A deeper understanding of God, through dialogue with “the other” (Romans 10)

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)

These words are found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by the Revised Common Lectionary, for reading in worship this coming Sunday. They were written long ago, in a different language, to people of a different culture, in a location quite different from where you and I are currently located. How do they speak to us today?

Readers and listeners in the contemporary world have often assumed that in writing chapters 9-11 of Romans, Paul is addressing the issue of Israel and the Church. Jews and Christians. Those of the circumcision, raised on the Law;  and those of the uncircumcision, unaware of the Law.

We assume that this dynamic, familiar to us from the times in which we live, was precisely the dynamic that motivated Paul as he wrote to the Romans, as he instructed them in his beliefs, as he interpreted to them the scriptural proofs, and as he exhorted them in the way to live in response to these beliefs.

But was it? Paul writes in the early days of the church; when charisma, not institution, predominates. He writes when tensions and struggles within the early missionary movement still mitigate against a commonly-held, universally-accepted, consensus of opinion.

Paul writes as the matter of what to do about Gentile believers is still largely unresolved. Some said accept them; others wanted to circumcise them, to judaise them. He writes this letter into that unresolved debate. He writes when some—his opponents, we call them—became vigorous—perhaps violent?—in asserting their viewpoint.

Paul writes well before Gentiles have outnumbered Jews within the growing movement of Jesus’ followers; before the Temple is destroyed; before the city of Jerusalem is declared a Gentile preserve only; before John Chrysostom explodes with vituperative venom against Christians in synagogues; before the Emperor Constantine endorses a thoroughly hellenised, philosophically mature version of faith in God through Jesus Christ. So many changes; so many new layers of meaning from church developments, laid over the earlier texted Paul.

Is this text, then, beyond our reach? Is it impossible to grasp it, to seize it as our own? Is it too alien, too far removed from us? Can it ever be for us the word of God to guide and instruct us? Or despite these difficulties, can we not enter into the dynamic, attempt to reconstruct the reality, and thus appreciate the dynamic of Paul’s ancient words, as they speak to us today?

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The issue, I believe, which vexed Paul in these chapters, was that different people made claim that they could access God in strikingly different ways. The Jews had Torah; the commandments of the Law, handed down by Yahweh to Moses on Sinai. The Gentiles had the natural world; the revelation of the deity in creation. The followers of Jesus had a new model of faith; the faithfulness of the Messiah, no less, as the crucial instance of how all human beings might relate to God.

Paul agonises with what this might mean for his understanding of faith. He grew up on the Jewish understanding that access to God was through adherence to Torah, the living of a life in complete harmony with requirements of God’s Law.

Then came a dramatic, unexpected experience. He entered into a new way of relating to God. His “Damascus road experience”, as Luke vividly portrays it, opened up this new vista. To tradition, is added experience. The experience helps Paul to reinterpret his tradition; to shape a new understanding of faith.

But then, a third factor intrudes; Paul is called, and sent, to Gentiles. He preaches the Gospel, and people respond. He establishes new communities of faith—some, provocatively, right next door to synagogues; others, comprising Gentiles who meet in homes. These people, he nurtures. They have access to God; the same God Paul has known as faithful Jew, and as convinced Christian convert. The Gentiles can come to God, without the Law, in a different way from Jews.

Does this mean that the old way is now obsolete? Paul cannot stomach the thought. Indeed, he knows, from the events of his own life, that personal experience can reshape, reconfigure the traditional, “old” way, so that it is not rendered irrelevant, but is infused with new vigour and vitality.

That’s how I understand the controversial statement that Paul makes, in the verse just before our lectionary passage—when he declares to the Romans that Christ is “the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4). The word he chose, translated as “end”, has the sense of “end” as completion, perfection, bringing to fruition, reaching to maturity, arriving at the point of complete fulfilment. That, in Paul’s understanding, is how Christ stands in relation to the Law—not in opposition, but as the pinnacle of fulfilment.

So he cannot give up on the challenge that his success amongst the Gentiles has laid before him: God is working in this way!! But nor does he want to give up on the Jews; for they are chosen of God, and God does not abandon his promise, nor does God jettison his beloved people. So, Paul concludes, both “old” and “new” must cohere together. They each have a part in the overall scheme.

