The Man Born Blind

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 9:1-41

It’s that moment when you move from shadows to sunlight. That’s how it was for me. I was born blind. I had spent a lifetime in darkness. I didn’t even know what “light” looked like. Suddenly my brain was flooded with brightness.

At first I was dizzy. My eyes hurt. I was confused. I couldn’t yet distinguish distances or recognize faces. I staggered and stumbled.

But for the first time in my life, I could see!

Now those around me had trouble seeing clearly. For my whole life, I had been nothing but a helpless beggar. Many people had never even seen me standing up! Now I was walking—no stick, no beggar’s bowl, and no shame.

As my confusion cleared, the questions around me increased.

One person asked, “Isn’t this that blind beggar boy who used to sit near the Pool of Siloam? I stepped right over him many times!”

Another disagreed. “No, that can’t be him! That beggar has been blind from the day he was born! This fellow obviously can see. I must say, however, that the physical resemblance is striking.”

Back and forth they debated. Yes, he is! No, he’s not!

All the while I tried to get them to listen to me. “The man called Jesus made some mud. He spread it on my eyes. Then he told me to wash off the mud in the Pool of Siloam. I went and washed and received my sight.”

The moment I mentioned Jesus, I had their full attention. “Where is he?” they demanded. I had no idea. I used to be blind, remember?

Rough hands grabbed me and hauled me away. Suddenly I felt eight years old again. Cruel boys in our village grabbed me one day. They spun me around. Then they hit me. “Who hit you?” they demanded. If I guessed right, they would let me go. If not, they hit me again. It was a game the bullies played many times.

I got pretty good at guessing.

Now I was standing in front of a group of serious-looking men. “You were blind,” one of them barked. “How is it that now you can see?”

I told the story again—Jesus, mud, washing, sight. Why couldn’t they just believe me?

The men began to argue among themselves. “It’s the Sabbath!” said some. “This Jesus can’t be from God. He does nothing but break the rules!”

Others were not convinced. “A blind man now sees,” they said. How can such a thing happen without God’s help?” They debated for quite a while. I just pretended to be invisible as I had done with the bullies of my younger days.

As they continued to argue, I drifted back to synagogue school in my village. I remembered learning the words of Isaiah. That great prophet described a suffering servant sent from God. God said to the servant, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind…”

I loved that prophetic promise. When I was a boy, I prayed every night for that suffering servant to come and to heal me. As I got older, I gave up on such prayers. It seemed that they did no good. But now I could see! Might this Jesus be the suffering servant Isaiah promised?

I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t even hear the question. “You there!” one of them shouted. “What do you say about him? After all, it was your eyes he opened!”

I spoke before I thought. “He is a prophet!” I declared. 

That was clearly not the right answer.

Because that was the wrong answer, the argument returned to my identity. Was I really that guy formerly known as the poor, blind beggar? They couldn’t get that settled. That’s when they found my parents and dragged them into the mess.

Truth be told, I didn’t have much connection with my folks. To them, I was an embarrassment. I was a sign of their failure. I was a source of deep shame. People were always whispering to each other. “What did those people do to deserve such punishment?” they would ask each other. “It must be some terrible secret they are hiding.

This is what everyone believed. Even Jesus’ disciples asked the question. “Rabbi,” I heard them say, “Who sinned—this man or his parents—that he was born blind?” I got ready for another load of theological garbage, another tirade about how terrible my family must have been.

Jesus, however, said something else. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” I know he said more. But at that moment I didn’t catch the rest of it. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and overcome with astonishment. This Jesus would not be my judge. His business was much bigger and better.

Mom and Dad, of course, didn’t hear Jesus. So they decided to play it safe. The word was out that supporting Jesus was a bad idea. Saying good things about him would get them nothing but grief. In fairness to them, they had dealt with this stuff my whole life. So they slid the problem back to me.

“Yes, this is our son,” they admitted. “And he used to be blind.”

He used to be blind. They said those words with almost no emotion. No joy. No celebration. No gratitude. They were just terrified. “We have no idea how this happened,” they whispered. “He’s a grown man. He can speak for himself. Ask him!”

Thanks, Mom and Dad. I was on my own again. They disappeared into the crowd.

“Give the credit to God!” the men demanded. “We know this Jesus is a sinner.”

I was so sick and tired of being bullied. A lifetime of rage and resentment ran away with my good sense. “Play your religious games with someone else!” I shouted. “What I know is very simple. I was blind. Now I see.”

I should have stopped there. But the years of abuse and bullying had equipped me with a smart mouth.

“After all,” I prodded, “why are you so interested? Do you want to become Jesus followers too?” The words were out before I could stop. Things went downhill fast from there. 

“How can you be so blind?” I finally shouted. “If Jesus weren’t from God, I’d still be blind, begging and broken. Do I look blind, begging and broken to you?” I had to run for my life after that one.

I hid in the shadows on the far side of the Temple. That’s where Jesus found me. “You know the promises of God’s healing,” he said. I nodded. “You know that God’s healing is a sign of God’s kingdom among us.” I nodded again. “Do you trust,” he asked, “in the Son of Man?”

I had spent years in the dark, waiting for God’s light to shine in my eyes and in my heart. “Who is this Son of Man?” I asked. “If he’s the one who gave me my sight, I will follow him anywhere.”

Jesus smiled. “You’re looking at him.” I fell dizzy back against the stone wall. All my hopes came rushing into that moment. This was about more than my eyes. This was about light for the whole world. “Lord, I trust you,” I said. I fell on my face at his feet.

By this time, some of the men had caught up to us. They overheard the conversation. Jesus described them as blind sinners. They made him pay for that in the end.

Later, they arrested him on charges of treason and blasphemy. He was sentenced to torture and death. Some of them blindfolded him as they taunted him. He was blind as I had been. And they played a cruel game. They hit him over and over. Each time they hit him, they said, “Prophesy! Tell us who hit you!”

When I heard that part of the story, I wept out loud. I remembered what that was like for me. Jesus was bullied and tortured just like me. His accusers were blinded by their fear and hatred. They saw him as an object of ridicule and rage. They were not unable to see. Instead they were unwilling to see.

And no amount of spit and mud can fix that sort of blindness.

The darkness, however, was not the last word. They killed him and buried him in a lightless tomb. They crucified him and wrapped him in a shroud of darkness. They drove him out of this world and on to a Roman cross.

But now I remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. “As long as I am in the world,” he told them, “I am the light of the world.” The darkness could not overwhelm him. Death could not hold him. Jesus is in the world now and forever. He is the light of the world. And he is the light of my life.

Now I tell my story as often as I can. One of the members of our little church even made a song about it. “Sleeper, awake” she sang, “Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” It is my joy and my honor to walk in the light of the Lord every day. My prayer is that Jesus will continue to shine through me today and always.

Thank you for listening. And thank you for being willing to see.

Message for March 12, 2023

Going Platinum

Matthew 7:1-14

Matthew seven, verse one, should read something like this. “Don’t keep on condemning, so that you won’t keep on being condemned.” Condemning is more than judging. When I condemn someone, I judge them negatively. I declare them worthless and disposable.

Don’t keep on condemning others. Okay, Jesus – got it. The result, it seems, is that I will no longer be condemned. But, condemned by whom? God? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think Jesus surfaces a deep reality about human life.

The degree to which we condemn others is a measure of how much we condemn ourselves. Jesus says this in Matthew seven, verse two. We will be condemned, Jesus says, according to our very own standards. The metric I apply to others will be the precise metric applied to me.

Is God doing all this measuring and condemning? I don’t think so. That would contradict everything so far in the Sermon on the Mount. No, God isn’t the one who is judging me. I’m the one who is judging me.

And I rarely measure up to my own standards.

The harder I am on myself, the harder I am on others. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Hurt people hurt people. It’s a pretty reliable psychological rule of thumb. In Twelve-step groups, that rule often goes like this. If you spot it, you got it. What I judge most harshly in others is typically the thing I hate most in myself.

I feel better condemning the flaws, foibles, and faults of others than looking at myself. Jesus captures this in his “speck and log” metaphor. It’s more fun to squint at the speck in your eye. That distracts me from my own stuff. I may not be worth much according to my own standards. But at least I can pretend to be better than you.

“Pretending” is a key word in our text. I can’t BE better than you. I can only ACT like I am. That’s play-acting. So, I’m one of those “hypocrites” Jesus calls out in verse five.

