Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sermon on the Mount, part 1

Sermon on the Mount

The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount has one central unifying principle: the prohibition of doing wrong on the justification of ‘righting’ the wrong of another. The principal application of this principle in the sermon is the teaching against civil litigation for money damages.

New Moses, new law

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. (Mat 5:1-2)
Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, and as the successor of Moses: in the same way the law of Moses came down from the mountain, Jesus gives a new law from a new mountain. This presentation suggests that Jesus has a new law for society from God. Jesus is the new Moses not only as saviour and redeemer, but also as prophet, teacher and law-giver.

The call to purity

The next part of the text, called the beatitudes, presents the new covenant law and the blessings it brings.
He said:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mat 5:3-12)
The references to the poor in spirit, and comfort for those who mourn appears to be an allusion to Isaiah
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendour. (Is 61:1-3)
Jesus started his public ministry by reading this passage and stating that it was fulfilled by him (Luke 4:18-21). Jesus also lists ‘the blind receive sight, … and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’ as signs he fulfilled this scripture when John’s disciples were sent to him (Mat 11:5). The context of the passage being alluded to are oppression and occupation by a foreign power – a context relevant to Israel’s situation at the time Jesus taught. The solution, however, to this problem is counter-intuitive: it is not the warriors and ruthless who inherit the earth but the meek. The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit and the persecuted – i.e. those without the political power – even though the word ‘kingdom’ normally refers to coercive political-legal power! To overthrow Rome and liberate Israel (and mankind) requires a rejection not only of the Roman Empire, but of any replacement empire (of the coercive political-legal power kind), and of coercion of all kinds and in all circumstances.

Salt to stop the rot in Israel

 ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Salt is a preservative, it represents purity and potency, it works by being spread out and penetrating what it touches – yet without violence. The earth refers most likely to the land of Israel. If we justify wrongs as remedies for wrongs, we lose our purity and thereby our potency, become the ones dominated and defeated and we allow society to rot.  Society is preserved not by using the force of the law against wrongs but by doing and upholding the right and good from the heart. We recognise no element of justified wrongdoing. Salt that has become impure is no longer usable as a preservative, and it can make the soil infertile by killing plants, so impure salt was used on paths where nothing grew and was thus trampled underfoot. The image of being trampled underfoot is of defeat (e.g. Dan 7:7). We cannot overcome evil with evil, for that would make us impure and ineffective, and defeat our good intentions; instead we must only overcome evil with pure good.

Pure, generous light for the Gentiles

 ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mat 5:13-16)
The light metaphor has the meaning of purity, which in this context means not doing any form of wrong as a means of ‘righting’ a wrong. The world refers most likely to the Gentiles, to which it was Israel’s mission to show a better law and a better way. The means of being light are good deeds – not the returning of evil for evil, but the doing only of good deeds.

Light also has another connotation developed later in the sermon: generosity (Mat 6:22-23). By being generous and giving enemies and adversaries more than they deserve, we demonstrate the higher and better way to them and thereby change them for the better. We should not think of generosity to wrongdoers as condoning, subsidising and encouraging their wrongdoing, rather we must think of it as positively demonstrating and encouraging them to do good also. 

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