Monday, September 09, 2013

He taught them as one having authority (Matthew 5)

So, we move on to Matthew 5 and the "Sermon on the Mount" as it is called. Of course it's called that because Matthew 5:1 says that he went up on a mountain to preach it, but is this correct? The SAB points out that Luke 6 has Jesus giving this sermon on a plain. Yeah, this could be a contradiction, but I do have a couple thoughts on this. First of all, the sermon starting in Luke 6 is not exactly the same as the sermon here, and while it could be two different recollections of the same sermon (Luke's Gospel is, I believe, not purporting to be a first-hand account as the other three are) it's also possible that these are two different sermons, each of which was in a different place. Another thing to consider, although I'm not sure it quite covers the wording of Luke, is that I don't think Jesus was literally standing on top of a mountain anyway, as such a setting would afford very poor acoustics. Jesus was probably on a flat spot in a mountainous area where his audience would be standing on a slope overlooking him in a sort of natural amphitheater. At least, that's how I've always imagined it.

The SAB marks a few lines in the sermon as "good stuff", but as often is the case when it does so, I'm perplexed as to the choice. Why verses 5, 7, and 9, but not 6 and 8? I mean, coming from an atheistic point of view, I get why not 10 and 11, but what's wrong with "they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness" and "the pure in heart"? So long as we're not talking about self-righteousness (because who can stand that?) aren't righteousness and purity good things?

Should we let others see our good works? I think this is one of those things that people take too strongly in those verses in which seem to support an answer of "no". I don't think that the issue is whether our good works are seen so much as whether we were doing it to show off. For most people, our intentions are mixed, so it's subtle. Take this blog as an example: as much as I am making these posts to educate people and have a healthy dialogue with the SAB, I think I'm doing a good thing; as much as I'm doing it to show off my debating skills and seem holier-than-thou (which I'm sure I'm not 100% free of) I'm being sort of a jerk. Jesus is saying that doing the right thing matters, and why you do it matters as well.

Jesus takes a moment starting in verse 17 to say he supports the Old Testament law, and it raises some issues for the SAB. I don't think I need to say much for the charge of injustice and violence on verse 17, as that's really a question of how you view the whole of the OT, and I don't see me addressing such a big question here. What I can address, although it's pretty big too, is whether Christians have to obey the OT law. There's an important distinction to be made with most of the verses in the "yes" column on that page, and this passage as well: they're addressed to Jews living in Israel. It's always been my position that the OT laws were binding to the nation of Israel and not to gentile Christians, but I'll admit that such an assessment leaves some gray area. Jewish Christians? People living in modern Israel? I don't know, but I don't think so. The thing that I know is that whether the OT law must be followed, Jesus is saying it's important, and he's certainly not going to replace it with lawlessness.

Will the earth last forever? There are a couple things to say about this. First and simply, I think verse 18 is poetic language, and rather than implying that earth will be destroyed, Jesus is saying that the OT is something that is more durable than even the earth itself. That being said, I do think that the Bible teaches that the earth is a temporary thing, albeit an incredibly long-lived thing. I think in most of the passages where the Bible says that the earth is given "for ever" it's really saying "as long as you live", which is long enough for anyone. I think there is a more complicated theological view that the earth will last as long as time, which will itself last for a finite amount.

There are many questions on verse 20, but I think I can respond to them all with another appeal to poetic language. when Jesus says "your righteousness shall exceed..." he's not giving a formula for salvation, he's saying "Think of the most righteous person you can think of; that's not righteous enough to be saved on account of righteousness." The point is not to set the bar high, but to say that the bar is higher than you can possibly imagine.

I don't think that Jesus is saying that saying the word "fool" gives someone an immediate one-way ticket to Hell. I think what he's saying is that anger leads to violence, so people should be careful about what they say.

I have to admit that I am probably just as confused by verse 28 as the SAB is. While I think I understand it as a symbolic principle, that is, that lusting is in many ways as bad as actually committing sexual sin, taking it fully literally is confusing. (And there are people who insist that we should take it that way!) The SAB asks if this means that someone who lusts should be given the punishment of an adulterer, i.e. death. In fact, it seems to be asking whether the woman being lusted after should be killed as well, which highlights to me the real absurdity of comparing lust to adultery in completely equivalent terms: in the former case, the woman hasn't done anything, has she? I think in this matter as in much of this sermon, Jesus is utilizing hyperbole.

Case in point, in the next two verses, Jesus says that people should pluck out their eyes and cut off their hands to avoid sin. The reason I think this is hyperbolic language (and I'm far from the only one to make such a judgment) is that a person who is struggling with lust doesn't have a problem with their hands or eyes, they have a problem with their brains, and you can't pluck those out. Sure, if you have an issue with masturbation, cutting off your hands will stop it, but it's not going to stop the lust that's driving it.

Is divorce ever permissible? While the SAB is astute in noticing that Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 don't mention any exceptions, it is of course generally understood that when there has been adultery, the wronged party has divorce as an option. (Yes, as the SAB points out, the case of an unfaithful wife is the only one mentioned and not the gender reverse, but most modern churches interpret these passages with gender neutrality.) Deuteronomy 24:1-2 refers to adultery, in my opinion, and 1Corinthians 7:15, although odd, makes some sense, as it would be unfair to make someone stay married to someone who had abandoned them.

The matter of whether one should ever make an oath is also hyperbole, and I covered it in the second-to-last paragraph of this entry. Basically Jesus is saying it's better to just be an honest person than someone who has to make a special oath in order to be believed.

It may be that the hyperbole in verses 39-41 may have some cultural significance. I've heard it said that in respect to verse 41, there was a custom in the Roman empire that a Roman soldier could compel a person to carry their pack for them for up to a mile. Jesus is saying here in many ways that even people you don't like (such as members of an occupying foreign army) are opportunities to show kindness, and you should love your enemy. Clearly the Bible is full of people not loving their enemies, but I don't think that renders the principle void. (The theological question of how God should treat His enemies is a bigger issue I'm not going to try to tackle here.)

So to finish up this chapter, which has already gone on far too long, I'm going to dismiss verse 45 as being poetic as well, and the point thereof being that people of all levels of righteousness have to live in the same world, and not to categorize what level of righteousness any particular person might have. As for the question raised by the SAB on verse 48...maybe there's something there, but I'm not sure what to say at this point. As it comes up in the next chapter, maybe I'll pick it up there.

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