In the ancient world, a “hypocrite” was a stage actor. That’s what we do when we judge ourselves better than others. We play a part. We perform a role. We pretend to be something we’re not.

All the time, we hide the truth about ourselves – and from ourselves. Voices inside me shout it constantly. You’re a fraud! You’re an imposter! You’re worthless! If others really knew you, no one would love you!

Is it any wonder we’re so hard on other people? We’ll do almost anything to drown out those voices for a while.

I think Jesus reminds us of another rule of human existence. What you feed is what will grow. The more time and energy we give to those judging voices, the louder they become.

So, Jesus says, stop feeding them. Stop handing your holy self to the dogs of despair. Stop throwing the pearls of your humanity to the pigs of hatred. If you keep feeding them, those voices will eat you alive. At some point, only the voices will remain.

Stop focusing on your flaws, Jesus says. Start trusting in God’s goodness, grace, and generosity. Ask, search, knock! God longs to give, reveal, and respond. This is God’s character. This is God’s heart. This is God’s desire – not to condemn, but to love.

“That can’t be right!” the voices shout. If God really knew me, God would discard me without a second thought. So, if God loves me, God must be a blind fool.

No, in fact, God is not a blind fool. I had a seminary professor who began every class with the same words. “Beloved in Christ,” he said with a half-smile, “God knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway!”

That’s the good news Jesus always brings. Paul says it in Romans five. Here we are – weak, ungodly, enemies of God and all that is good. “But God proves God’s love for us,” Paul writes in verse eight, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Say that to yourself ten times a day this week. Then notice how the other voices fade to a whisper.

This is God’s “judgment” on you and me. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” we read in John 3:16. Too often, however, we don’t read verse seventeen. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway!

Now we can have a fuller understanding of Matthew seven, verse twelve. It’s one of several places where Jesus offers “the Golden Rule.” People usually pull this verse out of its context. It shows up on hallway plaques and bumper stickers. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says, “for this is the law and the prophets.

Let’s put that verse back into Matthew seven for a bit. Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule really becomes “the Platinum Rule.” In everything, do to others as Jesus has done to you. This is really the Law and the Prophets. This rule is the “narrow gate” Jesus describes in verse thirteen. This is the difficult road that leads to life.

Few enter that gate and travel that road because we’re so used to condemning ourselves and others. Condemning ourselves and others is the road to destruction. Doing to others as Jesus does for us is the road to life – life now and life forever. Ask for directions. Seek the path. Knock on the gate. God will answer with goodness, grace, and generosity.

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

It should be clear by now in the Sermon on the Mount that this loving always means doing. Do to others as Jesus has done to you. One thing may not be so clear. All the “you’s” in our text are plural. Jesus isn’t talking just to you as an individual. Jesus is talking to us as a community of disciples. The “you’s” here are “you-all’s.”

As a society, we have told many stories that describe others as less than human. We have told many stories that describe others as unworthy of our love. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, we described Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages.” We used that story to feel good about exterminating ninety-five percent of them from this continent.

Some Christians used Old Testament stories to describe Africans as subhuman beasts. These stories declared that Black people were only good for manual labor and the benefit of white people. These stories allowed us to kidnap thirteen million black people from Africa.

For two centuries, we have told stories that blame poor people for their own poverty. We have said we are willing to help the “worthy poor.” Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find any. These stories have allowed us to shift the blame away from our own desires to have more for ourselves.

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

And loving them anyway means resisting and rejecting the stories that tell us they don’t deserve our love.

In everything, do to others as Jesus has done to you. This is really the Law and the Prophets. How will the Platinum Rule impact your life this week?

Let’s pray…

The Samaritan Woman, Lent 3

As I sit here in a Roman prison, I think about my life. The guards tell me that they will execute me by throwing me to the bottom of a well. That seems appropriate. There was a well at the beginning of my story too.

My mother’s favorite Bible verse came from the book of Proverbs. If my mother said it once, she said it a hundred times. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” She said it every time someone told me I was cute or pretty or attractive. Mother always said that she was afraid for me. She was afraid that men would take advantage of me. She was afraid that I would be proud of my beauty.

Sometimes I thought Mother was jealous. She had never been very pretty. Mostly, though, I was just angry. And it didn’t take long for me to show her just how powerful a woman’s beauty could be.

Twenty years, five husbands and a lover later, I was walking down the road toward Jacob’s well. The well was about a half mile from our little village of Sychar. I had a six gallon water jar on my head. I was on the lookout for anyone at the well. I preferred to go alone.

No, that’s not really true. I was alone because no other women would go with me. Decent women went in groups to the well in the early morning or early evening. I had no friends, and my family was ashamed to be seen with me in public. People thought I was guilty of adultery…or worse.

As I got closer to the well, I saw a man sitting there. “Great!” I thought to myself. “Will I get abused or insulted?” Those were my options.

“Give me something to drink!” he said. Typical man—expecting some woman to wait on him hand and foot. Then I realized he was a Galilean Jew. This could be really bad. Jews treated us Samaritans as traitors, as illegitimate children of Abraham, and as unclean. Usually the Jews passing this way just ignored us. But this time was different.

So I asked him. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The Pharisees had a rule about Samaritan women. They said we were perpetually impure—from the cradle to the grave. I assumed that he would berate me or even beat me because I didn’t show enough respect. But what he said next was just confusing.

“If you knew what is really happening here,” he said with a smile, “you would be the one asking me for a drink. And I would give you the water that never runs out.” The water in Jacob’s well never rises to the top. We have to reach down eight feet or more to get to the water. That man had neither bucket nor rope. I figured he was just trying to hustle me for a good time.

I played along for the moment. “Sir, give me this water,” I purred, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” I called his bluff. And I waited for the rest of his come-on.

His next words threw me completely off balance. “Go, call your husband and come back.” Without even thinking, I shot back. “I have no husband.” I hung my head. The truth was out. I was completely alone and vulnerable. I just hoped this would be over quickly and that he wouldn’t kill me in the process.

“You are right,” he said quietly. “I know you’ve had five husbands. And you aren’t married to your current man. You have told me the truth about yourself. You are to be commended for that.”

How could he know this? People in the village knew all the dark details of my life. But why would some Jewish stranger know my story? Had he been here all morning? Had the other women gossiped about me as they came to fill their jars? For a moment I felt angry. Then I had another thought.

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. My people know about prophets. We worship the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. We know that the Messiah is coming. And when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” By this time I had figured out who my questioner was. He was Jesus of Nazareth, that Galilean prophet and miracle worker who came after John the Baptist. No wonder that he knew my story!

When I said the word “Messiah,” he slowly stood up. I was afraid I had said something offensive. Instead, he said to me, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Now I had to sit down on the wall of the well. I felt a little dizzy. I was damaged goods. I was a scarlet woman. I had left a trail of destruction in my life. I was shrouded in shame and lost in loneliness. I spent my days trying to escape my past, seeking to deny my story.

And the Messiah, the Savior of the World chose to reveal himself to…me. To me! 

At that moment his disciples came back from the village. They had gone to the local market for some food. I could see the shocked disapproval on their faces. They knew what my mother knew. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” But they didn’t know that Jesus called me to be one who worships God in spirit and in truth.

In that conversation, Jesus changed me from an outsider to an insider. He transformed me from seducer to disciple. Jesus converted me from foe to family member. Jesus moved me from menace to missionary. 

Did you notice something? I didn’t think about this until later. Jesus called me “Woman.” This is neither a label nor an insult. Later, Jesus used the same title to address his mother from the cross! He made me part of his family. Me!

I didn’t wait for the disciples to say anything. I left my water jar behind at the well. I knew I was heading back home. I had to go to the village square to share the news. I usually avoided public places. The children shouted insults. The women hid their eyes in disgust. The men made lewd suggestions. Sometimes they threw garbage or even rocks at me.

But not on this day!

The jeering and insults started. “Wait,” I shouted. “Listen to me!” I don’t think they were interested in what I had to say. But they were shocked that I spoke out loud in public. “I just talked to Jesus of Nazareth. And he told me my whole story—everything I had ever done. He knew all the darkness and despair. He knew all the pain and shame. He knew all the fraud and failure. And it didn’t make any difference at all!”

“You mean that Jew didn’t care about another broken-down Samaritan woman?” one of the men shouted. “What’s the news in that?”

