Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Passover and politics

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. To hear the story, we are turning back to the book of origins (better known as the Gospel according to Matthew), after a month during Lent of healing stories from the book of signs (the Gospel according to John), where there is an account of what took place as Jesus entered Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-11).

As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on these questions: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? I see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel, to the city where the Lord God, so it was believed, was residing in the Holy of Holies, the inner court of the Temple. I hear the noisy, bustling sounds of these pilgrims, excited with anticipation as they make their way along the same routes, up the same hills, year after year, at this time of the year.

It was Passover; one of the three high festivals of the year for good religious Jewish people. It was Passover, the festival of unleavened bread, which recalled the hurried departure of the people, long ago, from captivity in Egypt (Exodus 13). It was Passover, a celebration of the foundational myth at the heart of Jewish identity; the story that tells of the liberating actions of God, in the face of the military might of the Egyptians, the liberation of the people from their time of enforced slavery, as they set out, across the wilderness, to the land they had been promised (Exodus 14–17 and beyond).

Passover was a central religious celebration. But also, it was a thoroughly politicised procession of pilgrims, wending their way to the holy city, the city of peace. Passover was when bread was eaten without leaven, to signify the haste with which the departure from Egypt took place. Passover was when lambs were roasted and eaten as a sign of that liberation, when bitter herbs were sprinkled eaten as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. Passover was when the intervention of the divine into the social and political situation of those ancient Israelites was to the fore in the minds of those later pilgrims.

So, we see a scene of Passover pilgrims, celebrating this ancient political action of God which they hold before themselves as the fundamental paradigm for what their faith means for them. “Yes, God is for us! Yes, God will save us!”

The story is told in each of the three synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In each account, the disciples arrive in the city, seek out lodgings, and at the appointed time, they recline at table to eat the Passover meal, the annual family celebration when the story of that first Passover is told. A time when the actions of God in confronting and overturning the political rulers is remembered, retold, and celebrated.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you see the Roman soldiers, on the edges, behind the crowds, looking out from the Antonia Fortress? The Roman soldiers, strategically deployed, watching with care the every move that was taking place in the approaches to the city. They knew, from many years’ experience, that the city swelled with the influx of pilgrims each year at this time, as the Passover pilgrims made their way towards Jerusalem.

They knew, from years of monitoring the crowds, of the potential for dispute and conflict that simmered underneath the crowds. They knew that this was a high point in the Jewish year, and that any Jew with finely-attuned attention to the history of their people, would know of the charged political consequences of this festival.

Passover was a celebration of that time when God intervened, overturning the despotic ruler, liberating the faithful people. As it was long ago in Egypt … so it now could well be, in Jerusalem under Roman rule. A political celebration, wrapped around with religious significance, a celebration of political victory.

That is the context for the entry into the city of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

Tomorrow: riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence – Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by Emilsen & J.T. Squires , ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

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/

Blessed are you: the Beatitudes of Matthew 5

This Sunday the lectionary offers an abundance of gifts: the classic prophetic declaration that God desires us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8); the ringing apostolic affirmation that we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24); and the words which Matthew puts on the lips of Jesus himself, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3).

Those words of Jesus are the first words of blessing in a set of eight blessings (usually known by their Latin name, as Beatitudes), which begin the sermon on the mount (5:3–12)—eight short sayings in which Jesus pronounces blessings on specified groups of people. It is a key section of the book of origins, which provides the Gospel passage this Sunday and on each Sunday throughout the current year.

Often in the Christian church, people marvel at the insight revealed in these sayings of Jesus. And, to be sure, the words offer a deep sense of spirituality, a penetrating insight into the way that God wants human beings to live.

But this collection of sayings is not quite unique and original to Jesus. For Jesus was drawing deeply from within his own Jewish tradition. And the resonances with Hebrew Scriptures are strong and consistent throughout these blessings.