*******

The issue that Paul grapples with, is so very close to the issue that confronts us in our place and time. Australia of the 21st century is a multicutural country. In the last 75 years, 10 million people have migrated to Australia from over 150 different countries. Almost half of the Australian population has at least one parent who was born overseas, and almost one quarter of Australian residents were themselves born overseas.

We are undoubtedly multi-cultural, even if we do not yet realise the full implications of this new reality. As well as this, however, we are also multi-faith. Each country and culture represented in Australia now brings with it its own distinctive expression of its faith. So many people, making so many claims about how they know God, how contact God, how they commune with God.

How do we deal with this new reality? When “the heathens” lived in far distant countries, across deep, raging seas, then the way of stereotype and caricature went unchallenged. But now that they are here, the others in our midst, we cannot dismiss them so easily.

Other people have other ideas about God, other connections with the divine, other ways of relating to the deity. Do we dismiss them all, in a blanket fashion, as ignorant, wrongheaded, blighted by evil? Do we attempt to convince them that what they know is but a shadow of what we know? Do we shrug our shoulders, and say “whatever will be, that’s cool”?

My preferred option is one which I find emerging from texts such as Romans 9-11. Instead of staking out the ground to be defended, another option is to acknowledge that there is a greater reality, beyond our present knowing, transcending human capacity to articulate and systematise. Paul grapples with the issue, and concludes that the answer is, simply, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

The unifying factor of God extends beyond the precise doctrines and dogmas of each partisan point of view; the greater reality of God holds in creative tension each of the variant ways of seeking God’s presence. Jew and Greek are united, not by common beliefs, but by the God who shows mercy to each of them alike.

*******

Paul has argued this theme from early in Romans: “all have sinned, yet all are justified by God’s grace as a gift” (3:23-24), “is not God the God of Jews, and the God of Gentiles also?” (3:29), the promise is “not only to the aherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham” (4:16), “God has called us, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24).

He will go on to push the point in subsequent chapters: “salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make Israel jealous” (11:11), and so, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26); “just as you [Gentiles] have received mercy, so they [the Jews] might receive mercy” (11:30-31); “God has mercy on all” (11:32). Paul’s “God-talk” sounds this consistent theme throughout Romans: God is for all, God has mercy on all, both Jew and Gentile may participate in the full knowledge of God.

Out of the struggle about the particularities of different ways of relating to God, comes the unequivocal assertion that all might be intimately bound with God. The preferred option which Paul adopts is not the rigorous exclusivism of a sectarian antagonist, not the woolly-headed universalism of an unreconstructed liberal, but the engaged and intense dialogue of one who believes both that his won way is right, but that it does not exclude other ways.

Paul offers the pattern of faith in which tradition, experience, and an openness to the insights of the other might come together and shape a new, vibrant understanding of God’s availability to all, of God’s open-armed yearning for each and everyone, of God’s willingness to encompass people of different upbringings, experiences, and creeds, into the one warm embrace.

The Uniting Church has issued a clear statement about relating across religious faiths, under the title of friendship in the presence of difference. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/about/theology and https://assembly.uca.org.au/fipd

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To conclude, I offer a reflective meditation. You may wish to use this meditation as a prayer; to join your spirit with the words of the prayer, and lift them to God. Or you may wish to use the meditation as a point of reflection, for yourself, so that you might ponder, without affirming or denying, the sentiments it contains. I invite you, then, you join in meditation; perhaps, in prayer, or perhaps, in reflection.

A Reflection

God has created us all,

and called us together from all the nations of the world,

to be one people—the people of God’s earth.

As Christian people, we regularly offer our prayers

            for one another, as we seek to serve God

            in obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this time of reflection, we remember now

            people who call on God

            in ways which are different from the ways we know:

those who call on God through self-enlightenment;

those who seek to be raised to a higher plane of consciousness;

those who study the Torah or adhere to the Koran;

those who seek to walk a way revealed to them

by teachers and leaders of faiths other than Christianity.

What would it mean for us

            to cultivate tolerance and acceptance of such people?

If we were to gain a deeper understanding

            of the ways they call on God,

might it not enrich our own way of relating to God?

What would it mean for us

            to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths?