“No,” I said quietly. “I mean, he knew it all and loved me anyway. And somehow, that made all the difference. Look at me! My story hasn’t changed, but somehow I have been changed. Only the Messiah could do that! I believe he is the Savior of the World!”

Suddenly everyone was talking at the same time. “She’s finally lost it,” said one. “Come on,” said another, “what really happened there at the well?” Others were not so skeptical. “It’s easy enough to go and find out,” said one of my neighbors. “He’s still sitting there at the well eating lunch. If he talked to her, this Jesus will surely talk to us. Let’s go find out what he has to say about this.”

So they went to the well and listened to the Messiah. I went as well. He talked to them about their stories. He helped them to see how God’s kingdom was coming. And he made it clear that the kingdom was coming for all people—for Jews and Samaritans alike.

They were so impressed that they invited him to stay with us in the village. Jesus of Nazareth was the first Jew to sleep in our village in a hundred and fifty years! He continued to talk and teach. And soon, the others didn’t need to rely on my story. “We have heard for ourselves,” they told me, “and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World.”

Things changed for me. Jesus helped me to own my story—all of it. No longer do I feel like a gold ring in a pig’s snout. I moved out on my own and got my life together. I was in Jerusalem when they crucified our Lord. I thought for a few days that my world had ended. But then came Easter. And my life changed one more time.

I was baptized along with many of the other disciples. I was given the name, “Photina.” The name means, “Daughter of Light.” That’s when my real story began. I traveled to Turkey and to Carthage as a Christian missionary. I was honored to tell my story—the whole story—again and again. Then I was arrested by the Romans. 

Here I sit, waiting my turn to die for Jesus. Soon my real story will begin.

First Person Sermon: Nicodemus

The Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just lifting that load is enough to make my back ache. But I had to carry that bundle over a mile, in the dark, and on my own. I have not done that much physical work in many a year. But I certainly couldn’t have any of my servants carry it for me. 

All of it had to be done in secret and under the cover of darkness. After all, I certainly don’t want to end up like him…

I am Nicodemus. I am a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the chief legal body in Judea. For that reason, I am known as a ruler of the Jews. I have a reputation for being one of the chief teachers of our faith here in Jerusalem. I am quite certain now that I don’t deserve that reputation. 

Let me tell you why.

We have just laid Jesus’ body to rest. I am sure you have heard all about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of us had great hopes for him. My good friend, Joseph of Arimathea, had even become one of his disciples. Of course, Joseph could not be open about his allegiance. That might have been fatal for Joseph.

So Joseph went to the procurator, Pilate, in the middle of the night. He asked for Jesus’ body so that it would not hang on that cross to be defiled by the wild animals. Pilate agreed. My part in this little plot was to bring the linen cloths and the spices to prepare and preserve the body. Joseph has a family tomb in a secluded garden. No one saw us. We are safe.

Safe. That always seems to be my path.

My name in Greek means “conqueror of the people.” That sounds impressive, does it not? Conqueror of the people! Please do not be impressed. At most, I have conquered a difficult piece of Hebrew or a large jar of wine. My conquests extend no farther.

We buried Jesus in the dark. That is how I came to him the first time as well—under the cover of darkness and secrecy. 

It was just before Passover in Jerusalem. We were having our annual Sanhedrin conference. We debated the usual issues—taxes, purity laws, too many Gentiles in Jerusalem, and the upkeep of the Temple. As we discussed the Temple, a messenger burst into our session.

“Some lunatic is causing a riot in the Temple courtyard! He made a whip of cords and started beating the merchants and moneychangers. Tables are thrown all over. Money is scattered in every corner. The livestock is running wild in the streets. And he keeps shouting, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place!’”

 We all ran into the courtyard and saw him—Jesus of Nazareth. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of this?” the chief priest screamed. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus raised his chin in defiance. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

“Are you mad?” the chief priest laughed. “It has taken Herod forty-six years to build the Temple, and it is not finished yet. How will you do the job in three days!” The Sanhedrin members were sure Jesus was a crazy fool. We went back to our debating.

His words, however, would not leave me. For some reason, I needed to know more. Many in the crowd shared that view and encouraged me to seek him out. I was unwilling to risk a public conversation. So I found out where he was staying. We met under the cover of darkness—secret, and safe.

I am a Pharisee. No matter what you might think, I was not opposed to Jesus. I want God’s kingdom to come as much as anyone. I heard about Jesus’ power and his teaching. Perhaps there was something to it all. I had to know. “Teacher,” I said with the greatest respect, “we know you have come from God. After all, no one can do these signs as you have apart from God’s presence.”

I treated Jesus with honor. In return, I received a challenge. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word Jesus used was very complicated. Did he mean “born from above” or “born again” or “born anew”? It could have been any of those meanings. I didn’t understand him at all.

“How can these things be?” I asked. Jesus was blunt. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I did not hear many of his words after that. I now know what he did. He used mysterious phrases because he didn’t know me. And he did not know my motives. For all Jesus knew, I might have come to trap him into an arrest. He evaded precisely such traps many times in his life.

What hurt the most was how right he was about me. “‘Very truly, I tell you,’ he said to me, ‘we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.’”

That was it. I did understand, but I did not like what I heard. Jesus talked about a whole new way of living in God’s kingdom. For centuries we had been trying to find our way to God. Now Jesus said that God was coming to us. And God was coming to us through him!

I came to Jesus in the darkness. And that was the problem. I did not hear many of his words, but these words have stuck with me. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I was safe in the dark. I was afraid to come into the light. I was afraid to change my mind.

After that, I left. But I was not the same.

Some months later, Jesus came to Jerusalem again. It was the Festival of Booths, the time when we Jews celebrate the gift of God’s law to Moses. In the middle of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the Temple. The crowd debated whether he was from God or not. He was persuading large numbers of people that he was right.

I was becoming more and more convinced.

The Sanhedrin debated the issue briefly. Then a vote was taken. The council sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus for blasphemy. The guards, however, took some time to listen to Jesus. They hesitated. They returned to the authorities empty-handed. 

“Why did you not arrest him?” the authorities demanded. 

“Never has anyone spoken like this!” the officers of the guard replied. The authorities scoffed. They described the crowd as ignorant of the law and cursed by God. I was not ready to take a public stand on Jesus. But I could not let this terrible process continue. 

I stood up before the council and raised a point of order. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” I asked. 

The president of the council responded with an insult. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” he sneered. “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 

I was publicly humiliated. But at least I bought Jesus some time. He was gone before they could send the guards back to the temple.

This last time, however, he did not escape. He came once again for the Passover. This time the chief priests had an inside contact. They bought off one of his disciples. They arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

The trial was quick—merely a formality. I could have spoken in his defense, but it would have made no difference. All that would have happened is that I would have ended up dead alongside him. And courage is not my strong suit, remember?

The Romans crucified him at the Place of the Skull. He was one more failed messiah, humiliated and broken by the might of the Roman eagle.

Joseph decided that Jesus had endured enough. That is when he asked to be allowed to bury the body. I may be short on courage, but I have plenty of money. So I bought the spices and the sheets. If only a strong backbone could be so easily purchased.

I sought him out in the dark. But I know that I cannot remain in that darkness. I remember now some of his words from that first encounter. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” he said, and he looked closely at me, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

I have lived in the darkness long enough. Now he is buried with respect and honor. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. On the third, I will go to the Sanhedrin speak the truth that I have heard from him. That will be the first day of the week. 

Who knows what might happen after sunrise that day!

Text Study for Matthew 7:1-12 (Part Three)

Rules of Three

I appreciate Love Sechrest’s description of the social situation of the Matthean communities. She adds immensely to our understanding and interpretation of the Matthean account overall. However, I’m not convinced that she accounts for the rhetorical strategy and structure of Matthew 7. I think McEleney offers a more convincing analysis for our interpretation.

I think we see in Matthew 7 a use of the “rule of three” strategy and structure. If I take McEleny’s analysis of Matthew 7:1-6 and apply it to the balance of the chapter, I think something interesting pops out of the text. I want to divide up the text like this:

Vv. 1-5 “Don’t judge”                          V. 6 Ironic proverb – “Judge Gentiles and Romans”

Vv. 7-12 “Be generous like God”         Vv. 13-14 Ironic proverb – “God’s way is stingy”

Vv. 15-20 “Check the fruit”                  Vv. 21-23 Actual proverb – “Check the fruit”

McEleney has made the case for the structure and intent of the first paragraph. In the second paragraph we get an extensive description of Gods inclusive generosity. “Everyone” who asks, seeks, and knocks receives, finds, and encounters an open door. Even we hard-hearted, stingy, tribal humans know how to be generous to our children. That generosity is a pale imitation of God’s generosity.

