Thursday, March 13, 2014

Part XIV Matthew – The Sermon on the Mount: Sinai Revisited

by John Shelby Spong

Matthew is portraying Jesus as the New Moses who went to the top of a new mountain to deliver a new interpretation of the Torah. He is not a reporter for a local newspaper covering an event that actually happened. Matthew is quite specific in his gospel that Jesus is not delivering a new Torah! He was far too deeply Jewish to think that way. Indeed, he has Jesus say that not one “jot or tittle,” not one comma or period in the Torah is to be set aside by his re-interpretation. For Matthew the Torah will find its ultimate meaning and its fulfillment in the life and teaching of Jesus; that is what he is claiming.

So, if the Sermon on the Mount is the time for Matthew to revisit Mt. Sinai and to understand Moses and the Torah in a new way, it behooves us to become familiar with the Exodus story in which the Torah was originally said to have been given. One can hardly understand Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses on a new mountain, if we do not know much less understand, the original story of Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Jewish method of keeping the great events in Jewish history alive in every generation was to bind these events into their liturgical year. In this way, the essential meaning of these events in history could be celebrated annually, the origins of the tradition re-read or retold and the understanding of the people newly refreshed as the past is liturgically incorporated into each successive generation. This is what both liturgy and liturgical calendars are designed to do. That is why worship almost always celebrates the crucial moments in the religious history of the worshiping people.

The first liturgical event in the Jewish year was Passover observed on the 14th and 15th days of the month of Nisan, the first month in the Jewish calendar according to Leviticus. Fifty days later, the second major celebration of the Jewish liturgical year arrived in their calendar and was observed. Some called this day “Pentecost,” which literally means 50 days, as in from Passover. It was also called “The Festival of Weeks,” because it was celebrated on the first day after the passing of 49 days or seven weeks. The Hebrew word for “weeks” is Shavuot, so that is also a name by which this day was known. Shavuot celebrated that biblical moment when the people of the Exodus, wandering in the wilderness somewhere between the Red Sea and the Jordan River, entered into a covenant relationship with the God who had delivered them from Egypt. This event took place at the foot of a mountain called Sinai. It marked the time when God was supposed to have given the Torah to the people through Moses.

This annual Shavuot celebration came to be observed liturgically with a twenty-four hour vigil, divided into eight three-hour segments. As part of this vigil, the Exodus story would be read in all its fullness. Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Psalter, was created to be used on this day. Its 176 verses were divided into an introduction and seven segments of three stanzas each, thus providing a reading from the Psalter for each of the eight parts of the 24 hour worship vigil. Two of the eight verses of the crucial introductory stanza of Psalm 119 began with a word that was translated by the word “blessed” or “happy.” The body of this Psalm was a hymn of praise to God for the beauty and the wonder of the law, the Torah. Thus it was that this annual celebration of Shavuot kept the Sinai experience current in every new Jewish generation.

There were other major feast and fast days in the liturgical year: Rash Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth and Dedication (or Hanukkah), all of which, we will learn later, shaped Matthew’s gospel, but it is Shavuot that forms the background for Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, our current focus. It was Matthew’s intention to portray Jesus in the role of the New Moses, the one who fulfills the Torah and the prophet that Moses promised would someday come. Before we can understand this connection fully, we must go back to the original Exodus story and fix the Sinai experience in our minds. When we do, Matthew’s Sermon will open up with a new intensity.

Moses and the children of Israel had arrived in their wilderness wanderings at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the land of Midian. There Moses was reunited with the members of his family, whom he had left at the call of God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into freedom. His wife Zipporah and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, came out to greet him. Perhaps even more important to this story is the account that Jethro, the priest of Midian and not coincidentally Moses’ father-in-law, was part of the welcoming party. Jethro was portrayed as being impressed with Moses’ successes. This was to be a meeting of two holy men – perhaps two distinct religious traditions – that needed to come together, but in this narrative, they already appear to overlap significantly. After a brief family reunion, Moses and Jethro entered into a long conversation. Moses recounted to Jethro all the things that “the Lord had accomplished.” The crossing of the Red Sea and the story of manna from heaven were clearly in the background. Jethro rejoiced in these achievements and “blessed the Lord.” Then in an act of mutual recognition, the two “holy men” proceeded to offer burnt offerings and sacrifices to God. Aaron, the high priest of Israel, joined Moses and Jethro and “all the elders” of Israel ate bread together with the two leaders. The religion of Israel and the religion of Midian were coming together.

