Sunday, December 17, 2017

On the Mount (9)

The website Judaism 101 lists every one of the 613 Mitzvot, or commandments of the Law traditionally recognized by the rabbis from Genesis through Deuteronomy. If you’re planning on trying to keep them all (an undertaking I don’t recommend), it’s quite a daunting read.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is first baptized by John, then tempted in the wilderness by the devil. On the heels of successfully frustrating Satan, the Lord begins his ministry formally with the declaration “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and follows it with the “good news of the kingdom” preached in the synagogues and streets of Galilean towns and villages and accompanied everywhere by miraculous works that authenticate his message.

It is not a stretch to suggest that healing the sick and driving out demons would have the effect of stirring up tremendous interest in the whole “kingdom of heaven” concept. The question of how one might get a piece of this coming kingdom must have been on the minds of nearly everyone who heard the Lord Jesus.

If you were to ask these folks to take a stab at guessing how they might obtain entrance, there are good reasons to suspect the most common response would have been something to do with obedience to the Law.

Right. Real-life Judaism 101. Of course.

Except it really wasn’t.

At the Gateway to the Kingdom

So now here we are at the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord is about to consider precisely that question: How exactly do you get into the kingdom of heaven?

Oh, he’s hinted at it in the Beatitudes already. The kingdom belongs to the “poor in spirit” and to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. That’s not exactly an encouraging start — unless you’re one of the folks already suffering. It brings to mind obvious questions: “Um … how long and how badly do I have to suffer, Lord?” and “Er … when you say ‘poor in spirit’, how much is that likely to hurt?” and maybe “Uh … how about I tithe a few percent more instead?”

But the Lord’s answer is actually worse than that. It’s a blunt, “You can’t”. Not even with a Sinai-sized dose of pain and suffering and the perpetual inculcation of the poorest of poor spirits.

You Will Never Enter

To those who come to the gateway of the kingdom with obedience to the Law of Moses as their ticket, the answer is that the price of admission to the kingdom is well beyond their means:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Never? Really? Are God’s legal standards so impossibly high?

It would seem an insoluble problem to any Israelite paying attention. The Lord is stacking moral challenge upon practical challenge upon intellectual challenge.

Of Knowing and Keeping

Knowing the Law would seem a prerequisite for keeping the Law. And the Lord has just declared that everything down to the diacritical points on the very words of the Law is fully in force and valid (“not an iota, not a dot”). He does not diminish the force of the Law and the condemnation it brings with it in the slightest. Further, he has declared that the Law must be observed stringently and comprehensively (“whoever relaxes one of the least of these”). Finally, he has observed that the level of scrupulousness required for kingdom access is greater than that of the people’s own religious teachers (“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”).

At least the scribes and Pharisees knew where to find the 613 Mitzvot in their libraries. Some of the elders might even have had them memorized. But that could not be said about most of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount. This was many centuries before the invention of the printing press; comprehensive knowledge of the Law was far from universal. Certainly the Ten Commandments would have been common knowledge, as would the more fussily-preferred recent edicts of the teachers of the Law and the more common provisions of the ceremonial Law. But can we really imagine that average Jewish fishermen, farmers, tax collectors, sinners and street beggars would ever have been able to keep all those commandments straight in their heads, much less obey them to a standard higher than their own religious teachers?

Get serious. I encourage anyone seriously entertaining the thought to click on the link in the first paragraph and imagine retaining all that, let alone performing it with consistency. The joke on the rich young ruler is that he actually believed he was in the ballpark: “All these I have kept from my youth.” What does the Lord do? He instantly disabuses him of that notion.

The Law AND the Prophets

How difficult might it be to fulfill the Law then? Well, we’re not yet taking into account the various conflicting schools of rabbinical thought and the bizarre liberal traditions that voided the Law and subverted its intent. “The Law” was not some easily defined thing that everyone understood consistently, as we will see when the Lord begins his series of “You have heard it said that …” statements.

It’s even worse than that. The Law obligates the people of Israel to obey the commands of a true prophet sent by God. The devout Jew was then bound not just by the Law but by the scathing invective of the prophets. Further, in acknowledging the Lord Jesus as a legitimate prophet, his audience were in effect binding themselves by every word of the higher spiritual standard shortly to be set by the Sermon on the Mount. That’s what the Law demands.

Thus the statement “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” confronted the average devout Jew with the utter bankruptcy of his position before God under the conditions of the covenant established on Sinai. If the Law and Prophets were ever to be fulfilled, someone else was going to have to fulfill them.

And the Lord had plainly stated right at the outset that person was him.

Ringing a Bell

Now, if we’ve read the epistles this will all ring a rather large bell. The Law exists, after all, to prove to men and women how perilously short of God’s standard they fall, not to inspire them to attempt the impossible climb up to it. The apostle Paul tells the Romans:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
It was never the intended function of the Mitzvot to perfect the nation of Israel or to grant its citizens entrance to the kingdom on the basis of performance.

The key to understanding the good news of the kingdom is in the Lord’s first sentence of this section of the Sermon. It is not “I have come that YOU might learn how to obey the Mitzvot and so fulfill the Law and the Prophets.” If that were the case, the kingdom of heaven would have a population of precisely zero. But that’s not what the Lord says. He says that HE has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. There is indeed available to all a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, but entrance into the kingdom of heaven is available by trusting in the One who would go on to perfectly fulfill the Law, not at all by the efforts of man.

Everyone Who Believes is Freed from Everything

As Paul told his fellow Jews in Pisidian Antioch:
“Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”
Now, it is obvious that righteousness by faith is not explicitly taught in the Sermon, nor was it likely inferred by most of Jesus’ audience. But it could not possibly be. The Lord’s offer of the kingdom had yet to be rejected by the religious rulers of his nation. Until that happened, the Lord Jesus could only speak obliquely of what God had planned both for true Israelites and for those from the nations who would eventually be called to herald the gospel of the kingdom.

In that sense, provided we don’t approach the Sermon legalistically and impose its lofty standard on ourselves and others as a condition of salvation or a performance metric for Christian discipleship, believers today may well be in a better position to understand it than the nation to whom it was addressed.

No comments :

Post a Comment