Right Relationships - Matthew 7:1-12
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The artist Vincent Van Gough, the subject of Don McLean’s famous song, ‘Vincent’ had been deeply religious all his life. In 1880 he rejected the church, not the Christian faith as such because he was tired of what he saw as the hypocrisy of the clergy. Interestingly enough in the famous painting of Van Gough, ‘Starry Night’, the whitewashed church is the only building in the landscape that doesn’t reflect the brilliance of the stars above. The church alone is dark, but the sky is ablaze with light and faith. And when you think about that, it is a terribly sad and grave indictment of the church as he found it at the time. Of all the places which should reflect the brilliance of God and faith it is the church- the community of God’s people. In contrast to its surroundings it is the church which should be bright and the other things dark. This at least is what Jesus had in mind for his followers as we find it in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
At the beginning of the Sermon back in chapter 5:17ff Jesus has already made the point that his followers are to be different. They are to be like salt, distinct from the meat into which it is rubbed, or a lamp on a stand to illumine a dark room, or a city on a hill standing out from its surroundings-all three metaphors pointing to the importance of being distinctive. And this, says Jesus is nothing less than the fulfilment of what God has been aiming to achieve all along- the formation of a distinctive people who can become vehicles of his mission to save a world on the wrong side its Maker – 5: 17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’. How? Well by having a group of followers whose way of life, surpasses the religious elite of his day- the Pharisees- v 20 ‘I tell you unless you righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ But how is it possible to outdo the best of the best- the Pharisees? Well, in the rest of the Sermon Jesus shows how. He demonstrates how he and his followers fulfil the law and the prophets by having a concern which is not with outward show- style- but inward reality- substance. Time and time again Jesus makes the point that inner attitude shapes outward action. And in the final part of this section of the Sermon on the Mount we see how Jesus expects us to relate to other people. So do turn with me to Matthew chapter 7.
Those of us who have the NIV pew Bible will notice how it sticks in a heading ‘Ask, seek and knock’ between verses 6 and 7 which unhelpfully breaks up the flow of Jesus argument and makes us think that Jesus is going on to a different subject-namely, prayer. As I hope to show he is actually continuing the same theme about how Christians are to be different in dealing with people, for the asking, seeking and knocking of verse 7 is primarily about asking other people in personal relationships rather than God in prayer, although that comes into it. I say that because of the conclusion in v12, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets’ – the very phrase Jesus began the entire section with in 5:17. That phrase acts like two book ends to the main central section of the sermon. So all that Jesus has been teaching from that point to this is about fulfilling the OT Scriptures
So let’s take a look at the first part of chapter 7 and think about planks, pigs, persuasion and prayer.
First, planks-v1-5 "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.’ Let me ask you a question: What is the one way guaranteed to boost your ego and at the same time get people to conform to your whims and wishes? Simple, make them feel guilty and inferior to yourself. It works every time-that is what is going on here. So when Jesus says, ‘Do not judge or you too will be judged’ he doesn’t mean exercise no discriminating judgement. After all, in v15 he calls his followers to be on the lookout for false prophets and you can’t do that unless you are going to engage in some form of judging- distinguishing good fruit from bad. That is not the kind of judging Jesus has in mind. Rather, it is judgementalism, a harsh censorious, carping judging which lacks sincerity and real concern. This is indicated for us in several ways.
First, in verse 2 Jesus warns that such judging can boomerang back on us- ‘the measure you use will be measured to you’. In other words, come down heavily upon others, then expect payback some day. It could be that others who have been on the receiving end of your harsh attitude will be only too eager to return in kind when you come a cropper. I guess this is a special danger for those of us who are into middle age and may have been Christians for some time who berate younger Christians for not being so committed and falling into the Christian equivalent of a grumpy old man or women syndrome, but who then allows hobbies, the house, or other interests to take over themselves and so church and Christian things become less and less important and so end up backsliding themselves. Don’t expect too much sympathy then. Or it could be that God himself uses our own standards against us. Why can we be so harsh and critical with the struggling young Christian and yet so easy on ourselves?
Which brings us to the second point Jesus makes about trying to tease out some splinter irritating the eye of another Christian (brother) without taking steps to deal with the plank of wood in our own eye. Jesus judgement at this point is that it is hypocrisy. Why? Well, because it is all a sham- it only appears to be concern shown. The concern is not really to help our weaker Christian brother or sister sort out some difficulty in their life, otherwise we would have dealt with some of the major things in our own lives so that we could be more effective helpers-hence verse 5, ‘Take out the plank and then you will be able to help with the speck.’ But by what is called ‘nit picking’ we are able to exercise a hold on others and at the same time make ourselves look good-hence it being hypocrisy-play acting. This was the problem with the Pharisee. Of course he was concerned about sin. But in another way he was not concerned enough. So he would castigate someone for not giving a tenth of their income to the temple, and yet be as greedy himself. Sure he wanted people to pray, but when he prayed he was more concerned that people saw him pray than that God heard him pray-Mtt 6:5. And by adding rule upon rule for how to live a ‘godly life’ the teachers of the law not only ensured that people looked up to them- for they had all the answers- they also made certain people depended upon them-which being lawyers meant securing a good income. And Jesus wants to warn his followers against that sort of abusing of people- imposing harsh judgements upon folk to make them feel beholden to you and respectful of you- causing them to think: ‘Wow- he or she must be so spiritual to spot such a little thing in my life.’ Do you see how it works?