We could not relate to them as proponents of a narrow doctrine;

            we would need to meet as servants of one another,

            together seeking the truth of deep faith.

As we speak with one another, and work side by side,

            may it not be in arrogance or pride,

but in such a way

            that God might break through to us in new ways,

so that we may better know

the greater reality of God in our lives.

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/27/praying-to-be-cursed-paul-the-passionate-partisan-for-the-cause-rom-93/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

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

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

Praying to be cursed: Paul, the passionate partisan for the cause (Rom 9:3)

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. (Rom 9:3, NRSV translation)

In his longest letter, written to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, Paul mounts a long and detailed case about God’s righteous-justice, made available to those who believe through the faithfulness of Jesus (see Rom 1:16-17, 3:21-26, 4:22-5:2, 5:18-21, 6:17-18, 8:10, 38-39).

The argument is developed, step by step, through the first eight chapters. This argument of the letter comes to a climax in chapters 9-11, from which excerpts are heard in worship this coming week and the two following weeks. In these chapters, Paul develops a tightly–packed argument concerning the place of Israel, and the Gentiles, within the people of God.

Paul placed a focus on the priestly role, that of intercessor, which he was undertaking, when he declared, concerning Israel, that “my heart’s desire and prayer for them is that they may be saved” (10:1). This prayer summed up the central thrust of his extended, and at times convoluted, argument, throughout these three chapters.

What Paul dictates to Tertius (the scribe who writes down what Paul says—Rom 16:22) in these three chapters comes straight from the heart—a heart that yearns to see the full scope of God’s gracious inclusion of people of faith into the kingdom.

Paul is clear about what this means. He believes that “the word of God has not failed” (9:6) and “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29), so he prays for God to realise the promise that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26, citing psalms and prophetic oracles in support). That’s the universal scope for which he yearns: “all Israel”!

Paul grapples further with this question. Can it be that “God has rejected his people”? (11:1). Paul’s answer is definitive and unequivocal: “By no means!” (11:1).

Is it possible that “they have stumbled so as to fall”? (11:11). Once again, Paul cries out, “By no means!” (11:11), looking to the time of the “full inclusion” of Israel in the eschatological vision (11:12).

Since Israel, the “natural branches” of the olive tree, have been cut off because of their “unbelief” (11:20), their “disobedient and contrary” nature (10:21), are they doomed to remain “cut off” forever? “God has the power to graft them in(these natural branches will be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:23-24).

And so, the “mystery” which was known to Paul is declared publicly at the climax of his three-chapter argument: “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), “they too may now receive [God’s] mercy” (11:31).

*******

This whole section of Romans is introduced with an astonishingly impassioned petition, I was praying for me, myself, to be separated from the chosen one by means of a curse, for the sake of my own people (9:3). This is my own translation, which differs from the familiar modern English translations at three points.

*** Warning: technical discussion of Greek syntax and translation options ahead ***

First, the phrase “accursed and cut off from Christ” (NRSV, NIV) states more than the Greek text includes; there is no verb “cut off” in the sentence. The NEB offers the concise translation, “outcast from Christ”, which provides three English words for the three corresponding Greek words. However, this ignores the curious order of words in the Greek sentence, which separates anathema, “outcast”, or “accursed”, from the phrase “from Christ”, and places the emphasis squarely on the intervening words, “me, myself, to be”.

Furthermore, the simple preposition apo (from) in the phrase “from Christ” has a force all of its own in this phrase [BAGD 86, meaning I.5, calls this a “pregnant construction”, presumably because there is no verb and the preposition seems to function as both verb and preposition simultaneously, as “separated from”]. Thus, I translate (rather inelegantly) for me, myself, to be separated from Christ by means of a curse.

Second, some modern English translations obscure the reference to prayer in this verse, preferring to use the secondary meaning of the verb euchomai, namely, “wish” (NRSV, NIV, NAB, GNB).

However, the basic sense of the verb is “pray”, and this translation is found in NEB, REB, NJB (cf. JB, “I would willingly be condemned”). This gives the sentence a much more straightforward, direct feel—this is my “prayer”—than the alternative, this is my “wish”—which implies some degree of conditional or hypothetical quality about the content of what is “wished”.