The form is clearly Jewish; there are blessings right throughout Hebrew Scriptures. Blessings are offered in the opening creation narrative (Gen 1:22, 28, 2:3) and throughout the narrative books (Exod 18:10, Deut 28:3-6, Judg 5:24, Ruth 2:19-20, 4:14, 1 Sam 25:32-33, 1 Kings 1:48, 8:15, 8:56, 10:9, 1 Chron 16:36, 29:10, 2 Chron 2:12, 6:4, 9:8, Ezra 7:27, Neh 9:5).

Many psalms offer blessings addressed to God (Pss 28:6, 31:21, 41:13, 66:20, 68:19, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48, 113:2, 118:26, 124:6, 135:21, 144:1) and blessings appear also in some prophetic books (Jer 17:7, Dan 2:20, 3:28, Zech 11:5). Blessings continue on in this form in Jewish traditions, right through to the present day.

The influence of the Hebrew Scriptures can also be clearly seen in the content of these blessings, for they relate traditional Jewish piety regarding the poor, the humble, those who hunger, and those persecuted (as noted below).

A persuasive theory is that Matthew has actually expanded a briefer set of Beatitudes, known to him through early Christian tradition (which may be reflected in Luke 6:20–23), by adding in assorted categories of “the pious” which were known to him from Hebrew Scripture.  

Certainly, the effect of placing these sayings, with their traditional Jewish flavour, at the head of the first block of Jesus’ teachings, is to infer that they provide the key to understanding all the subsequent teachings of Jesus in like fashion. Jesus, in Matthew’s opinion, teaches and preaches as one steeped in Hebrew scripture and tradition.

Each one of these beatitudes is based on texts found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In blessing the poor (5:3) and the meek (5:5), Jesus echoes those psalms which speak of those who are poor and meek, who will receive the justice of God and an earth cleansed of evil-doers as their reward (Ps 9:18; 10:1–2, 8–9; 12:5; 14:6; 40:17; 70:5; 72:4, 12; 140:12). Isaiah 61:1 speaks of the good news to the poor; Proverbs 16:19 commends being poor and having a lowly spirit as desirable for those who trust in God.

The blessing offered to the meek, “for they will inherit the earth”, recalls the refrain of one of the psalms (Ps 37:11, 22, 29), whilst the blessing on the merciful evokes the prophetic valuing of mercy (Micah 6:6–8; Hosea 6:5–6).

The blessing of the pure in heart who “will see God” recalls Moses (Exod 3:4; 33:7–11, 12–20; Deut 34:10) as well as words of the psalmist (Ps 17:15; 27:7–9).

Jesus’ blessing of those who hunger and thirst (5:6) similarly evokes earlier biblical blessings on such people (Ps 107:4–9, 33–38; Ezek 34:25–31; Isa 32:1–6; 49:8–12). But in this saying of Jesus, it is specifically those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness, or justice, of God who are blessed. That righteousness, or justice, is a central motif of Hebrew scripture.

Righteousness, or justice, is highlighted in the story of Abraham (Gen 15:1-6, 18:19), is found in many psalms (Pss 5:8, 7:17, 33:5, etc), and recurs regularly in the oracles of various prophets (Amos 5:24, Zeph 2:3, Zech 8:7-8, Mal 4:1-2, Jer 9:24, 33:14-16) as well as many times in Isaiah (Isa 9:7, 11:1-5, 42:6, etc). Jesus draws on this tradition in his blessings, and in other teachings.

The blessings uttered by Jesus upon those who are persecuted (5:10, 11–12) recall the promises of God to such people (Ps 34:15–22), as well as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (Ps 22, 31, 69, 71, etc.). God’s blessing is especially granted in situations of persecution.

The first eight blessings, which all share a tight, succinct form, are framed by the declaration about such people, that theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10). The beatitudes thus summarise the criteria for a person to enter the kingdom of heaven—humility, peacemaking, mercy, purity, and a commitment to righteousness or justice in all of life.

