Darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth: the scene of judgement (Matt 22)

Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you … sit you down, be fed and blessed … in your strength or in your weakness, you are welcome: come!

I always enjoyed singing that song, back in the days when we were able to sing when we gathered together for worship. It came to mind as I thought about the parable of the banquet that appears in the Lectionary, as the Gospel reading, this coming Sunday (Matt 22:1-14).

And the story that Jesus tells has wonderful moments of blessing–especially for those who didn’t receive an invitation to the banquet in the initial round of invitations. These people, “both good and bad”, invited in to the banquet hall direct from their business on the streets, were able to share in the largesse of the king (22:9-10). Is it a parable that points to the gracious welcome of God, as all manner of people come into the kingdom?

The very fact that there were, not one, not even two, but three rounds of invitations, underlines this point, surely? The king (presumably a symbol for God) really wants people to take part in this celebratory feast! And even the behaviour of those who decline the invitation might be explained in some reasonable way–the farm needs attending to, the business won’t look after itself (22:5), so their declining the invitation is understandable.

Although, it might be noted that declining the invitation was a breach of the honour-shame code which was dominant in the culture of the time. Reciprocity in relationships and dependence on a wealthy patron would surely have mandated accepting the invitation, one would have thought.

Indeed, the story that Jesus tells doesn’t necessarily lead to the result of blessing for all who come. Indeed, this parable is wracked by tragedy: as many in the first two rounds of people invited to the banquet decline the invitation, some of them mistreat and kill the messengers (22:6). This provokes a murderous retribution by the unhappy king, as he orders his troops to “destroy those murders and burn their city” (22:7). It sounds like yet another parable of judgement. (Matthew has quite a number of these parables–in case you hadn’t noticed!)

And, even when the guests are all present in the banquet hall, the king remains unhappy. Displeased at the lack of appropriate attire seen on one person, he gives the unfortunate guest a tongue lashing (22:12), and orders that a vicious punishment be enacted (22:13).

The parable and ancient customs

It had started off in the typical life-like setting of many of the parables: a scene known to the people to whom Jesus was speaking–or, at least, envisaged in realistic ways by them, even if they had not personally experienced such a scene. It sounded plausible, like it really could be happening.

There’s a wealthy king, a fine banquet, a hall filled with guests, tables laden with an abundance of food. A scene that the more wealthy would have experienced, and that the poorer would perhaps often have dreamed of. Jesus was a master at telling such tales; he knew how to draw people in and engage them fully in the scene.

In many ways, this parables reflects the code of behaviour ingrained in the culture. Meals were locations of intricate and complex rituals which set the patterns of behaviour required. There were expectations of rituals to be followed at the door, as guests arrive and wash their feet (see Gen 18:4, 19:1-2, 24:32; Luke 7:38).

There were rituals in greeting one another, following the prescribed sequence of blessing appropriate for the occasion and for the status of the people involved (amongst numerous examples in Hebrew Scripture, see Gen 18:2, 29:13, 43:27; Ruth 2:4).

There were rituals relating to the seating arrangements, which followed very strictly the hierarchy of status amongst those present (as Gen 43:33 and Prov 25:6-7 each indicate). Once seated, there were rituals relating to the food that was to be served and the order by which it was served to people, once again following the status hierarchy.

And, it would seem, there were rituals relating to the desired form of dress when attending a celebratory wedding banquet (perhaps Eccles. 9:8 is relevant; and maybe Rev 3:5 offers a glimpse of this?). Such rituals were expected to be kept with scrupulous care.

But one guest has breached protocol (22:11). It is precisely when the king pronounces the sentence on the guest who had not donned the prescribed wedding robe (22:12-14), that the parable blurs. The very end of the parable snaps out of the “realistic imaginary scene” that had been painted up to this point. The guest is not wearing his white robe. The guest is not “clothed with righteousness”.