Here, I would argue, Paul was not being tentative, for the context was one of great fervour and passion (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart”, 9:2). He spoke with a high degree of commitment and directness (“I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit”, 9:1). Paul here expresses, not a hesitant, possible wish, but a clear, unequivocal prayer to God. Paul was clearly praying for God to cast him aside, if his desire for his people to be saved is to be achieved.

Third, the imperfect indicative form of the verb euchomai confirms that this was not a hypothetical statement, but a clear expression of a recurrent activity undertaken by Paul in the past. The verb is not in the subjunctive; there is nothing hypothetical here; this is a clear, direct statement. This is what Paul prays for. Repeatedly. Consistently.

Thus, the plain sense of the verse is that, on many occasions prior to writing this letter, Paul had offered a prayer that he might be “anathema from Christ”, that is, regarded as separated from Christ by means of the cursed placed on him, for the sake of securing the salvation of his own people, Israel.

This is a strikingly partisan act, pleading for a desired result and volunteering his own life as a means to that end. It is a description of Paul that figures rarely, if ever, in scholarly analyses of his missionary work; and yet, like the prophetic and priestly functions which we have seen Paul performing, this partisan dimension is an equally valid element to factor into any consideration of Paul’s role, at least as he might have perceived that role.

That he is prepared to be, not with Christ, but to be cursed by Christ, for the sake of his people, Israel, shows a remarkable commitment to, and alignment with, his fellow Jews. He yearns for them to be saved, to be welcomed in the kingdom. He prays to God for this outcome. Paul writes passionately, as a partisan for the cause.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/20/spirit-and-scripture-in-romans-rom-8/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

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

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

The righteous-justice of God, a gift to all humanity (Romans)

Paul’s letter to the Romans is his longest letter, and is widely regarded as the pinnacle of his theological expression. It is closely related to the letter to the Galatians in its central theological concern for righteous-justice, law and faith. We have been hearing excerpts from this letter in worship in recent weeks, and that will continue for some weeks into the future.

The overall structure of this letter is very clear: after the usual introductory formulae (1:1–7) and thanksgiving (1:8–15), Paul declares his theme by means of a scripture citation (1:16–17) which he then expounds in a series of inter–related sections (1:18–3:20; 3:21–4:25; 5:1–7:25; 8:1–39), climaxing in his extended discussion of Israel and the Gentiles (9:1–11:36). Paul then conveys various ethical exhortations (12:1–13:14; 14:1–15:13) before drawing to a close with personal news and a direct appeal to the Romans (15:14–33), an exchange of greetings (16:1–23[24]) and a final doxology (16:25–27).

The opening verses (1:1–7) identify the author and the audience as well as offering a typically Pauline blessing of grace and peace (1:7b). This piece of writing is a contextual enterprise. It is not an abstract or theoretical undertaking. Paul offers words shaped for the situation he is addressing. (See my comments on this at https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-best-theology-is-contextual-learning-from-pauls-letter-to-the-romans/)

This opening is followed by a thanksgiving for the Roman saints (1:8–15), in another typically Pauline pattern. As Paul reports that he gives thanks for their faith and prays that he may be enabled to visit them, he introduces key elements of the argument. His prayer is oriented firmly towards what he knows of the believers in Rome.

In the body of the letter, Paul expounds a theology of universal righteous-justice, focussing particularly on its implications for Israel and the Gentiles (1:18– 11:32). The relation of Jews and Gentiles was a critical factor in the situation in Rome, as Paul is well aware.

First, he explores the nature of the human condition (1:18–3:20). This is based on keen observation and reinforced by a string of scripture citations (3:10–18).

Next, he considers the roles played by Jesus and the Spirit in making the righteous-justice of God available (3:21–8:30). The argument builds and develops, demonstrating how God has chosen to make righteous-justice available to all human beings, through Abraham as through Jesus, by means of the indwelling Spirit.

This was a critical issue for the diverse communities of believers in Ancient Rome—a city with inhabitants from all points of the Empire which had been conquered by the powerful Roman army, and which lived under the imposition of Roman governance. Many traders, artisans, merchants, and slaves in the city had come, willingly or by force, to this city. The gatherings of believers in the city reflected this diversity. The claim that the righteous-justice of God was available to all these people was an important aspect of the early Christian gatherings.

