Showing posts with label Ethics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ethics. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 4)

In the last post of this series about the Sermon on the Mount we discussed the significance of a necessary change in the Law once “all has happened.” I also argued for a first century fulfillment of when all that happened. Now I want to focus our attention on Jesus’ statements about “the least of these commandments.” Matthew 5:17-20 records the following words of Jesus:
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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all has happened. Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

People often assume that “the least of these commandments” referred to the commandments of “the Law.” Moreoever, the “Law” allegedly referred to the first “five books of Moses” (although nowhere within the Bible itself does it claim that Moses wrote all five books, or even that the final canonical form we currently have were altogether penned by his hand, thereby forming “the Law” as evangelicals understand it today, but I digress.) Although contemporary claims about “the least of these commandments” referring to the least of Gods commandments within the first five books of Moses is not entirely impossible, it is certainly not a crystal clear connection either.  

Alternatively, the perspective I will be endorsing is that “the least of these commandments” was definitely a reference to the least of God’s commandments, but instead of those commands recorded in the first five books of Moses, Jesus was actually referring to his own words and teaching—that is to say, his own divine commandments to them, which would be considered trivial by many first century Israelites because of the “just-ness” endorsed by Pharisaical and scribal traditions.

I’m certainly not alone in this interpretation. The great St. Augustine also concurred, saying:
But whoever observes them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,’ is to be understood in this sense, namely, not according to the measure of those least commandments, but in accordance with those which I [Jesus] am about to proclaim. 

Pseudo-Chrysostom also shared the same train of thought:
Let us see what are the least of the commandments. Some people hold to one interpretation and others to another, but I think that the Lord clearly shows what they are when he pointedly says, ‘If someone relaxes one of the least of these commandments,” that is, ‘the ones that I am about to say.’

A handful of internal, contextual remarks suggest this to have been the intended meaning. First, neither the “Law” (Genesis—Deuteronomy) or the “Prophets” are merely a set of “commandments” to be obeyed. The Law contains commandments (almost all of which relate to the Tabernacle/Temple), but it mostly consists of stories about human experience & God’s interaction which ought to be trusted. Secondarily, within Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus never appeals to any commandment within Moses’ “Law” without also clarifying how He thinks that commandment ought to be interpreted ethically. Jesus says, “You have heard it said….But I say to you…”. Surely that was a tell-tale signal to his audience that his own words—independent of whatever traditions the people had learned about Moses’s Law—were to be received as authoritative commands. Otherwise Jesus would have simply quoted Moses’ Law and not commented or critiqued traditional interpretations at all! 

Another factor worth noting is that every explicit reference to obedience within Matthew’s Gospel has to do with what Jesus teaches authoritatively, and not merely what “the Law” of Moses recorded. Take, for example, the way Matthew frames the entire Sermon on the Mount, beginning in 4:23ff, in preparation for Jesus to ascend the mountain and give the law, surrounded by crowds, as the new and greater Moses figure:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

At the end of the Sermon, when Jesus descends the mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1), Matthew makes clear that Jesus’ words were authoritative: 
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.

The overall literary purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to portray Jesus as the new and greater Moses, the new and greater Lawgiver of Israel. But these are not the only times within Matthew’s Gospel that we find Jesus’ words and overall message as authoritative. Later on, within this same sermon, Jesus makes it very clear as to whose commands the people ought to obey in order to live:
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. 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. (7:24–29)

Echoing Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus mentions the authority of his own words the people of Israel in the first century:
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-34)

This really shouldn’t be a disputed fact. St. Augustine wasn’t alone in believing that Jesus was referring to his own words. And I’m not alone in believing that “the least of these commandments” were the least of Jesus’ commandments either. A whole litany of references from the Gospels should be conclusive enough:
  Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like (Luke 6:47)
  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
  Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
  Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:47)
  So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples (John 8:31)
  I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (John 8:37)
  Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (John 8:43)
  Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)
  The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ (John 8:52)
  If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)
  The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (John 12:48)
  Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)
  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:24)
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
  Remember the word that I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)

