Giving up? Or going deep? The opportunity of Lent

Our lives are lived in a regular cycle of seasons. The heat of summer gives way to the coolness of autumn, then to the cold of winter, before the warmth of spring rejuvenates and refreshes, and we find ourselves back in the baking heat of summer, once more.

And so, too, does the Christian year move between seasons, following an ancient pattern which was shaped to provide a focus on the central story of our faith—the story of Jesus Christ. Each December, in the season of Advent, we prepare to celebrate his birth. That is the celebrated in the season of Christmas (which largely been taken over by commercial interests) and the ensuing season of Epiphany.

In the northern hemisphere, where this cycle originated, the days at this time of year start to lengthen, and that process gave the name of the next season: Lent. It comes from the Old English word lencten, which was the old way that the season of spring was named.

Lent has been celebrated for at least 1500 years. It is typically seen as a time of self-examination and repentance, a hard season which is characterised by discipline and sacrifice, a time for giving up, a period of penitence and abstinence.

What are you giving up for Lent this year? If you have not yet decided, the pressure is on. What are you giving up?

More often, now, Lent presented as a time of “preparation” for Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then follows Pentecost, a longer season focussed on growth, lasting almost half of the year, before Advent comes around again.

This ancient pattern offers us an annual opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit our lives of discipleship and service. For myself, I do not see this as an archaic custom which we can readily abandon; rather, I view Lent as a time for regrouping and rebuilding my walk of faith. In the southern hemisphere, where I live, the days are not lengthening (in fact, the daylight hours are becoming shorter)—but the opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit, is still valid.

Each year, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This year, that will fall on 26 February. It will run until Good Friday, which this year is on 10 April, and lead into the celebrations of Easter Sunday, on 12 April.

Technically, there are 40 days in Lent, but it actually runs for 46 full days. The six Sundays during the weeks of Lent don’t actually count as part of Lent, as they remain The Lord’s Day, when the resurrection is celebrated. The other 40 days are more sombre, more reflective.

(So, technically, you can indulge to your heart’s content on those Sundays, but maintain your Lenten discipline on the other days of the week. Six days of stringent abstinence, one day of unfettered indulgence, and repeat the pattern six times. That’s the way that Lent rolls, it would seem!)

How will you spend this season of Lent? Many of the regular activities of life will still need to be attended to: shopping, cleaning, working, travelling, preparing meals, gathering with family, visiting friends, reading, gardening, listening to music … and a host of other things that fill the regular pattern of our lives, day by day, week by week. We won’t, or can’t, give up these aspects of life.

So the challenge that sits before us at this time of the year, is this: how, and when, will I find time to dedicate to nurturing my spiritual life, to strengthening my life of discipleship? Instead of giving something up, could we think about Lent as a time for going deep? That is the opportunity, and the challenge, that Lent presents.

In the midst of all the regular activities, a special focus on going deep into our spiritual life and strengthening our discipleship would be beneficial to each of us. To nurture our spiritual lives, my church (along with many others) make use of the Revised Common Lectionary—a modern version of an ancient church practice, to read systematically and listen carefully to the range of scripture passages that can nourish us in our walk of faith.

The lectionary provides four scripture passages each Sunday, drawn from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. And each year, a particular Gospel is in focus (this year, it is the Gospel of Matthew)—although during Lent, the Gospel passages are most often drawn from the Gospel of John. The schedule of passages offered for Lent 2020 can be seen at

https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//lections.php?year=A&season=Lent

There is a wonderful website called The Text This Week, which collates links to an abundance of resources relating to the seasons of the church year, and the readings set in the Revised Common Lectionary each week.

The page for Lent 2020 is at http://www.textweek.com/lent.htm

And for personal use in reading a daily passage of scripture and reflecting on what it offers to us in terms of our faith, I can recommend an Australian resource (with which I have had a connection over four decades, and to which I regularly contribute), called With Love to the World.

This is a daily devotional guide that provides a reflection on a Bible passage for each day of the year, with questions for discussion, guidance for prayer, and suggestions for hymns and songs to sing. With Love to the World is published four times a year.

