“Repent, and Believe in the Gospel” – Mark 1

The Gospel of Mark starts off at a frenetic pace, matching the boundless and exuberant energy of John and Jesus as they announce the gospel message: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus called disciples to “Follow” and they did, immediately. This is a gospel, good news, whose power and import we can still sense today.

With this episode I’d like to do another close reading of a New Testament chapter like I did with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. I had a tough time choosing what chapter to do next because there are so many I would like to do. But I finally chose the first chapter of Mark because of a line that’s been repeating in my mind. And that line is, “Repent and believe the Gospel”. This is from verse 15. Why has this been repeating in my mind? That’s something I’ve had to think about. And here’s one reflection I’ve had on it: 2000 years ago something happened, something really important, and it makes demands of us, life-changing demands that will not leave a person the same, but rather completely transforms you into a new creature. That event was the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think about the Gospel writer and what he intended to do with this account. It was important to him to spread this message. It had been spread for decades by word of mouth but writing it down preserved it and increased its reach. It was important to know what had happened, who Jesus was, and what he had done. And I believe it’s important. I can appreciate the need and urgency of the Gospel writer to talk about it and give witness to it.

One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is his sense of urgency. The pace of the Gospel is exhilarating. I characterize Mark with one Greek word and that is εὐθὺς (euthus), immediately! Everything is εὐθὺς. There’s no relaxing, no taking a moment to catch your breath in Mark. Jesus is constantly on the move and we are on the move with him. This word is used 11 times in chapter 1. I don’t know what the reasons were behind this but the effect it has on me is animating, a feeling of being driven. This is something that the Spirit does. It even does it to Jesus in this chapter: Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ Πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει; And immediately the Spirit drives him out. I feel driven along in the story of Jesus and driven to think about it constantly and to talk about it. I can’t really explain the mechanisms behind that and it makes sense not to be able to. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born of the Spirit is like the wind blowing where it wants to, you hear the sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8). It’s not really explicable but the experience is palpable.

Mark chapter 1 really grabs me and speaks to me in this way. So it’s a text I want to read and talk about.

Mark 1

Verse 1

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I read this as the opening of a great announcement. Something is coming. Someone is coming and we need to get ready. It’s not only an announcement but a good announcement. The gospel, the εὐαγγέλιον  (euangelion), is good news and it is good news about the person Jesus Christ, Χριστός (Christos), the Anointed, the One who is anointed king and Lord. It was practice in Israel to anoint, מָשַׁח (mashach), a king and as such the king was the Anointed, in Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (meshiach), or Messiah, Χριστός (Christos) in Greek. The king was also a son of God, a title given here to Jesus. But in the case of Jesus we can understand it to have a deeper, more literal meaning, that Jesus is actually divine.

Verses 2 – 3

As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’”

The beginning of the chapter is immediately interrupted by quotations from scripture. But these interruptions also move the story forward. They bolster the importance of what is coming. This has been anticipated for centuries. The quotes are from Malachi, Exodus, and Isaiah. Specifically these are quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the scriptures.

Malachi 3:1

“Behold, I send My messenger (ἄγγελος, angelos), And he will prepare the way before Me.”

Exodus 23:20

“Behold, I send an Angel (ἄγγελος, angelos) before you to keep you in the way.”

Isaiah 40:3

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert

A highway for our God.’”

In the Septuagint translations of Malachi and Exodus the word used is ἄγγελος (angelos). This is also the word Mark uses in quotation. It means messenger and the cognate “angel” is essentially a divine messenger. Also related to the word gospel, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). In Hebrew, מֲלְאָךְ (malach), also has this same double meaning, as either an earthly messenger or a divine messenger. An important message is coming.

And actually, I’d like to quote that Isaiah passage in a fuller context because it’s quite beautiful and, I think, appropriate to the kind of important message that the Gospel brings.

Isaiah 40:1-3

“’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.’ The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.”

This is a passage of the LORD turning back in kindness toward the people of Israel. The book of Isaiah has two sections of noticeably different tone. Noticeable at least after it’s pointed out. Some people think the second section was even written by a different person. And that may be the case. But regardless the arc of the book is toward reconciliation. A great summary of this whole theme is in Isaiah 54:7-10.

“’For a mere moment I have forsaken you, But with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ Says the Lord, your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’ Says the Lord, who has mercy on you.”

This is an important transition and I don’t think it’s a stretch to see a similar transition on the horizon here at the beginning of Mark.

Verses 4 – 5

John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Here we meet the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The messenger, the ἄγγελος of the εὐαγγελίου. This is John the Baptist. And what is his message? A baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Four major parts I see to this, one problem with three responses.