Therefore, we read in verse twelve, we are to imitate God’s generosity in our dealings with others. In that way we fulfill the Law and the Prophets – precisely the task Jesus lays out for himself earlier in the Sermon on the Mount.

Immediately following that expansive vision of God’s generosity, we hear that God’s gate is narrow, and God’s road is hard. The word for “narrow” can also mean stingy and confining. This sounds nothing like the previous paragraph. Instead, it sounds much more like a quote from those who also warned against willy-nilly tossing God’s good stuff in front of dogs and pigs.

I would argue that this is a second example of an ironic proverb circulating in or around the Matthean communities. The second proverb occupies a position parallel to the first one and can be interpreted to have the same tone and intention.

I can imagine the performer turning in the same direction with this proverb as the performer turned with the first one. And now, the listeners would catch on to the strategy and structure. We all know the “rule of three” structure of many jokes. The listeners would catch the rhetorical intention immediately.

If this is a “rule of three” stretch of text, then the third element is often used to contrast the first two. Sometimes it is also used to critique the first two in that contrast. Those who have urged judging outsiders and being stingy with God’s stuff are, in this analysis, also those who have said “Lord, Lord,” but have not done the will of Jesus’ heavenly Father.

Therefore, judging outsiders and hoarding God’s good stuff for the insiders are not ways to bear good fruit. This is the content of a “real proverb” from Jesus, as opposed to those false proverbs circulating in the communities. Those who engage in such behavior are among the trees to be cut down and thrown into the fire. They are the ones to whom Jesus will say, “I never knew you.” They may offer pious protests as they engage in these behaviors, but they are false prophets.

As is so often the case, this interpretation is the precise opposite of what most commentators offer regarding this text. The ironic proverbs are taken as actual warnings instead of examples of what not to do. This interpretation is then taken up into preaching and leads listeners to worry about being too liberal in including the outsiders and sharing the good things of God.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, my way into this interpretation comes from a performance analysis of the text. How do I imagine the first performers played these lines for the Matthean communities? Did they play verses six and twelve to thirteen “straight”? Or did they change their tone, posture, gaze, and facial expressions to capture the irony of these lines.

Obviously, I am persuaded they did the latter. As a result, I find this final section of the Sermon on the Mount far more compelling and consistent. It’s not some catch-all for the preacher rushing to the big finish. Instead, this is a clever way to get to the real “applications” of the Sermon for the Matthean communities.

If I extend Sechrest’s analysis to verses seven to fourteen, the “narrow gate” imagery serves as a corrective to an incautious and imprudent inclusion of outsiders and sharing with them the good things of God. I find that balancing strategy difficult to reconcile with the “golden rule” in verse twelve which urges us to be as generous as God in everything we do.

In addition, it’s difficult to incorporate verses twenty-one to twenty-three into that schema. It may be that, in Sechrest’s analysis, the Matthean Jesus is describing what happens when the outsiders are brought in too quickly. But that seems to me to be a strained analysis.

Verses twenty-one to twenty-three sounds much more like insiders who rely on the cheap grace of performative piety rather than on the hard work of loving inclusion. That fits much better with the critique of the “hypocrites” in Matthew six.

I find very helpful Sechrest’s description of the threefold pressures applied to the Matthean communities: “active Gentile persecution in Antioch, hostility from Pharisees in the aftermath of the Jewish War, and internal Christian movement pressure to accept local Jesus-believing Gentiles” (page 88).

And I find it credible that at least some in the community would advocate a more careful guarding of the boundaries of the communities. This cautious approach would reduce the pressure from Pharisee communities to engage in more acceptable Torah practice. That would allow the Matthean communities to present, along with the Pharisee communities, a more united front to stand against the Gentile persecution.

I don’t believe, however, that this is the position advocated by the Matthean Jesus, either in Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, or in the gospel account as a whole. Instead, I think the Matthean author holds up that cautious position to ironic scrutiny in chapter seven and elsewhere in the gospel account and finds that position lacking.

I don’t think the Matthean author is dealing with pressure to incorporate local, Jesus-believing Gentiles. I think the Matthean author is advocating for precisely that response to the local situation. And I think that Matthew 7 provides strong rhetorical and structural evidence for this line of thinking.

What is the role of the final parable as the conclusion of Matthew 7 and of the whole sermon? I would imagine that the performer turns to the listeners at this point and completely shatters the theatrical “fourth wall.”

The wise and faithful response to the sermon is not going to mitigate the struggles of the Matthean communities. The rain will fall. The water will rise. The winds will blow and beat on the “house.” I can imagine the impact of this imagery on communities that met regularly in actual houses! These actual houses would have been under threat from outside forces that wished to disrupt the life of these Matthean communities.

When the storms come, it’s critical that the “houses” are based on something solid – a standard that is clear, reliable, and actionable. I think that standard of behavior includes generous welcome of Gentile outsiders to the community. Those who try to straddle the divides are building on sand. They are “moronic,” as the text says. And such “houses” will fall to ruin.

The Matthean author is, therefore, speaking to communities under threat. Such communities are always tempted to retreat, strengthen the boundaries, defend the gates, and monitor the roads. That’s the wrong strategy, as far as the Matthean author is concerned. The time of threat is a time to double down on the generous welcome and trust that Jesus will strengthen them to weather the storm. Matthew 8, then, offers illustrations of both the risks and rewards of that doubling down strategy.

As is so often the case, I am puzzled at the moment as to how I can help my hearers interpret these texts without engaging in a long bible study in the place of a relatively shorter sermon. But, as they say, that’s why I get the big money!

Nevertheless, I’ll be glad to preach on Matthew 7 for a couple of weeks and encourage my listeners to be part of an outward-looking, risk-taking, generously welcoming community.

References and Resources

McEleney, Neil J. “The Unity and Theme of Matthew 7:1-12.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no. 3 (1994): 490–500.

Sechrest, Love L. “Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and Dogs: Loving the Other in the Gospel of Matthew.” Ex Auditu 31 (2015): 71-105.

Text Study for Matthew 7:1-12 (Part Two)

Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and Dogs

“How should the downtrodden give love to enemies,” Love Sechrest asks, “and how should the dominant be loving as enemies in times of ever-increasing racial tension?” (page 73). In her article, Sechrest describes a framework from the Gospel of Matthew “that can be useful in navigating the borderlands of conflict and love.” I want to spend some time with her article in this post.

What is the Matthean author seeking to proclaim, to teach, to correct in the communities the author addresses? Who are the members of those communities, and what are their situations in relationship to the external world? How I answer these questions makes a great deal of difference in how I interpret the Gospel of Matthew and specific sections of that gospel. Sechrest proposes a nuanced set of answers to these questions and an application to notions of allyship.

Allies, Sechrest writes, “are those from dominant or privileged groups who engage in activism in support of social justice by helping to dismantle systems of oppression and unfair advantage in favor of increasing access to social goods for all” (page 74).

Allies in anti-racist work first acknowledge our own whiteness and the racism and privilege inherent in that identity. Allies in anti-racist work understand the cost of racism to themselves as well as to those oppressed. Allies learn from formal sources and informal relationships about the oppression whiteness enforces. Allies resist the tendency for white people to engage in backlash when confronted with their racism. Allies resist the temptation to take control of racial justice efforts. And allies pursue humility.

“Thus,” Sechrest continues, “wisdom and love dictate that there should be possibilities for whites to craft an identity characterized by trust, humility, unceasing anti-racist action, and solidarity with people of color” (page 82). She argues that the images of enemies in the Matthean account can “help in fleshing out the shape of Christian love for the Other” (page 83).

The place of the Gentile Others in the Matthean account is remarkably ambiguous. The very same text portrays Gentiles as models of faith and examples of faithlessness. Why is this, and what shall we do with this ambiguous assessment?

