Thursday, November 21, 2013

Part IV Matthew – The Sermon on the Mount

by John Shelby Spong

Jesus never preached the Sermon on the Mount! Some of the content recorded in that well-known part of Matthew’s gospel may well stretch back to the literal words of the Jesus of history, but there was never a time in the life of Jesus of Nazareth when he went up on a mountain and delivered the material we now find in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel. How do we know? We have learned to read the gospels in general and Matthew in particular with Jewish eyes. We have learned how to look into the Jewish background of the gospels and to discern the content taken out of the Hebrew Scriptures and then wrapped around Jesus of Nazareth. We have learned to recognize the Hebrew liturgical traditions, which helped to create the form and much of the content that the gospels contain.

We have escaped what I have called the “Gentile Captivity” of Christianity, which through the centuries has suggested that we either had to read the Bible literally as a historically accurate document or we were being unfaithful to the sources of our faith. The Bible, this Gentile mentality argued, was either literally true or it was not true at all and thus of no lasting value. This attitude was destined to create a biblical fundamentalism, which now comes in both a Protestant and Catholic form and which has been, I believe, the ultimate cause of the demise of Christianity.

This charge, I am convinced, is true even as the fundamentalists claim they are the ones who are resisting the acids of modernity, which they believe will inevitably erode and destroy the ultimate truth of the “Word of God.” The Bible, however, is not literal history; it is not eyewitness reporting. It is a Jewish book, written by Jewish authors, telling a profoundly Jewish story about an indefinable God working in a special human life. If we recover the Jewishness of the Bible, we will be freed from both the killing fundamentalism of our time and from the rebellion against that fundamentalism that masquerades as an unbelieving “secular humanism.” Nowhere in the Bible is this truth better on display than in what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

First some facts. The “Sermon on the Mount” in the gospel of Matthew fills chapters five, six and seven, but it occurs nowhere else in the Bible. Does that mean that the other gospel writers, Mark, Luke and John simply ignored this moment in Jesus’ life, which Matthew proclaims was both dramatic and powerful? Or does it mean that Matthew himself is the author and creator of the “Sermon on the Mount,” and that he alone placed these words and in this form onto the lips of Jesus as a part of his carefully drawn “New Moses” portrait?

It is very clear, as I have tried to demonstrate thus far in this series, that Moses was the image against which Matthew developed his portrait of Jesus. Contemporary biblical scholarship now makes it very obvious that Matthew created the “Sermon on the Mount.” The data for this conclusion is readily available. We look first at the Jewish liturgical practice of the synagogue to give content to this point of view and to this conclusion.

On the fiftieth day after the Passover, the Jews celebrated a solemn holy liturgy that went under a variety of names. It was called “Pentecost,” which simply meant 50 days. It was called the Festival of Weeks because the 50th day was the first day after seven complete weeks. It was called Shavuot because it marked the sacred moment in Jewish history when God was believed to have given the law, the Torah, to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot was observed with a twenty-four hour vigil.

We know today that God did not dictate the Torah to Moses at any point in human history. That is not how the Torah was either created or received. In fact we know that Moses did not write a single word of the Torah. Indeed, the Moses of history died some three hundred years before the first word of the Jewish law was placed on parchment by a human hand holding a quill. We know that the Torah came into being over a period of close to five hundred years from a series of sources that have been isolated and studied over the past two centuries in the academies of higher biblical learning. We also know that the entire Torah was treated with great reverence in Jewish worship centers and that well before the time of Jesus the Torah was read in its entirety in synagogue settings on the Sabbaths of a single year.

We know that when the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon during the 5th century BCE, under the leadership of Ezra, the priest, and Nehemiah, the governor, they covenanted to keep the Torah, to honor the Torah and to acknowledge Moses as the mythological father of the Torah. This devotion found its way into their annual worship life in the festival called Shavuot, observed in the Jewish calendar in the month of Sivan, which would make it fall in late May or early June in our calendar. Shavuot was a time for the Jews to give thanks for the law, thought by the Jews to be God’s greatest gift to the world.