You can read about it at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/

Lent is an ancient practice which can be utterly relevant in the modern world. In this period of 40 days, or six weeks, leading up to Easter, we have the opportunity to take time to reflect seriously on our faith, to deepen our understanding and strengthen our discipleship.

This is the world we live in, this is the Gospel we believe in

This month I have started fulltime into a regional ministry role with the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. The Presbytery includes Congregations, Faith Communities, and Uniting Agencies across the ACT and in coastal and rural areas in the southeast of NSW.

I am joined in another fulltime regional ministry role by Andrew Smith, a colleague minister in the Uniting Church, and we work with administrative support staff, as well as in a collegial relationship with the Saltbush Project of our church, serving rural and remote Congregations, and Uniting, building community connections in locations across the region.

My role is described as Presbytery Minister Wellbeing, and I will be working with Ministers and Pastors, Congregations and Faith Communities, to guide them in their development and growth and support their leadership in their communities. I am charged to provide pastoral care, leadership development, and other training. There is a significant administrative component in the position. Despite this (or because of this?), I am looking forward to what this role will set before me.

Andrew has been called to serve as Presbytery Minister Congregation Futures, working with Congregations and Faith Communities, Pastors and Ministers, to empower their spiritual life, develop missional capacity, strengthen missional leadership, and build strong missional networks across the region. We are already working closely, and look forward to a constructive collaboration over the time ahead.

In the Service of Induction on 21 February 2020, we were privileged to have the President of the National Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, preach a thoughtful and stirring sermon. She focussed on the call to serve embedded in Luke 4:16-30 and the prayer of hope expressed in Psalm 13. What follows are the words that I offered in response at this service.

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Co-Chairpersons, President, colleagues and friends, I thank you for your welcome. I am pleased to be in Canberra, here because Elizabeth was called by God through the church, to the right place at the right time, to be minister of the Tuggeranong Congregation. We are very content to be here. The cats are contented, and after a year in our house, the veggies are growing abundantly.

Maisie, Felix, and Fearghal, settled into life in Canberra

I am grateful for the support and encouragement that I have received as I have undertaken the slow and extended process, over the last year, of working my way into this role of Wellbeing within your Presbytery.

I come with a commitment to support and serve the leadership of our 29 congregations, both lay and ordained; to equip and encourage the whole people of God in order that together we might be faithful followers of Jesus; and to work to strengthen the mission and ministry that is undertaken by our congregations and faith communities.

In a world where a mother and her children can be incinerated by an act of savage fury, we need the Gospel of God, which invites us to value others deeply and to share with others in the depths of pain …

In a world where barriers are built and walls reinforced, where borders are patrolled and security is intensified, where fear and distrust leads us to keep at bay those who are perceived as different, foreign, strangers, we need to live out the Gospel of welcoming acceptance, so that we may no longer be strangers to one another …

In a world where stereotypes are promulgated and intolerance of difference and diversity in personal identity is growing, we need to reinforce that the Gospel in which we stand calls us to value diversity, love everyone, and work together to strengthen the common good in society …

In a world where land is taken, communities are neglected, the voices of Indigenous Peoples are silenced and their peoples and communities are marginalised, we need to live by our covenant commitment to honour and respect them, to listen and share with them, to seek a destiny together with the First Peoples of this continent and its islands …

In a world where vested interests cajole and threaten, pouring money into supporting ventures which continue to inflict damage on the environment and destroy ecosystems, we need the Gospel of renewal and reconciliation for the whole creation …

In a world where bushfires and cyclones wreak havoc, where droughts and floods destabilise, we need the Gospel of patient care and loving concern, looking to rebuild lives and strengthen community resilience, which all comes from the central command, that we are to love one another …

In a world where captives are tortured, prisoners are held unjustly, systems are corrupted, and injustice is contagious, we need the Gospel which calls us to set free the prisoner, enable the blind to see, and offer God’s gracious liberty as a sign of the year of the Lord’s favour …

This is the world we live in, and this is the Gospel we believe in. It invites us into wholeness, shalom, wellbeing.

