Monday, November 19, 2007

Matthew 7 and Using Inference

Sometimes in reading Scripture, it would seem an organizational structure we use is not present. A focus on a topic which flows from one paragraph to the next is not evidenced. Rather it appears that the Scripture has simply begun to list ideas. Proverbs tends toward this format. A general reading of the Sermon on the Mount appears this way as well, though several Scriptures together are often on one topic. For example, the Beatitudes are clearly connected.

Recently I was reading Matthew 7, and I noted eight topic changes in 29 verses. Listed these were,
  • instruction regarding improper judgment
  • a warning about not giving what is holy to "dogs" or "swine"
  • those who ask, receive; those who seek, find; unto those who knock, it is opened
  • the golden rule
  • the narrow way
  • know the good and bad tree by its fruit
  • the house built on the rock contrasted with the house built on sand
  • Jesus is identified as one who teaches with authority by those listening

These are often considered as separate messages taught as each standing alone rather than taught in sequence as one related speech. (I know that the divisions of chapter and verse were added later, so separating these thoughts was not the intent of the Matthew as the writer, and I am separating these 29 Scriptures from the context of what precedes and follows.) For my purpose here, think about the bearing of context and infer within the reading by thinking of chapter 7 as one related essay. Then...

1. Verses 1-5, which exhort us to remove the log from our own eye before we attempt to remove the speck from our brother's eye or else we enter into the realm of being a hypocrite have a related meaning to not casting what is holy among us before dogs and swine.

2. In context then, metaphorically calling another human a "dog" or a "swine" is not judging brethren as Jesus is clearly teaching against such judgment. Rather, it is something else. I think the metaphor is intended to help us understand the total lack of understanding the lost have for spiritual matters. Little can be discussed with these folks except the need for salvation, as we are all sinners. Attempting to discuss issues of judgment as a violation of brotherhood or as something requiring humility with someone who is lost and hasn't bent the knee to God's judgment is a fruitless exercise which will only result in an attack from lost ones. Verses 1-5 are among many concepts too holy for the lost to comprehend.

3. Yet for all those who belong to Him, the deep things of the spirit which cannot be shared with the lost are available if we ask, seek and knock. All understanding can be opened to us, if such is the hunger of our hearts. We can be confident that the Father will deal faithfully with our requests to know and understand His ways.

4. Even as we can expect God to deal with us faithfully, that is the simple expectation He places on us: Treat others the way you wish to be treated. Be faithful. (No doubt, referencing other standards Jesus has related but which are part of the previous two chapters.)

5. This truth of living is the core of the narrow way which is of the Father, faithfully acting within the confines of love toward others.

6. Since this is an evident condition of heart, we can easily spot those who are "bad" trees and those who are "good" trees by the fruit they produce. The fruit of God always lines up with the golden rule.

7. Just before He finishes this teaching, He assures and warns His listeners of the consequences of living within the teaching--following this teaching stabilizes one's life against life's storms--and the reverse is consequentially the reverse, as well. (This is a summation applying to the whole Sermon on the Mount, not just Matthew 7.)

8. Those hearing the Sermon on the Mount were startled by the authority which His words revealed.

Summing up using inference, Matthew chapter 7 is about life lived according to the ways of the Father: avoiding judging brethren improperly; avoiding needless attempts to teach the lost the holy things of the Father; seeking to understand these deep issues ourselves and receiving the knowledge/understanding needed to do so; such are examples/details of the gospel lived out by following the golden rule; we accept this standard as the narrow way of God; and are able to identify the good and bad fruit of those who claim God by the standard of the golden rule; such a living of the narrow way sustains ones' life through the challenges of life.

Do you think inferring is an acceptable way to digest Scripture? Do you think the inferences I have drawn are reasonable? Do you prefer to just take each topic as an insight on its own?


George said...

I would not have thought of your approach as "inference." Rather, I would call it Spirit-guided understanding derived from Spirit-built maturity.

It may be that Jesus was delivering a bunch of unrelated proverbs, but isn't it more common for teachers to deliver concepts that build serially, as you have discerned?

Personally, I believe that disaggregating scripture leads to misunderstanding. It is easier to use a proof-text, but often unreliable. I recall a bible study in which my pastor explained that the Matt 18 "where 2 or 3 are gathered" is often used to claim the power of prayer but in the context it regarded church authority. After he finished one attendee said, "So it doesn't mean it gets an answered prayer?" "No." "But we can use it that way, tho, right?" The pastor just lowered his head and moved on.

What you have done is to recognize the fuller meaning of what Jesus was communicating, and by doing so how you are neither a dog or a swine! And taught me something in the process, I should add.

Thanks for your service.

ded said...

Thanks, George, for your comment and encouragement!

Craig V. said...

It seems to me that this post is a great example of meditation. It may be risky in the sense that using our imagination we may see things that aren't actually in the text. Yet, in not meditating, we may fail to see things that are there.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Jimazing said...

My thoughts are that there are many approaches to reading scripture. I have read many passages slowly trying to get every nuance. Other times, I read for the big picture. I find value in both. I find value in what you have done in this passage.

I believe that as we read we should try to understand, to the best of our ability, the context in which it was written. Who was the writer or speaker speaking to and what was he saying to them. I think a lot of the meaning is lost on us because we are not living in the same time and space that they were. However, the better we understand the context... the better we will understand the passage.

We often find application of Bible passages that relate directly to our lives. The writer may not have been thinking of this application and yet there it is. The danger arises from reading only for application and not for understanding. For prooftexting and building a case rather than learning and relating to the stories of others who have gone before us.

I find what you have done with this passage to be true to the context and yet very meaningful in the present. I like it.

ded said...

Thanks, Jim, for your insights and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate you reading over here!

ded said...

craig v., I have thought about the risks. I will get uyp with you soon about my thoughts on that.