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).
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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)