The 29 Congregational units in this Presbytery cover 54 locations under the banner of the Uniting Church. Every Sunday, when people in our Presbytery gather together to worship, every weekday, when people gather in our buildings to eat and talk, to listen and learn, we demonstrate that we are committed to this Gospel, as the good news for all, that we seek to live it out to the fullest.

Our congregations and faith communities are the lifeblood of that Gospel in our region. Our pastors and ministers are the people who call and care, who proclaim and practice the good news for our world in each of those places, as we live out that Gospel.

Canberra Region Presbytery Ministers and Pastors with the Co-Chairs of Presbytery, on retreat in October 2019

I am looking forward to working with you all, to continue working with Amy and Janise in the Presbytery Office, and especially to work closely with Andrew as we offer resourcing and guidance as the ministers you have called to serve across this Presbytery, charged to support ministers and pastors as they offer their leadership, called to equip faith communities and congregations to be resilient, faithful and engaged with their local communities.

I am committed to working with you, alongside each of you, to seek the wellbeing of our church and to contribute to the common good in society. I look forward to the adventures that lie ahead, as together we serve the Gospel in the world through our church.

*****

The Canberra Region Presbytery website is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/About-Us

A pastoral letter that I wrote as I started into the role in early February is at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-letter-from-rev-dr-john-squires/

An earlier pastoral letter from Presbytery officers, sent during the height of the bushfire crisis, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/a-pastoral-message-for-the-bushfire-crisis/

The Presbytery newsletter for Summer 2019-2020, with the theme celebrating transitions, can be read at https://canberra.uca.org.au/presbytery-news/viewpoint-summer-2019/

The missing parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6 and 7)

Over recent Sundays, as we follow teachings of Jesus that are recorded in the book of origins, the revised common lectionary has led us to hear the early section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-37) in our worship. This section of Matthew’s Gospel has been read over three Sundays during Epiphany, before Ash Wednesday arrives and introduces the season of Lent, with its thematic selection of texts from various places in Matthew and John.

However, because Lent starts relatively early this year, the length of Epiphany is shortened, and so that means that miss critical sections of this sermon from the end of chapter 5, as well as all of chapters 6 and 7. (After Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity, the lectionary Gospel selections return to Matthew’s Gospel—but they start back at the end of chapter 9!)

We have seen the strongly Jewish nature of the eight Beatitudes, or blessings, which begin this sermon (5:3-12). Soon after these blessings, Jesus announces his intention to intensify the demands of the Law (5:18) by demanding that his followers exhibit a righteous-justice that exceeds that demonstrated by the Pharisees (5:20). Then he offers a series of case studies in exactly how this intensified righteous-justice plays out in specific situations in life (5:21-48).

See my previous blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

As this first main discourse continues, the Matthean Jesus instructs his listeners on righteous-justice (6:1–18; some contemporary English translations use the term “piety”). In this context, this word indicates the means of expressing righteousness, undertaking just actions, or performing acts of piety.

By selecting alms (6:2–4), prayer (6:5–15), and fasting (6:16–18), Jesus does no less than instruct on the three forms of traditional Jewish piety (Tobit 12:8 states, “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness”).

One of these traditional forms of piety is prayer; whilst instructing his disciples how to pray (6:5–15), the Matthean Jesus offers a distinctive formula for prayer (6:9–13). Although this prayer has become known as the distinctive Christian prayer, a close study of Hebrew Scriptures shows that the concept in each clause (and in almost every case, the precise terminology of each clause) has originated in Jewish thought.

The ethical injunctions which follow on from this teaching about prayer continue the intensified approach to Torah which characterises the Matthean Jesus. He canvasses attitudes to possessions (6:19–21), absolute obedience to one master (6:24), avoidance of judgmental attitudes (7:1–5), devotion to holiness (7:6), and a focus on the essential elements of life (7:13–14).

