Journey Post 43: Judging, discerning the narrow road, and building a house: What Jesus actually taught
The Donkey Understanding of Christianity, Part 3c, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 7)
Matthew 7:1-2 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.…” (NIV)
These are words to make the steadiest heart hiccup, Christian or non. One can read them slowly, dreadfully, or pass speedily by, the mind only half-engaged. Surely Jesus can’t possibly mean what those words seem to say … I’m doomed if they do….
One can maybe latch on to the first reasonable explanation that lets them off the hook. Our initial Bible training, for example, left me with the impression that much in the Gospel accounts was not highly relevant for Christian life, so this probably didn’t apply to me, right? Or, did it?
Chapter seven is the final one in the Sermon on the Mount. (The chapter and verse divisions were added later to help us find stuff.) By way of summary, here’s what Jesus said: He warns those who judge someone by the “speck” in their eye of their need to remove their own “log.” He speaks of “not casting your pearls before swine.” Then he encourages people to ask their Father to meet their needs because he will give them good gifts, just like an earthly father gives his children.
Here he states the “Golden Rule,” and then warns people to follow the “narrow road” rather than the broad one that leads to destruction. Only the narrow one leads to life and “few there be that find it.…” Doing that requires discernment. He teaches how to recognize false prophets: by their fruits. He says only those who do the will of his Father will inherit the kingdom, and he will turn away even some who call him “Lord” saying, “I never knew you.” The conclusion is similar to other messages Jesus has given: if you hear, you’ll be like the wise one who builds his house on the rock, you will withstand the storms.
Reading this chapter used to leave me pondering: Had I missed the true understanding of the gospel? My donkey brain couldn’t reconcile the words here with my understanding of God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness. Especially troubling was the part about “the measure you use … will be measured to you,” a sort of Golden Rule in reverse: You will be treated the way you treated others. And the remainder of the chapter gives even less comfort. Am I actually on the “broad way” instead of the “narrow way”? Am I self-deceived? What was Jesus actually teaching, anyway?
A caveat before going on: I have studied the Scriptures most of my adult life. This fact doesn’t mean that I understand them perfectly, but I have devoted a lot of mature reflection to what I’m about to say.
It’s important to bear in mind a few things as we look at Jesus’s statements. First, remember that it’s part of a context. I hear people quote the first verse (“judge not”) as a defense against disapproval: that may fit the politically correct context of America today, but it isn’t what Jesus had in mind.
The part about being judged with the same measure we use is related to other principles mentioned throughout Scripture, e.g.: “You will reap what you sow”; the Golden Rule; and the statement that “God shows no favoritism….” The common thread here is equality of treatment. This reflects the justice of God.
Equality (not of ability but of being and worth) is incorporated in American values, as when Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal….” I was alluding to this, as well, in my last blog essay, about my classmate David: no matter your conviction, all people are created in the image of God and thereby entitled to equal treatment and justice.
You may rightly ask: “If that’s true, then why does God let Christians off the hook by forgiving them? Just because they say they ‘believe’…. Doesn’t the Bible also say, ‘the demons believe—and tremble’?” Yes indeed it does. You’ll say, “Aren’t Christians sinners like everyone else?” Yes. “Aren’t they even worse sinners when they’re hypocrites, trying to foist their rules on us?” Valid point again.
We’ll touch on the answers to these questions only indirectly. I hope that what I have to say here will provide insight on the answers. But this is not a Q & A.
Scripture does say that all humans are judged equally before God. That’s scary. That we all reap what we sow should give us all pause. (Note that Paul repeated this when writing to Christians.) It sounds all very mechanical, like a vending machine: do bad, get bad, do good, get good rewards; garbage in, garbage out. However, God is not a vending machine constructed by humans. Jesus is not mechanical, neither is the Father he came to put on display in human history.
Jesus’s comments about the Law in Matthew 5 will help us better understand how God operates: “You have heard it said …, but I tell you…” His statements might make your jaw drop—and some of your assumptions along with it: Anger and contempt for other humans is the same as murder in the sight of God, and lust is the same as adultery. Jesus also addressed the principle often referred to as the lex talionis (Latin: the law of retaliation), for example, “an eye for an eye.” He said, rather, turn the other cheek to insults, go the second mile, give to those who ask, love your enemies.