The problem is sin. This is a problem throughout scripture. Sin is what caused the LORD to hide his face in an outburst of wrath with Israel (Isaiah 54:8). And there are three responses to this problem in John’s message: baptism, repentance, and remission of sins.

This reminds me a little of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that dukkha (suffering, pain, what cannot be satisfied) is an innate characteristic of existence in the realm of samsara. The Second Noble Truth is that nirodha (cessation, ending) of this dukkha can be attained. In Buddhism this cessation of suffering is attained through renouncement of taṇhā (“craving, desire or attachment”).

There’s a similar pattern in what John preached. In John’s message the fundamental problem is sin. But the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), the good news is that it is possible to overcome sin. A remission of sins is possible. And this comes about through a dramatic transformation that we see in baptism and repentance, or βάπτισμα μετανοίας (baptisma metanoias), baptism of repentance. Scriptures speak of baptism as a new birth, being born again as a new creature. For example, Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Paul said:

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς, en kainoteti zoes). For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” (Romans 6:3-6)

I quote this passage from the Epistle to the Romans quite frequently and it’s because I think it’s a core principle and one of the most important passages in the Bible. I think it’s instructive of the degree of transformation that occurs in the process of being born again. I also think one of the most important words in the New Testament is καινός (kainos), new. Christ makes all things new. Whatever is stale and bereft of energy that is what Christ is able to enliven and make new. Paul said to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Verses 6

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John’s clothing and diet were quite severe. And it seems from what we read that John and his followers were quite a bit more strenuous and ascetic in their practices than Jesus and his followers. For one thing John and his followers seemed to have fasted more, to the point that it was a noticeable difference. “And they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples fast not?” (Mark 2:18) Jesus also, somewhat humorously and sardonically, comments on the different ways people criticized him and John: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.” (Matthew 11:18-19)

I find these differences between John and Jesus quite interesting and it’s notable that both are esteemed. There is more than one way to live and act in the service of the Kingdom of God. Paul said as much to the Corinthians:

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

John’s strenuous practices are not necessary to emulate. But it is one way live.

Verses 7 – 8

And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is fascinating to me because I already find the baptism with water and the transformation of one’s nature that comes with it to be extremely powerful and inspiring. But there is more. John says this is just the beginning. Jesus comes and will bring a second baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus made a point of this before his crucifixion that he was going to send the Paraclete, παράκλητος (parakletos), the comforter, helper, or advocate. This is the Holy Spirit.

John’s words are even more evocative in the Gospel of Matthew where he says:

“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

I find this evocative because I think many of us can relate to the experience of the Holy Spirit in this way. It feels like a fire lit from within that energizes and enlivens. I think of the words of the people who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

The most dramatic account of the Holy Spirit is on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection:

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them dividing tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3-4)

It’s notable I think how the Spirit is emphatically active and driving events and speech. The Spirit was giving them utterance, it enabled them and empowered them to speak.

Verses 9 – 11

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Here we actually meet Jesus for the first time and things move very quickly. The author doesn’t dwell or rest for a moment. Everything happens immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus). Baptism is a moment of transition for everyone and it is for Jesus as well. Everything gets moving after this and Jesus’s ministry hits the ground running. The Holy Spirit descends on him and God the Father announces his divine sonship and favored status.

Verses 12 – 13

Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.

So things move very quickly here. Jesus is baptized and he’s off, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Note again the Spirit’s very active role in things. Jesus is not John. He’s not an ascetic in the same way. But it’s interesting that he does pass through a strenuous period. We don’t hear much about this in Mark. Matthew gives more detail about the kinds of temptations Jesus faced.

Of note here is the fact that Jesus was subjected to temptation. This is not incidental, but rather central to Christ’s saving mission. We read in the Book of Hebrews:

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

One of the supernal Christian doctrines is that Christ was both fully God and fully human. Both are crucial. Christ experienced all the weakness and trials we experience as humans.

Verses 14

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God

We must note the detail that John was put in prison. Here we see briefly something that Jesus will also face. Both John and Jesus were controversial and destabilizing preachers. And it’s important to remember that. David Bentley Hart has called Christianity “irrepressibly fissile” and I like that description. This shouldn’t be surprising because Jesus told his disciples that the gospel would invite contestation.

“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.” (John 15:20)

The gospel goes against the grain of much that is taken for granted in the world. It’s hardly conformist, so resistance shouldn’t be surprising. Nevertheless we should be careful not to justify antisocial behaviors and misanthropic attitudes for their own sake, as if these are essential to gospel faithfulness. Sort of the “You offend everyone so you must be doing something right” attitude. That’s just immature. Christian discipleship is not marked by misanthropy but by love. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It’s precisely this kind of Christian love that makes demands of us in a way that we resist. For example, John taught:

“He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
“Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”
“Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
(Luke 3:11-14)

Those aren’t things we always want to hear. John also spoke out against sexual excess, particularly of the local ruler Herod. And this also goes against the grain of culture, both Greco-Roman culture and our modern culture. These aren’t things people really want to hear.

