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03.06.16 The Path to Peace Matthew 6:19-7:12 Sermon Summary

by on March 7, 2016

Oh, that we could experience more of the peace Jesus promised to his followers! Here a list of the obstacles, and how he helps clear them off the path.

Summary Points

  • First obstacle to peace: love of earthly treasure
  • Second: living in darkness
  • Third: serving two masters
  • Fourth: worry
  • Fifth: judging others
  • Sixth: thinking God is stingy
  • The Golden Rule as the path to peace
  • Questions for discussion and reflection
  • Postscript on dogs and swine

More and more Christians, myself included, have found ourselves asking, “Why, as a religious person, am I not more at peace personally?” In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identifies how, following him, we may remove the obstacles to our peace.

The first obstacle is the love of earthy treasure. To counter this, Jesus teaches us to keep material things in perspective. He reminds us that all things material rot, but that there are values which are eternal. He urges us “to store up treasures in heaven,” to forgo treasure on earth. In this way, we will have more peace. Just think about how much anxiety you have regarding your earthly treasures—accumulating them, paying for them, securing them, etc.

A second obstacle is having lived in darkness too long. Because the eye is the lamp of the body, some of us have been looking away from the light so long our bodies are full of darkness. The good news is that Jesus assumes light within every person (as evidenced by the statement, “If the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”), and so the darkness in which we find ourselves can be countered. It’s a matter of having a “healthy” eye, which draws from the Greek word for singularity. In other words, when we look more singularly at God, at the light, we will begin again to be filled with light.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Soren Kierkegaard defined purity of heart as “to will one thing.” The more singular our vision, the more we look to God, the lighter our lives become. Overcoming this obstacle to peace begins with where we look.

A third obstacle is trying to serve two masters—God and wealth. Jesus says it’s impossible; we can only love one and hate the other. Too many people have tried and failed to hate wealth. The better approach is to try to love God more. Ask yourself, “What do I do when I love someone?” You spend time with them or thinking about them. You listen to them. You talk to them. You want to know their values. You orient your life around their presence. You plan a future with them. The more we concentrate on loving God, the more our “hatred” of wealth increases. (Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, “hatred” implies more “rejection,” that is, non-choosing, than emotional animosity).

The fourth obstacle to personal peace which Jesus preaches about is worry, and he seems to categorize it in two ways: Worry about life, and worry about the body. With regards to worry about our lives, Jesus specifically talks about food and drink, which are very present-oriented concerns. This is understandable given the poverty of his original audience. Most of us aren’t worried about today’s food, but we do worry about our life in the future. So Jesus addresses this also by asking, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to the span of life?” With regards to worry about the body, Jesus talks about clothing. Today we might add concerns about housing also.

In both categories of worry, Jesus’ approach begins by contemplating nature. He draws our attention to the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field.” The great hymn sets it well: “All thy works  with joy surround thee, earth and heaven reflect thy rays; Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea; Chanting bird and flowing fountain, call us to rejoice in thee.” This is Jesus’ experience also.

Contemplating nature reminds people of faith that they are creatures of a Creator, and that the Creator is a faithful provider. Even more intimately, Jesus invites his followers to contemplate nature in order to remember their “heavenly Father” who knows what we need. The Gentiles, he says, don’t know this heavenly Father, and so they strive after all “these things.” But Jesus’ disciples, children of the heavenly Father, “seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness” to discover that “all these things are added to them as well.”

Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness leads us to live according to God’s values. We realize that in God’s kingdom there is abundance, and we are free to share. If what Jesus says is true, there is enough food in the world that no children need die today of starvation. If what Jesus says is true, there are enough resources that no adult need freeze to death on the streets of our city. When we seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, we realize that the heavenly Father is faithfully provident, and that we are the means of that providence. The reason people starve and die in the elements is because some of us, individually and as nations, have not let God’s providence pass through us to others.

But this requires a much more daily, even momentary, perspective. This is why Jesus concludes his words on worry by saying, “Tomorrow will bring its own worries; today’s trouble is enough for today.” For us to live in God’s kingdom and righteousness, we have to live in today. Because all we really have—and all God really provides for—is today.

