Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
There’s a lot packed into those 12 verses Jeff just read for us. The so-called Golden Rule at the end likely being the most familiar: do to others as you would have them to do you. This teaching wasn’t unique to Jesus, though it certainly fits nicely with other things he taught, and even sums up a lot of those teachings. Its internal logic makes good sense too, doesn’t it? We can’t beat on others and expect them to be nice to us in return. If you want others to treat you well, treat them well. Fair enough.
I’d actually like to focus more of our attention this morning on the other sections of this text. First, “do not judge, so that you will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) On the one hand, it sounds as simple as the Golden Rule, a variation on that same theme of treating others the way we’d like to be treated. And it, too, has become a popular saying; I hear it quoted fairly often, don’t you? “Judge not” or some variation of those words? Unfortunately, sometimes the way it is quoted moves us in the very opposite direction of Jesus’ intentions. You’ve just heard the context of the verse in Matthew 7. Jesus was actually reminding us to pay attention to our own weakness. Remember – that’s why he encouraged us to take that log or plank out of our own eye before getting all bothered about the speck in someone else’s eye. But when I hear this verse quoted I often hear it said in the spirit of: “Look, just leave me (or him, or her) alone. I’m ok; you’re ok; we’re all ok.” As if the reason we shouldn’t judge is that there’s nothing really wrong.
But “are we never to raise an eyebrow in concern, a voice in protest? … Are we [always] to look the other way, throw up our hands, and say ‘It’s not my business to judge others?’ Absolutely not.” (Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 77) It’s important to remember that Jesus stood firmly in the tradition of the law and the prophets – he invokes both here in this morning’s passage. Both traditions were extremely clear about there being right and wrong actions in this world, and both were insistent that the people of God should do what is right. So let’s not misunderstand “judge not” to mean that we cannot have standards for moral behavior. That’s not what Jesus was saying at all.
Instead, Jesus was talking about the direction we should be pointing, when we’re tempted to do some serious finger wagging. If we see others out there screwing up, making mistakes, and certainly when we see them doing something truly awful, there’s nothing wrong with calling those things what they are, so long as we’ve taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and acknowledged our own sins first. Jesus wants to transform all of our lives, the lives of the self-righteous right along with lives we might consider scandalously sinful. Tom Long says “when we recognize that we, too, are broken and flawed…then we move from harsh judgment to a tender concern to help the neighbor… Instead of a finger poked in the neighbor’s face, we reach out mercifully to wipe the neighbor’s eye.” (Long, Matthew, p. 77)
The next little section of this morning’s passage is trickier to understand. What’s Jesus trying to get at when he cautions us not to give what is holy to dogs, or throw our pearls before swine? That sounds pretty harsh, particularly when we understand that in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a very uncomplimentary term. (We have enough dog lovers in this room that this might not immediately come across to you.)
It may not surprise you to know scholars are rather divided on how to interpret this part of Jesus’ teaching. Among the various options, I’ve found most helpful Tom Long’s take on the passage. He suggests that Matthew is alluding here to a dilemma within his church, a dilemma about which we don’t have all of the details. If we follow this logic, this particular Christian community has apparently faced a situation where all of their attempts to be gracious and compassionate have run into a dead end. In Long’s words: “What if a congregation is careful not to judge others harshly and self-righteously, careful to follow the process of compassion and moral care, but to no avail? What if all attempts to provide empathetic moral guidance are met with indifference, resentment, or anger? There are people who, for whatever reason, are hostile to the ministry of the church … and there are others who feign obedience to the kingdom while distorting its every claim. When the church has done all it knows how to do to claim and reclaim such people and failed, it needs to be prepared to admit that some things are beyond our power to help and heal.” Long continues: Jesus’ “language is tough… It sometimes takes tough talk, though, to get good news across. The good news here is that the certainty of the kingdom does not depend upon the success of the church or the grateful response of every person we encounter. We are called to show compassion, but often our compassion is not enough. We are called to be the light, but there are places of gloom that our light cannot make cheerful. But because the world is in God’s hands, and not the church’s, the church can be free, when it has exhausted every ounce of mercy it can muster, to walk away from failure and leave it to the grace of God.” (Long, Matthew, pp. 78-79)
Finally, Jesus returns to the topic of prayer, something he discussed earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, focusing there in that prior section on not being showy with our prayers, and then offering us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer as a model. Here in chapter 7, he brings up prayer once again, but this time it is to remind us to keep on praying. After all, God’s not a mean old Scrooge who gets his kicks out of denying your requests. God loves you with the love of a father for his children. So “ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
Beautiful words. Inspiring words. We love to remind one another of these words, and to sing these words together. But am I the only one who’s bothered by the fact that these words don’t always seem to ring true? The frustrating truth of the matter is that we don’t always get what we ask for, even from God, even when the request seems to us to be a mighty good one. “Ask and it shall be given to you?” Jana Childers says “if it were true, all 8 year old girls would be braiding pink satin ribbons into the tails of their very own ponies!” And far more importantly, if it were true, all children would be going to bed at night in safe places with full tummies. If it were true, all cancer patients would immediately go into remission. So what is Jesus really saying?