Sechrest points first to the historical pressures applied to the Matthean communities. In the aftermath of the Jewish War (66 to 70 CE), “Matthew participates in the ensuing debates within Judaism about the future of the people in terms of their worship, society, and leadership” (page 86). The ongoing conflict in the Matthean account between Jesus and the Pharisees likely mirrors the conflict and competition between the Matthean communities and the larger Jewish communities in post-war Antioch.

In addition, the larger Gentile community may have punished the Jewish communities, the Matthean communities included, for supporting the Jewish War. “Likely written in Syrian Antioch,” Sechrest notes, “there is also evidence that Matthew’s community faced persecution and rejection on a second front. In the post-war period,” she continues, “the Gentiles of that city initiated violent anti-Jewish mob action, which was followed by repeated petitions to Rome that Jews be stripped of all of the civil rights that had been previously guaranteed by the Romans” (page 87).

In addition, the Matthean communities probably faced pressure to include Gentiles in their expressions of the Christian movement. We know from Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts that Syria was a center for a mission to the Gentiles. We know that Antioch was a particular locus for that mission.

On the one hand, Sechrest notes, this may have increased the opposition of the local Jewish communities, especially if Gentile inclusion resulted in relaxed Torah observance. This can account for the very “Jewish” character of the Matthean account. On the other hand, the Gentile mission was successful and growing at the same time. The Matthean author had no desire to derail this success.

“In short,” Sechrest concludes, “Matthew’s ambiguity towards Gentiles may emerge from the fact that his group faced pressure on three fronts: they faced active Gentile persecution in Antioch, hostility from Pharisees in the aftermath of the Jewish War, and internal Christian movement pressure to accept local Jesus-believing Gentiles” (page 88). This accounts, she argues, for the insistence on Torah righteousness in the midst of a Gentile mission.

No wonder I often find the Matthean account confusing and filled with double standards.

This means that the Matthean communities were, in fact, among the oppressed in post-war late first-century Palestine. This position, Sechrest notes, makes the command to love one’s enemies and the emphasis on forgiveness throughout the Matthean account “nothing short of stunning” (page 88). “I suggest that when we imagine the fraught nature of love for one’s conquerors when considering Matthew’s Gospel,” she continues, “we also need to pose questions about what Matthew might have had in mind when he wrote about enemies.”

Sechrest examines Matthew 7:6 as one place where this “fraught nature” comes to the fore. She takes this proverb as direct speech from Jesus and not as a quotation or ironic reference (see the previous post). She analyzes several related texts and proposes that Matthew 7:6 “isn’t so much about dehumanizing the Other as it is about issuing a warning about the danger inherent in making peace with enemies—Romans and perhaps Syrians as well in Matthew’s case” (page 92).

In this interpretation, Matthew 7:1-5 warns the communities not to make hasty judgments about others. Matthew 7:6, then, is a cautious corrective not to take this relaxed openness too far. “Taken together, 7:1–6 instructs believers to exercise discernment,” Sechrest argues, “when it comes to sharing the holy things of the kingdom with those who either lack the ability to discern the value of such precious treasure, or from whom one has reason to fear violence” (pages 92-93).

This text, then, is both an encouragement to engage in the Gentile mission and a warning to exercise caution in that enterprise. “The text describes a way of approaching potential friends who are or have been enemies,” Sechrest writes, “One must approach judiciously and carefully, lest one gets trampled and mauled, with a compassion that grows out of a rejection of self-deception (7:1–5), and with the dignity that may withhold what is precious in order to avoid further harm” (page 93).

While Sechrest doesn’t mention this connection, her analysis reminds me of the “double consciousness” which W. E. B. DuBois described so clearly  in The Souls of Black Folk as the necessary stance of Black people in relating to White people in the United States.

“It is a peculiar sensation,” DuBois wrote in 1903, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, —an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Matthew 8 illustrates, Sechrest suggests, the various ways that Gentiles respond to these Matthean Christian overtures. The demoniacs respond with violence, at least initially, The pigs fly to their deaths. The community “who have just received their own back from (living among) the dead, would rather reject Jesus than deal with the person who brings gifts of deliverance” (page 93). On the other hand, the Centurion responds with great faith.

Caution is in order when engaging with potential allies.

This is where Sechrest takes us in her analysis and interpretation. The Matthean communities are oppressed by the larger culture and yet seek to interact with that dominant culture. Some members of that dominant culture – for example, the Centurion and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 – respond positively, as allies. “Just as the centurion experienced the limits of his autonomy when he was unable to relieve the boy’s pain and was driven to seek help,” Sechrest suggests, “so too must people of color learn to develop alliances with others who understand something of the pain of disenfranchisement and constraint” (page 101).

Sechrest invites me to read the Matthean account from the perspective of the centurion (among others) and to reflect on what it means to be an ally to Black people. “The goal of allyship is not for people in privileged groups to be shamed, punished, or retaliated against,” she notes, “but to eliminate the conditions that dehumanize us all, to restrain evil in our midst, and to seek our common good” (page 105).

Perhaps the Matthean account can help me to be a better and more willing ally. “Regarding movements towards justice,” Sechrest concludes, “it has been said that the powerful will not willingly lay down their power, but this reticence should not be true of those who follow the crucified Savior” (page 105).

References and Resources

McELENEY, NEIL J. “The Unity and Theme of Matthew 7:1-12.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no. 3 (1994): 490–500.

Sechrest, Love L. “Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and Dogs: Loving the Other in the Gospel of Matthew.” Ex Auditu 31 (2015): 71-105.

Text Study for Matthew 7:1-12

Part One: Dogs, Pigs, Wafers, and Wisdom

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6, NRSV).

Matthew 7:6 appears to be a non sequitur dropped into this section of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s like a fart in church – surprising, uncomfortable, out of place, and then ignored as it dissipates. If that’s really what the verse is, then the Matthean author gets pretty sloppy in an otherwise tightly organized composition.

That’s hard to swallow. But it is precisely how, for example, the NRSV treats the verse. It has its own section title. Chapter seven has the appearance of being a miscellaneous catch-all as the preacher hurries to get to the big finish in verses 24-29.

I don’t buy it.

The first paragraph (verses 1-5) prohibits, in clear and colorful hyperbole, condemning others (at least within the Matthean community). Then the Matthew Jesus points to some as “dogs” and “pigs” who don’t deserve the holy and precious things of God. Wait, what?

Don’t judge others. But call some of those others names and keep them away from the central elements of the Jesus movement. Yes, that makes perfect sense. No wonder the NRSV and other translations punt on the structure of the argument here.

I’m increasingly struck by the oral/aural nature of the New Testament documents. I am further impacted by what we lose in our interpretation without those oral/aural experiences. When we only have the text, we don’t get the tone, the gestures, the direction of gaze, the sheer volume (or whispering) provided by a performer.

Beginning with Albert Mehrabian, we have learned that only seven percent of communication comes to us through words. Fifty-five percent is nonverbal – body language, gestures, etc. Thirty-eight percent is vocal – tone, volume, etc. I don’t know precisely how this works in our interaction with the New Testament documents. But it’s fair to say that we do not have direct access to a large part of the information and experience conveyed to the first audiences.

Of the canonical gospels, the Markan account has been most fully explored as an oral/aural performance. The Markan account may have been performed first and then written down. The other canonical gospels may have been written first and then performed. Nonetheless, these texts, according to David Rhoads, “were in any case composed not for private reading but with oral performance as the expected medium—an approach to writing that would have been the primary factor in determining style, content, and rhetoric.”

Rhoads argues that the written scripts existed to facilitate oral performance. They might have created some guardrails to prevent the performers from taking too many liberties with the stories. The written documents were a way to transfer the gospel accounts from one house church or community to another. But even then, the accounts would have been performed. And they would have been performed in their entirety, not in the piecemeal fashion in which we read them in our Christian worship settings.

Unless the literacy rate in the Roman Empire exploded after 70 CE, all of the canonical gospels were heard much more than read. That would be especially true of the lower socioeconomic strata in which the Christian movement found its greatest growth in the second half of the first century CE. In order to access even a small part of the other ninety-three percent of the text, we have to engage our imagination in the oral/aural process.

Matthew 7:1-12 offers, I think, an illustration of the importance of this oral/aural dimension. Neil McEleney makes a good case for Matthew 7:6 as a snide quote from those who engage in judging. It’s worth pursuing a bit of his argument to get to a better translation and interpretation of Matthew 7, the entire Sermon on the Mount, and the whole Matthean account.