If we go back to Jesus’ statement about filling full the Law and the Prophets, and we walk through the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel with that promise in mind, it seems that the goal of fulfilling “the Law and the Prophets” was to crown Jesus as the only human being in the cosmos, having ascended above all principalities and powers in the cosmos, with authority over all things. Therefore obedience to the voice of the Lord Jesus was to be the sine qua non of entrance into his heavenly Kingdom, as well as the means toward fulfilling all that was lacking under the Old Covenant.
Also, in light of what has been said already in this series, and contrary to all false accusations which would be thrown against 1st century Christians by their anti-Christian Jewish communities, it needs to be emphasized for the sake of abundant clarity that Jesus did not abolish “the Law” or “the first five books of Moses,” or even old testament “biblical commands.” As we will see in upcoming posts in this series, Jesus clearly upheld the Law. He even gave clarity to the Law in ways which the scribes and Pharisees did not, because their focus seemed to always be upon the letter of the Law and not the character of God throughout the Scriptures.
Understanding the character of God throughout the Scriptures is crucial to understanding the authority of Jesus. 
I realize that this might come across as a shock to many Christians today, but a thorough investigation of the Old Testament Scriptures teaches that throughout Israel’s history God actually did not behave rigorously (i.e. Pharisaically or “legalistically”) according to the letter of His own Law. Instead, we find God far more often to be extremely patient and long-suffering, kind and merciful, gracious and forgiving, and not always rendering swift and stern justice, as His own Law demands
Now you might be wondering, how does is this relevant to Matthew 5:17-20 at all? 
It’s relevant because we often end up confused about what “commands” Jesus does and does not require us to keep under the New Covenant. Some theories say that Jesus requires us to keep every jot and tittle of Moses’ Law, including the dietary laws. Other theories say that Jesus abolished the entirety of God’s commands to the people of Israel. But the reality is that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets! He came to fill them full—to reveal that patient, long-suffering, merciful, gracious, and perfectly just and appropriately wrathful God to Israel. Jesus came to put flesh and bones on the image of God Himself as revealed throughout the Scriptures. Christians often don’t see Jesus as wrathful or angry because we are not looking at the New Testament Scriptures in light of God’s Holy Law. And we often don’t see the God of the Old Testament as being patient, long-suffering, or merciful because we are not looking at the “Prophets” in light of God’s Law. 
It is precisely because the foundational Law of God has been “filled full” in Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus and his apostles tell the Church to build the rest of God’s Temple upon them, by obedience to the Law of God, which is also the Law of Christ. 
   For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just-ness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4) 
  For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled by you in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15) 
   This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?
   …For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (I Corinthians 9)

By obeying the voice of the Lord Jesus and teaching others to do the same, the “righteousness” (i.e. their just-ness) of Jesus’ disciples would exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Only those who trusted and obeyed Jesus would enter the Kingdom of Heaven that was about to come. Those who trusted and obeyed the scribes and Pharisees would be cut off.

Jesus did come to bring about necessary changes of the Law—especially in light of the Temple’s soon coming destruction—but he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. All of the necessary changes were centered on life under the old creation, in which the temple in Jerusalem were central and essential. If Jesus had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, the temple in Jerusalem could no longer remain central. The Temple of His Body had to become central. 

The least of his commands had to be kept to definitively end the old covenant, and the least of his commandments still need to be kept in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

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.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sermon on the Mount, sections B & B' (part 2)

Continuing where I left off in part one of this series about the Sermon on the Mount…

In the previous Beatitude we learned that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…” and what that entails.  Here, immediately afterward in verse seven, we find “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Who are “the merciful”?  And is this merciful character contrary to a hunger and thirst for justice? How should we distinguish between mercy and justice?

One of the round-about ways I have tried to understand such questions is to think about how Christians today describe God, Jesus, and our relationship with Him. For example, Christians tend to talk a lot about God’s “grace.” Grace has, for a long time, been defined among Christians as receiving what we do not deserve, whereas “mercy” is defined as not receiving what we deserve. Grace is “unmerited favor”; there is nothing you did or could do to receive it. Grace is uncalled for, unwarranted, and freely bestowed. Mercy, on the other hand, is underserved treatment in light of what you did or could have done differently. Mercy is called for, warranted, and conditionally bestowed. Grace is positive favor irregardless of what justice demands; Mercy is leniency or mitigation in regard for what justice demands. Justice does not necessitate mercy. Yet mercy cannot be implemented without an absolute standard of justice. I think these are all helpful distinctions.

St. Jerome also spoke with agreement, saying that “Justice and mercy are so united, that the one ought to be mingled with the other; justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice, profusion.”1

And as St. Augustine points out, mercy is "coming to the aid of the miserable.”2

Therefore the merciful could be understood as those who hunger and thirst for Godly, or absolute, justice, the justice which only God can perfectly know and dish out. Like Jesus, the merciful are meek before the wicked who oppose Him; they mourn over what absolute justice demands, and so, as St. Augustine pointed out, they come to the aid of the miserable. By contrast, those who remain “rich in spirit” should be expected to receive absolute justice without mercy.

Who, then, according to the next Beatitude, are “the pure in heart”? And what does that have to do with “seeing God”?