Verse 15

And saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Here is the main passage that has inspired my interest in this chapter, the summary of Jesus’s preaching.

Now let’s look at Mark’s summary of Jesus’s preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The kingdom of God, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basilea tou theou), is an important theme in the gospel accounts and was clearly central to Jesus’s preaching. It was the subject of many of his most famous parables. For example, in Matthew 13 most of his parables begin with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like”:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind”

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of the world, for many reasons (Mark 10:42-43). And the preaching of this coming kingdom makes demands on us. Jesus preached two things in these verses that people must do: (1) repent and (2) believe in the gospel. What is the gospel? Verse 14 says that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God”. The subject of the gospel is this kingdom of God. We are supposed to repent and to believe in this announcement of the kingdom of God.

“Repent”, Jesus says, in greek, μετανοεῖτε (metanoiete). Etymology is not always indicative of meaning or use, something to be careful of in Biblical interpretation, but in this case it actually is. Μετάνοια (metanoia) means after-thought or beyond-thought and is commonly understood as “a transformative change of heart” and “a fundamental change in thinking and living”. Like I brought up previously with the idea of being reborn and becoming a new creature in Christ through baptism, transformation is fundamental to the gospel message. Things don’t just stay as they are. They must become new.

Verses 16 – 19

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.

It’s possible that Mark’s characteristically brisk account abbreviates events here. Or, as I’m inclined to think, the immediacy may serve a narrative purpose. They immediately left their nets and followed him. Immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus), Mark’s favorite word.

We see here something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship”. And we also see in this one of the apparent paradoxes of Christ’s gospel. Jesus said that his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) but it would also seem that the corresponding action of taking on his yoke is total. The demand is total but the reward is also total; all for all. We see this in a gospel account, in Luke, of would-be disciples who were not so totally committed in their discipleship:

“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.’ And another also said, ‘Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:57-62)

This is undeniably astounding. God’s grace, the gift of salvation is glorious and infinite. But still, from the perspective of our immediate circumstances the cost required is jarring. Yet Simon, Andrew, James, and John meet that demand. They immediately leave their nets and follow.

Verses 21 – 22

Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus taught as one having authority, ἐξουσία (exousia). And, being God, he certainly did have authority. I don’t think it’s a fault on the scribes’s part that they didn’t teach in this way. That wouldn’t have been proper. They could only refer to the authority of the scriptures. Jesus certainly quoted scripture as well but he also went beyond the things that scripture said. And this would be quite striking to hear. Imagine:

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21-22)

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” (Matthew 5:27-28)

Jesus would quote scripture and then add to it. As he said, he wasn’t destroying the law but fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17). Still, that’s not something that can be done without authority. And Jesus didn’t have to say, “This is according to so and so or to such and such a verse”. He just taught in virtue of his own authority. And it was noticeable, astonishing to those listening to him.

Verses 23 – 26

Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 

A lot of things going on in these verses. For one thing, the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. He is called “the Holy One of God”, ὁ Ἅγιος τοῦ Θεοῦ (ho Hagios tou Theou). This is a testimony of a sort, albeit from an unholy source. It’s interesting that Jesus not only commands the spirit to come out of the man but also tells it to be quiet. One theme in the gospel of Mark is that Jesus is often telling people not to reveal who he is. He even does this when Peter makes his confession:

“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.” (Mark 8:29-30) In Biblical criticism this is sometimes called the “Messianic secret”.

Also of note here is that Jesus is an authoritative and successful exorcist. And this was something that caught people’s attention, as we’ll see in the next couple verses.

Verses 27-28

Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.

Jesus’s exorcisms and his miracles in general were definitely evidence of his identity and authority. Much as he was able to teach with his own authority, the fact that he was bold enough to (1) command the unclean spirits and (2) that the unclean spirits actually obeyed him got people’s attention. It marked him out as someone different doing something new. So that they would ask, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” What new teaching, διδαχὴ καινή (didache kaine)?

The word “new”, καινός (kainos), is one that I try to pay attention to whenever it shows up.

In Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. “New covenant” being διαθήκην καινήν (diatheken kainen) in the Septuagint Greek. (Jeremiah 31:31)

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” ἀσκοὺς καινούς (askous kainous). (Mark 2:22)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Christ’s gospel isn’t just novelty for the sake of novelty.

One example of newness in the New Testament that is ambiguous, whether it’s good or bad, is in the account of the Athenians.