So, to conclude this section, in the midst of a string of climactic rhetorical questions, Paul erupts into a poetic acclamation of “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:31–39). That was indeed good news for all those in Rome who heard this message.

Immediately, Paul plunges into a complex reading of scriptural texts in order to sanction the claim that God’s sovereign mercy offers a universal righteous-justice, both to Jews and to Gentiles alike (9:1–11:32). This section, again, is contextually relevant, as the names of believers of Rome to whom Paul sends greetings, in chapter 16, reflect both Jewish and Gentile people.

This critical section comes to another fulsome doxological climax in the joyously prayerful affirmations concerning God’s “riches and wisdom and knowledge”, leading to the attribution of glory to God forever (11:33–36). This is the ultimate response to the singular grace of God’s gift of righteous-justice to all human beings. All those I; the house churches of Rome who heard this section of the letter would surely have rejoiced in the extravagant abundance of God’s grace towards them!

The subsequent consideration of ethical matters (12:1–15:33) covers a range of issues, introduced with a general statement about the need to live in accord with the will of God (12:1–2). Much of the first part of this section (12:1–13:14) contains traditional ethical teaching: a string of pithy proverbs (12:9–21) and short reflections on loving one another (13:8–10) and living honourably (13:11– 14); a truncated reflection on the image of the community of faith as a body (12:3–8); and discussion of responsibilities towards the governing authorities (13:1–7). This last section seems particularly pertinent for the city which was the administrative centre of the dominant empire of the time, at least in the Mediterranean region.

This ethical section continues (14:1–15:13) with an extended reflection on the ethical dilemmas posed by differing views in the community about what foods should be eaten. Once again, this section of the letter is strongly contextual: it reflects the situation in the city, and for the people of the various groups of house churches, for whom this was a live issue. There were different points of view; the believers needed to show respect to one another in the midst of these different views.

This section climaxes with a clear call to inclusiveness (15:2, 5–6, 7) supported by a string of scripture citations (15:9–12). Paul concludes this section of his letter with a reminder of his planned visit to Rome (15:14–29) and one last exhortation (15:30–32), before offering a brief blessing of peace (15:33). Once again, the contextual nature of the letter is clear.

The letter ends with an exchange of greetings, in the course of which Paul identifies quite a number of the believers in the various house churches that existed in a Rome, before he reiterates some last–minute instructions (16:1–23).

Then Paul offers a further blessing (16:20a; and some ancient versions added another blessing as verse 24). The letter concludes in high liturgical style with an exalted doxological formula (16:25–27), an ending most likely added by a later editor of the letter, in which some, at least, of the central motifs of the letter are reiterated.

From this survey of the contents and the form of the letter, we can see how focussed the argument is on the righteous-justice of God, a central element in how Paul understands the Gospel, and how relevant that message was for the diverse groupings of people who had come to recognise Jesus as Lord and who were committed to following him as faithful,disciples in their daily lives.

As God’s gift to humanity, this righteous-justice invites and enables all people to enter into covenant relationship with God, and thus to shape relationships with each other that are accepting and hopeful. That message was powerful in the ancient Roman context. It retains that potency in the contemporary world, where diversity can fuel tension and conflict. In this context, the good news offers hope and invites reconciliation, in celebration of God’s wide expanse of gracious inclusion.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/07/to-articulate-faith-contextually/

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (Matt 10:5). The mission of Jesus in the book of origins.

Jesus had a mission to the Gentiles. The mission to the Gentiles was “the fundamental missionary dimension of Jesus’ earthly ministry”—so wrote the guru of modern missiological studies, David Bosch (Transforming Mission, p. 30). And thus, every theology of mission since that paradigm-shifting work of 1991 has echoed this claim as a given fact.

But when we turn to this week’s Gospel passage, we read that Jesus instructed his followers: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6). What is going on?

This is a very distinctive claim to make. Other New Testament books have a different take—Jesus did engage with Gentiles, even with Samaritans, and did encourage a mission to the wider Gentile world. And plenty of New Testament texts can be pulled out to support this claim.

Not in this Gospel, however. Jesus does not go amongst Gentiles. Or Samaritans. Just as the disciples of Jesus are entirely drawn from Jewish people in Matthew’s Gospel, so also Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus’ mission is “only to the lost sheep of Israel”—that is, exclusively to the Jewish people.