One of the reasons we can live in peace today is because Jesus’ followers don’t have the same worries about life and death as others do. We know that this life isn’t all we have. We don’t live under the pressure to do everything possible before we die. We don’t have to be anxious about our lives. The apostle Paul wrote, “We live for the Lord and we die for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we belong to God.” (Romans 14:8) This is living in God’s kingdom. This is seeking God’s righteousness. Instead of being anxious about our lives, we can, like Jesus, love and serve others.

This leads us to the fifth obstacle to peace, which is judging others. Jesus says don’t—but it’s so tempting, so natural, and so easy! When you really pay attention to your judgment of others, you will be amazed at how it robs you of peace.

How do we stop judging others? By submitting to God’s judgment in our own lives. Instead of worrying about the speck in someone else’s eye, Jesus says we need to remove the log in our own eye. But when we submit to God’s judgment, we discover that God is merciful. It’s the reverse direction of the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be show mercy.” When we attend to the log in our own eye, we are shown mercy, and then when we see the speck in someone else’s eye, we will be merciful. How did God make peace with humanity in Christ? Not by judging, but by being merciful.

A sixth obstacle to peace is the conception we have that God is stingy. We mistakenly believe that God can’t wait to judge us and withdraw his blessings. But God is merciful. Even more, Jesus says, God is generous. “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give to those who ask?” Jesus taught, in other words, that God loves you more than you love your own children.

For some people this is unimaginable. Some of us really love our children, and we can’t conceive of a love greater than that by which God loves us. On the other hand, some of us weren’t loved so well as children, and we can’t fathom being the object of the love of God.

In either case, Jesus calls us to meditate on God’s loving and good generosity. And as we do this, Jesus urges us to ASK: Ask, Seek, Knock. This is what children who know they are beloved of a heavenly parent confidently do: we ask and receive; we seek and find; we knock and have the door opened. And we have peace.

Jesus ends this section with the famous Golden Rule. In sum, he offers the Golden Rule as the path to peace. It is, Jesus teaches, the point of the Law and the Prophets: to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” You want to be loved—then love others. You don’t want to be judged—then don’t judge others. You want abundance in your life—then share abundantly with others. Would this not lead to peace in our lives? We can do this, and we begin by seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • How do you practice your “love for God”? As you grow in your love for God, notice what happens to your “love for wealth.”
  • Identify some darkness in your life, and pray God would “direct your eye” so that his light might enter and transform that darkness. Also note the effect it has on your attitude towards others—are you more merciful or judgmental?
  • List the things you worry about for several days. Notice how many of them are truly or virtually out of your control, especially note those things that are past-based or future-oriented, for these are in reality out of your control. Try to be more present to the present moment, especially engaging something in nature. What effect does it have on your worry?

Postscript on Dogs and Swine

Following his teaching on not judging others, Jesus says, “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.” What in the world does this mean?

Interpreters have gone a number of ways with this. Some find in it a comforting retreat from the difficult teaching about not judging others. They hear, “Don’t judge others, except for the dogs and swine, of course. You have to be discriminating with holy things and pearls.” Somehow this doesn’t satisfy me.

Others pull in other scriptures, specifically Jesus’ instruction about evangelism and his encounter with the Canaanite woman. The interpretation here goes something like this. “You are supposed to share the Gospel message with others, but some will reject it. Some will even reject it violently. These are dogs and swine—don’t waste your time with them.” The problem I have with this interpretation is, first, does God ever really give up on people for their unbelief, especially after an initial rejection? And second, it seems to me this interpretation borrows too heavily from these other texts. It just doesn’t make sense in the context we have in the Sermon on the Mount.

My reading on this verse, which is unique to Matthew, is more spiritual. Instead of a coda on the teaching to not judge others which precedes it, I read it as an introduction to the teaching about asking, seeking, and knocking which follows it. The following teaching is a holy pearl, and if we do not receive it with the faith of a child of God, it will be rejected, even violently so. Within us, in other words, are dogs and swine, spiritual attitudes (or “demons” if you wish), that refuse the parental love of God which guarantees Jesus’ promise that when we ask, seek, and knock we will receive, find, and have the door opened. What is needed is a spiritual examination and expulsion of these doggish and swinish spiritual attitudes, much like an exorcism.

This reading, then, makes verse 7 a bridge between the teaching about not judging others (but submitting to God’s judgment) and being fit to exercise the privilege of the children of God to ask, seek, and knock.

 

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