Text Study for Matthew 7:1-12 (Part Two)

Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and Dogs

“How should the downtrodden give love to enemies,” Love Sechrest asks, “and how should the dominant be loving as enemies in times of ever-increasing racial tension?” (page 73). In her article, Sechrest describes a framework from the Gospel of Matthew “that can be useful in navigating the borderlands of conflict and love.” I want to spend some time with her article in this post.

What is the Matthean author seeking to proclaim, to teach, to correct in the communities the author addresses? Who are the members of those communities, and what are their situations in relationship to the external world? How I answer these questions makes a great deal of difference in how I interpret the Gospel of Matthew and specific sections of that gospel. Sechrest proposes a nuanced set of answers to these questions and an application to notions of allyship.

Allies, Sechrest writes, “are those from dominant or privileged groups who engage in activism in support of social justice by helping to dismantle systems of oppression and unfair advantage in favor of increasing access to social goods for all” (page 74).

Allies in anti-racist work first acknowledge our own whiteness and the racism and privilege inherent in that identity. Allies in anti-racist work understand the cost of racism to themselves as well as to those oppressed. Allies learn from formal sources and informal relationships about the oppression whiteness enforces. Allies resist the tendency for white people to engage in backlash when confronted with their racism. Allies resist the temptation to take control of racial justice efforts. And allies pursue humility.

“Thus,” Sechrest continues, “wisdom and love dictate that there should be possibilities for whites to craft an identity characterized by trust, humility, unceasing anti-racist action, and solidarity with people of color” (page 82). She argues that the images of enemies in the Matthean account can “help in fleshing out the shape of Christian love for the Other” (page 83).

The place of the Gentile Others in the Matthean account is remarkably ambiguous. The very same text portrays Gentiles as models of faith and examples of faithlessness. Why is this, and what shall we do with this ambiguous assessment?

Sechrest points first to the historical pressures applied to the Matthean communities. In the aftermath of the Jewish War (66 to 70 CE), “Matthew participates in the ensuing debates within Judaism about the future of the people in terms of their worship, society, and leadership” (page 86). The ongoing conflict in the Matthean account between Jesus and the Pharisees likely mirrors the conflict and competition between the Matthean communities and the larger Jewish communities in post-war Antioch.

In addition, the larger Gentile community may have punished the Jewish communities, the Matthean communities included, for supporting the Jewish War. “Likely written in Syrian Antioch,” Sechrest notes, “there is also evidence that Matthew’s community faced persecution and rejection on a second front. In the post-war period,” she continues, “the Gentiles of that city initiated violent anti-Jewish mob action, which was followed by repeated petitions to Rome that Jews be stripped of all of the civil rights that had been previously guaranteed by the Romans” (page 87).

In addition, the Matthean communities probably faced pressure to include Gentiles in their expressions of the Christian movement. We know from Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts that Syria was a center for a mission to the Gentiles. We know that Antioch was a particular locus for that mission.

On the one hand, Sechrest notes, this may have increased the opposition of the local Jewish communities, especially if Gentile inclusion resulted in relaxed Torah observance. This can account for the very “Jewish” character of the Matthean account. On the other hand, the Gentile mission was successful and growing at the same time. The Matthean author had no desire to derail this success.

“In short,” Sechrest concludes, “Matthew’s ambiguity towards Gentiles may emerge from the fact that his group faced pressure on three fronts: they faced active Gentile persecution in Antioch, hostility from Pharisees in the aftermath of the Jewish War, and internal Christian movement pressure to accept local Jesus-believing Gentiles” (page 88). This accounts, she argues, for the insistence on Torah righteousness in the midst of a Gentile mission.

No wonder I often find the Matthean account confusing and filled with double standards.

This means that the Matthean communities were, in fact, among the oppressed in post-war late first-century Palestine. This position, Sechrest notes, makes the command to love one’s enemies and the emphasis on forgiveness throughout the Matthean account “nothing short of stunning” (page 88). “I suggest that when we imagine the fraught nature of love for one’s conquerors when considering Matthew’s Gospel,” she continues, “we also need to pose questions about what Matthew might have had in mind when he wrote about enemies.”

Sechrest examines Matthew 7:6 as one place where this “fraught nature” comes to the fore. She takes this proverb as direct speech from Jesus and not as a quotation or ironic reference (see the previous post). She analyzes several related texts and proposes that Matthew 7:6 “isn’t so much about dehumanizing the Other as it is about issuing a warning about the danger inherent in making peace with enemies—Romans and perhaps Syrians as well in Matthew’s case” (page 92).

In this interpretation, Matthew 7:1-5 warns the communities not to make hasty judgments about others. Matthew 7:6, then, is a cautious corrective not to take this relaxed openness too far. “Taken together, 7:1–6 instructs believers to exercise discernment,” Sechrest argues, “when it comes to sharing the holy things of the kingdom with those who either lack the ability to discern the value of such precious treasure, or from whom one has reason to fear violence” (pages 92-93).

This text, then, is both an encouragement to engage in the Gentile mission and a warning to exercise caution in that enterprise. “The text describes a way of approaching potential friends who are or have been enemies,” Sechrest writes, “One must approach judiciously and carefully, lest one gets trampled and mauled, with a compassion that grows out of a rejection of self-deception (7:1–5), and with the dignity that may withhold what is precious in order to avoid further harm” (page 93).

While Sechrest doesn’t mention this connection, her analysis reminds me of the “double consciousness” which W. E. B. DuBois described so clearly  in The Souls of Black Folk as the necessary stance of Black people in relating to White people in the United States.

“It is a peculiar sensation,” DuBois wrote in 1903, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, —an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Matthew 8 illustrates, Sechrest suggests, the various ways that Gentiles respond to these Matthean Christian overtures. The demoniacs respond with violence, at least initially, The pigs fly to their deaths. The community “who have just received their own back from (living among) the dead, would rather reject Jesus than deal with the person who brings gifts of deliverance” (page 93). On the other hand, the Centurion responds with great faith.

Caution is in order when engaging with potential allies.

This is where Sechrest takes us in her analysis and interpretation. The Matthean communities are oppressed by the larger culture and yet seek to interact with that dominant culture. Some members of that dominant culture – for example, the Centurion and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 – respond positively, as allies. “Just as the centurion experienced the limits of his autonomy when he was unable to relieve the boy’s pain and was driven to seek help,” Sechrest suggests, “so too must people of color learn to develop alliances with others who understand something of the pain of disenfranchisement and constraint” (page 101).

Sechrest invites me to read the Matthean account from the perspective of the centurion (among others) and to reflect on what it means to be an ally to Black people. “The goal of allyship is not for people in privileged groups to be shamed, punished, or retaliated against,” she notes, “but to eliminate the conditions that dehumanize us all, to restrain evil in our midst, and to seek our common good” (page 105).

Perhaps the Matthean account can help me to be a better and more willing ally. “Regarding movements towards justice,” Sechrest concludes, “it has been said that the powerful will not willingly lay down their power, but this reticence should not be true of those who follow the crucified Savior” (page 105).

References and Resources

McELENEY, NEIL J. “The Unity and Theme of Matthew 7:1-12.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no. 3 (1994): 490–500. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43721713.

Sechrest, Love L. “Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and Dogs: Loving the Other in the Gospel of Matthew.” Ex Auditu 31 (2015): 71-105.

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