The Sermon includes the “Golden Rule” (7:12), a rule that is repeated in various ways throughout the Gospel. All that Jesus has been teaching and encouraging in 5:17–7:11 is summarised by this rule, which is the essence of the law and prophets. This “Golden Rule” is also found in the rabbinic writings, for it is modelled on Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

One example is found in the writings about Hillel and Shammai, two Rabbis who consistently held opposite interpretations of Scripture. The story goes that a Gentile asked Shammai to explain to him the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot (i.e. briefly). Shammai drove him away. The Gentile made the same request to Hillel, and was told “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.”

Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount”, makes a similar plea to focus on the essentials at the heart of the Law. A later saying likewise sharpens the view of Torah, with a reference to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).

Towards the end of the Sermon, Jesus criticises those who mouth the confession, “Lord, Lord”, but fail to do God’s will (7:21–23). Such people are condemned as “evildoers” in the NRSV; a more accurate translation is conveyed by the phrase “lawless ones”. It is their inability to live by Torah which condemns them.

Alongside the affirmation of the Law in this Sermon (7:12) stands a fierce condemnation of those who do not follow its paths (7:23). The same Greek term (literally, “without law”) is applied in eschatological contexts to those who do not follow the Law (13:41; 24:12) and, with great irony, to the Pharisees (23:28)—those charged with the teaching of the Law! This provides a cutting edge to the stance of the Matthean Jesus: to follow his way means to take seriously the Torah—something which even its authorised teachers appear unable to do.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also 

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

You have heard it said … but I say to you … (Matt 5)

This Sunday, as we follow the revised common lectionary, we read another section of the teachings of Jesus from the book of origins (Matt 5:21-37) which forms a part of a larger section which is traditionally called the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29). It has this name because it takes place after Jesus “went up the mountain” (5:1), and concludes with the note that Jesus “had come down from the mountain” (8:1).

Sections of the sermon feature as the Gospel passage in the latter Sundays in Epiphany. This year, we have heard Matt 5:1-37 over three Sundays, before turning next week to the Transfiguration and then moving into the season of Lent, with its thematic selection of texts from various places in Matthew and John.

Although called, by tradition, a sermon, these chapters are more a collection of many of the key teachings of Jesus. A striking feature of these chapters is that they comprise many elements of Jewish ethical teaching. Indeed, in these chapters, Jesus strengthens the Jewish ethos of his teachings.

We have seen the strongly Jewish nature of the eight Beatitudes, or blessings, which begin this sermon (5:3-12). Soon after these blessings, Jesus announces his intention to intensify the demands of the Law (5:18) by demanding that his followers exhibit a righteous-justice that exceeds that demonstrated by the Pharisees (5:20). See my previous blogs at

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Many sections of what then follows contain Jesus’ own interpretation of Jewish traditions. He is, after all, in the mind of the author of this book of origins, THE authoritative teacher, THE definitive interpreter of how the Torah is to apply in everyday life. And what he says, it is believed, needs to be understood as taking place within the context of argument and disputation with the Pharisees, who were the acknowledged teachers of the Law.

It seems that Jesus, in his interpretations, often intensifies, or strengthens, what Hebrew Scripture states concerning the Torah, the Law of Moses. It is most likely that the report that we have in the book of origins concerning these interpretive debates reflects perhaps something of what the historical Jesus said, but much more of the antagonistic and polemical context of the community of faith in which the author of the book of origins was located.

The passage set in the lectionary forms a major part of what is often called the “Antitheses” (5:21-48), because Jesus sets himself up in opposition to what his followers have heard, presumably in the teachings on the Law offered by the Pharisees. The six “antitheses” provide clear case studies in how Jesus, in the way he is presented in this Gospel, approaches the task of interpreting and applying the Torah.

This sequence of six “antitheses” demonstrates the intensification which Jesus brings to the Law. Six times, Jesus refers to a commandment, provides a common understanding of that commandment, and then provides an interpretation which strengthens the force of the commandment. (Although they are traditionally called Antitheses, because of the form, I think that the substance actually points to each of them as being Intensifiers.)

Thus, it is not enough not to kill, or not to commit adultery. It is not enough to love just your neighbour, but hate your enemy. True righteousness—living with total justice—does not even consider doing any of these things, however briefly, but forgives wrong and loves enemies freely.