The parable and aspects of judgement

The carnage from the aggressive interaction between the king, his messengers, the reluctant people of the town, and the murderous troops sent by the king (22:3-7), is bad enough. That might well be connected with the behaviour of arrogant, powerful men, who then (as now) ruled the world through the power of their armies; who even ordered the destruction of cities in enemy territory. That still has a ring of realism about it.

However, right at the end of the parable, the words of judgement and punishment that come from the mouth of the king plunges the story right into the midst of the hell-fire and brimstone, judgement and punishment rhetoric, that characterises the distinctive figure of Jesus who is centre-stage in the book of origins, the account of Jesus that we attribute to Matthew.

We have stepped out of the “parable scene”, and into the world of “eternal judgement”. We are no longer listening to Jesus the teller of enticing tales, but Jesus the fiery preacher of apocalyptic doom.

The instruction to “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:14), recalls earlier pronouncements by Jesus in this book of origins: in his words of judgement spoken in Capernaum, where he encounters a distressed centurion (8:12), in his explanation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:42), in the parable of the good and bad fish (13:50).

It is found also in subsequent pronouncements: to his disciples during his final apocalyptic teachings (24:51), and in the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats (25:30). In each case, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth are threatened.

The vision that is depicted in this parable of Jesus is hardly an irenic, thoroughly enjoyable scenario. This is the way that “the heavenly banquet” is often depicted in Hebrew Scriptures–see Isaiah 25:6-7, 55:1-5, 65:17-25; Psalm 36:7-9; Proverbs 9:1-6. Not so, however, in this parable.

Along with those entering the kingdom in joy, there are those debarred from the kingdom, excluded with wrath, destined to endure severe punishment. The king who reigns in this realm exercises definitive judgement and imposes a decisive punishment (Matt 22:13). This is fear-inducing stuff.

Signs of Matthew’s hand in the parable

There are clear signs that Matthew’s hand has been at work throughout this parable, reshaping the story which Jesus told. The phrases found in the ending are one clear sign. Another sign comes from the kind of comparative analysis that we can do, when we compare this version of the parable with two other versions, known to us in literature of the time.

The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told this parable (Luke 14:15-24); this version is located in quite a different context, where the focus is on “seeking the lost” (Luke 14:12-14 and 15:1-32). In Matthew, the context is one of judgement and punishment, as is clear in the way the preceding parable ends (Matt 21:42-46). And the Gospel of Thomas also has a version of this parable, one of the teachings of Jesus found in that work (Gos. Thomas 64). Of course, in the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative context; the work is comprised of a long string of independent sayings of Jesus.

The host of the banquet in both those alternative versions (Luke and Thomas) was simply “a man”, not a king. That man had “a servant”, not a whole collection of slaves. The invitation was simply to “a dinner” (Thomas) or “a great dinner” (Luke), rather than to “a wedding banquet for his son”. Matthew has really ramped up the setting, placing the story in a very regal setting.

Whilst those unable to attend sent explanations (they are the same in Luke and Thomas), in Matthew’s version “they made light of it”. And the murderous rampage by the king is not found in either alternate version (Luke or Thomas). The whole scene has been ramped up to the highest possible level in Matthew’s version. Everything hangs on what transpires in the story. While the parable in Luke ends with a scene of inclusive celebration, in Matthew the parable ends with savage judgement.

Back to the theme of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel

This outcome of judgement is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Matthew. And this is the challenge for us, today, as we reflect on the version of the parable found in this Gospel. What do we make of a story that points to the inevitable judgement that God will exercise?

It is clear that the function of judgement belongs to God (7:1-2; 10:15; 11:21-24; 12:36). Jesus sets this into the eschatological framework of “the end of time”, when the Son of Man will implement this judgement (13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:29-31; 25:31).

This judgement is described in graphic terms in the final parable of Jesus in this Gospel (25:31-46). The division of people, at this moment of judgement, into “good and bad”, “sheep and goats”, is made abundantly clear. Those failing to show compassion to “the least” are clearly differentiated from those who are called “the righteous”.

