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.

Sermon on the Mount, Sections B & B' (part 1)

It has been a long time coming, but I am now, finally, prepared to post my thoughts about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I've actually had plenty of notes prepared for years, as one could guess from how much of Matthew's Gospel I have blogged about in the past. I'm just now making time to jot them all down on my blog. Here goes something.

As I noted in a previous post, the literary structure of the Sermon consists of nine parts, and is, of course, structured as a chiasm. Indeed, every discourse in Matthew’s gospel is structured as a chiasm except the central discourse (Matt 13). For the sake of redundancy, I’m going to post the entire literary structure again, below:

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)

Sections “A” and “A’” are self explanatory, so I’m going to begin my comments with sections “B” and “B’.” 

The first part of section “B” worth noting is its emphasis upon “Blessing.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, etc.

The word in Greek translated here as “Blessed” literally means “Happy.” Among the forty five beatitudes of the Old Testament, this word is used to denote blessedness in terms of being in a privileged and fortunate situation—a situation which ought to make you very happy. Furthermore, it’s interesting to notice carefully that all of those old testament beatitudes somehow, some way, cover one of four themes:

1) Those “blessed” all delight in the Law of YHWH
2) Those “blessed” all take refuge in YHWH
3) Those “blessed” all fear YHWH
4) Those “blessed” all trust in YHWH

In each of the Psalms where most of those beatitudes are contained, two more common themes are found surrounding the beatitudes:  First, they all express affliction because of their faithfulness to YHWH. Second, they are all promised future consolation and vindication from YHWH as a result of their faithfulness to Him.

These two themes, I surmise, are also in the background of each “beatitude” in Jesus’ Sermon. Let's now see how this plays out.

When we read the first beatitude and try to view it from the perspective of those who heard Jesus say the first beatitude, we should ask and attempt to answer the question, Who are the “poor in spirit”?

According to the old testament, they are the ones abandoned to the dusty wilderness, and cast aside into the ash heap (I Sam 2:8). They are the ones whose mouths are shut because of injustices of wicked authorities (Job 5:16). They are the ones whom the wicked hotly pursue in their arrogance, and are caught in their schemes (Psa 10:2). They are the “upright” ones upon whom the wicked draw their swords, and bend their bows to slay (Psa 37:14). They are the ones crushed by oppressors and downtrodden in shame because they seek to do YHWH’s will (Psa 72:4; 74:21). 

With such a background, this first beatitude leads me to suspect that it was given to prepare Israel for the persecutions which would arise from those who are “rich in spirit” (ie. the unjust, arrogant, bloodthirsty, oppressors) before the Kingdom came in their generation. Interestingly, even a cursory glance at Luke’s version of this Sermon shows the clear parallels between those who are “poor” and those who are “rich.” Matthew adds “in spirit,” but I think it’s safe to say that Luke’s shortened version still had the same people in mind (Luke 6:20, 24). The poor in spirit would be those who would suffer persecutions for their loyalty to Jesus, whereas those who were rich in spirit would be the persecutors, who have already received their consolation, which is why they felt justified in their allegedly righteous persecutions of others. 

Who are those who mourn, and why does Jesus teach the crowds to not only anticipate “mourning,” but also to welcome it? 

Those who mourn are the ones who lose family, friends, and their home because of God’s judgment upon the land (I Sam 19; 1 Kings 13). They are the ones who believe YHWH’s promise to strike Israel and their leaders with a great blow  (I Sam 6:19). They are the ones who see the faithlessness and apostasy of fellow-Israelites around them (Ezr 10:6; Neh 1:4; Jer. 8:21; 12:4; Dan 10:2). They are the ones who hear the curses of God’s Law and believe the words of YHWH spoken against Jerusalem and it’s temple (Isa 3:26; 19:8; 22:12; 61:2, 3; 66:10; Jer. 6:26; 12:11; 14:2; 16:5; Lam. 2:5; Ezek 27:31).

