The Sermon on the Mount (4)

In our last lessons about the “Sermon on the Mount,” we saw that the broad context is that this sermon is one of several others in Matthew's Gospel.  Then we saw how Jesus’ audience had a very different concept of kingdom than what Jesus had; they were thinking military and physical strength, but Jesus was thinking spiritual and moral strength.  So Jesus introduces His sermon by talking about His disciples’ character (what we often call the Beatitudes), then the disciples’ persecution, and then the disciples’ influence—they must not let the world set the pace for them, but they must set the pace for the world.  Then we examined the transition from the introduction to the body of sermon where Jesus gives a clarification, an explanation, and an exhortation.  The clarification: His message is not designed to put down the Old Testament.  The explanation: His disciples must continue to have such a great respect for the Old Testament that they both obey and teach it.  The exhortation: His disciples’ righteousness must surpass that of the present Jewish religious leaders!  This statement would have had the audience wondering, “Well, Jesus, what kind of righteousness are your you talking about?  How can our righteousness exceed theirs?”  So the rest of the sermon strives to explain the kind of righteousness that Jesus wants His disciples to manifest.


Then we saw how Jesus first explains that His righteousness properly interprets the Law.  In six examples in chapter 5, He contrasts the religious leaders' misinterpretations with His correct interpretation.  These contrasts all showed four principles to keep in mind.  “First, the spirit of the law, the intent, is more important than the letter of the law.  Secondly, obedience to the law is more than just proper actions since it also includes our thoughts, motives, and desires.  Thirdly, the law was not given to hinder us but to help us; the law was not meant to be oppressive; rather, it was meant to promote our freedom!  Lastly, the ultimate purpose of the law is so that you and I can come to know, to serve, and to love God” (Dieleman).  The letter approach turns devotion into a system, obedience into a checklist, and relationships into regulations.  So, Jesus first point in explaining how His disciples' righteousness differs from that of the religious leaders is that His righteousness properly interprets the Law. 


Jesus' second point, which we discussed in our last sermon, is that His righteousness puts God in the number one position!  The disciple's aim is pleasing God, so the disciple often gives, prays, and fasts in secret.  He does this to have God's approval, and not men's applause.  The disciple's treasure is serving God, and Jesus gives us some strong warnings against materialism: earthly treasures are transitory, earthly treasures can obscure reality, earthly treasures can stop our service to God.  Then, Jesus presented a third way we are put God in the number one position: the disciple’s priority is promoting God.  He commanded us not be overly concerned about the necessities of this life.  He commanded us to seek first God's kingdom and His righteousness.  And He commanded us not to be worried about tomorrow for our Heavenly Father is in control.  The disciple's aim is pleasing God, his treasure is serving God, and his priority is promoting God because Jesus' righteousness puts God in the number one position.


This now brings to the next major section in the sermon and to Jesus' third point: My righteousness gives relationships the number two position.  My interpretation of this next section is somewhat different than what you'll find in most commentaries or what you've heard in most preaching.  I'll do my best to explain why I take this position.  If you think that my interpretation is weak or in error, then you can disagree and point out with kindness why you think another interpretation is better.  We can still be brethren even we disagree on our interpretations of this passage!  By the way, thanks for at least hearing me out!


Let me give one other observation before getting into the text.  Someone has observed that because we study the Bible so often in our Bible classes verse by verse, that we fail at times to see the overall context of a passage and easily switch from one topic to another topic based on the verses.  We need to be careful not to jump tracks and switch topics too quickly.  We need to try to keep passages in their contextual framework.  In our passage today, too often we have lost sight of the contextual framework.


Now here’s what I mean.  The usual approach to Matthew 7:1-12 is this one: Don’t’ judge anybody.  Look at your own faults.  Don’t evangelize those who are really sinful.  Pray a lot.  And live by the Golden Rule.  You see, we switch from tolerance, to self-examination, to evangelism, to prayer, to lifestyle.  This approach does give us some disjointed ideas, but things don’t really seem to follow one train of thought.  So I want to propose that before we look at the parts, let’s try to establish a contextual framework.  For example, verse one of chapter 7 starts off by talking about something that has to do with relationships.  And then if we drop down to verse 12, something else is said about relationships as well.  So if we begin with relationships and end with relationships, I want to propose that all the other passages in between verses 1-12 will also be trying to teach us something about relationships.  My righteousness gives relationships the number two position. 


