Logs, Pigs, and Doors (Matthew 7:1-12)
Today, we continue our fifth week studying the Sermon on the Mount together. Our passage in Matthew 7 starts with teachings about judgment. Jesus uses an object lesson—eyes, specs and logs—to talk about hypocrisy and judging others. We then move to a curious part that talks about pearls and pigs, holy things and dogs. The next portion covers asking and receiving, seeking and finding, and knocking and finding doors that open. Jesus uses some absurd images—giving a child a stone instead of bread, or a snake instead of fish—to illustrate the good intentions of God. Finally, our last verse is what is known as the “golden rule,” where Jesus teaches, “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and prophets” (v. 12).
We have twelve verses with diverse imagery—Jesus was really winning the sermon illustration game that day on the hillside. Depending on what bible you are using, there might be two to four different headings breaking up these twelve verses. The NRSV Bible has four headings for 12 verses: “judging others,” “profaning the holy,” “ask, search, knock,” and “the golden rule.” These headings aren’t in the original manuscripts and are just an editorial team’s choice. I find them distracting in general but also potentially misleading. They can mislead us into segmenting scripture, losing the broader context, and—most importantly—detracting from the meaning that Jesus and the gospel writer were trying to get across.
The Sermon on the Mount is the longest continuous teaching of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. The gospel writer Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, crafted this collection of Jesus’ teachings from the hillside into its written form, sometimes using literary devices like triads or arranging things a certain way to shape the meaning. It might be differently ordered from what Jesus said; it might be in the same order. The thing we need to keep in mind as we discern together what these teachings of Jesus are—and how they are to define us as a people—is that our interpretation needs to involve the literary context.
God as the Magic Genie?
How many of you have seen the movie Aladdin? I loved Aladdin as a child. Today, I know now that some of its songs have terrible stereotypes about the Middle East. I couldn’t see the stereotypes when I was seven but I could see the Genie. The Genie was especially enthralling and humorous, voiced by the fabulous and frenetic late Robin Williams. Aladdin gets stuck in a cave of wonders and meets Genie, a magical being who breaks out into song, exclaiming how “you’ve never had a friend like me!” Aladdin, the Genie says, now has a friend who can grant any wish he has, three times total.
One section of today’s passage is often taken out of its broader context in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s likely familiar to you and you might even break out into song: “Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, hallelu-hallelujah.” Some pastors look at this section and say, “See, Jesus said that God is like a loving Father! Ask and you will get what you want! If you don’t ask, you won’t receive. If you have faith, ask God and you will get that job, that house, that car, and all the success on this earth that you desire! God’s desire is to bless you abundantly!” In this teaching, God is like a magic Genie: rub the lamp, ask, and you’ve got it.
But does that fit into the Sermon on the Mount’s context? Last week, Micah preached on Matthew 6:19-34, just before this, where Jesus warns the disciples that they cannot serve two masters. Jesus delivers an ultimatum: you cannot serve both God and wealth (6:24). Clearly, the context cannot mean that the Creator of the Universe intends on being our great and powerful Genie. If that is the case, what exactly does Jesus intend us to be doing when we are asking, seeking, and knocking? What types of requests is Jesus saying God will answer? I think we can piece it together considering the overall context of the Sermon on the Mount and our verses in chapter 7.
So, let’s start with chapter 7 verses 1 and 2: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Judgment – what does it mean to judge? It can mean “to form an opinion or conclusion about,” to render someone as guilty, or to condemn someone. In religious circles, religious people judging has typically meant scorning, excluding, or labeling as “sinner.” How and why do we make judgments? As humans, we make judgments about people’s actions and behavior every single day, some conscious and many that are unconscious. We do this for others and for ourselves, for individuals and for groups of people. Judgment is a product of our minds trying to make sense of the world around us. However, just because it comes naturally does not mean we do it in ways that are just or good.
As humans, we often make causal attributions, to explain behaviors, events, and actions. Social psychologist has theorized that people make two types of judgments: dispositional (internal causes) and situational (external causes). In dispositional judgments, we say that people do what they do because they are “bad” people, selfish, mean, or spiteful. We make attributions to their character. When we make situational judgments, we say to ourselves, “that person must not have had a choice because of the situation s/he was in.”
Social psychologists say that we aren’t always fair when we make these decisions. There is something called correspondence bias, which is our tendency to over assume the cause is someone’s character and to undervalue the role of context in peoples’ behavior. “They did this (behavior), “They must be that (trait/disposition).” For instance, “They almost hit me as I was riding my bicycle, so they must be careless and spiteful people who would hurt someone intentionally. We are more likely to blame someone’s character than chalk it up to circumstance.
A variation of this is when we make attributions about people because of some part of their identities and it is called fundamental attribution error. We say, “They are that (trait/disposition), which is why they did this (behavior).” For instance, if the car driving away after almost hitting me had a Maryland license plate, I might say, it’s because they are from Maryland and everyone in the Maryland suburbs doesn’t care about DC or about speeding in neighborhoods or hitting cyclists. With attributions, our brains use a little bit of information and make assumptions about peoples’ character—and even the character of a whole certain type of people. As you could imagine, this happens with all types of social identities, like about ethnicity (she did that because she is white, or black or brown) or gender or age, or Republican or Democrat or a range of other options.