It’s easy to apply what Jesus said to people like the Pharisees—I’m sure some got the point and were doing a slow burn by the time Jesus was done. But don’t dismiss what he said as only for Pharisees or legalistic, hypocritical Christians. The Sermon on the Mount sets forth general principles applicable to all people everywhere, and we do well to ponder that.
One lesson is that God knows our hearts and values honesty in the heart. Because he knows the complex motivations of all, he can exercise love and grace and mercy and forgiveness where we would not. But we need to be careful not to think that his love trumps his justice. If that were the case, God would have no integrity, and there would be no basis for us to trust him. He would be a capricious god.
His absolute justice is the very reason the cross is central to Christianity. The cross demonstrates that God loves his creation enough to find a way to forgive even the worst sinners without compromising his justice or holiness. The way was that he paid for our sins himself. The cross reconciled love, justice, and holiness. The cross enabled God to exercise his grace and to reveal his father-heart.
That being said, let’s think more specifically about what Jesus says in chapter seven:
“Judge not,” verses 1-5. We humans judge continually. Jesus was referring here to condemning, a self-exalting flawed judgement. “Judgment” can also refer to clear-eyed discernment: that requires wisdom and an unhindered view. All of history, our own lives, shows the results of flawed judgment. Even if you don’t believe in the Fall, you’ll agree that there is evil in this world, closer to home than we like to admit.
Can any of us successfully remove the “log” from our own eye? Perhaps. But the awareness of the log in our own eye is essential. That awareness enables us to see that other’s problems are only a “speck” compared to our own “log.” The Pharisees, of course, weren’t even aware. Ultimately, there really is only one who has a completely clear-eyed view that enables perfect judgment.
“Don’t throw your pearls to pigs” (“cast your pearls before swine”), verse 6. I’m not sure of Jesus’s precise meaning, though it certainly includes needing proper judgment so as not to give what is valuable to those who can’t appreciate it. Some say this refers to the gospel message. Perhaps it’s a subtle swipe at the Pharisees and other religious leaders, those whose hard hearts and rejection of Jesus as Messiah pushed the early church to take their inclusive message of God’s love to the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews).
“How much more will your Father give good gifts,” verses 7-12. Many understand these verses to show the need for persistence in prayer. The bottom line is not about driving God nuts to get results, but about depending on God as Father: like a good earthly father (though “evil”) he gives only good gifts to his children. This significant statement about the nature of God tells how he relates to those who trust him.
Discerning the road, the prophets, and the apprentices of Jesus, verses 13-23. The verses about the narrow and broad roads are just plain scary—if you take them on their own (out of context). They are scary because Jesus doesn’t say here how to know which is which. Many Bibles with explanatory notes generally say simply that those who follow Jesus are on the narrow road.
I think the key is likely in the verses (21-23) which speak of true and false disciples (apprentices). There, Jesus says explicitly: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Faith (and trust) is shown not by what you say but what you do, and the ‘do’ is the will of God.
So, what is the will of God? Many will say that it is “obeying God.” But any good legalist is good at obedience to their own version of what God wants. Legalistic prophets have destroyed the lives of countless people who followed such blind guides. But those who do the will of God, whether prophet or peon, will be evident. I spent my life on a performance treadmill, seeking approval and acceptance with God and let myself be led by some blind leaders. My actions were good, but my heart was shrouded in a fog of fear, out of touch with God’s will. The fear was that I might hear Jesus say, “I never knew you!”
I am now learning the will of my Father by following Jesus as his disciple (student, apprentice), watching and listening and doing because I know it’s safe to trust him. I learned to step off my performance treadmill about ten years ago. I’m learning to ask directions and humbly wait for them.
Last month, at David’s memorial service, I was asking directions (i.e., wisdom): How do I, who have certain convictions based on Scripture, display the heart of my Father and love a fellow human being who is gay? I have much need of clear-eyed discernment. I lost the opportunity once with my classmate: I reaped what I sowed by distancing myself from him most of our school years and did not seek to change even when I had the chance before he died. Perhaps the Lord will yet give me another opportunity.
“The wise man built his house upon the rock,” verses 24-27. I learned this song in a kindergarten Sunday school class. All I ever needed to learn, I could have learned back then, but…. Jesus is the rock, of course. To all the hearers of his messages, Jesus said, “Listen, if you have ears to hear.” If you honestly listen (or read) these things, and seek to learn from him, you will discover that his “yoke” is a partnership–not a moralistic slave chain– in which he teaches you the will of God encapsulated in this simple summary of all God’s Law: “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”