That division has run through the Gospel. We see people distinguished as “evil and good” (5:45; 12:35; 22:10), we see “good trees” and “bad trees” (7:15-19; 12:33), “good seed” and “weeds” (13:24-25, 37-38), “good fish” and “bad fish” (13:47-48).

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteousness is followed in the present.

So the kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). The key connection here must be with the demand for righteous-justice, which has been the central demand of the message preached by Jesus throughout this Gospel, from the early affirmations (3:15; 5:6, 10; 5:20; 6:33), through the parables in chapter 13 (see 13:17, 43, 49), through to the climactic final parable (25:37, 46). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Judgement is linked to doing what makes for righteous-justice. Here is the key criteria for divine assessment. The man cast out of the wedding banquet was rejected because he was not “clothed in righteous-justice”.

Here is the central call for ethical living from the lips of Jesus, which strengthened and intensified throughout Matthew’s account. Here is the fundamental worldview of the fierce apocalyptic prophet, who comes from Nazareth onto the world stage, to effect judgement.

Now that is a challenge to preach today!!

Producing the fruits of the kingdom (Matt 21)

The parable of Jesus which is set in this Sunday’s lectionary appears to offer an invitation to adopt a negative approach towards Jews and Judaism. The author of the book of origins (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted this story as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46).

The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, this week the lectionary offers us two supplementary passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God).

The son is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom will not inherit the kingdom (21:43). That’s a consistent motif in the teaching of Jesus in this Gospel. But the author of the Gospel reshapes the conclusion so that it seems to apply solely to “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (21:45).

The parable of the vineyard is one of the passages that has been difficult for us to understand accurately. When taken at a literal level, it has led to modern interpretations that are as damaging as they are unfair.

The assumption is that the Pharisees and scribes are the ‘bad guys’, and this has led to the belief that Pharisee equals hypocrite. It is disturbing that such a stereotype has found its way into the language of our modern church.

The context of the parable suggests that although its message was aimed at the chief priests and the Pharisees, it does not exclude other Jewish people. The parable immediately before it refers to the importance of doing the will of God (21:28-31), and concludes that “tax-collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom of God ahead of you [i.e. the Pharisees and chief priests]” (21:31). The kingdom will certainly provide an interesting gathering of all manner of people! So the parable is a warning about obedience, not a denunciation of the leaders.

Equally disturbing is the notion that Jesus here seems to contradict his own teaching about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek. He depicts God as the avenging Lord. So what is really happening here?

I don’t think the parable of Jesus is intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic, an invitation to deride or dismiss Judaism and Jews.

It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Instead of making common cause against Rome, they continued to fight each other. Vigorous polemic and robust debate amongst Jews were not uncommon.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

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. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved into the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant.

(From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time. We need to be sensitized to the fact that, for many modern Jews, when we make damning criticisms of the Pharisees, they hear that as a criticism of their Rabbis, and, by extension, of the faith that they practise today.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was not rejecting his faith as irrelevant or obsolete.

He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and criticisng the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. He wanted to renew Israel, to refresh the covenant, as the prophets before him had done.

And let’s remember that the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular evangelical Christian tradition perpetuate the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—a stereotype heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that the church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

In 2009, the UCA national Assembly adopted a Statement which says, amongst other things:

The Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism; a belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people;  supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God; and forms of relationships with Jews that require them to become Christian, including coercion and manipulation, that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom.

We do not accept these things.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

Indeed, when we look at the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. “I have come, not to destroy, but to fulfil the Law”, he says (5:17).

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

And in that same section of the Gospel, Jesus is quoted as advocating for a better righteous-justice; a righteous-justice that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).

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

Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

Unfortunately, these words of Jesus and other parts of the New Testament story have been used throughout the centuries to validate anti-Jewish attitudes, to foster antisemitic hatred of the Jews. It is important for us to remember the real sense of the words of Jesus, and not follow the pathway to bigotry, hatred, persecution, and tragic attempts to annihilate the Jews.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/09/29/an-invitation-that-you-just-cannot-accept/

A rock, some keys, and a binding: clues to the identity of Jesus (Matt 16)

This year, the Revised Common Lectionary is offering us passages each Sunday from the book of origins, the Gospel that we attribute to Matthew. It is a Gospel with some distinctive and interesting elements.