The Greek word for “pure” could also (and probably does) mean “clean.” It is most frequently used throughout the Torah to describe those in need of ceremonial impurity, in order to draw near to God.

For example, within God’s Law the hands of God’s people needed to be clean, free from blood and other impurities. Their clothes needed to be clean, free from blood, bodily fluids, and contact with the dead. Their sacrifices also needed to be clean, free from blemishes and sickness. Their houses needed to be clean, free from pollution, mold, and contagious skin diseases. 

All of these were necessary to draw near to God in His house, but interestingly, a “clean heart” was not prescribed; instead, a “clean heart”, was developed through a relationship with God in his Temple. Such was not only taught in the Torah, but Paul also implies that he thought it developed over time through interaction with God. According to I Timothy 1:3-11, it’s developed through understanding and trusting in the goodness of God’s Law, in accordance with the gospel of God. Through understanding and believing in the goodness of God's Law, a “clean heart” that is accompanied by a good conscience and sincere faith in Jesus Christ produces the love which Paul aims for when he commissioned Timothy to confront enemies within the Church. Go and read I Timothy 1 for yourself. It's all taught there. 

In God’s Law, a person who is “clean in heart” is one who fears God and will not betray Him; he is one who loves God with undivided allegiance with all his heart (Deut. 6:1-6). The “clean in heart” are allowed to ascend the Mountain of the Lord, and stand in His Holy Place (i.e the Temple, which was God's "House"). The clean in heart are the ones who want to remain faithful to the Lord without reservation or falsehood, in order to teach others the ways of the Lord (Psalm 24:3-4; 51:10; 73:13).
“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4) 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. …Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Psalm 51:10, 13)

Along with the Psalmist, Christians ought to see how clear the biblical symbolism must have been for first century Jews. St Jerome even noticed it when he said that “The pure is known by purity of heart, for the temple of God cannot be impure.”3

All of this, of course, connects with the next Beatitude. So then, why do we find, in the following Beatitude, it forecasted that “the peacemakers” are going to be called “sons of God”?

I think that an understanding of that question goes along with understanding of first century history. Most Christians I know have absolutely no clue about what was going on in the first century. Nevertheless, we find a taste of something crucial woven throughout the New Testament Scriptures. Indeed, throughout Matthew’s Gospel and throughout the history of first century Christianity, the “sons of God” were divided between Christian Jews and anti-Christian Jews. The anti-Christian Jews of Rabbinic Judaism considered themselves to be the true “sons of God.” That's a fact. According to various historians (like Eusebius, Hegessipus, etc.), first century Rabbinic Judaism was hostile to the “conversion” of Jews to Christianity. Josephus is also heavy on the emphasis of how radical and extreme first century Judaism was. Christian-Jews, on the other hand, did not consider themselves to be “converts,” but rather true heirs of the faith of Abraham through Israel’s promised Messiah; and they were at peace with their rejection by Rabbinic authorities.

Jesus, therefore, was likely teaching Israel that peacemaking would be essential for the world to see who was and was not a child of God and a faithful worshiper of God. It was because Jesus forecasted that there would be warfare and bloodshed that he also forecasted the need for his disciples to be true, non-violent peacemakers. 

As I was studying the Fathers’ comments about the Sermon on the Mount, I came across an interesting comment by St Augustine about the tension between war and peace. He wrote: 
Peace is the fixedness of order; by order, I mean an arrangement of things like and unlike giving to each its own place. And as there is no man who would not willingly have joy, so is there no man who would not have peace; since even those who go to war desire nothing more than by war to come to a glorious peace.4

Here are some questions floating around in my mind, which I think are helpful for us all to consider: Is peacemaking contrary to a hunger and thirst for justice? Is peacemaking contrary to just warfare? Is there even such a thing as just warfare, if God’s people are called to be peacemakers?

One interesting implication of that statement by Augustine is the way in which it relates to God. If it is true that people who go to war desire nothing more than to come to a glorious peace through it, then what does this teach us about the desire of the God we image, who does go to war against His enemies?

When we read the history of Israel and sometimes see the Lord going to war against the evil people and corrupt gods of certain nations (which they remained loyal to), we find at least two issues looming in the background:
  1. Those wicked nations and their gods relentlessly contended with the Lord, without repentance
  2. God’s enemies would not accept His terms of peace or heed his desire for brotherly love

In light of Augustine’s statement above, coupled with the Scripture’s own accounts, one implication of such warfare by God was His desire to bring his people, who did love Him, to “a glorious peace.”

