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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

On the Mount (2)

In this series of posts I’m working my way through Matthew 5-7 attempting (however feebly) to hear the words of Christ from the same cultural and religious perspective as the Lord’s original audience.

Since I’m not William MacDonald, and since this is a blog post rather than an exhaustive commentary, I make no apology for skipping lightly over some sections of the Sermon and dwelling at length on others as they may currently interest me.

All I can really promise you is that it’ll be consecutive and that it’ll be as Jewish as I can make it, and with any luck almost as Jewish as it actually is.

Ready? Let’s go.

Crowds and Disciples

I note first that it seems to have been the crowds Jesus was teaching, not just his disciples. If we only read the first couple of verses we might reasonably assume the Sermon was a private discussion with the Twelve or a larger group of committed followers: “His disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.” Lots of teaching in the gospels is labeled like that, and it’s useful to note who is being addressed in the places the inspired writer brings it to our attention.

And who knows, perhaps the Sermon does begin as a private series of asides. But it doesn’t end that way. As the Lord’s words reach their climax in chapter 7, Matthew reports that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching.” Since chapters 5 through 7 are uninterrupted by editorial comments, there’s no way to be sure at what point the Sermon stops being private and becomes a public address. Possibly the Lord started with his disciples and as the crowd drew near and became interested, he turned to address the larger group.

Thus the original audience for much of what follows was almost surely a mixed multitude of true disciples, interested parties and mere hangers-on. But they depict for us every tribe in Israel. The Sermon was preached in the “land of Zebulun and Naphtali” to crowds from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan, which had at one time been the territory of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh.

It was a Jewish crowd.

A Message to the Nations?

But wait: wasn’t the Sermon on the Mount primarily a Gentile discourse? Wasn’t Jesus taking his message to the nations?

Some people actually make this argument, so we’d best deal with it up front. The claim arises from Matthew’s reference to “Galilee of the Gentiles” in chapter 4. Much has been made of this phrase. “Aha,” they say, “he’s addressing Gentiles. He must be talking about (or at least anticipating) the church!”

Uh, not so much. In fact, the phrase “Galilee of the nations” is borrowed from Isaiah, who wrote not only of the resettlement of Galilee with people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, but of a future day when the Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God would visit his own people there. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. And who did not receive him? Why, these very Galileans were among the worst offenders.

Anyway, Isaiah’s choice of words was apt: Galilee would continue to be heavily populated by Gentiles for much of the next 700 years, and that’s certainly how the vast majority of Isaiah’s readers would have thought of it.

The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

But as it turns out, this state of affairs was not permanent. The accumulation of archaeological evidence over the last 30 years shows that the area had again become predominantly Jewish (or Israelite, take your pick) prior to and during the years Jesus lived and taught there.

As Duane Patterson puts it:
“Understanding the ethnicity of the Galilee during the time of Jesus helps us to better understand stories of the Gospels. First of all Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee was conducted almost entirely in the towns and villages which we now know were certainly of Jewish ethnicity. When Jesus states that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel in Matthew 15:24 we now know this statement was supported by his actions. Although Jesus’ travels took him briefly into some of the surrounding gentile areas where he had minimum contact with gentiles, His message and ministry was to the Jewish people to repent and believe in the good news, the Kingdom of God has come near. The ideas such as a non-Jewish Jesus, Jesus as a social reformer, etc. which have been proposed based on a gentile Galilee can no longer be considered valid hypotheses.”
Indeed, as the Lord told a Canaanite woman, he was sent to the “children”, not to the “dogs”. We dogs, if we stick with the Lord’s metaphor, would certainly have our day; it just wasn’t at the Sermon on the Mount or, for the most part, during the rest of the Lord’s earthly ministry.

The Approved Route

All the same, we can be fairly sure there were quite a few Gentiles present in the crowd. Luke (who wrote to Gentiles) tells us that during a very similar discourse there were people in Jesus’ audience from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon. There we’re in unambiguously Gentile territory.

Still, it is important to recognize that when Jesus preached the Sermon there was no Church, no explicit teaching about the Church, and no mechanism by which Jews and Gentiles could be joined together into a spiritual Body with the Lord Jesus as our risen Head. This was all very much a mystery, for the simple reason that Jesus had not yet died, risen and been glorified.

And Judaea in the days of the Roman Empire was no secular democracy (much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of the Romans, for whom the peculiarities of Jewish worship seem to have been more of a bureaucratic headache than anything else). Adherents of other religions had no inalienable right to practice them in Israel. For a Gentile, there existed one approved route to spiritual legitimacy under the Law of Moses: proselytism, as described in Exodus 12:48 and Deuteronomy 16:11-14.

Compromised and Corrupt

No Samaritan standing at the back of the crowd for the Sermon on the Mount would have presumed to approach the God of Israel independently, as you and I may today. No, at the time Jesus taught, any who accepted the teaching of Messiah and wanted to know more would have had to come through the “official channels” of compromised and corrupt institutional Judaism. Perhaps that’s why the Lord talks so much about the religious status quo in his Sermon.

In short, this is a Jewish sermon, made to a bunch of ethnic Jews and a few Gentile would-be religious Jews, with the Law of Moses squarely in view and the historic experiences of Israelites with their God informing every aspect of what follows.

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