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

Rules of Three

I appreciate Love Sechrest’s description of the social situation of the Matthean communities. She adds immensely to our understanding and interpretation of the Matthean account overall. However, I’m not convinced that she accounts for the rhetorical strategy and structure of Matthew 7. I think McEleney offers a more convincing analysis for our interpretation.

I think we see in Matthew 7 a use of the “rule of three” strategy and structure. If I take McEleny’s analysis of Matthew 7:1-6 and apply it to the balance of the chapter, I think something interesting pops out of the text. I want to divide up the text like this:

Vv. 1-5 “Don’t judge”                          V. 6 Ironic proverb – “Judge Gentiles and Romans”

Vv. 7-12 “Be generous like God”         Vv. 13-14 Ironic proverb – “God’s way is stingy”

Vv. 15-20 “Check the fruit”                  Vv. 21-23 Actual proverb – “Check the fruit”

McEleney has made the case for the structure and intent of the first paragraph. In the second paragraph we get an extensive description of Gods inclusive generosity. “Everyone” who asks, seeks, and knocks receives, finds, and encounters an open door. Even we hard-hearted, stingy, tribal humans know how to be generous to our children. That generosity is a pale imitation of God’s generosity.

Therefore, we read in verse twelve, we are to imitate God’s generosity in our dealings with others. In that way we fulfill the Law and the Prophets – precisely the task Jesus lays out for himself earlier in the Sermon on the Mount.

Immediately following that expansive vision of God’s generosity, we hear that God’s gate is narrow, and God’s road is hard. The word for “narrow” can also mean stingy and confining. This sounds nothing like the previous paragraph. Instead, it sounds much more like a quote from those who also warned against willy-nilly tossing God’s good stuff in front of dogs and pigs.

I would argue that this is a second example of an ironic proverb circulating in or around the Matthean communities. The second proverb occupies a position parallel to the first one and can be interpreted to have the same tone and intention.

I can imagine the performer turning in the same direction with this proverb as the performer turned with the first one. And now, the listeners would catch on to the strategy and structure. We all know the “rule of three” structure of many jokes. The listeners would catch the rhetorical intention immediately.

If this is a “rule of three” stretch of text, then the third element is often used to contrast the first two. Sometimes it is also used to critique the first two in that contrast. Those who have urged judging outsiders and being stingy with God’s stuff are, in this analysis, also those who have said “Lord, Lord,” but have not done the will of Jesus’ heavenly Father.

Therefore, judging outsiders and hoarding God’s good stuff for the insiders are not ways to bear good fruit. This is the content of a “real proverb” from Jesus, as opposed to those false proverbs circulating in the communities. Those who engage in such behavior are among the trees to be cut down and thrown into the fire. They are the ones to whom Jesus will say, “I never knew you.” They may offer pious protests as they engage in these behaviors, but they are false prophets.

As is so often the case, this interpretation is the precise opposite of what most commentators offer regarding this text. The ironic proverbs are taken as actual warnings instead of examples of what not to do. This interpretation is then taken up into preaching and leads listeners to worry about being too liberal in including the outsiders and sharing the good things of God.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, my way into this interpretation comes from a performance analysis of the text. How do I imagine the first performers played these lines for the Matthean communities? Did they play verses six and twelve to thirteen “straight”? Or did they change their tone, posture, gaze, and facial expressions to capture the irony of these lines.

Obviously, I am persuaded they did the latter. As a result, I find this final section of the Sermon on the Mount far more compelling and consistent. It’s not some catch-all for the preacher rushing to the big finish. Instead, this is a clever way to get to the real “applications” of the Sermon for the Matthean communities.

If I extend Sechrest’s analysis to verses seven to fourteen, the “narrow gate” imagery serves as a corrective to an incautious and imprudent inclusion of outsiders and sharing with them the good things of God. I find that balancing strategy difficult to reconcile with the “golden rule” in verse twelve which urges us to be as generous as God in everything we do.

In addition, it’s difficult to incorporate verses twenty-one to twenty-three into that schema. It may be that, in Sechrest’s analysis, the Matthean Jesus is describing what happens when the outsiders are brought in too quickly. But that seems to me to be a strained analysis.

Verses twenty-one to twenty-three sounds much more like insiders who rely on the cheap grace of performative piety rather than on the hard work of loving inclusion. That fits much better with the critique of the “hypocrites” in Matthew six.

I find very helpful Sechrest’s description of the threefold pressures applied to the Matthean communities: “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).

And I find it credible that at least some in the community would advocate a more careful guarding of the boundaries of the communities. This cautious approach would reduce the pressure from Pharisee communities to engage in more acceptable Torah practice. That would allow the Matthean communities to present, along with the Pharisee communities, a more united front to stand against the Gentile persecution.

I don’t believe, however, that this is the position advocated by the Matthean Jesus, either in Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, or in the gospel account as a whole. Instead, I think the Matthean author holds up that cautious position to ironic scrutiny in chapter seven and elsewhere in the gospel account and finds that position lacking.

I don’t think the Matthean author is dealing with pressure to incorporate local, Jesus-believing Gentiles. I think the Matthean author is advocating for precisely that response to the local situation. And I think that Matthew 7 provides strong rhetorical and structural evidence for this line of thinking.

What is the role of the final parable as the conclusion of Matthew 7 and of the whole sermon? I would imagine that the performer turns to the listeners at this point and completely shatters the theatrical “fourth wall.”

The wise and faithful response to the sermon is not going to mitigate the struggles of the Matthean communities. The rain will fall. The water will rise. The winds will blow and beat on the “house.” I can imagine the impact of this imagery on communities that met regularly in actual houses! These actual houses would have been under threat from outside forces that wished to disrupt the life of these Matthean communities.

When the storms come, it’s critical that the “houses” are based on something solid – a standard that is clear, reliable, and actionable. I think that standard of behavior includes generous welcome of Gentile outsiders to the community. Those who try to straddle the divides are building on sand. They are “moronic,” as the text says. And such “houses” will fall to ruin.

The Matthean author is, therefore, speaking to communities under threat. Such communities are always tempted to retreat, strengthen the boundaries, defend the gates, and monitor the roads. That’s the wrong strategy, as far as the Matthean author is concerned. The time of threat is a time to double down on the generous welcome and trust that Jesus will strengthen them to weather the storm. Matthew 8, then, offers illustrations of both the risks and rewards of that doubling down strategy.

As is so often the case, I am puzzled at the moment as to how I can help my hearers interpret these texts without engaging in a long bible study in the place of a relatively shorter sermon. But, as they say, that’s why I get the big money!

Nevertheless, I’ll be glad to preach on Matthew 7 for a couple of weeks and encourage my listeners to be part of an outward-looking, risk-taking, generously welcoming community.

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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