It is only in this Gospel that Jesus commands Peter to offer forgiveness “seventy times seven” (18:22; the parallel version in Luke speaks only of seven times). The special name given to Jesus, “Emmanuel” (God with us), is reported only in Matt 1:23, while the assurance of Jesus’ abiding presence with believers (18:20) and his offer of “rest for your souls” (11:29) are sayings reported only in this Gospel. One of the most often-quoted verses in this Gospel comes right at the end of the gospel, in a text where the supreme missionary charter is set out: “go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

Another distinctive in this book is the text which we find in this coming Sunday’s passage, which has been used to validate the Roman episcopacy as first among equals: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). How intriguing that the same Gospel has been used as the fundamental warrant for the way in which the Church has been structured by Roman Catholics and evangelical missionaries!

The book of origins is unique, amongst the canonical gospels, in indicating the authority which was to be given to Peter, the first leader of this community (16:17–19). Three of the terms used here come from the heritage of Hebrew Scripture. They also function within the contemporary context as sectarian markers, setting apart as distinctive the community in which they author is located—the community for whom the Gospel was written.

First, only in this gospel does Jesus declare to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The phrase evokes the rock which provides the “sure foundation” (Isa 28:16-17). This language is used by the Dead Sea

sectarians to make similar claims about their fidelity to the Law. Peter (a name meaning ‘rock’) becomes the foundation of the church, put in place by Jesus, who has the authority to make this declaration.

Second, the imagery of the “keys” which Jesus gives to Peter (Matt 16:19) also makes claims about his authority. We find this image in Jewish texts which are dated after 70 CE (2 Baruch 10:18; 3 Baruch 11:1–2; 4 Baruch 4:4); here, the loss of the keys represent the failure of various Jewish priests to perform their duties correctly and faithfully, and thus protect the temple.

With the loss of the keys (which in the texts of 2 and 4 Baruch are thrown up towards heaven, to be taken back by God), comes the loss of authority as leaders of the people. Matthew claims the keys (and presumably the authority to interpret the will of God) for his own community (16:19). Jesus, holder of the keys, hands them over to Peter. The scriptural text which underlies this is Isaiah 22:20–22, which speaks of “the key to the house of David” being given to someone worthy of possessing authority over Jerusalem.

A third set of terms describes the authority that Jesus gives to Peter as an authority to “bind and loose” (16:19; it is subsequently granted to the whole community, 18:18). The Greek terms used by Matthew are equivalent to the terms used by Josephus to denote the authority granted the Pharisees under Salome Alexandra (Jewish War 1.110–111). Once again, Jesus holds this authority, and passes it on to Peter.

These terms are thus considered to be equivalent to the Hebrew terms for “forbid and permit” which are to be found in rabbinic writings, as a way for the rabbis to of claim their authority in leadership. The terms “binding and loosing” clearly referred to the political and legal powers of those in authority.

By reporting that Jesus gives these powers to Peter, and then to the whole community, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is a rival to the authority of the Pharisees, and that the teachers in Matthew’s community possess the authority to challenge the teachings offered in the synagogues.

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The Matthean Jesus uses a number of symbols and terms that were used by the Pharisees and other Jewish groups. Matthew includes them to strengthen his claims about Jesus and to enhance the authority of his community. They are used to demonstrate the validity of the way that the people of this community, followers of The Way, disciples of the Messiah, Jesus, adherents to the details of the Law, over against the teaching about the Law provided by the Pharisees and other teachers of the time.

The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.

Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.

Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.

The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.

As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus stands in competition with the Pharisees, and draws on a range of scriptural terms and ideas to underscore the “richness” of the teachings of Jesus.

*****

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/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/03/come-to-me-take-my-yoke-i-will-give-you-rest-matt-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

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/

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

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

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/

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

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

*******

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.

*****

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/