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

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Sermon on the Mount (4)

In this post, i offer 2 more reasons why the Sermon on the Mount should be understood as Jesus confrontation and correction of the Pharisaical teaching about the Old Testament.

3. The first half of Matt 6 critiques hypocritical piety, which is the same charge Jesus makes against the Pharisees elsewhere in Matthew. 

In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus mentions three practices of piety that people perform hypocritically.  Some group of people ("hypocrites"--6:2, 5, 16) practiced charitable giving, praying, and fasting as a pretense to gain favor and applause from others.  Though they appeared to perform acts of selflessness or pure devotion, their motives were self-serving, and their very public practice exposed them as frauds.  Basically, their insides didn't match their outsides.

Hypocritical righteousness is the very charge that Jesus made against the Pharisees elsewhere in Matthew.  In Matthew 15, when Jesus engaged the Pharisees regarding their traditions, He said of them,

You hypocrites! 
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
 'These people honor me with their lips,
      but their hearts are far from me.
 They worship me in vain;
      their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
 (Matt 15:7-9)

Here Jesus refers to them as "hypocrites," the same word He used in the Sermon on the Mount, and claims that Isaiah's words applied to the Pharisees--what they said with their lips did not match what was in their heart.  

In Matthew 23, Jesus says of the Pharisees,
Everything they do is done for men to see
They make their phylacteries wide 
and the tassels on their garments long; 
they love the place of honor at banquets 
and the most important seats in the synagogues; 
they love to be greeted in the marketplaces 
and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' 
(Matt 23:5-7)

Doing good deeds for the sake of being seen by men is precisely what Jesus mentions repeatedly in Matthew 6.  

Be careful not to do your 
'acts of righteousness' before men, 
to be seen by them.  
So when you give to the needy, 
do not announce it with trumpets, 
as the hypocrites do 
in the synagogues and on the streets, 
to be honored by men.
And when you pray, 
do not be like the hypocrites, 
for they love to pray standing 
in the synagogues and on the street corners 
to be seen by men.
When you fast, do not look somber 
as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces 
to show men they are fasting.
(Matt 6:1, 2, 5, 16)

Because Jesus claims in Matthew 23 that trying to be seen and lauded by other people was the basic approach to the Pharisaical ethic, it's likely that the Pharisees are also the main target of Matthew 6--which again shows that the main theme of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is the false and insufficient "righteousness" of the Pharisees (Matt 5:20). 

4. The Beattitudes are contrastive to Pharisaical piety.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
      for they will be comforted.
 Blessed are the meek,
      for they will inherit the earth.
 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
      for they will be filled.
 Blessed are the merciful,
      for they will be shown mercy.
 Blessed are the pure in heart,
      for they will see God. 
(Matt 5:3-8)

This portion of the Beattitudes i've quoted above focuses on internal ethical values--dispositions, attitudes, beliefs, motives, character traits.  It is this very area of ethical value which Jesus portrays the Pharisees as lacking.  

Jesus declares, "blessed are the merciful."  Yet Jesus tells the Pharisees that they have neglected important matters of the Law like mercy (Matt 23:23).  Jesus declares, "blessed are the pure in heart."  Yet Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are full of wickedness and hypocrisy (Matt 23:28).  Jesus declares, "bless are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness."  Yet Jesus makes clear He believes that what the Pharisees desire is to be honored by others (Matt 23:5-7).

These values in the Beattitudes are not different from what God desired of the Jews in the OT.  God commanded the Jews to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut 6:5).  God criticized the Jews for offering Him ritual worship all the while not adhering to the basic internal and interpersonal ethical values He commanded (Isa 1:11-17; Jer 7:1-11). God made very clear He did not accept their hypocritical behavior and had always expected integrity and internal virtue. 

Thus Jesus, in the Beattitudes, is not offering something contrastive to the OT, but He uplifting values contrastive to Pharisaical teaching and practice.  This shows that Jesus does not mean in the Sermon on the Mount to countermand the Law of Moses, but to correct the corrupt lifestyle and teaching of the Pharisees.

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