The Scriptures only continue adding to this complex paradox. For instance, it is in the Scriptures that we find God waging war sometimes, but not all times. God wages war against certain people, but not all people. Jesus, the Son of God, says that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword; yet Jesus also says blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Jesus says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword; yet Jesus is the one who promises that many people of Israel in his generation would fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles (Luke 21). And in the book of Revelation we find a whole host of examples of Jesus and his angels waging war upon "the land" from "the heavens." In chapter nineteen the sharp sword used to strike down the unfruitful vineyard of Israel even comes from Jesus’ mouth.

With all of these added complexities in mind, let me show another important quote from St Augustine, who wrote:
Because nothing can contend against God, the children of God are peacemakers; for, of course, children ought to have a likeness to their Father.5

St. Hillary also wrote something along the same train of thought, when he wrote: 
The blessedness of the peacemakers is the reward of adoption, ‘they shall be called the sons of God.’ For God is our common parent, and no other way can we pass into His family than by living in brotherly love together.6

If such claims are all true, the complexities don’t end there. They get even more difficult to sort through once some other views of these saints come into play. For instance, both St. Augustine and St. Hillary believed and taught a “just war” theory, and they even contended against many enemies of the Christian faith; yet in all of their works they also promoted peacemaking and brotherly love, and in some of their works they even pray that God would avenge His persecuted saints in order to bring them peace.

How in the world are Christians supposed to solve this great complex paradox? 

Believe it or not, I have an answer. Or, I should say, the Christian Tradition has an answer which is deduced from the Scriptures themselves. That answer might not satisfy all people, but I have an answer; and that answer begins by understanding the history behind the New Testament. 

It is pretty much an indisputable fact that many first century Jewish authorities and their disciples displayed a kind of ruthless and bloodthirsty zealousness for the expansion of their own empire. They wanted the Roman empire gone and their own independence secured. (An excellent book on this subject is The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism: Jewish and Christian Ethnicity in Ancient Palestine, by Doron Mendels.)

The first century was a time for the people of Christ’s kingdom to make peace and promote brotherly love as much as possible, and to die for the sake of Christ as necessary. By such faithful peacemaking unto death, not only would Christians be dissociated from the “richness of spirit” among the Jewish brethren, but their faithful witness to the truth-claims of Jesus would not be futile either.

With all of this in mind, one might also recall that in the book of Revelation, which describes first century Jewish persecution, we learn that the prayers of the saints who had died in the first century were heard, and the persecution they received for their faithful witness to Jesus was expected to be vindicated. That vindication of the prayers of Jesus’ peacemaking disciples occurred just as promised, by Jesus, beginning in the Jewish wars of 66 A.D. and definitively ending the old covenant administration in 70 A.D., by the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple.
The I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the land?”  

Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake. 

…Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of wrath has come, and who can stand?” 
(Rev. 6:9-17)

According to the Book of Revelation, the prayers of the peacemaking saints were effective and necessary in bringing about God’s justice. Peacemaking is not contrary to praying for God to respond to injustice with perfect justice. We—the Church—need to learn how to put our complete trust in God. And I believe that a life of prayer is the answer to that “how.”

Those of us who tend toward being bloodthirsty for justice, who struggle with jealousy and selfish ambition, need to learn how to pray for God’s mercy and peace upon His enemies and upon ourselves. 

Those of us who tend toward an unrealistic ideal of total peacemaking and pacifism, who delight in timidity or struggle with having any desire for justice (as though that desire itself is taboo in God’s sight), need to learn how to pray for God’s perfect justice. But as we pray for God’s justice and peace, we must not pray or live according to a double-standard

If we pray that others would receive God’s peace, we must be peacemakers ourselves. If we petition God to bring justice upon others who persecute us unjustly, we must expect the same justice to applied to our own selves as well, if God ever catches us persecuting others.

All of this sheds light on the closing Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness (i.e. justice’s) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Why are they “fortunate” if they are persecuted for the sake of justice? And what justice (or whose justice) are they going to be persecuted for?

In the following verse (Matthew 5:11), Jesus tells us whose justice threatens their enemies: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” 

Those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are the same as those who are persecuted falsely on Jesus’ account. They go out among their family and friends, proclaiming the “Gospel of the Kingdom,” but receive persecution for it, as Jesus would forecast again in Matthew chapter 10.

They were “fortunate” to be persecuted for “the sake of the justice” on Jesus’ account—on account of the Just One. They would also be persecuted for being more just than their enemies, and Jesus promised to reward their faithfulness with vindication. 

Since this is what Jesus promised to his first disciples, how much more does such a promise apply to his disciples in every generation thereafter?

1.  Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 131
2.  Denis J. Kavanagh, trans., The Fathers of the Church: St. Augustine Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C., 2001 reprint) pp. 23
3.  Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 132
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid. p. 133
6.  Ibid.