Jesus’ disciples should not have a condemnatory spirit.  Verse 1 says: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  One preacher has observed: “This verse is parroted by people who have no idea what Jesus means.  . . . the people who refer to this verse most are [often] the most immature and understand it the least.  It just happens to fall into line with the spirit of this age, [which is a spirit of unlimited tolerance that says nothing is ever wrong.]” (Cope) We know what he means don’t we?  Have you ever seen these scenarios?  There’s the teenager whose parents told that she can’t date a certain boy because they think he would not be good for her spiritual development.  So she storms toward her room saying, “Judge not, that you be not judged” and slams the door and feels she done her duty by telling off her parents!  Or what about the boy who gets caught drinking on a Christian college campus.  His “friends” will immediately rally with what cry to put down those who must enforce the rules?  “Judge not, that you be not judged!”  Or there was the church in Collinsville, OK that disfellowshipped a woman for immorality, and the woman filed a lawsuit against the church.  Someone probably reacted angrily towards this church and said rather snidely and wrongly, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  So is Jesus saying that we can never pass judgment on anyone?  If He is, then we have a real problem with John 7:24 where He states: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”  Now, which is it?  Never judge or judge with righteous judgment?  Let me propose another idea.  When we look at the parable that Jesus told about the Pharisee and publican who went to pray in Luke 18:9, we read that Jesus told this parable to those who were self-righteous and despised others.  And we see the Pharisee patting himself on the back and condemning the tax collector.  There’s what Jesus is talking about!  “Don’t have a condemnatory spirit.”  One commentator stated it this way: “Our Lord's injunction to 'judge not' cannot be understood as a command to suspend our critical facilities in relationship to other people, to turn a blind eye to their faults, or to refuse to discern between good and evil. . . . It is a plea to be generous . . . to renounce the presumptuous ambition to be God” (Stott).  “A young man was once biking across the country and was making his way through the aftermath of a blizzard in Gillette, WY.  He saw a man walking toward him with filthy coveralls and carrying a black lunchbox.  He thought he was a bum and had his hand on his pepper spray in his pocket.  ‘Where you headed?’ he asked.  ‘California.’  ‘You got enough food?’  Before he replied, the biker thought, ‘If I say, “Yes,” then he’ll ask me to share some’, and this would mean opening his backpack and revealing his expensive camping gear.  ‘I got some cheese,’ he answered.  ‘You won’t make it to California on just cheese.  You’ll starve.’  The biker kept his hand on the pepper spray.  ‘Believe me, I know,’ the man continued. ‘Listen, I’m living in a car back in town, and everyday I walk out to the mine to see if they need me.  Today, they don’t, so I won’t be needing this lunch of mine.’  ‘I’m really fine,’ said the biker, ‘I don’t need your lunch.’  The man shook his head and opened his box, a typical church meal—bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of chips.  The biker protested again, but the man wouldn’t be persuaded.  So the biker took the lunch, and the man started walking back towards town.  The biker later wrote: ‘I learned a lot of things in college.  I learned much on my trips to Europe and Mexico.  But I had to stand out there on that frozen piece of interstate to learn generosity from a homeless man’” (Larson-Elhof).  Jesus’ disciples should not have a condemnatory spirit.


So how can we overcome this condemnatory spirit?  Well, that’s what the verses which follow try to tell us.  The disciple can overcome this negative spirit which just “writes off” other people through four realizations.  The first realization is found in verse 2: “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”  The disciple should realize that God will treat him or her in the same way that he or she treats other people.  Now that’s a very weighty teaching!  You’ve probably heard the expression: “Well, you get what you give” and that could be what Jesus is saying, but it seems to go beyond that.  Another commentator has noted: “But the passive [form of the verb], as often in Matthew, probably conceals God Himself as the agent.  Just as He will forgive those who forgive, He will [treat with disdain] those who [disdain others].”  “You mean, the way I treat other people will have an impact on the way that God will deal with me?”  Yes, the measure that you use will be the exact same measure that you can expect God to give you back to you.  Now do you see why I said this is such a profound teaching?  Let’s treat others as we would want God to treat us—that will help to curb our condemnatory spirit.  Maybe we should carry around a small tape measure in our pocket or purse to remind us of this measurement principle that Jesus taught. 


Now the second realization to help us to overcome a condemnatory spirit is found in verse 3-5: “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite!  First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  The disciple should realize that he or she has faults too, so he or she should examine their own lives before being critical of others.  One commentator puts it this way:  “Jesus is not condemning criticism as such, but rather the criticism of others when we exercise no comparable self-criticism, trying to correct others when we have not first corrected ourselves” (Stott).  It’s kind of like that saying: “When you point your finger at another person, just remember that three fingers are pointing back at you.”  “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own” (Stott).  “I’m firm, but he’s pig-headed.  I’m flexible, but she’s gone back on her word.  I’m reconsidering, but he or she has changed their mind” (Cope).  We have our faults too, so let’s examine ourselves before we begin to criticize others.  Realizing our own shortcomings will help us to be less condemnatory. 


The third realization is found in verse 6: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”  Now if we tie this passage in with relationships, what is Jesus teaching us?  If I took a $100 bill and threw it into the monkey cage at the zoo, what would you think of me?  “Bro. Paul has lost it!  He’s gone crazy.  Didn’t he understand the value of that bill, and didn’t he know that the monkey would probably just rip it into little pieces?”  So what’s the point?  The disciple should realize that relationships are valuable, and they should not be treated in a frivolous way.  Do we view our relationships as valuable, or sometimes do we just think so little of them that it would be like our casting pearls before pigs?  A man who was suffering with Alzheimer’s disease wrote this to his wife after a troubling bout of forgetfulness: Today fear is taking over.  The day is coming when all my memories of this life we share will be gone.  You and the boys will be gone from me.  I will lose you even as I am surrounded by you and your love.  I don’t want to leave you.  I want to grow old in the warmth of memories.  Forgive me for leaving so slowly and painfully.”  His wife, blinking back her tears, wrote to him: “I will continue to go on loving and caring for you—not because you know me or remember our life, but because I remember you.  I will remember the man who proposed to me and told me he loved me, the look on his face when his children were born, the father he was, the way he loved our extended family.  I’ll recall his love for riding, hiking, and reading; his tears at sentimental movies; the unexpected witty remarks; and how he held my hand while he prayed.  I cherish the pleasure, obligation, commitment, and opportunity to care for you because I remember you.”  Now there’s a couple who saw their relationship as valuable!  Maybe valuing our relationships would help us to extinguish our condemnatory spirit. 


