Thinking Biblically: The Gospels – Reading the teachings

Thinking Biblically: The Gospels – Reading the teachings

 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye." 
- Matthew 7:1-5

Last week, we began talking about how to read the Gospels faithfully and carefully.  And as we continue doing so today, it is important to call to mind some important aspects of what the Gospels are.  The Gospels are ancient biographies, and as such are not merely different accounts of the same events, but different portraits of the soul of Jesus.  I mentioned last week how Plutarch, the preeminent biographer of the Greco-Roman world, described his work on the metaphor of painter who paints portraits of the souls of his subjects.1 This has two important consequences.  First, as we talked about last week, this means that the biographer, and the Gospel writer, have some artistic license and that the way they use that license conveys important points.  The second consequence is that this means that the entire story is important.  In order to see the portrait, one must look the whole painting, not just one part.

 It is often very easy to think of the Gospels as having three parts: a beginning which tells story of Jesus birth, and end the story of His death and resurrection, and a bunch of filler that is neat but doesn’t really matter.  That could not be further from the truth.  They are stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And just like any story, the whole thing matters.  If you sit down to watch The Mandalorian and only watch the first and last episode, you will probably be a little confused, wondering “What is this adorable little creature?” or “What is Gus Fring doing in outer space?” Likewise, it will be equally confusing to jumping into the middle of the season there will be a lot that is difficult to understand.   The middle is not just filler, but an important part of the portrait.  It show us who Christ is and often tell us something important about who we are as followers of Christ.  And in order see and appreciate the fullness of what it teaches we need to read these individual passages in light of the whole story.  With this in mind, let’s turn to the passage we read earlier.  This time I am going to read it out of the Kingdom New Testament translation, which is N.T. Wright’s translation of the New Testament.

“Don’t judge people, and you won’t be judged yourself. You’ll be judged, you see, by the judgment you use to judge others! You’ll be measured by the measuring-rod you use to measure others! Why do you stare at the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, but ignore the plank in your own? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Here—let me get that splinter out of your eye,’ when you’ve got the plank in your own? You’re just play-acting! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you’ll see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your neighbor’s eye. – Matthew 7:1-5

This passage, which comes near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is one of the most commonly quoted and commonly misunderstood passages in scripture, both by popular culture and by many who complain about how popular culture misunderstands this passage.  Often the former speak as though the entire thing ends at verse one and read it is a simple “Don’t be too harsh” or even an extreme “Don’t say that anything is sinful”, while the latter often speak as though it begins at the end of verse five with “and then you’ll see clearly enough” and read it as though it is all about the fact that we should go around judging people we just need to do some other things first.   Both of these misinterpretations not only fail to see the whole passage but fail to see the context in which the passage is delivered.

One of the most striking things about Matthew’s portrait is that he paints parallels between both Jesus and Moses and Jesus and Israel.  Like in the flight to Egypt which we talked about last week, where Matthew quotes a prophecy about Israel being called out of Egypt. Likewise, just as Israel wondered in the desert for 40 years, Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-11).  Jesus also delivers five large blocks of teaching, much like the five books of the Torah, or the Pentateuch.  Matthew paints a portrait of Jesus delivering Torah, as delivering a new law like the law of Moses.  The most famous of these blocks is the Sermon on the Mount.  The law of Moses set the people apart and told them how to organize their lives.  Likewise, the Sermon on the Mount does for The Church. 

Therefore, we should expect the teaching found here to be subversive, and that is exactly what we find.  Jesus begins the sermon by shattering ancient notions of greatness by promising blessings not on the ambitious, dominant and violent, on the gentle, the merciful, and the peacemakers.  He goes on later in the sermon to quote the law of Moses and then offer new commands, that where even stricter than those of Moses “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44-45). Then right near the end, He turns His attention to our priorities.  Don’t store up treasures on earth, but in heaven (cf Matthew 6:19-21).  In other words don’t concern yourself with wealth, but with God and God’s work.  Don’t worry about about what you will eat or drink but trust in God and strive for the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 6:25-34).  And then “Judge not lest you are judged… why do you see the speck in your neighbors eye, but not notice the log in your own eye.”  (Matthew 7:1,3) In other words, don’t concern yourself first with the sin of others, but with your own sin. That is the point: not “Don’t ever tell anyone that what they are doing is immoral” nor “Look down on anyone you want and be as condescending as you see fit, just get your house in order first”, but “Concern yourself first with your own sin; dealing with your own sin should be a bigger priority than dealing with the sins of others.”