Elizabeth and I have had many conversations about this aspect of the Gospel according to Matthew. She has undertaken thorough research into the Jewish nature of this Gospel, and especially on how Jesus related to Gentiles. What follows is drawn from our conversations and particularly from the research of Elizabeth, as we have written this material together.

*****

The statement about going “only to the lost sheep of Israel” (10:5–6), in the mission directives to the twelve disciples, is clearly an addition to the original Markan passage (Mark 6:8–11) that Matthew used as a source. In this statement, Jesus directs that Gentile (and Samaritan) towns are to be avoided.

There is a second statement to this effect in this Gospel, when Jesus encounters a Gentile woman on the northern borders of Galilee. This also is a clear redactional addition to an account already found in Mark (Mark 7:24–30). In Matthew’s version, he declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). There is nothing of this in Mark’s report of this encounter.

A third Matthean statement about mission, the “Great Commission” (28:16–20), is completely different, as the disciples are commanded to go out and actively “make disciples of all nations”. This command correlates with nothing at all in the body of the Gospel, during the earthly period of Jesus’ life. The mission to the Gentiles is an entirely post-resurrection phenomenon.

So the two major statements of mission to Israel in this Gospel, as well as other accounts of the activities and ministry of Jesus, contain a number of significant differences to that of Mark and Luke. The ministry of both Jesus and the disciples is geographically quite limited in Matthew’s account.

*****

Jesus rarely sets foot on any Gentile soil in this Gospel. In Matt 15:29–31, there is no tour through Sidon and the Decapolis as is reported in Mark (Mark 7:31–37), and no missionary activity undertaken by the demoniac after the demons have been exorcised from him (Mark 5:1–20; compare Matt 8:28–34).

The Matthean Jesus never goes near Samaria (contrast with Luke 17:11–19 and John 4:1– 42), nor does he speak favourably about Samaritans, as he does in Luke (Luke 10:25–37), prefiguring the Lukan mission to Samaria (Acts 1:8; 8:5-25). The activities of Jesus and the disciples are concentrated in the Galilean area, and on the Jewish people.

In Matthew‘s account, there are no Gentiles who are intentionally sought out by either Jesus or the disciples. Rather, there are just a select number of Gentiles who seek out Jesus. They come to him; he does not approach them or seek them out. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this striking observation.) In two instances, it is their faith which includes them in the kingdom of God (the centurion in Capernaum, 8:10, 13; the Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon, 15:28).

Ultimately, Jesus says to the Jews, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). He is not here saying that the kingdom will be opened to the Gentiles per se; his words are directed towards the chief priests and Pharisees (as 21:45 indicates).

It is those Jews who “produce the fruits of the kingdom” who will be given entry to the kingdom. Those who do “produce the fruits of the kingdom” include those normally considered as “unclean” by the Pharisees, and therefore outcasts or rejects from Judaism (9:10–13; 21:31, 32).

Jesus’ discourses and acts of healing, in general, involve only Jews. His contact with Gentiles, when it occurs in the Gospel, is always highly significant, and designed to illuminate some aspect of Jesus’ teaching or person regarding authority, inheritance of the kingdom, discipleship or messiahship.

It is noteworthy that those occasions when a person is asked whether they have faith before Jesus will heal them, are only when Gentiles are involved. Jesus readily heals Jewish people without requesting a prior faith statement (4:24; 8:3; 8:15; 12:13; 12:22; 14:36; 15:31; 21:14).

*****

More recent Matthean scholarship has recognised the Jewish character of this Gospel, and a consensus is emerging that this work was most likely written for a community that was still immersed within its Jewish tradition. It appears that members of this community had been ostracised and persecuted by other Jews (including their families) who did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. They did not withdraw voluntarily from their local synagogues, but still operated as a group under Jewish authority (10:17; 23:34).

This community is still directly under Jewish law; the clear words of Jesus that are remembered and repeated are “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it” (23:1-3). That law is not to be abolished, but fulfilled (5:17); it remains “until all is accomplished” (5:18).

