The final verse of Matthew 7:1-6 seems to be completely unrelated to what precedes and follows. Not surprisingly it has generated many different interpretations. Throughout church history it has been interpreted as a prohibition against serving communion to heretics or the unbaptized, as a principle concerning how much energy to spend evangelizing those most resistant to the gospel, and even not interpreted as all because there is not enough context for it to make sense. There is no simple solution.
There is one approach that tries to relate it to the previous section by reading it as a sort of counterpoint to the message about judgment. David Allison summarizes the relationship between the passages this way: “Matt. 7:1-5 has commanded that there be not too much severity. Matt. 7:6 follows up by saying that there should not be too much laxity.” The kingdom and its principles are things of value like the sacrificial meat and pearls in the illustration. On this reading, Jesus is saying, “Don’t treat the kingdom and its principles casually.” The focus is not on trying to identify specific people with the dogs and swine (e.g. Gentiles, heretics) but rather on the action that shows a lack of treasuring something precious.
In a way, in judgmentalism we misuse the kingdom principles by overvaluing them. We wield them as weapons to judge and rank others according to their adherence to the kingdom life. This is a danger.
But there is an opposite danger: we can regard the kingdom principles too lightly. We can treat behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to the kingdom ethic as insignificant, matters such as honesty, sexual morality, economic practices.
Both of these dangers are present and even prevalent in the church today. Some groups use their faithful adherence to the kingdom way as justification for pride and judgment of others less faithful. These groups fail the judgmentalism test and have missed the point of the kingdom.
Other religious groups have evacuated the Christian message of virtually all moral content except, usually, for a few of the shibboleths of the contemporary culture such as environmentalism or intolerance. But the passage makes clear that we are to be involved in helping our kingdom siblings with the splinters in their eyes, not blithely denying the existence of them. Interestingly, those who treat kingdom purity so lightly often find that, as the passage predicts, it comes back to bite them in some way.
Taken together, then, the instructions in this section direct us toward a balanced way of thinking about and applying kingdom principles and purity.
The next in Jesus’s series of 6 interactions with the OT law has to do with oaths. In this section Jesus pulls two phrases from the OT which interpreters of his day may have been combining (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2). The phrases warn against swearing by God’s name but not fulfilling what you vow.
In order to protect themselves against breaking this law and incurring judgment, the people took to swearing their oaths by other things: the earth, Jerusalem, the temple, the gold of the temple (Mt. 23:16), and even their own heads. They could make an oath that sounded important but if they failed to complete it they were in no danger. Or so they thought.
In his response, Jesus makes two moves. First, he shows that failing their new vows is just as damning because they infringe upon God just as swearing by his name does. The earth is God’s throne. Jerusalem belongs to the King. So just by changing the words they have not succeeded in escaping through a lexical loophole.
But just as we have seen him do in the previous passages, he goes a step further. He says not to swear at all (34). Why not?
Oaths exist because honesty does not. Oaths are either an attempt to secure honesty from others through threat of judgment (e.g. court witnesses swearing on a Bible), or to convince others of our sincerity (“I didn’t wreck the car! I swear to God!”). We swear because we lie. What Jesus envisions is a world where people can be taken at their word. A world where we speak unequivocally. Where yes means yes and no, no. A world where we don’t have to add words to undergird the accuracy of our other words.
The kingdom of God is founded on the Truth-speaking and Word-keeping of God. Jesus is saying that people of the Word should be people of their word.
In the early part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stakes out his position with respect to the Law by saying he came to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). He then urged his listeners to pursue a righteousness superior to that of the legal experts of his day (5:20). He goes on to flesh out his understanding of the law by addressing six laws in particular, exposing misconceptions about them, and articulating the vision implied by them (5:21-48).
The six laws concern murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, eye-for-eye judgments, and loving one’s neighbor. Why did Jesus choose these six laws? Were they the most important to him? Were these issues a particular problem for the Jews of Jesus’s day? In the case of the last of the six—“Love your neighbor”—we can say with some confidence that it was one of Jesus’s ‘favorite’ laws. He repeated it as half of his summary of the Law and the Prophets. But what about the others?
Jesus was the consummate teacher. He was an expert at starting where people were at and moving them to what he wanted to say. The issues that these passages address—reconciliation, purity, fidelity, integrity, mercy, and love—were central to Jesus’s understanding of God’s character and therefore God’s design for humanity. That is to say, Jesus understood these things to be the essence of the teaching of the Law and the Prophets in a comprehensive way. I don’t think that the six laws that Jesus chose to highlight in the Sermon on the Mount were in and of themselves of special concern for Jesus. Rather, he saw in them an effective starting point to talk about the issues he saw as the heart of the law. He very well may have been able to start with any number of other laws, prophecies, or even OT people and events to make the same points.
Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament. More importantly, he was steeped in the essence of the law and the way it testified to God’s character. As a result he could move creatively from virtually any point of the law or any question people might pose him to the heart of the gospel and the heart of the Father. How adept are we at moving conversations toward the essence of the kingdom?
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
~ Francis of Assisi
In Matthew 5:22 Jesus tells his listeners that the person who calls his brother “Fool!” is in danger of hell fire. This, he claims, is the idea implied in the command not to murder.
What then to make of the fact that Matthew records Jesus himself using the word “fool” (Gk. moros, from which we get the word “moron”) on at least two occasions: once to rebuke the Scribes and Pharisees (23:17) and once at the close of the sermon on the mount to describe those who do not follow his words (7:26)?
Reading the passages that woodenly ignores the nature of Jesus teaching. Craig Keener notes that “Most hearers understood that such general principles expressed in proverbs and similar sayings needed to be qualified in specific situations; most legal interpreters also recognized that even biblical laws had to be qualified under some circumstances.” Sometimes people really are fools and it needs to be said.
Ironically, those who would accuse Jesus of living a double standard on this issue have missed the very point Jesus is trying to make in the passage. He is not setting up a new law that forbids using the word “fool.” He is expressing the kingdom inappropriateness of relationship breaking attitudes and words. Acting as if it is a new law that Jesus himself has broken is to fall into the trap of thinking that kingdom living can be reduced to rules that we keep.
Living the kingdom life is not and, indeed, cannot, be about abiding by hard and fast rules, though there are certainly boundaries that must not be crossed. It wasn’t even that way in the OT. There, the wisdom literature addresses living the fullness of the covenant life that laws cannot adequately cover. Now, we live out the law, not by living by the law but by living by the Spirit.