• The BaptistWay lesson for Jan. 17 focuses on Matthew 7:1-27.
This lesson brings us to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, but it is no less packed full of material that is challenging and difficult for readers. Jesus tells his audience, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). This section has generated a great deal of interest by scholars, ministers and laypeople. Is Jesus instructing his hearers to not issue any judgments at all? Or is he asking for us to hesitate to judge others unless we are ready to be judged as well by the same measure?
Of course, to cease judging altogether would be somewhat paradoxical since the identification of judging is itself also a judgment. Moreover, later in this section, Jesus encourages his audience to stay away from false teachers, false disciples, and foolish builders, a task that requires some level of discernment (i.e., judgment).
Some scholars read Matthew 7:3-5 as a clarification of what exactly is prohibited by Jesus. Here, Jesus advises that anyone who desires to aid someone with a speck in his or her eye should first attempt to remove any obstacles to one’s own vision. Notice Jesus sees the desire to remove the speck as acceptable. Hence, the central focus in this discussion is “first take the plank out of your own eye” (7:5).
Seen in this light, we can consider what is meant by not judging. Rather than omitting any sort of judgment or discernment, Jesus is calling disciples to judge better, to judge faithfully and to judge oneself first. In other words, disciples should be able to confess their sins, not only personally but also communally. Many church services include a corporate prayer of confession where the collective failings of the congregation are named as such, a necessary task if we ever will succeed in clearing up our own vision.
The second half of this passage (7:13-27) functions together as one unit. Jesus warns there are two paths and two gates—the narrow and the broad. The latter leads to destruction (7:14), and the former leads to life (7:13). We should recognize here Jesus is talking about the nature of discipleship, characteristics of which have been detailed throughout this sermon. In fact, we should recall the earlier discussion of the Beatitudes, which described the marks of the people of God.
Jesus’ teachings linked to his life
Moreover, we might here remember Jesus himself being identified in John’s gospel as “the gate” and “the way” (John 10:9; 14:6). This inseparably links Jesus’ teachings and his life. In short, Jesus is the path of discipleship as well as its form. To be a disciple is not simply to follow Jesus; it is to become like him.
This distinction of gates and paths is deepened by three images. First, true and false prophets are discussed. Jesus echoes the words John the Baptist spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees at the Jordan River: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10; 7:19). Early Christian texts show a similar concern for discerning who is a true prophet and who is not. Indeed, in every period of church history, Christians have needed to “test the spirits” carefully (1 John 4:1) so that they were not deceived.
Second, true and false disciples are discerned by whether they do “the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Crying “Lord, Lord,” prophesying in Jesus’ name and performing miracles in his name are not sufficient. Only doing God’s will brings one into fellowship with God and God’s people. Again, we are echoing the Lord’s Prayer with its call to see God’s will done on earth (Matthew 6:10). To those who do not share in this task, Jesus responds: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23). Finally, Jesus discusses wise and foolish builders, with the key distinction centering on whether one “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (7:24). We should notice the foolish builders still hear Jesus’ words, but their structure collapses because of its faulty foundation (7:27).
In an earlier lesson, we mentioned how the crowd is amazed at Jesus’ authority, which is on display by focusing the fulfillment of the Law on “these words of mine,” a pointer to the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. That is, Jesus’ interpretation of the Law found in this sermon is authoritative and serves as a definitive word for what Christian discipleship entails. Because of this, we should not try to excuse ourselves from doing what the sermon says, no matter how difficult it may seem.
A continual challenge
Therefore, as a conclusion to this section of teaching, the reader should leave with the sense the Sermon on the Mount is a significant statement by Jesus, it is not hyperbole, and it constantly is calling us to greater faithfulness. Each time we read and study it, we should be challenged continually to conform our lives to the pattern of Christ. In fact, the sermon focuses our vision more closely on Jesus’ life and teachings as a singular whole.
As one scholar writes, “His life is but a commentary on the sermon, and the sermon is the exemplification of his life.” Thus, let us follow the words of Richard of Chichester, whose prayer (popularized by the musical Godspell) desires to “Know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.”