In the teachings of Jesus which are recalled in this community, their faithfulness in the midst of persecution is valued (5:10–12); they report that Jesus identifies this persecution as taking place “on my account” (5:11; see also 10:18, 39; 16:25; 19:29). Thus the difference between this community and many other Jews of the time was the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Judaism was in a state of flux in the middle to late decades of the first century. The pivotal moment looks, from the benefit of hindsight, to have been the a Jewish-Roman War of 66-74 CE, and particularly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which took place in 70 CE, in the middle of this war.

Things were different after the Temple was rendered unusable. That is often taken as a marker for understanding events in the period of the New Testament, certainly, it is a key marker for understanding the major shifts that took place within Judaism—with no Temple in place, the importance of synagogues as gathering places in towns and cities across Israel (and beyond) grew.

What little evidence we do have from this general period indicates that there were a number of sectarian groups within Judaism, which were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. They were well-placed to take advantage, as it were, of the situation when the Temple no longer served as a focal point for Jews.

Nevertheless, many Jews, particularly in the Diaspora, were not yet “Pharisaic”—they did not see their faith in the same way as the Pharisees. There were many disputes amongst Jewish communities as to the correct way of seeing things, and some of these disputes were quite bitter.

Many groups claimed to be the ‘true Israel’ as distinct from other groups, who were false leaders and teachers, and who failed to follow the Law correctly. The Law became the most accessible means of revealing God’s will for Israel after the destruction of the Temple, and most of these groups focused on what they believed to be the true interpretation and application of it.

The synagogues were the places where the Law was studied and discussed, where it was preached and understood. The synagogue was where the scribes and Pharisees most naturally operated. The Pharisees thus grew in significance over time. They had established synagogues decades before Jesus was born. After 70 CE, synagogues became the key gathering place for Jews, both within Israel, and across the Dispersion.

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Matthew’s Gospel reflects one such debate, between the authorities in the synagogues and the followers of Jesus. Biblical scholars suggest that this Gospel should be read alongside of other literature from after the time of the destruction of the Temple—books such as 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the Psalms of Solomon. This literature is trying to envisage what Judaism should be like in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple. Understanding and living by the Law is central in each of these documents.

Thus, although Matthew’s Gospel has been seen to have played an important role in the formation of early Christian theology, a more natural interpretation is to locate this Gospel within the first century Jewish debates about how the Law is best to be understood and applied.

These debates took on even more intensity after 70 CE. The survival of Judaism without the Temple depended on the faithful practice of the Law: all of its commandments and instructions. The polemic in Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees, and the warnings that are uttered to Israel, show that Matthew still had hope that his ideas would become normative for all Jewish people.

If the author of this Gospel knew anything about what was happening elsewhere, he would have known about the gathering strength of the movement led by Saul of Tarsus, for whom strict obedience to Torah was of less importance than belief in Jesus as Messiah.

This arm of the movement was opening a door wide for Gentiles, who did not follow the Torah, to belong to such communities. This had been underway since the 50s. It had gained momentum by the late 60s and would become the dominant form of Christianity later in the second century.

It was perhaps with this awareness that Matthew’s Gospel was created—to insist on the centrality and priority of the traditional teaching of Jesus, the Torah-observant Jew, whom God had chosen as the anointed one. And the picture that he offers of Jesus is a resolutely Jewish one. Remembering that Jesus said “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5) makes perfect sense in this context.

(In fact, I think that this Gospel might more accurately reflect the activity of the historical Jesus during his earthly activities—he was a faithful Jew who observed Torah and advocated for his particular interpretation of how the commandments were to be kept. Staying away from Gentiles and Samaritans would be a perfectly respectable course of action for such a person.)

So, in reporting the words of Jesus about mission, and in insisting on the thoroughly Jewish nature of this movement, this really is “the book of origins”. This is how I translate the opening phrase (1:1). Usually this phrase is related to the story that follows, about the origins of Jesus (1:1–2:23). And that makes sense.

In a broader sense, however, the author of the book of origins is making a pitch about the true nature of the movement that was formed by Jesus.

Jesus instigated a prophetic movement to renew the people of Israel, to recall them to the prophetic heart of their traditions and restore the sense of righteous-justice that was fundamental to his understanding of Judaism. That is the real story of our origins, the author of this book is declaring.

******

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/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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

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/

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.

******

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.

****

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/