Then the fourth realization starts in verse 7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, it will be opened.  Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will you Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”  Certainly, this is talking about prayer, but could it be a prayer about our relationships?  The disciple should realize that prayer, done persistently and specifically, can help to build relationships.  You know, when you don’t understand someone else, wouldn’t prayer be a good place to begin?  One commentator noted: “The three balancing clauses—asking, seeking, knocking— in each of these verses adds up to a strong exhortation to persist in prayer.  The present tense indicates continuous prayers” (France).  So we’re continually asking God to help us to understand our brother or sister.  We see too here that our prayers need to be specific.  We do not pray: “God bless George,” but we pray: “Lord, George and I are in conflict.  Please, Lord, help me to understand better where he’s coming from.  I don’t see why he believes the way he does, so please help me to discover his perspective so that I can respect him more.”  It is amazing sometimes how God will answer such a prayer; you can be put into some mighty strange situations.  Yet those different situations will help you to understand your brother or sister better.  Could insights and new perspectives be some of those “good things” that God wants to give to His children who ask Him?


And then Jesus’ closes this section and the main body of this sermon with these words in verse 12: “Therefore whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  Disciples should practice a benevolent spirit, for this is what the Old Testament was driving at.  Often to close out the body of speech in Jesus’ day, a rabbi would refer back to something that he began the speech with.  Remember, that Jesus began the body of His sermon by saying that His righteousness properly interprets the Law.  Now he closes by giving us what has become called the Golden Rule—treating others as you would have them treat you.  One commentator noted: “We should positively seek another person's good by using our imagination: putting ourselves in the other person's shoes and asking, 'How would I like to be treated in that situation?'” (Stott).  A business man wrote this in 1999: “I’ve led from a place of servant leadership, and I’ve led from a place of top-down leadership — and there’s no question which kind of leadership is more effective.  My classmates at Harvard Business School used to call me ‘the Prussian general’ because for many years that was my approach to leadership. Then I was hit by a series of personal and professional setbacks.  My wife died. A mail-order venture that I had started went bankrupt.  Rather than launch another business, I accepted a friend’s offer to head an aquarium project in Tampa.  I spent the next six years in a job that gave me no power, no money, and no knowledge.  That situation forced me to draw on a deeper part of myself.  We ended up with a team of people who were so high-performing that they could almost walk through walls.  Why, I wondered, was I suddenly able to lead a team that was so much more resilient and creative than any team that I had run before?  The answer: somewhere, amid all of my trials, I had begun to trust my colleagues as much as I trusted myself.  And that is the essence of servant leadership” (Stuart quoted in Larson-Elshof).  He began living by the Golden Rule.  “In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed the 29,035-foot peak of Mount Everest. Thousands followed, thanks to Nepal’s lifting its tight restrictions on climbing the legendary mountain.  By 2006, more than 2,700 people had reached the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, many paying more than $60,000 for the experience.  One result of this commercial influx has been the erosion of the traditional moral code of mountaineering.  In the rush to the top, amateurs who have paid a fortune will do anything it takes to get to the summit, including abandoning other climbers.  David Sharp became a casualty in March of 2006.  The thirty-four-year-old engineer from Cleveland managed to reach the summit on his own. However, he ran out of oxygen on the way back down. As he lay dying, forty climbers passed him by, too eager to achieve their own goals to take a chance on offering their oxygen to someone else.  David Sharp froze to death” (The Week in Larson-Elshof).  Forty climbers who had forgotten the Golden Rule. Another commentator rightly observed: “As a general principle to guide us in specific ethical decisions, the Golden Rule has not been bettered” (France).  Jesus’ disciples should show a benevolent spirit; for that’s what the Old Testament was driving at.  

So now we see how Jesus’ righteousness has gone beyond that of the religious leaders of his day.  His righteousness properly interprets the Law.  His righteousness puts God in the number one position.  His righteousness gives relationships the number two position.  These are the main points that Jesus wanted His audience to grasp.  In the conclusion of His sermon, Jesus will give three warning and an admonition.  That will be the subject of our next lesson.  You’ve been so kind to hear me out.  A condemnatory spirit or a benevolent spirit?  Jesus wants us to practice the Golden Rule.  How have you been treating others?  Have you made other things take priority over relationships?  Do you want follow that righteousness which Jesus offers, beyond that of ritualistic piety?