And, to press his point to the full, Jesus in this sermon uses some striking images to emphasise just how challenging and just how daunting it is to follow this pathway: cut off your hand and pluck out your eye, most strikingly. And, less dramatically: do not swear oaths, and do not divorce unless there are extenuating circumstances. These are striking instances of what an intensified obedience to the Law means. These dramatic images push followers of Jesus to the very heart of our faith, and ask us to consider, how do we fully and completely live in obedience to God’s way?

It is living by this intensified interpretation of the Law set forth by Jesus, that will ensure that the righteous-justice of Jesus’ followers will be seen as greater than that of the Pharisees (5:19). The words of Jesus recorded in this section of the Gospel head towards the climactic instruction that followers of Jesus are to be “perfect” as God is perfect (5:48). They will demonstrate a totally just way of life, fully immersed in the life that God offers.

The teaching of Jesus in these Antitheses, and throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount, shows how fully God must be present in the life of the followers of Jesus. They indicate that it is God who must guide not only the deeds of believers, but also their motivations and emotions. Such striving for perfection signals the in-breaking of the kingdom, the faint dawn of the new age of righteous-justice breaking in upon the earth.

There is a cutting edge to the stance of the Matthean Jesus: to follow his way means to take seriously the Torah, to live by the commandments in every aspect of life. As is stated in Deuteronomy 30:19-20, in this exhortation: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him”. It is an all-of-life matter.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

An excess of righteous-justice (Matt 5)

Recent scholarship has recognised the Jewish character of the first Gospel in the New Testament—the work that I refer to as the book of origins (for that is my translation of how the book begins, in Matt 1:1).

A consensus is emerging that the book of origins was most likely written for a community that was still thoroughly immersed within its Jewish tradition. One place we can see that is in what is perhaps the most famous section of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). These chapters stand as an excellent example of how Jesus was understood, by Matthew, to be THE authoritative Jewish teacher, interpreting and applying the Torah, the Law of Moses, to all of daily life.

In this sermon, Jesus debates with the Pharisees concerning their interpretation of scripture. His pugnacious words, “you have heard it said … but I say to you …” (occurring six times within 5:21-48) reflect the common dialectical interaction that Pharisees (and, later, Rabbis) used to tease out the meaning of each commandment found within the Law. Torah teaching was inherently dialogical in nature; those teaching the Law would argue, back and forth, over what it meant and how it was to be followed.

As Jesus uses these established Jewish debating techniques, he proposes a way of living that is thoroughly grounded in Jewish ethics and practices, such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The emphasis on righteousness is central to the discourse; four times during this sermon (5:6, 10, 20; 6:33) Jesus particularly emphasises the importance of being righteous.

Indeed, in the verse which culminates the Gospel passage set for this coming Sunday, Jesus is attributed as having taught his disciples that he is looking for an excess of righteousness: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

That verse has followed straight after Jesus’ emphatic insistence that the Law, the whole of the Law, must still stand for his followers. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18). And then follows strict instructions to those who follow Jesus, to ensure that they keep all the commandments, and ensure they do not break any of them (5:19).

So righteousness means living in accord with the Law, obeying all the requirements that it sets out, keeping all the commandments in fine detail. That is why Jesus instructs his followers to be the “salt of the earth” (5:13), the “light of the world” (5:14), so that others “may see your good works” (5:16). This means, always living in a way that bears “good fruit” (7:17), doing “the will of the Father” (7:21), listening to the words which Jesus speaks and acting on them diligently (7:24). Giving alms, praying faithfully, and fasting regularly, are offered as three key ways by which this righteous way of living will be manifest (6:1-18).

There can be no doubt that, in the book of origins, Jesus is intensely, rigorously, Jewish, scrupulously upholding the Law in every tiny detail in the way that he understands it to apply. And righteousness is at the centre of that way of life.