Let me tell you something. One of the most beautiful descriptions Matthew uses of the Lord Jesus is taken from the prophet Isaiah and found in chapter 12:20, ‘A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’ And if that is the way of Jesus, then surely that should be the way of his disciples- so fulfilling the law and the prophets- ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. Specks are to be removed, most certainly, that is a loving thing to do, but only when the plank has been taken away from our own eye so that we can see that it is a person to be cared for and not used to support our own status or ego. There is such a thing as religious abuse which we are to avoid like the plague.
Then there are pigs- and dogs- v6- ‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn to tear you to pieces.’ What is that all about? Is Jesus saying that some people are not ‘worthy’ of receiving spiritual things- that which is ‘holy’ or the ‘pearl’ of the Gospel- because they are to be likened to wild dogs or unclean pigs? Hardly, for by definition no one is worthy. No, if Jesus’ main concern in this section is how we relate to one another- ‘doing to others what you would have people do to you’ – then could it not be that he is getting at how we sometimes try and force ‘precious things’ onto people, with very good intentions but to our surprise get the exact opposite reaction- hostility? What the pig or dog wants- edible food is not what is given, it is something inappropriate in that it is not what is expected that cast before them-pearls which can’t be eaten. Just think of this great Gospel we have to share with others. We are to be creative in getting this Gospel out and that is what we try to do at St John’s – hence summer in the city, Time out, After eight’s and so on. But we also need to be sensitive too. The fact is most people will not see it as a precious. In some regards people can be like animals simply looking for what immediately satisfies- hence the incessant concern with what we can eat, what we can drink and what we can wear-so hedonism is the order of the day. And so as Christians we can go to one of two extremes. We can so soft peddle our evangelism so not wishing to offend anyone that it ceases to be evangelism at all- no Gospel message is spoken. Here we can use gimmicks to show that Christians are cool - just handing out free Pizzas and saying ‘Jesus loves you’ as some students are now doing campuses or saying that the Gospel is all about having a better life now- so God wants you to be healthy and wealthy. The result is that the pearl has been exchanged for a crumb- salvation has been swapped for cheap satisfaction. The other extreme is to fail to respect people and preach at them and not to them- there is an attempt to push the pearl upon people- throwing it before them. But that approach can be just as detrimental as the first. The better way is what Jesus goes on to describe in v7: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’ These words first apply to the way we approach people before they are then applied to the way we approach God, they logically follow on from what we have just been thinking about.
In other words, this is the way of persuasion. People are to be treated with respect. That means asking people in respectful dialogue; seeking ways of making contact, knocking on the door of people’s lives rather than trying to prise the door open. And so in personal evangelism for example, I am always at pains to find out what the other person believes before I go on to share with them my belief. When someone says they are an atheist or an agnostic, that is not the end of the conversation, it is only the beginning, for those terms just tell you what they don’t believe, not what they do believe. You have to find out what those things are and lovingly but firmly expose their weakness before presenting the Christian alternative. They need to see their need before they will recognise the Gospel’s answer to that need. The Gospel is not, ‘Are you feeling that life is meaningless? Come to Jesus’, although their feeling of lack of meaning might be the way in with the Gospel, for you show how at root all feelings of meaninglessness can be traced back to our separation from God. If there is no God then life cannot be anything else but empty and meaningless! It is because we have rebelled against our Maker that we experience emptiness and lostness as signs of his judgement upon us now and point to the eternal lostness in hell we shall experience one day unless we accept God’s wonderful solution in the death of his Son on the cross. There Jesus underwent the ultimate lostness in our place as he bore the punishment for our sins. But I always ask permission to share the Gospel. Why? Well, because of what Jesus says in verse 12. I would not to be too pleased, if someone tried to force their beliefs upon me or tell me what they believed without treating me as a person. So why should I treat them any differently. If I want them to be courteous to me I should be courteous to them. And as is so clear in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, what we say we believe has to be backed up by the way we behave.
But you and I know how resistant people can be. Asking people to listen is not enough, and so we also need to ask God in prayer-v 9-11 "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
The good gifts that God gives may be the humble persuasive attitude we need or it may be the thing we desire- people to change.
One of the temptations which comes to all leaders is to try and get people to do what they want- good things- but by means which are less than godly. There is the putting on the show as the omnicompetent, all knowing, all wise Christian leader- well versed in the Bible, never appearing to put a foot wrong. One way of making you appear big and looked up to is by making others seem small- hence the hypocrisy Jesus condemns here. There is then the thought that in order to achieve a successful out come- a good mission, a lively church, most of it is down to you- managing people and programmes- which can easily slip over into manipulating people. And when a difficulty develops, you try and resolve it all by yourself. You have to go and see someone and so you go through all the arguments and counterarguments in your mind- ‘If they say this, I will say that’. Isn’t that right? But, as simple and as obvious as it might seem- there is one other person we should be asking to do be at work- and that is God. I have often found that I have saved myself a lot of anxiety by simply committing people to God in prayer than by me cleverly working out how to get things done with them. I have discovered in going into a difficult situation that when I have genuinely prayed for the other person and for myself to do what is right- God has been way ahead of me and the reception has not been as hostile as I had anticipated. I have endeavoured, however falteringly, to treat the people with respect and I have asked God to do that which I can’t do. And surprise, surprise- he has-v11. Not that everything is instantly smooth, but they will be better because we have tried to do things God’s way.
So here is the test. Would you prefer others to pressure you –planks and pigs- or persuade you and pray for you? If it is the latter- and I am sure it is- then you should do the same for them and so fulfil the law and the prophets- ‘Do to others what you would have them do for you.’
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