Verses one through five teach the disciples not to condemn others. Verses seven through twelve teach the disciples to be as generous to one another as God is to them. How do these teachings fit together and is verse six a rhetorical bridge connecting them? Verse five addresses the “hypocrite” who cannot see the wooden beam in their own eye. “In avoiding such self-blinded, self-righteous corrective zeal,” McEleney writes, “the true disciple of Jesus practices a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees and become eligible for the kingdom of heaven” (page 493).

How does verse six expand on this? Some scholars argue that there is a mistranslation of the Aramaic original at fault here. As McEleney notes, that may be the case. But due to the lack of textual evidence, “it must remain an interesting conjecture” (page 494). How does the text as we have it work?

It may be that the Matthean community has been too liberal in sharing the “wafers and the wisdom” (the holy things of God) with outsiders – the dogs and the pigs. In that case, the Matthean Jesus is exercising a necessary corrective here. However, that collides with much of the rest of the Matthean account. Jesus seems to go out of his way to be kind to Gentile outsiders in much of the Matthean gospel. Even though, as McEleney notes, the earthly Jesus focused on the ”lost sheep of the house of Israel” in that gospel, the risen Jesus sends the disciples to reach “all nations (Gentiles).”

“Why should [Jesus] tell the crowds and his disciples to hold back from the Gentiles what would bring them closer to God?” McEleney asks. “The answer,” he believes, “is that the Matthean Jesus cites a well-known (and probably pharisaic) proverb only to counter it with several sayings of Jesus which amount to an exhortation to generosity on the pattern of God’s generosity to all” (page 497).

There is some evidence that such a proverb may have existed in first-century Mediterranean discourse. However, the primary evidence must come from the structure of the text itself. The second paragraph highlights the generosity of God. And it argues, McEleney says, that “Because God is always generous to Jesus’ hearers, they should conclude that they should be generous to others” (page 499).

Jesus describes his listeners, in Matthew 7:11, as “evil.” This really means “ungenerous, cheap, begrudging,” as McEleney notes. This is how the word is used, for example, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave in Matthew 18. The conclusion is clear for the Matthean author. Whatever you want to have someone do for you, do also for them. “Do not hold back,” McEleney suggests, “but be generous, even to the Gentiles” (page 499). This is, then, what it means to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and to have a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now we come to the oral/aural dimension. McEleney suggests that prior to Matthew 7:6, we should insert the phrase, “You have heard this proverb.” Then the verse itself would be shared with the first-century equivalent of “air quotes” (or “scare quotes”). Verse seven should begin with “But I say to you…” In this way, the text then resembles the antitheses we find in Matthew six.

Why didn’t the Matthean author include those words in the text if that was the intention? McEleney doesn’t address that (as it seems to me) obvious question. I would suggest that in an oral performance of the text, such insertions were not necessary. They would be indicated by tone, gesture, gaze, and body language. In other words, the insertions would have been part of the ninety-three percent rather than the seven percent.

This interpretation leaves me with questions to ponder. What do we do with the next few verses – the ones that contrast the wide and narrow gates? On their face, these verses seem to indicate a less than generous understanding of the gospel, akin to the traditional reading of Matthew 7:6. What if, however, these verses are another proverb spoken by the hypocrites?

What if this niggardly approach to God’s wafers and wisdom is precisely what the “false prophets” of Matthew 7:15ff. are preaching? I’m going to think some more about that one. But I think that’s a real possibility for interpretation. And again, it would have been indicated clearly in an oral/aural experience.

The more pressing question is how to incorporate this interpretation into proclamation. What good are these interpretive gymnastics to the average reader who has no idea what’s really going on here? I’m going to reflect on that a bit more in my next post. I do have some ideas that I think I’ll try on my unsuspecting listeners in the near future.

And, as always, I continue to wonder what this means for our sense of the authority and inspiration of “scripture” as we have it. In some ways, such interpretations just make a hash of those ideas. In other ways, I think we get closer to the authority of the living word as opposed to the “dead letter” of a written text. But the nature of that text then is dynamic and situational rather than fixed and “reliable.” I’m good with that.

References and Resources

McELENEY, NEIL J. “The Unity and Theme of Matthew 7:1-12.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no. 3 (1994): 490–500.

Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Four)

Is this section of the Matthean account one argument? Or is it the end of the prologue to the Sermon on the Mount and the beginning of the main body of the Sermon? That makes some difference to how we might interpret what the Matthean Jesus is saying here. If my interpretation is rooted in the text as we have it, then the answer to those questions matters to me.

Samuel Byrskog examines these issues in detail and concludes that Matthew 5:13-20 is one argument with several rhetorical pieces. His view runs counter to the majority opinion which sees Matthew 5:17ff. as the beginning of the next section of the Sermon.

As we’ve noted in a previous post, the emphatic second-person plural makes it clear that Jesus is addressing the disciples. Byrskog notes that the Matthean author uses this technique as well in Matthew 13 and Matthew 23. The disciples are the primary addressees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The crowds overhear the Sermon but are never directly addressed.

Elsewhere in Matthew (10:34) Jesus uses the phrase “Do not think” to continue a line of argument begun earlier in the text. That phrase is likely not a marker for a new argument. In rhetorical terms, the new argument more clearly begins at 5:13. To interpret 5:17-20, Byrskog argues, we are best served, then, to see how those verses fit with the previous argument.

In his analysis of verses 13-20, Byrskog finds that verses 16 and 19 have the conclusions to the argument here. “Both conclusions emphasize the disciples’ deeds – the good works and the practice of ‘these commandments,’” Byrskog writes (563). Each of these conclusions says these actions should impact the people who witness them. On the basis of these conclusions, then, Jesus outlines examples of disciple behavior in verses 5:21ff.

Matthew 5:17f. in this analysis is a proposition leading to the conclusion in Matthew 5:19. This proposition is offered because the disciples could have possible misunderstandings of what has come before. Being salt and light could be construed as ways to leave behind the Law and the Prophets – annulling the Torah and the Witnesses. Instead, the disciples are to imitate Jesus’ own relationship to the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, Byrskog argues, “they are also not to set aside but to practice and teach even the  least of ‘these commandments’” (page 567).

We’ve made the connection in a previous post between the argument here in Matthew 5 and the concluding instructions to the disciples in Matthew 28. Byrskog makes that connection as well. In Matthew 28, Jesus instructs the eleven to make disciples of all nations. In doing so, they are to teach the nations to observe everything Jesus has commanded them. “Jesus starts preparing his pupils,” Byrskog writes, “for their future didactic mission already in the Sermon on the Mount” (page 568).

It is worth considering that the “commandments” that Jesus commends in Matthew 5 are really Jesus’ own interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 5:19 and 28:20, Byrskog observes, have the same terms – to “keep” and “commanded.” He notes that many scholars discount the “letter and stroke” language of Matthew 5 as a pre-Matthean leftover.

However, Byrskog argues that his analysis leads to a different conclusion. “It is entirely conceivable to understand this verse [5:19] as an admonition to practice and teach the exposition of the Torah as contained in Jesus own teaching” (page 568). What the disciples are to keep, observe, and teach is exemplified, then, in what follows in the rest of the Sermon.

Byrskog gives this summary of his analysis. “5:17f is thus central to the entire Matthean narrative as it implies that Jesus is the perfect example to be followed when the disciples themselves, having eventually listened and learned from all of Jesus’ speeches, are to be teachers of the nations” (page 569).

In other words, “For the main author of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus was a teacher whose words and deeds represented the ultimate, normative criterion to be applied in various situations of his Jewish-Christian community. A reference to Jesus,” Byrskog concludes, “needed no further defense” (page 571). The Matthean author has a relatively “high” Christology, therefore, but that Christology is demonstrated through narrative rather than through dogmatic assertions.

Is this, then, what the Matthean Jesus means when he says that he has not come to abolish the Law but rather to fulfill it? Matthew Thiessen tracks the use of the idea of “abolishing the Law” in connection with the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes in the 160s BCE and the Jewish War as described by Josephus. We get some interesting context for the terms and their importance.

In the documents connected to Antiochian persecution, “These writers view this attack on circumcision, Sabbath, Temple cult, and food laws as an attack on the Jewish or Hebrew ‘politeia,’ and upon Jewish ancestral customs,” Thiessen writes. “It is important to note,” he continues, “that, according to each [of the authors he quotes], it was a Jewish group that was closely involved in the abolishment of the Jewish law in an attempt at Hellenization” (page 548).