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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/2019/12/19/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/

Repentance for the kingdom (Matt 4)

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:13). The first public utterance of Jesus, in the book of origins which we know as the Gospel according to Matthew, is a word-for-word repetition of the signal proclamation by John the baptiser: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 3:1-2).

This passage is set as part of the Gospel for this coming Sunday. It is an important passage in the book of origins, for it sets out two key elements in the declaration made by Jesus, which are central to understanding the purpose of of Jesus, as Matthew understands it.

The first element, repentance, is proclaimed by John and repeated by Jesus. The Greek word metanoia, which translated as “repentance”, is a powerful word; it refers to a complete and wholesale “change of mind”, a deeply permeating and thoroughgoing change of how one lives. It is no mere trifle; it is a serious, and challenging, concept.

John first asserts the need for such a thoroughgoing transformation, when he instructs the Pharisees and the Sadducees to bear fruit worthy of repentance (3:8). This theme is repeated by Jesus in various teachings: you will know them by their fruits (7:15-20), the tree is known by its fruit (12:33-37), and the warnings given to the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (11:20-24).

In the teachings of Jesus included in this Gospel, Jesus provides clear and detailed instructions as to what “fruit” is entailed in this way of living, such as: go beyond what the Law says, to seek perfection (5:21-48); do not place stumbling blocks in another’s way (18:6-9); and give your possessions to the poor if you wish to be perfect (19:21-30). Repentance is serious and demanding.

The second element is the kingdom of heaven—also proclaimed by John (3:8) and then regularly included in the teachings and parables of Jesus. In Matthew’s understanding, the kingdom is closely linked with righteousness 5:10, 20; 6:33; 21:31-32; 25:46).

Such righteousness requires deep and abiding repentance—that change of mind, heart, and the whole being, that comes from entering into covenant relationship with God, and following the way of Jesus. (And dikaiosune, the Greek word usually translated as righteousness, can equally be translated as justice, which, of course, gives a different flavour to our understanding when we read that English rendering.)

The kingdom is both God’s gift to those who are righteous, or just, and the realm where God’s righteousness, or justice, will be the norm. There is a marvellous treasury of parables about the kingdom found in Matt 13, some additional parables in Matt 20 and 22, and then three final and powerful parables in Matt 25. They signify that the kingdom includes both a gift (it the place where God’s justice, or righteousness, is freely evident), and a demand (it is the way that God requires righteous lives, or just lifestyles, from human beings).

Often the parable is told with a single focus point: the kingdom of heaven is like … (hidden treasure, or fine pearls, or a mustard seed). Some parables are more developed, involving a series of characters, recounting a developing storyline. Each parable, nevertheless, drives towards a clear central point, explaining the nature of the kingdom that is proclaimed by Jesus, as gift and demand.

Jesus teaches that entry into the kingdom is premised on faithful service (7:21-23); it is those who produce the fruits of the kingdom who will share in this realm (21:43). Alongside Jews who are faithful followers of Jesus, the kingdom will include those from beyond Israel—a Gentile centurion (8:10,13) and a Canaanite woman (15:28) are specifically commended. They are welcomed because of their faith, which has been made evident in the way they respond to Jesus—they place their complete trust in him. (We are not told that they become followers of Jesus; they simply trust him in that moment of encounter.)

The passage set for this Sunday thus serves as an introduction to key themes that are expounded by Jesus throughout his teaching ministry, as well as an overview of key elements that will recur throughout the year, as excerpts from this Gospel appear in the lectionary week by week.

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The icon shown is a 19th century representation of “the kingdom of heaven”, from Petersburg.

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)

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See also

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/

Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children (Matt 2)

In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.

It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).

There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.

By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.

In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!

There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.

And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt 2:16).

It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.

The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.

That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.

This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?

I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?

It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.

As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?

As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.

On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/

For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/

and

https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/415/

For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html

For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/