In that celebration, the worship leaders of Judaism called for the people to observe a twenty-four hour vigil in which they would recall the Sinai moment when they believed the law was given to Moses. That twenty-four hour service was divided into eight three-hour segments. For that 24-hour vigil, they created the 119th psalm. Psalm 119 was the longest psalm in the Psalter because it had to provide readings for each of the eight segments in the 24 hours. Psalm 119 was thus made up of 176 verses in 22 segments, with each segment being named after the 22 letters of the Jewish alphabet from Aleph to Taw.

The content of this psalm was and is a constant hymn of praise to the beauty and wonder of the law. It includes such phrases as “My lips pour forth your praise, when you teach me your statues (i.e. law);” “Great peace have they who love your law; for then there is no stumbling block;” and “Happy are they who observe God’s decrees…those who walk in the law of the Lord.” So, once a year, the people would gather at Shavuot in solemn assembly to give thanks to God for the law and to pledge their renewed allegiance to it. Psalm 119, the psalm of Shavuot, begins with an introductory stanza of eight verses. In the first two of those eight verses, the opening word is “Blessed,” which is sometimes translated “Happy.”

The author of Matthew’s gospel quite obviously took that 119th psalm and used it as a model to create the “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew’s introductory stanza to his “sermon,” he made each of its eight verses begin with the word “Blessed.” Today, we call those eight verses “The Beatitudes,” but they are clearly based on Psalm 119:1-8. Then Matthew fashioned the entire sermon to be divided into eight segments in order to provide words of Jesus to be read during each of the eight three-hour segments of the 24-hour vigil of Shavuot. That is how the “Sermon on the Mount” came into being. The rest of this “Sermon” involved a commentary on the eight Beatitudes, but in reverse order, with the first commentary being on Beatitude number eight and the last commentary being on Beatitude number one.

The second thing to notice is that this “Sermon” constitutes a dialogue between Moses and Jesus, although once again the name of Moses is never spoken. This was not an attempt to be supersessionistic, that is, to portray Jesus’ superiority to Moses, but it was designed to portray Jesus as the ultimate and true interpreter of Moses. While Jesus will assert in this gospel that not one “jot or tittle” of the law was to be changed, the whole law was, Matthew suggested, meant to be internalized. By this Matthew was saying that the Torah was designed to cover not just the deeds of one’s life, but the thoughts and motives that always precede the deeds.

In Matthew’s hands, the law became more than just external rules it was also aimed at governing internal motivations. This purpose was articulated by a regular refrain in this sermon: “You have heard it said of old (Moses) you shall not kill;” that was commandment number six, but I (Jesus) say unto you “that murder starts in the hatred of the human heart.” It is not enough to refrain from the act of murder, the law also requires that one deal with the anger and hostility that expresses itself in violence. This refrain was then repeated with the seventh commandment prohibiting adultery. Jesus interprets Moses to say that adultery begins in human lust, in human insecurity and in threats to the human ego. It is not enough to refrain from the act of adultery, one must, in order to fulfill the law, also deal with the lust, the sense of inadequacy that expresses itself in adultery.

The author of Matthew’s gospel was in these three chapters reaching a crescendo in his process of interpreting Jesus as the “New Moses.” He began this process by a story about Moses in his birth of Jesus narrative. He then likened Jesus’ baptism to the account of Moses at the Red Sea. He next portrayed Jesus as like Moses spending time in the wilderness, forty days for Jesus, forty years for Moses. He has wrapped Moses’ critical moments in the wilderness around Jesus as the content of the temptations. Now in this climax we call the “Sermon on the Mount,” he has portrayed Jesus as a “New Moses,” on a new mountain, giving us a new interpretation of the law of God. The “Sermon on the Mount” was thus designed to replace the 119th psalm in the Christian observance of the Jewish Festival of Shavuot.

Matthew is writing neither a biography nor a history. When Matthew wrote his gospel, the Christian movement was still a movement within the synagogue, not yet a separate movement. He was taking the life-changing experience found in Jesus of Nazareth and interpreting it inside the symbols and observances of his Jewish faith system. His Jewish audience understood that and reveled in it. Gentile Christians, blindly unaware of these Jewish traditions and of the content of Jewish Scripture with which Matthew was so familiar, did not. The Gentiles in their misunderstanding interpreted these narratives literally; that was when biblical fundamentalism was born. It is time to reverse this process. This series on Matthew’s gospel is designed to do just this.


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