In each of those documents, Thiessen observes, the consequence of this abolishing of the law was divine wrath in the form of persecution.

I find that especially interesting in the context of our verses. If Jesus says that persecution will be a result of keeping his commands, then one possible conclusion to be drawn would be that this persecution was an expression of Divine disapproval. After all, that was the conclusion that other Jewish writers were drawing from their history. It would be important to make a strong argument against this possible conclusion.

Josephus argues that the Zealots routinely and repeatedly “abolished” the Law during their war against Rome, especially because they ceased Sabbath observance in order to do battle. My ears perk up immediately at that mention, since debates about Sabbath observance are constant in Jesus’ ministry. Josephus goes into great detail regarding numerous other ways the Zealots were reputed to have “abolished” the Law. Most glaring was their occupation of the Temple precincts. Again, one cannot help but think of events in the ministry of Jesus in the gospels.

Thus, both in the Antiochian documents and in Josephus “those who abolished the law bring divine judgment upon the people as a whole” (page 551). The Matthean account is produced in the generation following the Jewish war, probably in Antioch. The memory of such charges against the Zealots would have a particular sting if they were leveled as well against the Matthean community.

So, Thiessen asks, is Jesus guilty of abolishing the law? Since there is no parallel in Mark or Luke to Matthew 5:17, 19-20, this appears to be a special concern for the Matthean author and community. Thiessen describes what such a charge might have looked like. “Join with us against the law-abolishing followers of this law-abolishing Jesus so we might guard ourselves against God’s wrath, which led to the persecution under Antiochus IV” (pages 551-552).

Add to this charge the fresh memories of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 CE. Was the Matthean community charged with responsibility for the war as divine punishment? “Given the probability that the air was rife with the accusations of various Jewish groups against their rivals in the wake of the devastating results of the revolt,” Thiessen writes, “this seems a distinct possibility” (page 552).

Thiessen says these accusations may be the concrete content behind Matthew 5:10-12. In response, therefore, the Matthean Jesus-followers needed to show their good works and praise God. “Since Jesus did not come to abolish the law as Matthew makes clear in 5,17-19,” Thiessen argues, “the members of the Matthean community are supposed to live in a way that their opponents will not be able to bring such charges against them” (page 553).

The Matthean author then flips the field and suggests that it is the scribes and the Pharisees who have taken the easier path – perhaps the path of accommodation, as Warren Carter suggests. This would point the finger of blame at the scribes and Pharisees rather than at the Jesus-followers.

To summarize Thiessen’s argument. In the post-70 struggles of the Jewish communities, some identified Jesus as a law-abolisher and Jesus’ followers as responsible for the Divine wrath that resulted. “Matthew’s gospel should therefore be understood, in part,” Thiessen writes, “as a response to such charges” (page 554).

In the Matthean account, Jesus is the New Moses. He calls for authentic Torah observance. Jesus claims to interpret what that authentic Torah observance is. As Byrskog demonstrates, this is the logic of the argument in Matthew 5:13-20. What we do with this as interpreters and preachers remains to be seen. But I find it helpful to understand the text more clearly on its own terms.

References and Resources

Byrskog, Samuel. “MATTHEW 5:17-18 IN THE ARGUMENTATION OF THE CONTEXT.” Revue Biblique (1946-) 104, no. 4 (1997): 557–71.

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989.

Thiessen, Matthew. “Abolishers of the Law in Early Judaism and Matthew 5,17-20.” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 543–56.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2010.

Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Three)

The Matthean author presents a sustained description of the Jesus-following life. As we read through this account together, it will be important to recap and review the argument periodically.

Jesus is “God with us.” He is with us in order to save his people from their sins. That mission attracts attention from the Gentile world almost immediately. It also attracts the attention of the powers of this world. Jesus is worshipped as the King of the Jews. For that reason, he is a threat to and threatened by the powers of this world.

Jesus is son of Abraham, son of David, son of Joseph, and son of God. That identity is confirmed and amplified in his baptism. John the Baptizer points to Jesus as the “greater one.” Satan, the Adversary, works to derail Jesus’ mission and to sustain the powers of this world. Satan fails and Jesus moves from personal identity to public ministry.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims. He calls disciples through whom he will carry out that mission. It’s a nondescript bunch and the beginning of a much larger nondescript bunch called “The Church.” Jesus teaches and heals and frees people throughout Galilee. His reputation extends well beyond the local gossip network. The movement is launched.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ movement manifesto, at least in the Matthean account. It is, as well, a summary manual of discipleship. We get a description of the Kingdom of God in the Beatitudes. The Sermon is given to the disciples, but the crowds listen in. Jesus announces the Great Reversal of the Kingdom. He describes what participation in that Reversal looks like for disciples. And he acknowledges how the powers of this world will react to and reject that Reversal.

It’s important to hang on to this narrative arc and momentum as we read this week’s Gospel text. It is critical to remember, first, that Jesus is “God with us.” Matthew 5:13-20 could sound like Jesus is ready to hand over the reigns to the disciples. But that’s not the case. After the Sermon is concluded, we get two more chapters of Jesus healing, demon-casting, teaching, and training the disciples.

It isn’t until the end of Matthew 9 that Jesus tells the disciples about the great harvest. That harvest is going wanting because of the lack of laborers. Jesus has filled out the cadre of disciples with several more workers, coming up with a total of twelve. Only then does Jesus send the disciples out into that harvest, beginning in chapter 10. Or does he?

Well, he doesn’t send them out immediately. Matthew 10 contains more disciple-training. In the Matthean account, he doesn’t actually send them out even at this point. Instead, as we read in Matthew 11:1 (NRSV), “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”

In fact, in a gospel account so fully focused on teaching and training disciples, we never read the story of Jesus actually sending the disciples out to do the work. We get that story in the Lukan account, but not here.

We don’t read about such a sending in the Matthean account prior to the Resurrection. It is only in Matthew 28:19-20 that Jesus commands the disciples (now eleven in number, of course) to actually “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” And that sending is accompanied by the assurance with which the gospel account began – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b, NRSV).

Without that big narrative arc, this week’s text daunts me to the edge of despair. Salt of the earth? Light of the world? Doer and teacher of all these commandments? More righteous than even the scribes and the Pharisees? Lord Jesus, I’m pretty sure you got the wrong person for this job. How about if I just sweep up after the real disciples in the crowd?

Because we read the gospel accounts a piece at a time in our worship, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger story. That’s what makes such a recap necessary. Jesus is God with us, always and forever. Jesus goes ahead of us to confront the powers of this world and defeat them in his death and resurrection. Jesus has experience calling ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And Jesus calls us to do those extraordinary things in community, not by ourselves.

That community reality matters for our text this week. “You (pl.),” Jesus says with emphasis on the “you” in verse thirteen, “are the salt of the earth.” He repeats that emphasis in verse fourteen: “You (pl.) are the light of the world.” Jesus makes these declarations to the disciples as a community, not as individual actors.

The second-person plural continues in verse sixteen – your (pl.) light, your (pl.) good works, and your (pl.) Father in the heavens. And it’s “your (pl.)” righteousness that must be more than (or perhaps better than) that of the scribes and the Pharisees. As we read the examples of that greater righteousness in the rest of the Sermon, we continue to meet that communal dimension. Even the final paragraph about the two foundations is directed to “everyone who hears these words and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24).

Jesus is “God with us” now and forever. We’re not in this “salt and light and righteousness business” by ourselves. That’s all good. But it’s a pretty high bar, all the same. We could read this, as does Martin Luther, as an example of the “second use” of the Law. Since this is an impossible standard for sinners, the Sermon should drive us into the merciful arms of a gracious God who sends Jesus to be our righteousness. In that reading, Jesus demands of us things we cannot do, whether alone or together.

I don’t buy this perspective. It uses a first-century text to answer sixteenth-century problems. When we apply that solution to our twenty-first century context, we get even further off the track. I think A.J. Levine gets much closer to Jesus’ intentions in the sermon. “The Sermon on the Mount is not a counsel of despair,” she writes, “it is a hymn of praise not only to God but for all of creation.” In fact, Levine argues that Jesus thinks we are fabulous creatures.

