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.

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.

Text Study for Matthew 7:1-12

Part One: Dogs, Pigs, Wafers, and Wisdom

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6, NRSV).

Matthew 7:6 appears to be a non sequitur dropped into this section of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s like a fart in church – surprising, uncomfortable, out of place, and then ignored as it dissipates. If that’s really what the verse is, then the Matthean author gets pretty sloppy in an otherwise tightly organized composition.

That’s hard to swallow. But it is precisely how, for example, the NRSV treats the verse. It has its own section title. Chapter seven has the appearance of being a miscellaneous catch-all as the preacher hurries to get to the big finish in verses 24-29.

I don’t buy it.

The first paragraph (verses 1-5) prohibits, in clear and colorful hyperbole, condemning others (at least within the Matthean community). Then the Matthew Jesus points to some as “dogs” and “pigs” who don’t deserve the holy and precious things of God. Wait, what?

Don’t judge others. But call some of those others names and keep them away from the central elements of the Jesus movement. Yes, that makes perfect sense. No wonder the NRSV and other translations punt on the structure of the argument here.

I’m increasingly struck by the oral/aural nature of the New Testament documents. I am further impacted by what we lose in our interpretation without those oral/aural experiences. When we only have the text, we don’t get the tone, the gestures, the direction of gaze, the sheer volume (or whispering) provided by a performer.

Beginning with Albert Mehrabian, we have learned that only seven percent of communication comes to us through words. Fifty-five percent is nonverbal – body language, gestures, etc. Thirty-eight percent is vocal – tone, volume, etc. I don’t know precisely how this works in our interaction with the New Testament documents. But it’s fair to say that we do not have direct access to a large part of the information and experience conveyed to the first audiences.

Of the canonical gospels, the Markan account has been most fully explored as an oral/aural performance. The Markan account may have been performed first and then written down. The other canonical gospels may have been written first and then performed. Nonetheless, these texts, according to David Rhoads, “were in any case composed not for private reading but with oral performance as the expected medium—an approach to writing that would have been the primary factor in determining style, content, and rhetoric.”

Rhoads argues that the written scripts existed to facilitate oral performance. They might have created some guardrails to prevent the performers from taking too many liberties with the stories. The written documents were a way to transfer the gospel accounts from one house church or community to another. But even then, the accounts would have been performed. And they would have been performed in their entirety, not in the piecemeal fashion in which we read them in our Christian worship settings.

Unless the literacy rate in the Roman Empire exploded after 70 CE, all of the canonical gospels were heard much more than read. That would be especially true of the lower socioeconomic strata in which the Christian movement found its greatest growth in the second half of the first century CE. In order to access even a small part of the other ninety-three percent of the text, we have to engage our imagination in the oral/aural process.

Matthew 7:1-12 offers, I think, an illustration of the importance of this oral/aural dimension. Neil McEleney makes a good case for Matthew 7:6 as a snide quote from those who engage in judging. It’s worth pursuing a bit of his argument to get to a better translation and interpretation of Matthew 7, the entire Sermon on the Mount, and the whole Matthean account.

Verses one through five teach the disciples not to condemn others. Verses seven through twelve teach the disciples to be as generous to one another as God is to them. How do these teachings fit together and is verse six a rhetorical bridge connecting them? Verse five addresses the “hypocrite” who cannot see the wooden beam in their own eye. “In avoiding such self-blinded, self-righteous corrective zeal,” McEleney writes, “the true disciple of Jesus practices a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees and become eligible for the kingdom of heaven” (page 493).

How does verse six expand on this? Some scholars argue that there is a mistranslation of the Aramaic original at fault here. As McEleney notes, that may be the case. But due to the lack of textual evidence, “it must remain an interesting conjecture” (page 494). How does the text as we have it work?

It may be that the Matthean community has been too liberal in sharing the “wafers and the wisdom” (the holy things of God) with outsiders – the dogs and the pigs. In that case, the Matthean Jesus is exercising a necessary corrective here. However, that collides with much of the rest of the Matthean account. Jesus seems to go out of his way to be kind to Gentile outsiders in much of the Matthean gospel. Even though, as McEleney notes, the earthly Jesus focused on the ”lost sheep of the house of Israel” in that gospel, the risen Jesus sends the disciples to reach “all nations (Gentiles).”

“Why should [Jesus] tell the crowds and his disciples to hold back from the Gentiles what would bring them closer to God?” McEleney asks. “The answer,” he believes, “is that the Matthean Jesus cites a well-known (and probably pharisaic) proverb only to counter it with several sayings of Jesus which amount to an exhortation to generosity on the pattern of God’s generosity to all” (page 497).

There is some evidence that such a proverb may have existed in first-century Mediterranean discourse. However, the primary evidence must come from the structure of the text itself. The second paragraph highlights the generosity of God. And it argues, McEleney says, that “Because God is always generous to Jesus’ hearers, they should conclude that they should be generous to others” (page 499).

Jesus describes his listeners, in Matthew 7:11, as “evil.” This really means “ungenerous, cheap, begrudging,” as McEleney notes. This is how the word is used, for example, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave in Matthew 18. The conclusion is clear for the Matthean author. Whatever you want to have someone do for you, do also for them. “Do not hold back,” McEleney suggests, “but be generous, even to the Gentiles” (page 499). This is, then, what it means to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and to have a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now we come to the oral/aural dimension. McEleney suggests that prior to Matthew 7:6, we should insert the phrase, “You have heard this proverb.” Then the verse itself would be shared with the first-century equivalent of “air quotes” (or “scare quotes”). Verse seven should begin with “But I say to you…” In this way, the text then resembles the antitheses we find in Matthew six.

Why didn’t the Matthean author include those words in the text if that was the intention? McEleney doesn’t address that (as it seems to me) obvious question. I would suggest that in an oral performance of the text, such insertions were not necessary. They would be indicated by tone, gesture, gaze, and body language. In other words, the insertions would have been part of the ninety-three percent rather than the seven percent.

This interpretation leaves me with questions to ponder. What do we do with the next few verses – the ones that contrast the wide and narrow gates? On their face, these verses seem to indicate a less than generous understanding of the gospel, akin to the traditional reading of Matthew 7:6. What if, however, these verses are another proverb spoken by the hypocrites?

What if this niggardly approach to God’s wafers and wisdom is precisely what the “false prophets” of Matthew 7:15ff. are preaching? I’m going to think some more about that one. But I think that’s a real possibility for interpretation. And again, it would have been indicated clearly in an oral/aural experience.

The more pressing question is how to incorporate this interpretation into proclamation. What good are these interpretive gymnastics to the average reader who has no idea what’s really going on here? I’m going to reflect on that a bit more in my next post. I do have some ideas that I think I’ll try on my unsuspecting listeners in the near future.

And, as always, I continue to wonder what this means for our sense of the authority and inspiration of “scripture” as we have it. In some ways, such interpretations just make a hash of those ideas. In other ways, I think we get closer to the authority of the living word as opposed to the “dead letter” of a written text. But the nature of that text then is dynamic and situational rather than fixed and “reliable.” I’m good with that.

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.