Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: sections B & B' (part 3)

In the two previous posts (found here and here) we examined section “B” (5:3–10) of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which contained eight beatitudes, or, “Blessings.” In this post I want to discuss the connection between those eight blessings and the eight warnings which Matthew records in the closing section of Jesus’ Sermon. The eight warnings, as you may have noticed from the previous post linked above, are contained in section B’ (7:13—27), the literary section which corresponds with Section B.

I also realize that after a cursory glance through both of those sections it might not be obvious that section B’ (7:13—27) parallels section B (5:3–10). That is why I believe the best way to begin noticing the parallels is to simply point out that there are eight sections total in each. Just count how many pairs of concepts and phrases are there. There are eight distinctive statements which form section B as one literary unit,1 and there are eight in section B' as well.  

In the first few verses (7:13-14) Matthew records this section with two pairs of ideas: a gate that is wide with a way that is easy, versus a gate that is narrow and a way that is hard.
1) Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who will enter by it are many. 

2) For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Next, in verses 15 through 20, we find another pair of ideas: False prophets & wolves in sheep’s clothing will be recognized by their fruits,” and that is set in contrast with healthy trees which bear good fruit and are “recognized by their fruits.”
3) Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. 

4) Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad (σαπρὸν = “rotten”) fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Following that pair we find another pair (vv. 21-23): one group of people who say “Lord, Lord” enter into the kingdom because they do the will of Jesus’ Father, and another group of people who say “Lord, Lord” are cast out of the Lord’s presence because of their lawlessness. 
5) Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

6) On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Finally, we arrive at the fourth pair (vv. 24-27) in which we find one group who listens to the words of Jesus and does them, and another group who listens and does not do them. The former does not fall, whereas the latter most certainly does. 
7) Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 

8) And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

In light of all this, I think it’s obvious that Matthew clearly recorded four pairs of warnings, or, eight warnings total in order to balance the eight “blessings” he listed at the beginning. But were are still left wondering what the connection is between them all.

In order to figure that out, I'm going to suggest that the same historical background to the eight beatitudes is also the background to these eight warnings. If you recall my earlier post, the Beatitudes each recall the Psalms in which beatitudes are often found, and each contain two common themes:
  1. Israel is to endure affliction because of their loyalty to YHWH
  2. Israel is promised future consolation and vindication from YHWH as a result of their loyalty to Him

We saw how that background applied to the beatitudes of this Sermon. Now let’s see how it applies to the warnings. 

In the first pair, Jesus warns his disciples that there was an easy “way” with a “wide gate” that led to destruction, and many Israelites among them would enter it to their own destruction. How would this description of a “gate” have illustrated an end-point of destruction? 

The most obvious theological connection with a “gate” is an entrance to a city, but throughout second-temple Judaism and even developing its way through first century Judaism, a “gate liturgy” was commonly understood for proper worship within the Jewish synagogue and temple because of it's explicit paradigm presented throughout the Torah.2 A few Bible commentaries even suggest that the “wide gate” might have been an allusion to the “Beautiful Gate” of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, which was a very wide temple entrance in the first century. By comparison, the “narrow gate” would then be likened to a doorway of a Christian assembly of some kind, or possibly even a synagogue converted into a Christian place for worship. After all, synagogues throughout the second temple period were well known as entrances into the Temple courts.3

Historically speaking, Josephus records that hundreds of thousands of Jews entered the wide and “Beautiful Gate” of Jerusalem and died therein during the siege of Jerusalem between A.D. 66—70. Thousands of more Jews were captured during those wars and enslaved by the Roman government. It is possible, if not likely, that this “gate” language alluded to such destruction. But even more interesting is the connection with the difficult “way” of those who followed Jesus and the easy “way” which lead to the wide gate and their consequent destruction. We see this connection in the following pair.

In the second pair of warnings we find two very interesting comments in connection with Christ’s judgment upon Jerusalem. First, we find the “wolves” and “false prophets” likened unto trees which are recognized by their “rotten” (σαπρὸν) fruit.4 

If Jesus meant that these “false prophets” were false spokesmen of YHWH (i.e. “the LORD”), and that they would disguise themselves as disciples of Israel’s Messiah (i.e. Christ’s sheep), then this is the description of the anti-Christian Jewish authorities throughout Matthew’s Gospel (9:1-13;12:1-14, 22-32; 15:10-20; 16:1-12; 19:1-9; 22:15-22, 34-46). Indeed, it is the Pharisees and their “sons” who Jesus described as “evil trees” whose teaching produces “rotten fruit” (ch. 12):
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to [Jesus], and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, [Jesus] said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. …Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad (σαπρὸν = “rotten”) and its fruit bad (σαπρὸν = “rotten”), for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks… for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Pseudo-Chrysostom made an outstanding observation in his commentary of Matthew 7:15-20. He wrote: 
…these put on the guise of Christians, to the end they may tear in pieces the Christian with the wicked fangs of seduction. Concerning such the Apostle speaks, ‘I know that after my departure there will enter among you grievous wolves, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.’5

That passage quoted comes from Acts 20:29-30, and, interestingly, that was a letter which Paul wrote to the Presbyters of Ephesus

Why is that important, you might ask? 