According to St. Augustine, those who mourn are those who grieve “over the loss of things that are highly prized. Those who have been converted to God are losing the things which in this world they used to embrace as precious things, for they find no delight in the things which they used to enjoy. They are torn with grief until a love for eternal things is begotten in them. …When they have lost temporal happiness, they may fully enjoy the eternal.”1

When I ponder the things in life which were “highly prized” among 1st century Jews, and what attachments they delighted in and embraced as precious, the first things which come to mind are Israel’s inheritance in the land, and especially every way of life which centered on Herod’s temple. This leads me to suspect that this beatitude was given to prepare Israel for the judgment which would fall on Jerusalem and their their people in that generation. Jesus expected them to weep over their most highly prized attachments, and to find comfort in eternal things.

Who are “the meek”? And what does “meekness” have to do with inheriting the “earth” (or “land”, which is what the Greek word can also mean)?

According to the Scripture, the meek are the ones who shepherd Israel and receive abusive treatment from their sheep without retaliating unjustly, trusting that God will see and act justly in response (Num 12:3; II Sam 16:5-12). They are the ones who “refrain from anger, forsake wrath, and delight in abundant peace,” waiting patiently for YHWH to judge evildoers and vindicate the just in the land (Psa 37:1-10). They are the ones who believe YHWH laughs at the wicked. They quietly trust that a day of just judgment awaits their enemies who prosper in the land (Psa 37:11-13). 

This leads me to think that this beatitude reminded Israel to not retaliate toward their enemies throughout the coming trials within that generation and, like King David and his disciples, to patiently trust in God’s vindication for the injustices they would suffer for His name’s sake.

St Augustine, again, wisely said that “The meek are those who submit to iniquities and do not resist evil, but overcome evil with good. Let the haughty, therefore, quarrel and contend for earthly and temporal things. But, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land’—the land from which they cannot be expelled.”2

What does it mean to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”?  What is “righteousness” in this context? Protestants typically think “righteousness” refers to some form of forensic, or legal transition from God to man, making individuals “righteous” in his sight. I don’t think that’s at all what is being referring to here. The word in Greek can also mean “just-ness”, or simply “justice.” This is how St. Jerome and St. Hilary and St. Augustine all interpret it. This “righteousness” or “just-ness” throughout the LXX refers to doing “what is right” or “what is just.” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for “what is just.” But whose justice?  Whose rightness is being referred to here? Is this “starving” for themselves to do what is just, for others to do what is just, or for God to do what is just? 

Jesus’ Sermon seems to describe a healthy fasting for all three:
  1. “For I tell you, unless your just-ness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)
  2. “Beware of practicing your just-ness before other people in order to be seen by them… Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” (6:1-3)
  3. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His just-ness… Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (6:33-34)

Those who “hungered and thirsted” for justice were those, like the Apostle Paul, who desired that God would judge justly among the anti-Christian Jews and Judaizers infiltrating the Christian churches and dividing the faithful within them. When reviled, Paul told his Christian congregation not to take justice into their own hands, but rather to bless those who reviled them; when persecuted, they were told to endure persecution; when slandered, they were told to entreat God for justice (1 Cor 4:11-13). 

All of this leads me to believe that this beatitude prepared Christian Israelites to endure various trials and temptations from men. The Christians would seek justice among their Jewish brethren, but would not find it. Fortunate are those who, starving for justice, await satisfaction from God’s justice. 

In light of this, I found some comments from the Fathers insightful. In the context of Jesus' Sermon, St. Jerome said that “It is not good enough that we desire justice, unless we also suffer hunger for it.”3 

Likewise, St. Hilary of Potiers said that “The blessedness which [Jesus] appropriates to those who hunger and thirst after justice shows that the deep longing of the saints for the doctrine of God shall receive perfect replenishment in heaven; then “they shall be filled.”4

I think they were correct.

I’ll comment on the other beatitudes in the next post. 

1. 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. 22-3
2. Ibid. p. 22
3. Thomas P. Scheck, trans., The Fathers of the Church: St. Jerome Commentary on Matthew (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C., 2008) p. 76
4. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 130