not true disciples at all. Although Matthew will describe the Pharisees with similar language in 16:6 and 23:23, “one should not immediately think of Pharisees or Sadducees at 7:15” (Nolland, Matthew, 337). Since the previous unit described people on a wide-path trying to enter the kingdom through the wide gate, these false disciples are the disciples on the easy path (and therefore not really going to the kingdom of heaven at all!)

In the context of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, these ravenous wolves are the false teachers who appear to be real disciples of Jesus, work false miracles in order to claim to be empowered by God, but are in fact trying to devour the true disciples and draw them away from the truth.

Since these false disciples appear to be genuine followers of Jesus, the only way to recognize them is by their fruit (Matthew 7:16-20).  A tree bearing fruit is another common metaphor in the New Testament. It is probably based on Psalm 1, the righteous person is like a tree bearing good fruit. In the context of Matthew, the one who claims to be a disciple of Jesus but does not care for the poor is not a true disciple. Again, the parallel in Matthew 25 makes this point, the goats do not enter the kingdom because they did not care for the “least of these.”

What is remarkable here is the false prophet is also like a tree, but they bear bad fruit. This is a common metaphor in the Old Testament (Isa 3:10; Jer 17:10; Prov 1:31). In Matthew, there are a number of parables which describe the judgment prior to the Kingdom as a harvest, wheat goes into the barn and the weeds are burned on the fire (Matt 13:24-30). In that parable, the owner of the field specifically says the wheat and the weeds cannot be separated until the harvest.

The ravenous wolves think they are disciples of Jesus, but they have fooled themselves and others by disguising their true nature. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said some people try to enter the kingdom of heaven via the broad path and through a wide gate. But this way does not lead to the kingdom, but rather to destruction.

To me, this is a chilling warning from Jesus. Not all those who claim to be flowers of Jesus are actually true disciples of Jesus. We know that not all of the disciples will remain until the end. Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him, the rest of the disciples scatter when Jesus is arrested. Some in the crowds who hailed him as a king at the Triumphal Entry also shouted for him to be crucified only a few days later.

It seems to me this is instructive for those who look at the whole of the modern American Christianity and assume everyone who claims to be a Christian is a real disciple of Jesus. I am quite confident many who claim to be Christians are not bearing fruit expected from the true disciple, and there are many ravenous wolves disguised as sheep in the flock today.

In this brief and well-known saying Jesus contrasts two ways people live their lives, the easy way and the difficult way. Most people are on the easier path. It is broad and leads to a wide gate. Others follow the narrower path which is dangerous and difficult. This difficult path leads to a narrow gate. The Narrow Gate saying is difficult since it claims there are two ways to live, one leads to the kingdom of Heaven, and the more popular leads to destruction.

Narrow GateWe are nearing the end of the Sermon on the Mount and as many scholars observe, the material in chapter 7 is more difficult to outline. Nolland calls Matthew 7:13-27 “Challenges to Implement the Sermon.” Luke 13:24 has a similar saying. In response to the question whether those who will be saved are only a few, Jesus said “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Instead of a gate (στενὴ ἡ πύλη), Luke has a door (διὰ τῆς στενῆς θύρας) and Luke does not mention the wide gate. The focus of this saying is on one’s own relationship with God, not trying to figure out who is in or out.  Pennington makes 7:13-8:1 a major section, “three warnings regarding the prospect of eschatological judgment” (Sermon, 272). R. T. France calls 7:13-27 as a “coda” which calls for a decision on the part of those who have heard Jesus’s teaching (Matthew, 282). There are three clear sections with similar themes which are increasingly eschatological. At the final judgment, there will be some who will be told “depart, I never knew you.”

The Sermon on the Mount is the model for living as a disciple of Jesus. Some people appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not real disciples of Jesus. Why? True discipleship is difficult and the majority are on the easier path leading to destruction.

Although it is not clearly stated, in context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has in mind “entering through the narrow gate” is entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is describing those who will enter eschatological kingdom. Pennington points out the Sermon is framed by “eschatological urgency” (Sermon, 271). In the Beatitudes Jesus says the poor will see the Kingdom (5:3), the meek will inherit the earth (5:5), and the kingdom belongs to the persecuted (5:10).

The disciples are already followers of Jesus who are on the narrow path (7:14) and are bearing good fruit (7:16). John Nolland thinks the kingdom of heaven is pictured as a city (Matthew, 332), Scot McKnight suggests the entrance to a Temple may be in mind (Sermon, 258). Perhaps the image is what one might experience Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.

