This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Sermon on the Mount (3)

So what is Jesus doing in the Sermon on the Mount?  If Jesus is not replacing or overturning OT teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, then what is He doing? 

The Sermon on the Mount is not about OT vs. NT, 
but about Phariseeism vs. OT.  

In other words, Jesus is trying to correct the false teaching of the Pharisees.  Jesus presents what the religious leaders of the day had taught about the OT, and then presents His listeners with what the OT actually teaches.  Jesus is presenting His listeners with a personal ethic God intended for them to live by contrary to what the scribes and Pharisees had taught and exemplified them.  i believe i can give at least 5 reasons which show that this is the correct understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. In this post, i'll give the first 2 reasons.

1. Jesus mentions the Pharisees critically in His stated purpose.

"Do not think that I have come 
to abolish the Law or the Prophets; 
I have not come to abolish them 
but to fulfill them. 
I tell you the truth, 
until heaven and earth disappear, 
not the smallest letter, 
not the least stroke of a pen, 
will by any means disappear from the Law 
until everything is accomplished. 
Anyone who breaks 
one of the least of these commandments 
and teaches others to do the same 
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, 
but whoever practices and teaches these commands 
will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 
For I tell you that 
unless your righteousness surpasses 
that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, 
you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
(Matt 5:17-20)

Jesus makes clear that He does not oppose the commandments of the Old Law, but intends for people to keep them.  But He does make clear that He opposes the "righteousness" of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Keeping the law amounts to greatness in the 'kingdom of heaven.' But the Pharisees' "righteousness" is insufficient for the kingdom of heaven.  This places the Pharisees at best in the category of those who break 'the least of these commandments and teach others to do the same.'    

Arguably then, Jesus' sermon is about how to avoid and surpass the "righteousness" of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.  In what immediately follows, Jesus lists the ways the Pharisees and teachers of the law have broken the commandments of the Law and Prophets and have taught others to do the same, and then teaches people how to properly keep the commandments of the Law and Prophets.

This certainly fits the same comparison Jesus' makes elsewhere in Matthew's gospel.  In Matthew 15:1-6, the Pharisees criticize Jesus' disciples for breaking traditions.  Jesus shows how at one of their traditions which they practice and teach is little more than a way to disobey the Law of Moses.  This shows a sub-theme in Matthew--Jesus sees the Pharisees' portrayal of an Old Testament ethic as corrupt and in need of correction. 

2. Some of the issues raised in the Sermon on the Mount are repeated as discussions with the Pharisees elsewhere in the Matthew.

Jesus brief comments on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 are an abbreviated version of the very discussion He has with the Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19:1-9.  In Matthew 19:7, the Pharisees use nearly the same words as Jesus did in Matthew 5:31 when He gives the "you have heard that it was said" quote.  This phrase in Matthew 5:31 then represents the position of the Pharisees on divorce and not the true teaching of the OT.  

The issue of taking oaths that Jesus raises in Matthew 5:33-37 is also an issue He raises against the Pharisees.  In Matthew 23 during Jesus' lengthy criticism of the Pharisees, He says,

Woe to you, blind guides! 
You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; 
but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, 
he is bound by his oath.' 
You blind fools! Which is greater: 
the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 
You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; 
but if anyone swears by the gift on it, 
he is bound by his oath.' 
You blind men! Which is greater: 
the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 
Therefore, he who swears by the altar 
swears by it and by everything on it. 
And he who swears by the temple 
swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 
And he who swears by heaven 
swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.
(Matt 23:16-22)

It's clear from the this criticism that the Pharisees believed the particular wording of an oath made a difference in whether that oath had any binding force.  In other words, the Pharisees viewed oaths as having levels of equivocation.  Swearing a certain way might not necessarily mean a person had to deliver on precisely what he said.  Now notice Jesus' words about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount:

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 
'Do not break your oath, 
but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 
But I tell you, Do not swear at all: 
either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 
or by the earth, for it is his footstool; 
or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 
And do not swear by your head, 
for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 
Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; 
anything beyond this comes from the evil one. 
(Matt 5:33-37)

Equivocation is also Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount.  Any oath taking or swearing by any combination of words or formulas should not mean anything different than one simply agrees to do something without such formulas.  Oath formulas should not make a person anymore bound to act on what he agreed than simply saying "Yes, I'll do that."  The Pharisees had codified some system of oath-taking where people did not necessarily have to mean what they said.  It is likely then that Jesus is taking issue with the Pharisaical stance on oath taking in the Sermon on the Mount and not with the Old Law.

Thus, the author of Matthew represents at least two of these issues as particular points of direct debate between Jesus and the Pharisees.  It's clear from Matthew 19 and 23 that Jesus does not take the Pharisees to be interpreting the Moses correctly.  This clearly suggests that on these two matters, Jesus is taking issue with the Pharisees, not Moses.  Being that these two items show up on a list of others, i think it's likely the rest of the listed items (adultery, murder, hating enemies, etc.) are also points at which Jesus is taking issue not with Moses but with the Pharisees.

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