“Thus the Sermon on the Mount resembles,” Levine continues, “in part, a theological pep talk. Good pep talks, or revivals, don’t just make us feel better about ourselves,” she argues. “They inspire us not just to feel better but to do better: try harder, dig more deeply, find the resources needed for living the life to which God is calling us.”

Could it be that our text for today is an appreciative invitation to be what we are in Christ? Our text is not an exhortation to become something. It is not a promise that under certain conditions we will achieve a certain status. “You (pl.) ARE the salt of the earth…You (pl.) ARE the light of the world…” It is possible to act like these descriptions are not true. But such counter-action won’t deny the reality. It will just make for useless disciples.

Once again, the way to hold all this together is to hold together the “work” and “person” of Christ. Jesus is indeed “God with us” to save us from our sins. We are freed from the powers of sin, death, and the devil through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That, however, is the beginning of our life with Christ, not the end.

We are also freed for a life together of love for the neighbor (and the enemy, as it turns out). “But for the gospels themselves, that rescue of individuals,” N. T. Wright notes, “is designed to serve a larger purpose: God’s purpose, the purpose of God’s kingdom. And in God’s kingdom,” Wright continues, “human beings are rescued, are delivered from their sin, in order to take their place (as Jesus already called the disciples to take theirs) not only as receivers of God’s forgiveness and new life, but also as agents of it” (After You Believe, page 112).

Salt and light actually do things in the world. Salt and light people, disciples, live as if the Kingdom has come near. As N. T. Wright puts it, “the life to which Jesus called his followers was the kingdom-life – the life which summoned people to be kingdom-agents through the kingdom-means” (After You Believe, page 124). The balance of the Sermon will give examples of these kingdom-means and what it looks like to bring them about.

These examples are, however, not merely a sort of discipleship checklist. Instead, they are signs that the kingdom has indeed come near. Being salt and light will certainly produce good outcomes for some of the least, the lost, the lonely. More than that, however, being salt and light are signs that the change has begun – both in the hearts of disciples and in the life of the world.

References and Resources

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2010.

Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Two)

“For I am telling you that unless your justice greatly exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall certainly not enter into the Kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 5:20, my translation).

The “Kingdom of the heavens” (KOTH) appears as a phrase in the Matthean account over thirty times. That total doesn’t include the tangential, indirect, and incomplete references to the KOTH. Moreover, the Matthean author devotes an entire chapter (Matthew 23) to the “woes” of the scribes and the Pharisees. This relationship between the practices of the scribes and the Pharisees and “justice” is a significant concern for the Matthean author and community.

Since this phrase occurs so many times and has such a prominent place in the Matthean account, interpreters will need to clear up some misapprehensions on the part of our hearers. This is not about some “heaven” in another place and/or time. “Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it,” N. T. Wright reminds us. “One day heaven and earth will be joined together for ever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled” (page 36).

That understanding, of course, will cause some confusion and discomfort to people who are accustomed to thinking of “heaven” exclusively as “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” For that reason, I think I will lead my people through a Bible study on resurrection during the Easter season. But for now, it bears some mention for the sake of ongoing clarity.

Wright has a good summary paragraph in this regard. “The life of heaven – the life of the realm where God is already king – is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount…” (page 37).

Robert Smith puts it this way. “To say that this kingdom or sovereign rule is ‘of heaven’ or ‘of God’ is not to locate it in the heavens above but to assert that it has its source in heaven or in God, that it comes as a gift from above, and that it is something wholly different from earthly kingdoms and sovereignties” (page 48).

Warren Carter offers some overview and summary of what the Matthean author might mean by “greatly exceeds.” This language assumes that the scribes and Pharisees “think justice important and ascribes some doing of it to them, but somehow it is not adequate” (page 142). This is not about replacing or superseding the justice of the scribes and Pharisees. This is, as Jesus notes, about “fulfilling” it.

In this regard, I think it’s helpful to read Matthew 23:1-7. “Then Jesus was speaking to the crowds and to his disciples as he said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees are seated upon the chair of Moses. Therefore, all of that which they might say to you, you shall do and  observe, but you shall not do according to their works; for they are saying also what they are not doing’” (Matthew 23:1-3, my translation).

Here is the problem Jesus identifies. The things the scribes and Pharisees prescribe from the teaching chair of Moses – the Torah (law) – are appropriate for the crowds and the disciples. But the key is that they have to do it, not just hear it. That, in the Matthean account, is consistently the “more” that disciples add to the conduct and practice of the scribes and the Pharisees.

“The inadequacy is perhaps clarified first of all by recalling that in the imperial society Pharisees and scribes belong to the societal elite,” Carter writes, “the governing group in alliance with Rome, with a vested interest in maintaining, not reforming, the current, hierarchical, unjust societal structure” (page 143).

Whether that is true of all the scribes and Pharisees is a contested point among scholars. The Matthean author is engaging in some stereotyping here, and the interpreter must be cautious not to translate this into anti-Judaism or supersessionism. However, it may be the case that some scribes and Pharisees fit the image portrayed. It’s important in this regard first of all “to do no harm” when it comes to blanket descriptions of “the Jews.”

The problem with the justice of the Pharisees, Carter continues, “may be that it leaves the status quo of Roman domination intact. They do not practice,” Carter writes, “a transformative ‘justice, mercy, and faith’ as an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo and reflects the presence and triumph of God’s empire over all, including imperial ways” (page 143).

“The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them,” Hauerwas argues, “Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be” (page 67).

What follows in the balance of Matthew 5, then, is a series of examples. These examples illustrate some of the ways that disciples can indeed greatly exceed the justice of the scribes and the Pharisees. As Carter notes, the exceeding will be described in Matthew 5:48 as a “perfection” or “wholeness” or “completion” that resembles the character of “our heavenly Father.”

To enter into the KOTH, then, is to “participate in the completion of God’s purposes already encountered in part in Jesus’ proclamation and healing” (page 143). This is not “works righteousness,” as some Protestants might worry. “The saved, the ransomed, the redeemed are empowered to practice righteousness and are summoned to it,” Robert Smith writes. “Matthew’s portrait of Jesus will disappoint anyone who imagines that discipleship should mean escape from morality into spiritual experience” (page 93).

Rather, as Smith writes, “from every page of Matthew’s Gospel, a consistent picture emerges. Jesus pursues the divine intention in the Law (whether written or oral), and not only pursues it but practices it, and not only practices it but teaches it, and teaches it,” Smith concludes, “not only in his earthly ministry but also as the resurrected one (28:19)” (page 92).

“The sermon, therefore,” Hauerwas writes, “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered” (page 61). Just as we make theological mistakes when we separate the person and work of Christ, so we make ethical mistakes when we separate the “person” and “work” of the Church.

This refusal to separate faith and works produces a faith community that refuses to remain invisible to the larger culture. Hauerwas points to Bonhoeffer’s argument in this regard. “Visibility and difference is the result of being pulled into the way of life made possible by Jesus,” Hauerwas writes, “So the Sermon on the Mount is a description of a way of life of a people, a people of a new age that results from following this man” (page 63).

Following this man leads us to a specific place in history and geography – another mountain in the Matthean account. “Jesus does not seek to violently overthrow Rome, because his kingdom is an alternative to the violence of Rome as well as to those who would overthrow Rome with violence,” Hauerwas continues.

“His kingdom, however, cannot avoid being subversive. That subversion is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Hauerwas argues, “and as such is a subversion that will result in his crucifixion, for rather than violently overthrowing the old order Jesus creates a people capable of living in accordance with the new order in the old” (page 67).

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah connect the imperial theology of Christian invisibility to the realities of White Christian Nationalism. Those realities are rooted in the deformed theology of White European Christian exceptionalism and supremacy. That deformed theology has been in process since the reign of the Emperor Constantine and continues to drive our current racist realities in the Western world. It is a deformed theology that produces, underwrites, and even celebrates Christian “invisibility.”

“Christendom is the prostitution of the church to the empire that created a church culture of seeking power rather than relationships,” the authors write. “Jesus laid down his life, but the empire must save its life. Jesus emptied himself, but the empire must protect and expand itself. There is a fundamental conflict between the goal of the earthly empire and the direction of the kingdom of God. Greatness in the world and great in the kingdom of God,” they conclude, “stand in opposition” (page 66).

This paragraph is much closer to the Sermon on the Mount than most of what passes these days for “orthodox” (White”) theology. Buckle up, preachers. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

References and Resources

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989. Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.