“And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine [ἡ καινὴ (he kaine)] is of which you speak?’ …For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” τι καινότερον (ti kainoteron). (Acts 17:19,21)

It’s not obvious here but seems to be implied that this perpetual search for novelty among the Athenians was not an unqualified positive attribute. Still, Paul does play into it, in a way that cleverly combines the old and the new. The new teaching that he proclaims is of the God they have been worshipping from ancient times, without understanding.

“I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD [ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ (AGNOSTO THEO)]. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” (Acts 17:23-28)

Paul indeed gives them a new teaching. But he grounds this in ancient practice and ancient truth. The Unknown God is the God who has always been there in the background, sustaining all things. This is consistent with Jesus’s new teachings, which do not destroy old teaching but fulfill. The new covenant fulfills and furthers the old covenant. As a point of speculation, this might be a way of taking advantage of the freshness of new teachings while staying grounded in the old. This aspect of newness does seem to be one of the Gospel’s central attributes. And this seems thematically consistent with the gospel as a whole. In Christ, the stale and deteriorating are not the order of things. Things do not end in death. Resurrection brings renewed life and energy to all things.

Verses 29 – 39

Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them. At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him. Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.” And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.

Jesus healed, cast out demons, and preached the good news of the coming kingdom of God. His ministry was intrinsically itinerant, moving from one town to the next. “Because for this purpose I have come forth”. I quoted earlier where Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58) In addition to being a comment on the cost of discipleship it also highlights the itinerant nature of his ministry.

We see here again the Messianic secret: “and [he] cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him”. It’s also worth noting the importance of the immediate, physical aspect of Jesus’s service. I think it’s certainly true that the universal blessings of Christ’s atonement, our redemption from sin and death, are most important. Still, Jesus was exceptionally compassionate toward those in his immediate presence. And I think this also teaches us something about the nature of God.

Verses 40 – 45

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.

I think this is a wonderful account in which we are able to see something of the nature of God in Jesus. The leper says, “If You are willing.” Is Jesus willing to heal? Jesus says Θέλω (Thelo), I will it, I want it. Of course Jesus wants the man to be healed. Furthermore, Jesus is “moved with compassion”, σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis). σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is one of my favorite greek words, both for the way it sounds and for what it means. It means to have compassion. The roots of this verb, σπλάγχνα (splagchna), are literally the internal organs, and figuratively the visceral seat of emotions. σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is a kind of full-bodied experience of compassion and I strongly associate it with Jesus in the New Testament writings. Jesus wants to heal and wants to do it because of his overwhelming love for people.

Jesus said that the attributes we see in him are indicative of the attributes of God.

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Also in the gospel of John:

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)

We can look to Jesus to understand the character of God. And what we see is love that surpasses all expectations. God is like the father of the Prodigal Son. All that the prodigal son imagines and hopes to expect is: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” But the Father rejoices and invites everyone to rejoice at his homecoming.

“Follow Me”

In conclusion I’d like to revisit a couple passages in this chapter. A couple weeks ago I was reading in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks about the mission of the Holy Spirit. He said: “But the Parclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26) This is one significant way I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit: by being made to remember the words of Jesus. And one of these things impressed on my mind is this call: “Repent and believe the Gospel”.

It’s remarkable to me how Simon and Andrew, James and John just drop everything from their previous life and follow Jesus at his sudden command: “Follow me”. I wonder what they felt. Were they excited? Afraid? Likely both and more?

The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor often portrayed Gospel ideas through violence. That’s certainly strange and admittedly idiosyncratic. And even though that kind of literary illustration is an exaggeration and a distortion I think there’s wisdom in it. In a way the Gospel is simultaneously destructive and constructive. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24) We are meant to both die with Christ and rise again with Christ. Even if O’Connor’s use of violence to portray this is literary exaggeration it correctly conveys the idea that Christian conversion comes with an impact and great power.

Now that may or may not sound appealing. Certainly the call of the Spirit has not always been completely welcome. Jeremiah resisted it:

“O Lord, You induced me, and I was persuaded;
You are stronger than I, and have prevailed.
I am in derision daily;
Everyone mocks me.
For when I spoke, I cried out;
I shouted, ‘Violence and plunder!’
Because the word of the Lord was made to me
A reproach and a derision daily.
Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him,
Nor speak anymore in His name.’
But His word was in my heart like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
I was weary of holding it back,
And I could not.”
(Jeremiah 20:7-9)

So that’s both awesome and frightening. But not all so moved resist in this way.

