Chapter 7: The Rule of the Kingdom

Buy the book!

The Judgment

All along we have been learning that we are called to participate in what we see God doing. Might we not then safely assume that God wants us to bring our knowledge of God’s will to bear on the behavior of those less enlightened than we are?

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.

In these few words, Jesus outlinesfor us a basic principle of human interaction. While we may think of judgmentas something which is decreed from on high, here we are told where, ineffect, the buck stops. Each of us sets the standard by which we are to be measured.

Let’s be very clear on this point. None of us is going to be judged by an arbitrary, external standard imposed from the outside. The idea that God will sit in judgment and mete out punishments based on some absolute objective standard is not supported here. Unfortunately, this does not let us off the hook. The tragedy of sin is that none of us is able to live up to whatever standard we ourselves acknowledge as normative, even ones we make up. See Romans 2 & Romans 3 for a full discussion of this point, with Paul concluding that sin is indeed universal, even for those who have learned no moral code; however, the grace of God is of wider scope yet, so that he says in Romans 3:22-24: There is no difference [between Jews who have the law (moral instruction) and Gentiles who do not], for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace1 through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Let’s not be surprised to learn that setting us free from sin also means Jesus wants to free us from the idea that we are responsible for identifying other people’s sins. After all, the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tempter told Eve that eating this fruit would make them “as Gods,” with the ability to judge between right and wrong. Thus when we exercise this ability we are applying the fruits of sin in our own life, effectively practicing idolatry, and putting ourselves in a position that rightly belongs to God alone.2

Often it is said that we must uphold the moral absolutes that God lays down. I agree. And one of these is that we are absolutely forbidden by Christ to judge or condemn another person. As always, Christ’s absolutes are directed at our heart’s attitudes, not at someone else’s behavior. And as always, his instruction to us is for our own benefit as persons who are liable to fall short of any standard we set.

Matthew 7:3-5

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

None of us should ever underestimate our own potential for moral failure. Children who respond to name-calling in the schoolyard with cries of, “It takes one to know one!” do not realize how closely they are paraphrasing the teaching of Jesus.

The tendency to make harsh judgments about the sins of others has always seemed especially characteristic of persons with a high religious profile. It was characteristic of the Pharisees, who criticized Jesus for hanging around with sinners. No one knew this better than the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, who as the apostle Paul wrote this way to the church at Rome (Romans 2:1):

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Let us not think, however, that either Jesus or Paul wants us to simply take on ourselves every burden of guilt we come across. The purpose is rather to set us free from guilt altogether, by pointing out that so long as we impose guilt on someone else, we are not yet free from it ourselves. In Christ’s kingdom, questions of guilt or blame are not an issue. We have already referred briefly to 1 John 4:16-19, which speaks of judgment in the context of the love of God:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love, because he first loved us.

The message is clear. As we allow ourselves to be conformed to the character of Christ (in this world we are like him), we will make judgments on the same basis that Jesus does: the love of God. Jesus did not see in the actions of others, or in their circumstances, an occasion for divine retribution. He draws this contrast between himself and his critics among the religious leaders: “ You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (John 8:15-16). In Jesus’ judgment, sinners were in need of forgiveness; the blind were in need of sight; a Samaritan woman with a history of promiscuity was in need of living water; a tax-collector was in need of friendship and affirmation and a worthwhile job to do. Even the woes spoken against the scribes and Pharisees are better understood as laments than as denunciations. Paradoxically, by imitating Jesus’ refusal to pass judgment, we set up a high standard which will reveal the woeful shortcomings of today’s self-appointed watchdogs of morality.

The Problem of Prejudice

Judgment is often a matter of classification. While Jesus seems to have dealt with individuals on a case-by-case basis, there is no doubt that one of the great tendencies of humans is to lump themselves into certain groups, and assign the qualities which seem to be characteristic of some members of a group to all the individuals within it. If we can identify the group to which a person belongs, then (as we imagine) we have identified the kind of person we are dealing with. Having made such a classification, we then presume to know something about the individual, and often on that basis decide to what extent we will enter into a relationship with the person, and what kind of relationship it will be.

This kind of pre-judgment diminishes our ability to see a person in the light of God. “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7b). It also puts us in a position where we are liable to be classified by others in our turn, and judged accordingly. Luke provides a parallel (and expanded) version of this saying of Jesus in Luke 6:37-40:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. He also told them this parable: Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.

Here again, we are to become like Jesus.

Matthew 7:6

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

At this point Jesus appears to throw us a curve. After telling us in no uncertain terms that we are not to make judgments, and even after encouraging us (in Matt. 5:38-48) to be careful to treat all persons equally, suddenly he is warning us about dogs and pigs.

What, then, are the holy things we have which could be inappropriately given to dogs? What pearls do we possess which we are to guard against the trampling of pigs? Jesus himself knew that at certain times it is useless to waste words on those who cannot or will not receive them. He would not produce a miracle for Herod on demand (Luke 23:8-9), nor would he answer his accusers before Pilate. He spoke freely with his disciples concerning the “ secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11) but to the crowds he spoke in parables. Similarly Paul wrote to the Corinthians about a hidden wisdom that he was able to share with the mature, but which the carnal or worldly church was not yet able to receive (I Cor. 2:6-16). These pearls of wisdom relate to the all-encompassing power of the love of God working in and through God’s people. The dogs and pigs spoken of by Jesus include the “ rulers of this age” referred to by Paul (1 Cor. 2:8), who are prepared to heap scorn and ridicule on any wisdom which thinks love’s power can overcome the power of the sword. Context shows that the reference to “rulers of this age” indicates those political authorities responsible for putting Jesus to death; or perhaps the spiritual forces behind such authorities, referred to in Ephesians 6:12 as “the rulers, the authorities. . .the powers of this dark world and. . .the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

It would be a mistake to expect those who take their cue from such powers and stake their lives and careers on the supremacy of fear and the threat of punishment to treat our message of mercy and love with anything but contempt.

