Monday, November 06, 2017

On the Mount (3)

I’m working my way through Matthew 5-7 in an attempt to process the words of the Lord Jesus from some approximation of the cultural and religious perspective of his original audience.

As established in my first two posts on the subject, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that most of the ears that took in the Sermon on the Mount were Jewish ears. Any Gentiles in that crowd were either proselytes of Judaism, or on their way to becoming proselytes, or else outside the community of the faithful just listening in. In those days, if you wanted to draw near to God, or even to obtain more accurate information about him, no better means existed than studying and obeying the Law of Moses.

Other generalizations could be made about the crowd that gathered to hear the Sermon, but let’s consider those when we reach the relevant portions of the Lord’s discourse.

The First Mountain Discourse

It would be pretty hard for a devout Israelite to see a prophet go up a mountain without thinking of Moses. The association of Mount Sinai with the giving of the God’s law must have been pretty much hardwired into the Jewish psyche.

But the times and the circumstances have changed. Israel is no longer a nation of ex-slaves in the wilderness marching toward Canaan, the land of “milk and honey”, and toward the prospect of conditional blessing for obedience to God’s law, a home and property for every descendant of Jacob, and most importantly, a God who had promised to dwell among his people, protect them from their enemies, make himself known to them and make them the envy of the nations.

It’s not even “Israel” anymore really. It’s politically divided and some parts of the former nation have been adulterated by foreign intermarriage. The words “Jew” and “Hebrew” get used more than the word “Israelite”.

Nope, they’d blown their nationhood in a big way, and paid quite the price for it. Because of their persistent idolatry and disobedience, they had been expelled from their land, taken into captivity and humiliated in front of their enemies. And yet God in his sovereign grace had brought them home and allowed them to rebuild their temple and their cities, resume the sacrifices and offerings associated with the Law of Moses, and even experience a degree of political self-determination (John says the Jewish leaders had both a place and a nation they feared losing), though very much under the thumb of a succession of world empires, their current overlords being Rome.

A Shadow of Its Former Self

Religiously, Judaism is a shadow of what it was in the days of Solomon. The teachers of the Law are self-involved hypocrites, and painstaking legalists; the Temple is full of merchants; the poor are much talked-about but rarely helped; religion takes more from the average believer than it gives back; and the teaching of Law and Prophets, though available now in both Greek and Hebrew and studied interminably, is widely misinterpreted, misapplied and actively distorted, its emphasis heavily weighted toward outward performance rather than inward change, toward ritual rather than relationship with God.

In short, a mess. And a shadow. But that’s the historical context in which we encounter what are often called the Beatitudes, which establish the moral tone for everything that is about to follow.

You Say You DON’T Wanna Revolution?

Please note that there’s nothing political about either the Beatitudes or in the remainder of the Sermon. No suggestions about how to overthrow Rome. No scathing condemnation of the foreign overlords. No riling up of the crowd to tear up the Law and replace it with something new, or even to oust their failing teachers and replace them. The Sermon is often called countercultural, but we do not find the Lord encouraging Jews to mobilize, organize or rebel in either the civic or religious spheres.

Rather, we find the Lord encouraging individuals to change their way of thinking and the way they behave. Jordan Peterson’s infamous line about cleaning up your bedroom probably had its unconscious genesis in the Sermon on the Mount, where the individual Jewish heart is instructed to set its own house in order regardless of whether anyone else bothers to.

It is not “The Man” who has to fix the problem. It’s all men … and women too.

The Beatitudes

Back to the Beatitudes. Here we go:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In summary, the Lord is warning his followers to be prepared to have a hard time; in fact, to expect it and plan for it: to recognize persecution as normal, sorrow as part of life, spiritual poverty and emotional need as givens, holiness as an ongoing personal responsibility unconnected to form and ritual, and just treatment in the world as aspirational, rather than an immediate reality.


The Last Mountain Address

The most famous address to Israel associated with a mountain promised blessing for doing the right things. But this address promises poverty, sadness, humility, want, persecution and reviling for doing the right things. In fact, the more you please God, the likelier it is that you will suffer.

Try for a moment contrasting the Sermon with the Law that anticipated Canaan. Instead of immediately possessing a kingdom, they are to wait for one. Instead of milk and honey, they are to hunger and thirst. Instead of showing no mercy, they are to be merciful. Instead of waging war, they are to make peace.

Were the bulk of the Lord’s listeners overly conscious of such contrasts? I doubt it. Even godly Jews were still blinkered; fixated on the short-term restoration of their nation to its historic heights. They continued to think primarily in those terms even after the resurrection.

But some got it, and these were the men and women at whom it was really directed. In a way, the situation reminds me of the words of the risen Christ a few years later to individuals in the church at Laodicea:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
One-on-one fellowship with God is always available to those who truly seek it. Similarly, as the end of Israel’s tenure as the primary vehicle for God’s testimony in the world drew near, the Lord Jesus took the message of the kingdom not to the scribes and Pharisees of institutional Judaism, but straight to those who might hear him knocking and open the door.

So, too, he may be speaking directly to many of us today.

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