This parable-like saying reflects a “two ways” theology.  The two ways are the way of life and the way of death, based on the blessings and curses of the Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Joshua 24:15 (“choose today whom you will serve”); Psalm 1, “blessed is the one who…” and “cursed is the one who…” This two ways theology appears in early Christian books such as Didache and Barnabas.

To enter a gate to a city, one must first follow the road to that gate. This implies a choice to travel a particular way for a long time in order to arrive at a particular gate. The decision might be made very early on in the trip.

For example, one might go from Galilee to Jerusalem and arrive via the Mount of Olives and enter through one of the eastern gates, or travel from Galilee to enter from the western side of the city at the Damascus Gate, or even loop around to the south and come up through the Dung Gate.

It is unlikely someone would travel all the way to an entry gate and then change their mind and walk around the city to enter through another gate. The path was chose to get to a particular gate. What motivates any of us to travel via one or another route? The most efficient route, the scenic route, the way to avoid traffic? Think about how to get to O’Hare airport, there are multiple ways to drive there (avoid traffic, avoid tolls, etc.)

Entering the gate of a city is the last thing one does before arriving, so the point of the metaphor is the “last judgment,” consistent with the rest of this final section of the Sermon.

Jesus warns about false prophets (7:15-20, according to 24:4, 24 these will come in the last days), false disciples who did miracles in Jesus name but do not enter the kingdom of God (7:21-23), and the foolish man who built his house on the sand (7:24-27). These warnings are similar to those in Matthew 22:1-14 and 24-25. Some wedding guests or servants enter the kingdom, while others remain on the outside, in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 

Jesus offers an intentionally humorous illustration: when a child asks for something to eat, a parent would not give then something bad (or dangerous).

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.

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.

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).

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 publically 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.

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.

 

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?

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?

Jesus warns against worry three times in this section of the Sermon, each time giving an illustration concerning why worry is wrong and a brief command based on that illustration. If the birds are well fed, the God will see to our food (6:26-27). Jesus points to the birds of the air, probably pointing to birds that his listeners could see as he spoke. These birds don’t plan their harvests or work fields, yet they are fed, and fed by God. That God feeds the animals is an OT idea, see here (cf. Job 38:41;  Pss 104:10-15; 147:7-9; Ps. Sol. 5:8-11).

If the lilies of the field are well dressed, then God will see to our clothing (6:28-31). It is possible Jesus could gesture to flowers right where he was speaking. Lilies do not need to work to sew their clothes, yet they are “more beautiful than Solomon in all his splendor.” Even the grass is beautiful, even if it is temporary. God has created plants which will be pulled up and burned, how much more will he care for you?

“What are we to eat” (v. 31) are the words of someone who has nothing. If the disciples find themselves with no food or drink because they are being persecuted on account of Jesus, they can know God will provide for them.

Although there are no clear allusions to the story, God providing for his people is at the bedrock of Old Testament theology. In Exodus 15:22-17:7 God provides both water and food for his people in the wilderness. Manna was “bread from heaven,” food given to the people from the hand of God each day. But they were only to gather enough manna for each day, focusing their attention on God’s daily provision. The Israelites in the wilderness were to look to God for their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11).

There is an eschatological aspect to God’s provision of daily needs. For some (Guelich, Sermon, 370, for example), this is an allusion to the physical bounty of the coming kingdom of God. Certainly this is true, but if Jesus is preparing his disciples for future persecution, the his focus is on the coming tribulation prior to the establishment of the kingdom in (what is now) our future.

At the end of the final teaching section in Matthew, Jesus describes himself as the Son of Man coming with all his holy ones, setting up a throne for judgment and separating the nations like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He praises the sheep for providing food and clothing for the “least of these brothers of mine,” and condemns the goats because withheld food and clothing for these same brothers.

There is a warning here that the basics of life may be withheld because of human sin. This helps to explain why Christians suffer from privation, pervasive evil in governments prevent relief from reaching people who need it.

As with Matthew 6:25, this is a very difficult for the most of the western, affluent church to fully appreciate since they do not lack for much. I confess that although I think I rely on the Lord, I also have retirement savings and a health care plan. I do not think these things are bad, but is it possible for these sorts of personal savings distract my attention from how the Lord is providing for me daily? What are some other ways the affluence of the western church can distract us from God’s daily provision for our needs?

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Christian Theology

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