Sunday, October 29, 2017

On the Mount (1)

I’m working my way through the Sermon on the Mount again (Matthew 5-7). It’s a pretty pivotal piece in Christ’s teaching ministry, and one that seems to invite scrutiny on multiple levels.

Infogalactic’s entry on the Sermon lists eight different categories of views about it, the most commonly held of which is that it “contains the central tenets of Christian discipleship”. Augustine called it “a perfect standard of the Christian life”.

I struggle with that. See, the Sermon is fundamentally Jewish; and while Christianity has its roots in Judaism and would not exist without it, the two are not interchangeable.

If we miss that, we’re missing more than we might think.

The Location

First clue: The Sermon is found in its fullness only in Matthew, the gospel most explicitly tied to the Old Testament in terms of its content and spirit, and the gospel most clearly directed primarily to the conscience and hopes of true Israel. Matthew repeatedly makes reference to the details of Jesus’ life that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and it is Matthew who devotes three full chapters to the Sermon.

I’m going to assume, unlike some, that Matthew either witnessed an actual speech from beginning to end or had it reported to him and recorded it more-or-less verbatim. To believers in the inspiration of scripture, the notion that Matthew cobbled a bunch of Jesus’ sayings into an ad hoc sermon as a literary device is wholly untenable. In fact, Matthew’s account appears to me to be the original. (The best guesses by scholars at the writing dates of the synoptic gospels are so close as to make this hypothesis quite plausible.)

Other gospel writers include similar content, but decontextualized, such as the variant version of the salt anecdote found in Luke’s gospel. Luke also repurposes a fraction of the same material in what is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain, but both omits and adds so much that most commentators conclude they are two distinct sermons, and that the Lord quite possibly repeated many of the same things to different audiences.

Other Evidence

Second clue: It’s as close to a national address as Jesus ever gave. Matthew tells us, “Great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” Here he has included all three major Israelite groups: Judah, Israel and even the tribes beyond the Jordan, reminding us there was a time when the nation was one and the Law was given to all.

Third clue: There are major callouts to the Law of Moses throughout the Sermon that would have been largely lost on a Gentile audience in the first century and may still be somewhat obscure to us today. This may help explain why Mark, Luke and John (who wrote for different audiences with quite different ends in view) do not repeat more than a few select sections of the teaching found in Matthew’s Sermon.

Also, it would have been redundant.

Context Context Context

In summary, it is not at all obvious that these three chapters are primarily directed to Gentiles. The word “Christian” had yet to be coined, and the Church is nowhere in view. With respect to its immediate audience, the Sermon is a message to Jews just a few years prior to the time God stopped doing his primary work in this world through an earthly people; when genuine heartfelt observance of the Law of Moses still provided a valid means of drawing near to God. Thus, speaking of the Sermon as “the perfect standard of the Christian life” does an injustice to the context in which it was originally spoken and fails to attempt to come to grips with what it meant to its original audience.

Furthermore, as I expect to illustrate repeatedly in future posts, in many instances a “Christianized” interpretation significantly dilutes the power of the Lord’s words, which are in some places genuinely terrifying. Take, for example, the well-known line “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire”. Do you want those words applied to you with no further explanation or qualification, Christian? Really?

Okay, maybe John Piper does, but I think he’s an outlier.

The Risk

There’s always a risk that in emphasizing the essential Jewishness of the Sermon one finds oneself accused of dismissing its relevance to Christians. Hopefully that won’t be the case. Either way, I’m going to try to approach these three chapters consecutively every few posts over the next weeks or months (so long as there is interest) as much as possible from the religious and cultural perspective of those who first heard the words of Christ.

We may certainly apply many of these teachings to our Christian lives. But the first task in figuring out what they mean to us is doing our best to determine how they must have sounded in the ears of the people who first heard them.

If nothing else, it might be different.

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