The next day, Moses sat in the seat of judgment to hear all the disputes that had arisen among the people on this journey. It was his role as the tribal leader to render a decision in each dispute. The case load was so large that this “court” lasted from morning to evening. Jethro watched this process with increasing dis-ease. Later he shared his feelings about this process with Moses in private. Moses defended this process, saying that this was his way of teaching the people “the statutes of God.” Jethro countered by saying that one person cannot be the sole judge for an entire nation. Then he said to Moses: “You must teach them the statutes of God and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do.”

The way to do this, Jethro continued, was to divide the people into groups of 1000 and choose leaders for each group of 1000 from among those “who fear God and are trustworthy; people who hate a bribe.” Then, Jethro continued, you must further divide the groups of 1000 into groups of 100, then 50 and finally 10, with chosen leaders over each of these smaller units. Disputes that cannot be settled at the 10 level will be passed to the leader of the 50 level. If they cannot be settled at the 50 level, they will be passed to the leaders of 100 and then to the leaders of 1000. You, Moses, will then deal only with those issues that cannot be decided by the leaders of the units of a 1000. Moses agreed to this plan and this organization was set up.

There was still a problem, however. By what standards would these smaller unit judges make their decisions? Only Moses seemed to know what the law of God was. Is every judge to render decisions based on the opinion of that judge alone? How could the confusion of their interpretations be avoided when these judges made different decisions? A unified nation needs a unified body of law, an objective standard on the basis of which judgments are to be made. It was not enough that Moses talked to God alone to discuss the divine will; that will must be revealed to all the people and then codified for all to read and to learn. While it was clear that this need was apparent, there was still the political problem that unless the law of God flowed through Moses, the authority of Moses would be undercut. So Moses laid down the process by which the law of God could flow through Moses to the people. It was to be a dramatic scene of divine revelation.

Three new moons later, after the escaping former slave people were encamped at the foot of a mountain in the wilderness of Sinai, it was said that God called Moses to come up the mountain to confer. In that consultation, God offered a covenant or contract to the people: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession.” I will turn you into “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” The people agreed that this was what they wanted. Moses then took their consent back to God. Then the plan was made whereby the will of God would be revealed to the people in a very dramatic, awe-inspiring moment. God was coming to speak through a cloud so that the people could hear the divine will for themselves.

The people consecrated themselves for two days by washing their garments and refraining from sex to make themselves ready for the divine Epiphany that was to occur on the third day. Boundaries were set around Mt. Sinai; people who transgressed these boundaries would do so on pain of death. All was in readiness.

When the third day arrived, the book of Exodus informs us that there was thunder and lightning and then a dark cloud covered the mountain. The people watched as the mountain was covered in smoke and fire and then the mountain quaked as the trumpets blew louder and louder. Next Moses called to God and God came down from the sky to the mountain. God instructed Moses to bring Aaron up. The high priest must also be validated. That was how the words of the Torah were said to have entered human history. In Shavuot the will of God became objective law, but Moses was the means of the revelation. Aaron and the priests were now in the loop of authority.

An objective standard had been created to which every one who judged could appeal for authority. The only way the law could be altered was for a new Moses to reveal a new insight into the law and in the process be validated by all the people as a new deepening of an old revelation. That was what Matthew was claiming when he portrayed Jesus as delivering the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed Matthew created the Sermon on the Mount to validate the claim that Jesus was the New Moses. We will look at the Sermon in detail when this series resumes.


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