Does this mean that the pearls have no value? Not at all; merely that we cannot expect the world or its authorities to recognize the value of specifically Christian strategies. Should we then abandon all hope of putting such strategies to use in the world? No indeed; it merely becomes more explicitly the task of the people of God to do so, aligning themselves unashamedly with the words and ways of Jesus, without waiting for the rest of the world to fall into line. We are not, after all, without resources of our own.

Tapping Our Resources

Matthew 7:7-12

Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

It appears that Jesus wants us to understand that God is approachable and accessible. God is more willing to give to us than we are to give to our own children; which brings us to the curious fact that in our passage, the promise of God’s willingness to answer prayer is given as a lead-in to what we call the Golden Rule.

The secret of God’s power is that endless life and unlimited, unconditional love are free for the asking; since this is so, there is no reason to hoard or ration what we have been given. We can spend it freely, because there is always more where that came from. The good news is that in the kingdom of God, everybody wins. The mind-set of this world has it that if someone wins in one place, then somewhere else somebody has to lose, because there is only so much to go around. You have to look out for Number One, because to do otherwise will be suicidal. But Jesus is teaching us here that to care for someone else is possible because it is not your resources, but God’s that you are using; and that someone else’s gain is not your loss, but your gain as well.

The words of Jesus, “Ask, and it shall be given you; Seek, and you shall find,” confidently reflect God’s willingness to give to us without precondition. But we humans are a stubborn, obstinate lot; and having learned by repeated demonstration of God’s grace to us how willing God is to answer our prayers and respond to our heart’s desires, we remain in need of learning another lesson. God delights to work through people; and sometimes wants us to ask not only God, but someone else, and accept what is offered freely and with grace. The first church I pastored decided, after reflection on its particular gifts and abilities, that its people knew how to put on a good meal on short notice and short funds. Desiring to use this gift in a way that witnesses to the gospel of grace, we determined that we would have a fellowship dinner every Friday, inviting friends and neighbors and people from the neighborhood to share a meal with us. We soon encountered a curious phenomenon: while our invitation was joyfully accepted by many poor and homeless, creating new opportunities for ministry and a host of new and exciting problems, the originally targeted groups did not respond in any comparable way. We found that middle-class Americans (at least in that neighborhood) tend to be very uncomfortable accepting something that is freely offered. Some of them even considered the offer an insult, as though we were accusing them of not being able or willing to buy themselves a meal. As a result, they lost out on the blessing of fellowship, and street people came in to take their place. All of this was reminiscent of one of the stories told by Jesus to illustrate the nature of the kingdom of heaven (Luke 14:16-24):

A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. . . .The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. . . . Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.”

One of the ways some of us maintain a sense of moral superiority is by reminding ourselves how different we are from certain people. Perhaps some of those invited guests in the parable looked on with disdain and declared how they wouldn’t have wanted to sit down next to those people anyway. Would some of us exclude ourselves from the joys of heaven because some will be there who ought to be excluded, in our opinion? But that experience at a little church in Albuquerque proved to be a living parable of the grace of God, rejected by those who think they can earn it, and welcomed gladly by those who know they don’t deserve it. To be effective followers of Christ, we need to learn not only how to give, but how to graciously receive what is given. That way we will not put ourselves above anyone else, and will also not put ourselves unduly below them. This will help make it possible for us to follow that great instruction of our Lord, So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Judging by the Golden Rule

This sums up the Law and the Prophets. One day a banking executive who was an avowed atheist explained to me briefly his philosophy of life. “The only God I recognize,” he said, “is the one who can sit in that chair across from me. So long as I treat him with the same respect I want to be treated with, I feel I have done all that I need to do.” I pointed out that Jesus made a statement which summarizes, according to him, all the scripture he knew (“ the Law and the Prophets“). This remarkable summary makes no mention whatever of God, or belief systems, or prayer, or religious questions. In fact, it sounds a lot like the summary my friend had just given of his own philosophy of life. “Perhaps,” I said, “it will be revealed in heaven (if there is a heaven) that some believed in God who thought they did not, just as it will be revealed that some were atheists who thought they believed in God.”

Another friend of mine was questioned as to the authenticity of his Christian faith. Some of his opinions were deemed questionable at best. He was asked how he could be sure that he was a Christian. “I knew I had become a Christian,” he replied, “the day I stopped hating people.”

Every time we discount or belittle or turn away from or denounce another human, we declare ourselves atheists in practice, whatever we may say or think about God. The task of reconciliation to God is not complete until we are reconciled to one another. Such reconciliation is cut from the same cloth as that inner experience of being reconciled to oneself which is so necessary for us to come to wholeness. If we cannot see Christ in our neighbor, our brother, our sister, or our enemy, then he will be hid from our own inner sight and we will not see him in heavenly glory. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it abundantly clear that the real test of saving faith does not lie in our acceptance of religious ideas, or devotional formulas, but in how we treat the least of those other humans whom Christ calls “these brothers of mine.” To judge such a one as unworthy of our attention, or time, or resources is to judge Christ unworthy, and crucify him to ourselves afresh. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Proceed to Chapter Eight…

Buy the book!

  1. I have always wanted to see in print Romans 3:23 quoted in context of Romans 3:24. Practically everyone who ever went to a conservative church knows verse 23 by heart: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but I rarely have heard the rest of the sentence expounded on: and are justified freely by his grace, etc. []
  2. So don’t do it, okay? []