The concept of righteousness is thoroughly Jewish in origin. It is closely linked with the demand for justice. Patriarchal stories remember Noah as a righteous man (Gen 6:9) and recall that Abraham was accounted as righteous by God (Gen 15:6); Ezekiel adds Daniel and Job to this list (Ezek 14:14). A number of psalms make the claim that God is just and righteous by nature and in action (Ps 7:11; 116:5; 119:137, 144; 129:4; see also Isa 5:16; 11:3–5; 24:16; 45:21) and proverbs were collected to inform people of the ways to live righteously and with justice (for instance, Prov 10:11–13:25).

Various prophetic voices regularly called for justice and righteousness within Israel (Isa 1:24–28; 26:7–9; 32:16–17; 45:8; 61:10–11; Jer 22:3; 23:5–6; Ezek 3:20–21; 18:5–9; Dan 9:24; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:20; Hab 2:4; Zeph 2:3). Malachi envisages a book in which the names of the righteous will be written as the “special possession” of God (Mal 3:16–18).

The central catchcry of Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24), exemplifies the desires of faithful Israelites in ages past and is carried over into the hopes of faithful Jews in our own times.

And this word righteousness appears frequently in New Testament books (all four Gospels, Acts, most of the letters of Paul, and the letters to the Hebrews, and from James, Peter and John). And in many of these occurrences, it can equally validly be translated as justice. The two terms become interchangeable: living in a righteous way means living in a manner that prioritises justice.

Perhaps we would do better, in English, to render the Hebrew word tsdeqah, and the corresponding Greek word dikaiosune, as something like righteous-justice. The two words, in English, tend to pint us in different directions—righteousness has a personal orientation, justice refers to the way society operates. In Hebrew, and in Greek, the words overlap because those categories of personal and societal were not clearly distinguished and separated.

It was the Torah, the Law of Moses, which was at the heart of this desire for righteous-justice. Living in accordance with the prescriptions of a holy God meant leading a life of righteous-justice. The teachings of Jesus which are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel are both grounded in a commitment to Torah, and developed in accordance with Jewish understandings of a faithful life. Obedience to the Law essentially meant living a just life, a life of righteousness, in every aspect of life.

Indeed, there is a cluster of terms that sat at the heart of traditional Jewish piety at the time of Jesus. The terms righteous-justice and lawlessness, along with the devout and the ungodly, were common in sectarian language of the late Second Temple period. Use of such language was aimed at validating the position of the writer (and the writer’s community) in opposition to other positions.

We find that righteous-justice is a key term for defining the self-identity of the sectarian communities which produced various Jewish documents 4 Ezra (7:17, 49–51; 8:55–58), 2 Baruch (15:7–8; 85:3–5), 1 Enoch (94:1, 4–5; 96:1; 99:1–3; 95:6–7), and the Psalms of Solomon (4:8; 13:6–9; 15:6–9). In each of these writings, usually within the same sentences, the terms “sinners”, “ungodly” and “lawless” are used to define those outside the community.

In similar fashion, the Dead Sea Scrolls define their community as one marked by righteous-justice (Community Rule 3, 9; Commentary on Habbakuk 8), in distinction from outsiders who are “the wicked” (Damascus Rule 4) and “the children of falsehood” (Community Rule 3). The struggle between the various sectarian communities and those in power was couched in very black-and-white terms.

The same cluster of terms is to be found in the book of origins. To live by righteous-justice is a key defining feature of faithful disciples (10:41; 13:17, 43; 25:37, 46), and righteous-justice is the keynote of Jesus’ ministry (3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33). By contrast, those who are unfaithful are depicted as “lawless” (7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:10–12). This Gospel thus draws the same distinction between its members and outsiders, as is found in other Jewish sectarian documents of the time.

To be righteous means to adhere to the Law. To adhere to the Law means to live a just life. This is what Jesus taught, and this is how Jesus lived, as we find reported in the book of origins. And so, the whole Sermon on the Mount is included in this book as a challenging statement of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, keeping the Law in every respect, living with an excess of righteous-justice.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-hebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/21/a-young-woman-a-virgin-pregnant-about-to-give-birth-isa-714-in-matt-123/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/