Read the passage here.
If you’ve been following along in our study of the sermon on the mount, you will recognize that what we have been exploring is the idea that Jesus is talking about the nature of the kingdom – in particular, that the kingdom that Jesus is bringing is not the kingdom that people were expecting. We’ve looked at the beatitudes, which we might argue demonstrate the values of the kingdom. We’ve looked at how Jesus interprets the Law, which we argued isn’t about reducing it down to the things you have to do and the things you must not do, but about how well can we love God and love one another. We looked at righteousness as not being determined by how others see you, but how we are before God. And more particularly, that righteousness is seeking after and living into the kingdom that God is actually bringing. And last time, we looked at the idea that if we actually do that, seek after the kingdom, then all of the other things fall away.
So then, what’s happening in our verses today? What I want to suggest is that verses 1-6, our passage for today, serve specifically to focus the hearers’ attention on their specific responsibilities regarding the living out of the kingdom.
Jesus has just spent several chapters talking about what the kingdom should look like (as distinct from what his hearers thought the kingdom would be like), and in light of that, he exhorts his hearers to pay attention to how that is lived out. In other words, we have heard what the kingdom is like, what then is our responsibility as part of that kingdom? Specifically, each of us is responsible to ensure that we are living as kingdom people. And each of us can judge that, each of us can make that decision, for no one other than ourselves.
The question, therefore, is “how am I living up to God’s calling? How am I living up to the work of Christ on the cross for me? How am I living into the kingdom of heaven?”
Now at this point, I want to quickly address the last part of our passage today: the pigs and dogs passage. This has proved problematic to commentators and there doesn’t seem to be agreement on where it comes from or what exactly it’s doing here. For example, is this an original saying of Jesus, is he reciting a well-known wisdom saying, or etc. Some have argued that there are ceremonial allusions – i.e. having to do with temple sacrifice and worship. Some have argued that, especially the reference to “dogs,” that there are references to Gentile missions (i.e. Gentile inclusion into the people of Israel).
I haven’t come to any conclusions and don’t have any answers for you in relation to these questions but, following our line of thought, that we are each responsible for how we live up to and into the kingdom (and not anyone else), it seems to make sense to me that Jesus is, in some sense, saying that we can’t force or coerce anyone to accept these teachings of Jesus. (In light of this, I wonder if Jesus may actually be referring to the religious leaders, or those who cling to the old understanding of kingdom and Messiah. This is purely conjecture – but we’ll come back to this).
If someone doesn’t want the kingdom that Jesus brings, if someone isn’t interested in the teachings that Jesus offers, then they can’t be forced to accept it.
So, having said that, I want to address a couple of potential interpretive issues. Firstly, if we take this kind of approach to understanding these verses, are we advocating a kind of spiritual individualism? We talk a lot about the importance of community, but doesn’t it kind of sound like we should only be focussed on, or concerned with, ourselves?
To that, I would say firstly that importance and reality of community is (in my estimation) a fundamental truth in scripture – throughout both the old and new testaments. We’ve talked about this in length so I won’t go into it in any kind of detail, but my conviction (borne not from my own thinking or feeling, but developed through listening to many who are smarter and wiser than myself) is that there is no conception of salvation in scripture that is separate from God’s intention to create a people.
So it’s important to note that Matthew, and scripture, does not conceive of a spirituality that is completely isolated and solely personal. Take for example Matthew’s report of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 18:15-17
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.Matthew 18:15-17
Here, Jesus seems to say that an individual’s spirituality is clearly a community matter. If someone has fallen into sin, it is the church’s (that is, the Christian community’s) responsibility to help or encourage that person to leave their sin behind.
So how do we understand this apparent conflict? We believe that Christianity is a matter of community – so what is Jesus saying in our passage today?
To understand this, I think it’s important to recognize what Jesus is doing in the sermon on the mount, and in particular to understand how Jesus is responding to the predominant understanding of religion and spirituality. Specifically, I think Jesus is particularly challenging the established religious structures that say, firstly that the kingdom looks a particular way; and secondly, that the judges and keepers of that particular way are the religious elite.
So in short, I think what’s going on here is that Jesus is concerned about the kind of religiosity that is about policing, pointing fingers, and drawing lines. (In contrast, I think the Matthew 18 passage is about, “we’re all in this together, and so we need to encourage and disciple one another on the way.”) Jesus has previously said, “don’t be like the hypocrites who don’t understand the kingdom,” and I think here he’s saying something like, “now that I’ve told you about the real kingdom, don’t keep being hypocrites.”
And I’m persuaded to believe that these are the dogs to whom we’re not supposed to give what is sacred, and the pigs to whom we’re not supposed to give pearls.
Secondly, and related to the issue of individualism, taking this interpretive line, are we advocating a kind of spiritual privatism? In other words, are we saying (that Jesus is saying) that the only thing that matters is my own personal, private relationship with God?
I bring this up because one of the consequences of a Christianity that has arisen out of the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, the Great Awakening (and related movements) as well as our political heritage, is the separation between faith as purely private and the public life.
In other words, in much of the world, we say that everyone can believe whatever they want so long as it doesn’t interfere with (or interact with) the world “out there.” Christians do the same thing, sort of in reverse, when we act as if (for example) church and faith have little to do with work, or shopping, or taxes, or school, or whatever else.
So do Jesus’ words here (or our interpretation of them) lead us in this direction? Of course, we want to say, ‘no.’
Now this is a larger discussion than we can have today. But let me say, firstly, that what we see in the sermon on the mount is that the kingdom life is very much about how we live in the world – the time and the place – in which we find ourselves. What Jesus is talking about is not adding something to our existing life (i.e. one more “king”), but an entirely new way of understanding and doing life.
Secondly, as we’ve already mentioned, Jesus appears to be specifically addressing the issue of religious elitism. Looking at yourself, one’s own spiritual relationship with God, is not about retreating entirely into a private world of internal spirituality. Rather, it’s about not deciding for others whether they live up to our standards (or something like that). It’s about, “be concerned about how you take hold of the kingdom,” as opposed to being the judge and arbiter for everyone else.
In closing, I want to just remind us that what Jesus has been talking about in the sermon on the mount is an understanding (a true understanding) of the Kingdom that serves to correct the misunderstandings of the Kingdom (and thus the mission of the Messiah) that many people may have had. What Jesus is talking about, and what Jesus is inviting us into, is a new kind of life – a true life. In Jesus’ time, there are those who are committed to telling others what they have to do, how they have to live, what they have to avoid. And if things aren’t as good as they think things are supposed to be, if the world isn’t turning out the way that they want, they have no problem pointing the finger at others.
Jesus is inviting us to stop pointing fingers. He’s not saying that community doesn’t matter – that the only person that matters is ourselves. And he’s not saying that the kingdom life is entirely interior – that it’s something that we only keep deep inside ourselves.
What he is doing is inviting each of us fully and completely into this kingdom life. He’s saying, if we want to see and know the kingdom of God, then we need to take hold of that kingdom. We can only take hold of the promise through Jesus Christ, but we do need to take hold of it.
What if each of us were able to do that? What if every person who calls Jesus, “Lord,” were to live completely into the promise? To live completely into the kingdom? What kind of effect would that have on this world? How would that speak into the brokenness and the lostness?
We believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to and the only source of life. We believe that he died and rose again so that we might enter into that life. Let us, therefore, live as if that were true.