N.T. Wright believes the point of the passage is simply this: don’t be afraid to ask. “The fact that there may be a war going on in one country, a famine somewhere else, earthquakes, tragic accidents, murder and pillage all over the place, and that he is grieving over all of them – this might be a problem for a high-ranking authority at the United Nations, but it is no problem whatever for [God]. When he says he’s still got time, space, and love to spare for us, we should take him at his word.” (Wright, p. 73)
Certainly there are times when for reasons we cannot understand, God seems to answer ‘no’ to a perfectly legitimate request. We may never know why. But we can’t let this stop us from asking. “Jesus calls for an open, free, venturesome prayer, a communion with God that is like a child curling up in the lap of a parent, pouring out our fears, dreams, desires, needs, and wishes. If earthly parents know how to give good gifts… how much more will God, who is wise and loving, hear the rushing torrents of our undisciplined prayers and respond by supplying us with all good things.” (Wright, p. 80)
In other words, there’s no point trying to figure God out before we pray. No point trying to second-guess God, as if to say: I don’t think he’s likely to grant this request, so why bother asking. “Overly careful prayers betray an assumption that we, the ones who do the praying, are in control. [As if] we must … be cautious and meticulous about our prayers lest we pray for something we shouldn’t. What are we thinking? That our prayers will somehow put God in a bind or that prayers are magic words that manipulate God’s will?” (Wright, p. 80)
No, the delightfully, (perhaps infuriatingly?), freeing word here is that God will act in God’s own time and in God’s own way, sometimes responding to prayers with a yes, and sometimes with a no, and sometimes with a terribly long wait before they are answered. If you’ve seen the movie “Bruce Almighty,” I’m sure you remember that when Bruce, acting as God, tries to answer everyone’s prayers with a yes simultaneously, utter chaos ensues. We simply can’t foresee all of the consequences of getting the thing we’re praying for. Sometimes our requests can even conflict with one another. So not having a particular prayer answered the way we want doesn’t mean God’s not listening, or that God doesn’t love us, or that God doesn’t care what happens to us. Far from it.
Tom Long invites us to think of Jesus words here as invoking a steady rhythm of prayer, like the ticking of a clock. Ask. Seek. Knock. Ask. Seek. Knock. Ask. Seek. Knock. Because God’s listening. And God loves you, so very much. So why not ask? Because whatever else God may give you, God will always give you his presence. That answer to our seeking, asking, and knocking is never denied.
In terms of advice here in the first part of Matthew chapter 7, then, Jesus actually offers us a few ‘golden rules.’ Monitor your own mistakes before you get wrapped up in pointing out the mistakes of others. Show compassion and grace, and try everything you can to convey the good news of the kingdom of God to everyone, but if you cannot get through to someone, leave it in God’s hands. And finally, keep on praying. Ask. Seek. Knock. Whatever the final result, your prayers will never, ever fall on deaf ears. It starts to sound a lot like what we do around here on a Sunday morning, doesn’t it? Confessing our sins. Sharing God’s peace. Demonstrating persistence in prayer.
And of course what we do in here is always meant to be taken out beyond these walls too. For as we’ve seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount, as followers of Jesus we are blessed, not in order to keep that blessing for ourselves, but in order to be a blessing to others. So in our judgments, in our acts of compassion, and in our prayers, let’s keep on finding ways to shine God’s light, and to salt the earth with kingdom-of-God flavor.