As subversive as this teaching is, it is also one rooted an important truth, a truth which becomes clear when you look at the grand scope of human history. Aside from the abolitionist controversies, and subsequent controversies that arose in their wake (like apartheid and the civil rights movement), when we look back on history, most of the most horrifying, most disgusting evils where not matters of controversy but of “common sense”. This is not to say that there were not meaningful debates in the past; there most certainly were. The question of whether one should translate The Bible into local languages is an absolutely important debate. Yet, the great evils in most times and places throughout history where not matters of debate, but matters of “common sense”

In the middle-ages torturing and burning heretics was “common sense”.2 The idea that women should have a right to choose whom they will marry and should have few rights within marriage was viewed as “common sense” in many times and places throughout history.3 Martin Luther’s antisemitism is notorious, because of how easy it was for Hitler to capitalize on it. Yet while he may have gone a little further than many of his contemporaries, his views reflected a tradition of antisemitism which was widespread, and uncontroversial throughout Medieval Europe.4 Even slavery itself was considered “common sense” in the Greco-Roman world. Historian Tom Holland has called the teachings of Christ and the Apostle Paul that all people have intrinsic value and that we should all people, regardless of social status as our brothers and sisters, a seismic charge buried deep within the ground, which causes some tremors at first and then reaches the surface and blows up the system.5 There was a reason why they buried the charge instead of talking the issue head on, because to do so would have sounded like gobbledygook to the average Roman audience; it would have been heard as little more than a meaningless combination of words, despite the fact that we can hardly imagine how someone could possible think this way.

When we look at this arc, when we look at all of the horrible things which the the world for so long, in so many times, and so many places, thought of as “common sense” it should disturb us, because it forces us to ask a question of ourselves.What are we blind to? What are we blind to? It is possible that we are among the lucky ones who live one of those rare era where the great evil of our time is a matter of controversy, and something we can be on the right side of , but it’s very, very unlikely, because those eras where very few and far between. And there are very important matters of moral controversy today, just as there were in the middle ages, and we ought to stand up for what is right, but in so doing we must remember that we are like very blind. We should stand strong, with one eye on our own sin and our own blindness. So many people who were so much more faithful and knew so much more about scripture than anyone here, including myself, have been so wrong and so blind. Can we honestly say that we are the exception? What are we blind to?

This is why it is so important to focus on the planks in our own eyes and realize that there are planks in our own eyes that we cannot see, because we are blind, that it is outside of our capacity to understand. This is why the world needs more people who are emissaries of grace. The world doesn’t need more vitriol.  It doesn’t need more people puffing up their chests and telling everyone else that they are so wrong.  The world needs grace more grace.  The world needs more grace, more people who understand that the same grace that covers our sin covers the sins of our brothers and sisters. The same God who died for us died for every single person on this planet, and there is no single person on this planet who is beyond redemption, and just as God is with us, God is with them. Whomever we want to look down on, whomever we want cast and say “You are not my brother, you are not my sister, because you believe this about that hot-button issue” there is is likely something even worse that we are wrong about that we simply do not see because our culture has blinded us to it.

The world needs more grace. It is this grace, which shines in the darkness, for it is this grace which will pierce through the muck and the mire and will guide us through. It is that grace which is offered to all people and which we are called to be emissaries of, that will shine a way through the darkness and will guide us home.  The question we must all ask is whether we will be emissaries of that grace. Will we bear that light? Will we concern ourselves first with our sin and extend grace to others? The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out, and that light will lead us home.

  1. Michael R. Licona Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography by Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (pp. 4-5)
  2. For a brief look at the diversity of people who that those they deemed heretics ought to be tortured and/or killed see the following articles
    1. The Servetus Affair: Calvin and The Story of Calvin and His Critics by Mark Talbot. Desiring God. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-servetus-affair
    2. Burned at the stake, racked and drowned: Why did everyone hate the Anabaptists? by Mark Woods. Christianity Today. https://www.christiantoday.com/article/burned-at-the-stake-racked-and-drowned-why-did-everyone-hate-the-anabaptists/81608.htm
  3. One notable example is the Roman Empire. For more information, see PBS: The Roman Empire in the First Century. https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/women.html
  4. Antisemitic laws that essentially amount to a religious and ethnic aprthied where common in Medieval Europe: https://www.history.com/topics/holocaust/anti-semitism
  5. St Pauls ‘depth charge’ Why historian Tom Holland changed his mind about Christianity. Premier Christian Radio. https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Unbelievable-blog/St-Paul-s-depth-charge-.-Why-historian-Tom-Holland-changed-his-mind-about-Christianity

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