Paul called himself a slave to Christ, δοῦλος Χριστοῦ (doulos Christou) (Romans 1:1). That may not sound so appealing. Especially as a modern, freedom-loving American it certainly makes me do a double-take. But Paul delighted in this. Paradoxically, he considered this slavery to Christ a kind of liberation and taught that there was liberty ἐλευθερίᾳ (eleutheria) in Christ.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1)

And what are we freed from? We are freed from sin by submitting to new mastery under Christ.

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free [ἐλευθερωθέντες (eleutherothentes)] from sin, you became slaves [ἐδουλώθητε (edoulothete)] of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:15-23)

We can be slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. But the wages of each diverge sharply. The wages of sin is death. But submission to Christ, even though it is all-demanding, is also fully liberating. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. And the gift of God is eternal life.

When I hear, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” I hear it as Paul, Simon and Andrew, James and John. It’s all-demanding, awesome, frightening, and glorious. It is the ultimate “good news”, εὐαγγέλιον  (euangelion), that must be announced.

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7

This is the last in a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7 Jesus taught: “Judge not”, “Ask, and it will be given to you”, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them”, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life”, “You will know them by their fruits”, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”. As Jesus teaches about the narrow gate and difficult way consider what it means to live according to “The Way” as a disciple of Christ.

This will be the third and last episode of this trilogy on the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve decided to give the Sermon on the Mount special attention for personal study. Preparing and presenting my thoughts on these passages has been a good way for me to organize and record my thoughts. I hope it’s also of some value to readers and listeners. I see the New Testament as the central text of Christian life and the Sermon on the Mount is among the most important sections of the New Testament. Definitely in the top tier. This is where we really get to see who Jesus is and what he is about. And also who God is and what God is about. As Jesus said: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). By studying the Sermon on the Mount we’re learning about Jesus and we’re learning about God. We’re learning about “The Way”, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), which is also Jesus Christ (John 14:6), “I am the way” – Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos). The Sermon on the Mount shows The Way we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. And as we will see in Matthew 7, The Way is strict and narrow, so it’s important to pay close attention to it’s exposition in scripture.

Part of what got me into a close reading of this sermon in particular is what I perceive to be something of a Christian identity crisis. “Who are we?” and “What are we about?” 

I’m thinking especially of Christianity in the United States but I’m sure similar challenges occur in other countries. It’s by no means a settled conclusion that just by calling ourselves Christians or followers of Christ, by making a declaration to the world and to ourselves that we are his followers that that makes it so. As we’ll see in this chapter, that is often not the case. How to find our way? In the Bible certainly. And I think the Sermon on the Mount especially is a great place to look for the fundamentals.

So let’s dive in.

Matthew 7:1-5

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This is a tough one. How do you not judge? And what does it mean to judge? This is one of those verses like Matthew 19:24, that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” where we always want to say, “hmm, it must really mean that.” And soften it somewhat to make it more practical. It’s probably apparent that I’m skeptical of that method of interpretation. But that’s not to say it’s not at all legitimate or can’t be justified. Jesus was, afterall, a very nonliteral, metaphorical and parabolic teacher. So sometimes his teachings shouldn’t be taken literally. But this passage doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for that kind of interpretation. The message seems pretty clear: do not judge – Μὴ κρίνετε (Me krínete). So how does that work in practice?

Part of what makes this passage difficult is that it’s certainly not the case that just anything goes. There is still such a thing as right and wrong and understanding the difference is a form of judgment, if not of individuals, than at least of certain actions, even if abstracted from specific instances and specific individuals. So for example, if someone says that it’s wrong to do something it’s not sufficient to just say, “Oh, don’t judge!” That wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of Christ’s teachings. So, don’t try to use that as a lame excuse for your own bad actions. Jesus taught tons of things to do and not do. Even saying “Judge not” is saying not to do something. In terms of actions it’s making a judgment about judgment. So this isn’t some kind of loophole to get away with whatever you want; it’s not a shield for your own sins. There’s still right and wrong, even as Jesus says, “Judge not.” So how does this all fit together?

Let’s work our way back from the end of the passage where Jesus says: “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” So we’re not supposed to just leave things as they are with everyone. We are supposed to help each other and that includes moral help, helping people to repent of their sins and change for the better. We might say that involves some kind of judgment. But it seems to be a different kind of judgment than the kind Jesus has in mind when he says “do not judge”. What is the difference?

One pitfall is hypocrisy. “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite!” So one problem is not having your own self in order before going out to reform others. I struggle a little with this because even in this case the motivation seems honorable. “Let me remove the speck from your eye”. The person has a speck in their eye. They need help. What’s wrong with trying to help someone else out with their moral problems even though we have our own or maybe even worse moral problems? Can’t we just say we’re all screw ups trying to straighten ourselves out together? I think maybe we can, as long as we’re not pretending. Or, if I can make up a word, as long as we’re not hypocrite-ing, one meaning of the verb ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrínomai) being “to pretend”. The problem here may be less having a plank in your eye than pretending that you don’t have one. But of course, better still is to actually “remove the plank from your own eye” as Jesus says, to be even more effective in helping others to remove the specks from their own eyes. And maybe to be on the safe side, to be in more precise alignment with Jesus’s teachings, one ought just to be complete that process first. It might be like how they say on the airplane that with a loss in cabin pressure you should put on your own mask first and then help others put theirs on.