Well, it was in Ephesus, in Acts 19, that we learn about a Jew named Apollos who “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Messiah was Jesus.”  And there, in Ephesus, we learn that Paul 
entered the synagogues and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8-10)

Hopefully all of these dots are starting to connect. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was addressing Jews who were, at that time, undecided as to whether they would follow him or not. If they followed him, they were warned it would definitely be the “hard way,” not the “easy way” which would lead them all to destruction.  Throughout the book of the Acts of the Apostles we find a similar path, but the chief enemy of the Christians were Jewish authorities. There we saw that the Christ-following Jews were labeled as those who follow “the Way”, but that didn't stop the loyal disciples of anti-Christian Judaism in Ephesus from speaking evil about them, and even plotting evil toward them. Paul even wrote back to the Presbyters later on in Acts and described those same disciples of Judaism as “grievous wolves” entering “the flock” and not sparing them. What this picture illustrates is simple: the New Testament shows us who the enemies of Christ and his sheep were, and they were Jews who remained loyal to the idolatrous and scandalous Judaism of the first century. The "followers" of Jesus on the Mount would either become loyal disciples to the “rotten trees” of anti-Christian Judaism, thereby producing the rotten fruit which Jesus condemned in Matthew chapter twelve, or they would follow Jesus and remain his loyal disciples through "the hard way" that leads to life.

With the next pair of warnings, the message is pretty simple. It describes many people within Israel who would not actually do the will of Jesus’ Father, and therefore would not inherit the Kingdom of God. They were false sons of God characterized by “lawlessness,” not obeying the words of their Messiah, Jesus Christ, or his apostles. 

Finally, in the last pair of warnings, we find an illustration of those who chose to build their houses on sand, and another of those who built on the rock. Unfortunately, because Sunday School rhymes have influenced our reception of this story, it is often assumed by Christians today that Jesus’ purpose was to teach that fools build houses on sand and wise men build houses on rocks, and since Jesus is “the rock” of our salvation all men would be wise to build their house on the Lord Jesus Christ.6

Although that is a true statement all by itself, that is probably not what was originally envisioned. What most Christians today don’t realize is how dehistoricized and far-removed from first century reality such interpretations are. Sometimes I also can't help but wonder if the answers are more obvious than we would like them to be.

Given all the connections mentioned above so far, it would not be a stretch to imagine that Jesus was illustrating a great flood coming upon the house of Israel for refusing to follow his words (and by extension, the words of his apostles) in the first century; and each warning takes for granted that not every house in Israel would survive the Jewish wars of 66-70 A.D. 

Only a fool would have chosen to build his house, as usual, upon the sand in that generation, as though no warnings were given to them about soon-coming judgment upon the land. Only a fool would have refused to build his house upon the rock, the foundation of which was Jesus and his Apostles.

1. Scholars debate as to whether there are eight or nine "official" beatitudes in chapter five, but based on grammar and literary parallels alone, there are most certainly only eight which were intended to form one distinctive literary unit. As far as the grammar is concerned, all eight beatitudes of verses 3 through 10 are addressed in the third person plural ("Blessed are those..."), whereas in verse 11 Matthew records Jesus' words in the second person plural, saying "Blessed are you-all..."). Also, the first beatitude of verse three begins and ends with an inclusio--a structuring device which brackets the beginning and end of a distinctive literary unit--that says "...because theirs is the kingdom of the heavens."
2. L. Michael Morales, The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Ancient Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis And Exodus (Leuven-Paris-Walpole, MA: Peeters; 2012) pp. 46-49, 100-111, 169-178, 214-230, 258-275
3. Donald D. Binder, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature; 1999)
4. As noted above in parentheses within the ESV translation of sections 3 & 4 above
5. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 225
6. A few stanzas of the song are as follows:
The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
And the rains came tumbling down!

The rains came down and the floods came up,
The rains came down and the floods came up,
The rains came down and the floods came up,
And the house on the sand went SPLAT!

So build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ,
So build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ,
Build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ
and the Blessings will come down.

No comments:

Post a Comment