Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The "M'drash on the Mount" Continues

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 5:17-20 (NKJV)

As I mentioned last time, the word 'sermon' does not adequately describe Jesus' intentions as he sits down with his disciples on this Galilean hillside. To fully understand what is going on here we need to examine a little about rabbinical teaching techniques. The Hebrew word that best applies to this situation, I think, is m'drash. This kind of teaching assumes that the listener already has a certain knowledge base, and the purpose of the m'drash is to build on that base. The idea is to drive deeper into the meaning of previous teachings, to dig into the matter. The pattern we find in the verses that follow, "you have heard it said" followed by "but I say unto you", is typical of this midrashic technique. The teacher is saying, "You thought you knew what such and such was about, but I am going to tell you what it really means."

That this sermon falls into this category is confirmed by Jesus' statement, in the above passage, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." He makes it very clear that he is not presenting a "new" teaching, this is not something that will replace the Law of Moses. Rather, it is His intention to bring about a fuller understanding of the truths that have already been presented to his listeners. Moses and the prophets have given them the basic truths, now Jesus will take them to the next level. Nothing is to be discarded, but everything will be enriched by a deeper understanding.

In this light Jesus examines six basic laws, and in each case explains how what they have known is only the beginning. At the heart of each of these laws is a more meaningful truth that has a much broader application than the literal understanding to which the people are accustomed.

Matthew 5:21-26 - Murder

Thou shalt not murder.” A fairly simple and easy to understand law. But Jesus digs deeper and strikes at the heart of the law. He deals with not just the act itself, as the law does, but with the reason for the act. Jesus knows he has to deal not with what we do, but why we do it. In the Kingdom of Heaven not only is there no room for the act of murder, but there is no room for the emotions that motivate it.

So, is Jesus saying that every time we get angry and call that annoying person on the finance committee an idiot we consign ourselves to eternal damnation? I think not; but he is saying that we cannot worship together effectively if we harbor hatred toward one another in our hearts.

In an essay entitled “Thoughts on Various Subjects”, Johnathan swift observed, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” True worship depends on a congregation that is fully reconciled with one another so that there are no ill feelings to interfere with our communion with God.

Matthew 5:27-30 - Adultery

If it is hate that makes us think, “I wish you were dead.”, then it is lust that motivates the thought, “I wish you were mine.” Once again Jesus strikes at the emotion behind the act. Adultery is not really about the sexual act, it is about interfering with the covenant between husband and wife; a covenant Jesus himself compares to the covenant that exists between man and God. Lust, at its heart, is covetousness, the desire to want what we haven’t got and especially what we cannot have.

So soul destroying is this desire in us that Jesus resorts to hyperbole to drive the point home. Cutting off our hands, and gouging out our eyes will not keep us from sinning, but learning to be content in our relationships will. Allowing our sexual urges to interfere with our communion with our spouses, and our God, has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew 5:31-32 - Divorce

Once again, failing to understand the cultural dynamic of a passage has resulted in the passage being severely mis-understood. Many preachers will tell you that this is about the sanctity of marriage, and while that is certainly a factor coming on the heels of the previous four verses, it goes significantly beyond this.

At the heart of the divorce law given by Moses is the legal relationship between men and women. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 required a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce so that other men would know that infidelity was not the reason the marriage was over, giving the woman a chance of being married again. The reality behind this provision was a male-dominated world in which women were little better than property.

Jesus, knowing this, probes deep and finds the attitude that made it so easy for a man to divorce his wife – disrespect for women in general. Jesus was telling his male listeners, “You cannot discard a woman that easily unless she has betrayed the marriage covenant first.” In raising the bar on the subject of divorce Jesus declared that the subjugation of women, regarding them as anything less than equals, responsible for their own spirituality, has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. (There’s a lot more I could say here, but I think I’ll save it for when we get to chapter 19.)

Matthew 5:33-37 - Oaths

I realize this is starting to get repetitious, but once again we need to consider the culture of the day to understand Jesus’ take on this subject. The Law of Moses forbid the taking of false oaths, but Jesus says don’t swear any oath at allWhy? Well, the taking of an oath in the name of one’s god was not just about keeping your word, it was about the relative power of one god versus another. The greater the god you called upon, the more weight your oath carried.

And therein lies the problem. The swearing of an oath in the name of one’s god shifts the responsibility from the individual to the deity. We are, in effect saying, “You can trust me on this because my god will make me keep it, and if I don’t it’s not that I let you down but rather that my god let me down.”

For the worshipers of the true God this is clearly unacceptable. God is not responsible for our integrity, rather our integrity is a key component in our communion with God. When we swear an oath in the name of God, from the Biblical perspective, we are attempting to hold Him responsible for what we do. In the Kingdom of Heaven the purpose of calling upon the name of the Lord is to draw us upward towards his level, not to drag Him down to ours.

Matthew 5:38-42 - Justice

How can it possibly make sense to deal with injustice by inviting it to continue? Surely if someone commits an act of violence against us, it is only fair to exact a penalty of equal value against them? The question Jesus is asking in suggesting this turn-the-world-on-its-head response is, “Do you really want justice? Or are you looking for revenge?

In a world were people responded to an verbal insult by killing the one who insulted you, an ‘eye for an eye’, and a ‘tooth for a tooth’ was considered an act of moderation. However, Jesus understood that retaliation only leads to escalation. He asked his listeners to consider their motives in such situations and look for ways to turn the whole thing on its head and get positive return out of it.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, it is God and God alone who will mete out justice. There is no need for its citizens to seek revenge.

Matthew 5:43-48 - Love

Jesus raises the bar one more time, and in so doing you might say he covers everything you may have thought he left out. In this case he challenges His listeners to lift themselves above the world around them, because the Kingdom of Heaven does not operate on the same level. Anybody can love only those who love them! The challenge for the citizens of heaven is to love everyone, even as God Himself does. You can’t raise the bar any higher than that.

But in this last example we also get a little insight into the relationship between Jesus and Matthew. Remember that Matthew was a tax-collector when Jesus called him to join the band of brothers. How Matthew must have cringed when he first heard the words,"Do not even tax-collectors do the same!" Was Jesus taking a shot at his disciple? Or challenging him to take a good hard look at himself?

And what of Matthew’s response? Did he rise to the challenge or take offense at being reminded of his past? I think it shows Matthew’s own self-effacing nature that he included these words in his gospel. It shows that he not only knows what it is to be a citizen of the Kingdom, but he has also come to grips with the reality of his past. A key step in moving on to new things.

This is crucial to me as a storyteller, to understand the personality of the disciple who wrote the story. Just as it is crucial to understand the cultural dynamics behind Jesus’ midrashic teachings. The question remains however, how do I convey these dynamics when I say these same words in telling these scriptures?

To be honest, I’m still working on that – when I figure it out I will let you know. But this I can tell you: If I have not done the research so that I understand the meaning behind the words that Jesus and Matthew speak, I will never figure out how to convey it in my storytelling. If I do not understand what is being said, neither can I help my audience to understand it.

Until next time... Shalom

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 10

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