All of this I think should be understood in reference to that first commandment in the chapter, “Do not judge,” which I see as a kind of center of gravity for all the rest of this. Whatever interpretations we may make of the other parts of the passage, they should conform to that. Not judging is the baseline rather than an afterthought.

There’s a similarity here of the teaching that “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged” to the supplication in the Lord’s Prayer in the previous chapter that God “forgive us our debts, as – Ὡς (Hos) – we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12). There’s a similar consistency in the measure – μέτρον (métron) – used. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) How strictly do you want to be judged? Do you want to be judged harshly or laxly? Do you want your words to be interpreted in the worst possible way or in the most charitable way? If we want to be judged laxly and charitably we should be lax, charitable, and forgiving toward others.

Matthew 7:6

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

On one level the meaning here isn’t too hard to grasp. Some things are special and should be treated as special. Special things should be separated from common things. This is an idea that runs throughout the Bible. On another level though it’s not entirely obvious why this verse is here. What does it have to do with the verses that precede and follow it? Is it to be understood as a separate saying in isolation or does it relate to the other verses?

First on the subject of specialness or separation, looking at the cultural context in the ancient Israelite thought, in Hebrew the word for “holy” is קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh), which also carries the sense of separation. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorized that many cultures have this concept of separation between the “sacred and profane”. By “profane” Eliade just meant not sacred, something common or part of normal daily life, something not special or separate from the usual. The Torah talks a lot about how priests and people would need to be cleansed before coming into sacred spaces like the tabernacle. So this idea here that Jesus is getting at, that you don’t just mix special things with normal or dirty things, has a very rich cultural background.

Does this saying connect to the others? It’s not totally clear. But we can speculate or try to make an (I think) acceptable interpretation, whether or not it was originally intended. The most plausible connection I’ve seen is that pearls represent the “brother” who we might be inclined to judge. And that in judging a brother we are treating them dismissively as not-special, as common and profane things. Reminds me of a little alliterative maxim I have, “people before principles”, which I justify from Jesus’s teaching that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Principles are important but it’s also important to remember that they exist for people. Sabbath violation was one of the things Jesus and his followers were always being judged for and he repeatedly told people to step back and think about the bigger picture, what the Sabbath is and how it serves man. Can be applied to other commandments as well and that’s something to think about when there’s that temptation to judge.

Matthew 7:7-12

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

This saying reminds me of others in the Sermon on the Mount, like in chapter 6 about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field just being taken care of without having to worry. It seems like a similar kind of childlike trust in God providing. “You need something? OK, just ask.” Jesus even compares it to a parent-child relationship. When a child needs something the parents take good care of them and give them what they need.

Now the first thoughts I have reading this are: (1) I’ve asked for things before and haven’t gotten them and (2) kids ask for things all the time that parents either don’t give them because they shouldn’t or don’t give them because they can’t. My daughter has asked me for a “real spaceship or a “real magic wand but those are currently either outside my budget or outside the constraints of reality (as far as I’m aware).

A few thoughts on this. One is that, thinking of this saying in relation to the sayings about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field, those earlier sayings were, in part, about simplicity. We aren’t supposed to even worry about what to eat, drink, or wear. That’s pretty basic stuff. Jesus just says we’ll be taken care of. But you’d think we shouldn’t expect any great extravagance in what we’ll be provided, at least not in terms of worldly expectations. So that might apply as well to the “Ask, and it will be given to you” saying.

Another interesting thing here is that there’s a similarity to the Lord’s prayer from chapter 6, where Jesus says that we should ask to be forgiven our debts, in accordance with the way we forgive our debtors; that there’s a symmetry here between the way we treat others and the way the Father treats us. And we see that here again. The “Golden Rule” verse is often taken in isolation, and I think that’s fine. But it’s worth noting that the verse has a “Therefore” – οὖν (oun). So it’s a kind of conclusion taken from the previous verses. “Therefore, whatever you want men (οἱ ἄνθρωποι) to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” What is this being concluded from? Just before this Jesus had compared the Father to earthly fathers who give good things to their children, like food. Fathers give “good gifts” – δόματα ἀγαθὰ (domata agatha) – to their children. It would seem that this is what we should all be doing to each other. We all desire to receive good gifts, therefore we should also give good gifts to mankind – οἱ ἄνθρωποι (hoi anthropoi).

Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

This is an important saying in relation to the theme I’ve been using to frame the whole sermon, that the Sermon on the Mount shows us The Way, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) that is Christianity and that is also Christ himself. What does Christ here say about ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)? Essentially it’s no cakewalk.

We learn here that  ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) is something that most people do not follow. Instead, most people follow the way of ἀπώλεια (apoleia), destruction. I think here again of the contrast between our animal human nature and the καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), the “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Way taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not really compatible with human nature. That’s why we need to die to sin and rise as new creatures in Christ (Romans 6:1-11).

I think this should be simultaneously and paradoxically both unsettling and reassuring. On another occasion Jesus also spoke of the narrowness of ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) saying it would be easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). Well that’s certainly unsettling. So his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With men this is impossible but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26) That’s why it’s both unsettling and reassuring. It is impossible for our human nature. But we don’t have to rely on our human nature. The human being becomes a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation” in Christ by the power of God, through whom all things are possible.

That it’s through God that we are enabled, rather than through our own strength, might help to understand this in comparison to another of Jesus’s somewhat different sayings:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This saying about things being “easy” and “light” sounds different than the other about things being “narrow” and “difficult”. And that’s why I bring it up, because I want to get the comprehensive view scripturally with all its complexity; to avoid facile proof texting. As a tentative explanation I speculate that the difference has to do with entering the kingdom and on whose strength it can be accomplished rather than with the severity of the path, independent of the destination. If you’re just wanting a good time and not seeking the kingdom of heaven the “wide” and “broad” way is much more agreeable. But if you’re trying to enter the kingdom of heaven the wide and broad way is literally impossibly difficult, i.e. impossible. But to enter the kingdom of heaven the narrow and difficult way is, somewhat surprisingly, infinitely easier by comparison because it’s actually possible and because it is done through the strength of the Lord.

It’s interesting that Jesus said of the wide and broad way, “there are many who go in by it.” I wonder if since there are so many more that follow that path it starts to seem like the dominant and even natural human tendency. And that anything else could seem anomalous or a deviation. I think we scientifically enlightened moderns might be inclined to look at the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Oh, that’s nice and quaint but really not consistent with a more realistic, honest understanding of human nature from modern psychology and economics, etc.” The nature of human nature is a point of contention on many fronts, scientifically, ethically, and politically. And that’s all useful stuff to consider in terms of stuff like secular public policy or running a business. But it doesn’t really impinge on or detract from the Sermon on the Mount or ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), The Way of Christ, because Christ doesn’t work within the constraints of human nature as it is. He completely transforms it.

I don’t think this is just fideistic or wishful thinking. This is something we can actually observe to have happened both in the lives of individuals and in entire civilizations. The world of classical antiquity, of the Roman Empire, is a vastly different world than the one we know today. And I don’t just mean because of developments of science and technology. Even more significant has been transformation in the way we think about the value of ordinary people. This is a cultural change that scholars like N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart talk a lot about in their books.

It’s worth considering, going back to that secular public policy and running a business, how to live as a Christian in those settings, since we presumably shouldn’t “check our religion at the door” when we enter secular spaces. The Way concerns not only individuals but is ultimately about a βασιλεία (basileia), a kingdom. Jesus’s pronouncement, his Gospel is that the βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (basilea ton ouranon), the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is coming. All of society and its institutions are to be transformed into a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”. The alternative is ruin, a path that leads to ἀπώλεια (apoleia).

Matthew 7:15-20

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

I remember reading this saying in a class in college and some of the students thought it didn’t make much sense. Nowadays that actually seems like an appropriate response to a saying of Jesus. That’s how the people who listened to him back then reacted too. What seemed off was the idea that good couldn’t come from bad and that bad couldn’t come from good. Because that seems contrary to experience. I like that observation because I think it highlights something that we might otherwise pass over, either out of familiarity or respect for the text. If what Jesus said is right something deeper than our surface-level experience must be going on here.

I wonder if this points to a distinctly Christian ethic. What seemed odd to me and my classmates was that actions and agents should be so tightly linked. We usually think about the goodness or badness of actions independent of the goodness or badness of the people doing them. But Jesus seems to be speaking of things differently. Recall that the action of giving alms, thought of independently would seem to be a good action. But for Jesus it’s not so simple. It also depends on why a person is giving alms, which seems more closely related to the moral character of the person. Are they the type of people who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people they serve or the type of people who are just seeking praise? Similar thing with not committing adultery. You might say not committing adultery is a good action, or non-action as it were. But for Jesus, again, it’s more complicated. One can be adulterous in character even without committing adultery in actions.