When we make judgments about our own behavior, we unconsciously tend to use a different approach. With ourselves, when we do something good, we tend to overestimate that it is because of our good character or skill, whereas when we do something bad, we are much more inclined to think we didn’t have options due to the circumstances. If I’m speeding or if I don’t see a pedestrian or cyclist, I think of it as a one-time event and I tend to blame it on the specific situations (weather, distractions in the car, person not wearing bright enough clothing, etc.).
Transformed Hearts, Minds, and Relationships
Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” We are inclined to want to blame others’ characters and to point out the flaws in everyone else, without paying heed to the fact that we are not looking at ourselves rightly. Whether it’s attributions or general criticism that we have of others, most of us are likely to be harsher with others and neglect the ways that we ourselves are not careful, not caring, not kind. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
The Sermon on the Mount is about “another way of living,” about the way of Jesus. It’s about transforming our natural inclinations to hate our enemies, to pursue self-interest, to worry, and to judge others in ways that we would not want to be judged. That this section ends with the Golden Rule was enlightening for me: ““In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (v. 12).
If I was late, if I was speeding, if I missed a deadline or forgot to call someone, if I was impatient and a little irritable, I would want someone to assume the best. Not that I shouldn’t be held accountable for my actions. Rather, it means I would want someone to not make assumptions about my character because of my actions. I would want them to think about context, to give grace, and to be merciful. Rather than condemning or assuming the worst about someone’s intentions, we should treat others gently, because we would also want to be treated gently, with mercy and grace.
Considering the context in the Sermon on the Mount, I think that this call “not to judge” can also be applied to our enemies, whom Jesus has already had a lot to say about. Not that we don’t stand against injustice, but that the way we treat and consider our enemies should be transformed. Recently, I listened to a podcast from “On Being,” where Representative John Lewis spoke about nonviolence and love during the Civil Rights Movement. Love in the “nonviolent revolution,” as Lewis put it, was more than a feeling. It involved a commitment to seeing the humanity of a person intent on hating, dehumanizing, or harming you.
Lewis said, “It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometimes and say things like, ‘Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ‘em.’”
When asked about whether he was still able to look upon police officers with love as they were beating him on Bloody Sunday, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lewis replied, “I saw these officers as individuals carrying out an order.” He didn’t see them as evil, as monsters, but as people caught in a web of unjust orders and hate.
Educator Paulo Freire, working with people under oppression in Latin America, taught that in the struggle for liberation, both sides need freedom from oppression. Those who are enslaved, subjected, discriminated against, or exploited—they need to be free. Yet oppressors also need liberation from their dehumanizing acts. They are not just evil people to be conquered, but sad folks trapped and enslaved by their greed or hatred.
As we think about our polarized and difficult world, as we are confronted with “enemies” and opponents of liberation, how can we refrain from assuming that people are evil, hopeless causes—instead of people in need of love, transformation, and redemption? If I was misguided and on the wrong side of justice, I would want others to think that there is a human in the image of God, stuck in a cycle of brokenness and waiting to be transformed through God’s great love and reconciliation.
Discernment – and Fervently Asking, Seeking, Knocking
Our commitment to transforming how we make attributions about peoples’ thoughts and actions, how we consider our enemies. This doesn’t mean we jump in willy-nilly. It doesn’t preclude being wise about how and when we engage with enemies. Verse 6 says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” As I reflected on this verse, it seemed to mean not making one’s self a doormat, or being unnecessarily vulnerable to the negative or hateful acts of others.
We are extending God’s grace to the world, sharing the Good News of reconciliation. I think we need to be careful how to best use our bold and vulnerable witness of suffering love and mercy. You don’t automatically open yourself up to a person who says mean and spiteful things, even if you are trying not to judge that person. You use prayer and discernment to find ways to show love, mercy, and grace. If you are going to show nonviolent love to an oppressor—potentially encountering physical suffering or jail time—you need to be wise about how you do so. Putting yourself in harm’s way without prayer and discernment is like throwing pearls to pigs or giving communion bread to the dogs.
Discernment in community—discernment in prayer to the Heavenly Father who hears and provides for his children—allows our testimony of nonviolent love, of nonjudgment and nonretaliation, to be used most effectively for God’s glory.
Sometimes I am astounded at how often my inclination is to attribute bad character to a person, rather than to think about circumstances. In the face of seemingly a seemingly impossible command “not to judge,” we are encouraged to ask, to seek, and to knock. Spiritual transformation is not something that we do on our own. We can’t just make ourselves humbler and less judgmental, but God works in and through our hearts to transform us if we seek fervently to be transformed.
Sisters and brothers, God is a parent who knows how to give good gifts to children who ask, seek, and knock. Gifts of transformed hearts, gifts of patience and empathy, gifts of grace and mercy, gifts of being able to do unto others as we would have done to us. We all have logs in our eyes; can we confess and pray for God to end our judging? Can we ask God to transform how we think about our enemies, to give us wisdom and discernment for how to proceed in extending grace, mercy, and love instead of judgment? May we ask, seek, and knock fervently, for our Father in heaven to receive and give us these good gifts. AMEN.
Find John Lewis’s podcast here, at On Being: http://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-action/