Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 5)

As noted in the beginning of this mini-series about the Sermon on the Mount, the whole sermon is laid out for us in the form of a chiasm:

A. Jesus ascends mountain surrounded by crowds (4:23-5:2)
   B. Blessings (5:3-10)
      C. Fulfill “the law and prophets”/ glorify “your Father in Heaven” (5:11-20)
         D. Two triads about Torah (5:21-48)
            E. One triad about spiritual discipline (6:1-18)
         D'. Two triads about Godly priorities (6:19-7:6)
      C'. “This is the law and prophets”/”your Father in Heaven” provides (7:7-12)
   B'. Warnings (7:13-27)
A'. Jesus descends mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1)

In the last post we completed section "C".  Now we are going to tie it into section C', which says:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

At first glance the meaning of section C' (7:7-12) might not seem to correspond to section C (5:11-20) simply because of its difference in size. After all, one section is twenty verses long, whereas I'm claiming that it's corresponding section, section C', which contains only six verses, derives it's meaning from the previous twenty verses near the beginning of the Sermon.

But let's begin by asking some obvious questions, and I hope it will become obvious immediately as to why I think both sections are mutually interpretive. When reading 7:7-12, the first obvious question we ought to be asking (as indeed, we should imagine Matthew's audience asking) is, ask for whatA second question would be this: Knock, and what would be opened to them? A third (and again, obvious) question is: Everyone who asks for what, receives what

To summarize: Everyone who seeks after what, finds what? Everyone who knocks, what will be opened?

I contend that apart from the literary structure of the Sermon itself, according to the way Matthew wrote it (or whoever wrote it--it doesn't matter who wrote it at this point in our inquiry, but what is actually written is most important), there is no clear answer to that question. Scholars conjecture in a wide variety of ways in response to these questions, yet most don't approach it from the Sermon's own literary structure. If you look at the verses immediately preceding this section (which would be section B': 6:19-7:6) I can assure you that you won't find the answer there. The whole Sermon must be taken into account. And since the whole Sermon must be taken into account, why not look to the preceding section which corresponds to it? Yet that is precisely what we are about to do. With a literary approach that pays attention to the internal structure of the speech in question, we will be able to answer the obvious and somewhat naggingly unclear questions above.

The first question, again, was: Ask for what? If we look back to section C (here, here, here, and here), the answers become apparent. They ought to have asked for hope and joy through the coming persecutions. They were to seek to have their light shine brighter than the scribes and Pharisees. And if a door stood in opposition to where Christ was leading them, here in section C' they are encouraged to simply knock and it would be opened for them.

They could also ask for wisdom when others thought their witness to the truth of Jesus Christ was foolish. In retrospect, one might think that would have been an obvious thing to ask, given that Jesus had already warned them about being trampled under foot by hostile brethren opposing Jesus and the good news that his kingdom was drawing near (which, as we have seen in previous posts, necessitated the destruction of Herod's Temple, which many first century Jewish leaders and their disciples idolized).

They could have also sought to obey and teach others about the Law and the Prophets, which included their way of fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Now they are being told that if only their brethren knocked on the door of Christ's Church, they also would be welcomed into his heavenly kingdom. Unfortunately, as we know from historical accounts, such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius (and as noted by a wide variety of Church Fathers), not all of first century Israel took Jesus' advice.

Implicit in all of these illustrations is their asking, seeking, and knocking for good things—what God has revealed to be good things. Those good things they were exhorted to ask for and pursue were—somewhat surprisingly—gifts which only the Holy Spirit could give.

Luke 11:13 clarifies this. (And Matthew seems to be taking this for granted as understood in context.) Luke records the same statement as Matthew, but with one additional phrase: 
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

In Matthew's version ("If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children”) the phrase could be rendered a tad bit more literally, in order to clarify some potential concerns of ours. What Matthew says, more woodenly, is this:
Therefore if you-all, although you-all are evil, know how good gifts are given to your children, how much more…(etc.)1

It turns out that in Matthew's version, Jesus is not accusing all the people before him of being evil. He is offering them a worst case scenario. The “if” is just as important as the “although.” 

Jesus's point is this: Even the most evil parents know how good gifts are given to their children—and it’s not through cruelty, or trickery. Even the most evil parents know how to give good gifts to their children because their children ask for them. Therefore, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him? So then, whatever they wished that others would do to them, they were also to do to them, for such is the Law and the Prophets.

Notice again that along with the "Father in heaven" providing for them, this phrase, "the Law and the Prophets," also shows up. The last time we heard (or saw) these phrases was back in Section C. 

If they wanted to be treated mercifully, they too should treat others mercifully. If they wanted swift and stern justice for every sin, they had to be willing to receive it themselves. If they wanted to receive reconciliation with their family or neighbors, they needed to pursue reconciliation. If they wanted to avoid false accusations of treating others in an evil manner, they had to turn the other cheek and not resist the one who is evil to them. That is what the Law and the Prophets taught!

In other words, if they wanted to live like their God revealed in the Law and Prophets, they needed to live like Jesus. 

We learned a little about the Law and the Prophets in previous posts, so I won't rehearse them here. But I will say this: If Christians today struggle with the God revealed in the "Old Testament" Scriptures, but they also think they don't struggle with Jesus as the God of the "New Testament," they're probably not reading either "Testament" accurately. The God of the Old Testament is Jesus, and the God of the New Testament is YHWH

In the next series of posts I plan on going through sections D & D' in detail, and I hope to show that the common understanding of Jesus' comments about "the Law" are horrendously misunderstood, partly because the literary structure is rarely brought into the discussion, but mostly because Christians today don't actually know what the Law teaches, and therefore assume that Jesus is teaching contrary to it, when in fact he most certainly does not.   

1. The Greek is: εἰ οὖν ὑμεῖς πονηροὶ ὄντες οἴδατε δόματα ἀγαθὰ διδόναι τοῖς τέκνοις ὑμῶν, πόσῳ μᾶλλον…

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