But that wouldn’t explain everything because Jesus also teaches this as a way to distinguish true prophets from false prophets. How can you discern the character of someone claiming to be a prophet whose outward actions seem good, if their internal character is actually evil and deceitful? The two types would seem to be indistinguishable from the outside. Another scripture that may help with this is in Acts 5, when people are worried about all the people that are following Jesus’s apostles and if they should actively persecute them to try and stifle it. You could say they’re worried about people following a false prophet. But one of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, proposes something different:

“Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.’” (Acts 5:34-39)

What stands out to me here in Gamaliel’s very astute counsel is that he’s taking the long view. It seems that false notions have a way of imploding on themselves, while truths are self-sustaining and endure. There’s a similar idea of an underlying rationality to history in which it works out its own logic, negating or confirming different ideas through large-scale and long term trial and error. This was roughly Hegel’s philosophy of history. Gamaliel pointed out that there were a lot of intense but short-lived religious movements, that sparkled and fizzled. But truth endures. And I think the author of Acts gave an account of this story, basically to say, look, Gamaliel’s prediction was right and Christianity did endure, which is a testament to its truth.

Another aspect to this is that sometimes false prophets can seem convincing in the short term and, on the flip side, true prophets can seem eccentric and erratic in the short term. A lot of people thought Jesus was crazy. Those closest to him said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) A lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible did some pretty weird stuff. But, their teachings endured. So the short term, close-up view can be insufficient. And it doesn’t even mean that everything the prophets did makes sense or was good. Again, a lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible not only did some weird stuff but also did some morally questionable stuff. But the things that they taught endured.

Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

I had a conversation with a friend recently where we were wondering if the reputation of Christianity has been irreparably tarnished by association in popular thought with materialism, militarism, and various forms of prejudice. It’s that Christian identity crisis I mentioned earlier. We both think that Christianity is an important foundation for many of the liberal and tolerant values of Western culture. So what happens if Christiany becomes discredited in the West? Will liberalism and tolerance eventually go with it? How long can liberalism persist only on inertia and habit?

But I’m cautiously optimistic. I do think that Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of many people but that’s also happened many times in history and will probably continue to happen many more times. But I’m optimistic because, even though we Christians have repeatedly not lived up to the teachings of Christ, we haven’t been able to sink it, and Christ’s church repeatedly bounces back in spite of us. Thank God Christianity can withstand the liability of its sinful adherents.

Another reason I am optimistic is because Jesus said that claiming Jesus and devotion to him has little to do with actual discipleship. In this passage Jesus said there would be people who prophesy, cast out demons, and do many wonders in his name, yet he will not know them. So invoking the name of Christ is not sufficient. 

In another chapter, Matthew 25, Jesus told a parable in which he says to the righteous – οἱ δίκαιοι (hoi díkaioi):

“‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

They didn’t even know. The primary meaning of this parable would seem to be that the way to serve and love Christ is to serve and love the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi) – through them. But another meaning, I suspect, may be that many people serve Christ without even being aware of Christ or thinking about Christ, but nevertheless they are serving Christ because they are serving the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi). Is Christ harmed if his name is defamed but many still follow his teachings? I see Christ’s teachings persisting among many good, secular people.

Now, my optimism isn’t boundless. There have been periods where abandoning the “constraints” (as they seemed) of Christ’s teachings predictably coincided with dehumanization and brutality. This is a contestable take but I don’t think it’s incidental that the mechanized, industrialized warfare and systematic genocide of the World Wars were preceded by a zeitgeist, a wave of culturally fashionable ideas that abandoned the notion of all humanity being, equally, made “in the image of God” – בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (betzelem elohim). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality” (Sklavenmoral) because of its respect for the the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi), the kind of people that earlier, more heroic cultures would have dismissed as pathetic. Nietzsche’s characterization very well may have been a contributor to the dehumanizing zeitgeist. Or it was at the very least indicative of the kind of thinking in vogue at the time.To compare with my earlier comments on Gamaliel and the “fruits” of certain ideas, philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, argued that the Enlightenment, with its instrumentalization of rationality, contained the elements that led to the developments of fascism, genocide, and mass technological warfare. It seems that people in the West felt severely chastened for some generations after that. But there’s nothing to say it can’t happen again. So it’s something to be vigilant and watchful for. There need to be valiant Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffers to face the Hitlers of the world.

But getting back to this passage in the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is required, if proclamation alone is not sufficient? “But he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” It is required to actually do his will. And so Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable on this point.

Matthew 7:24-27

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

This is similar and related to the earlier passage, as well as the saying about feeding, giving drink, housing, clothing, caring for, and visiting in prison the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), the least. It’s crucial to actually do these things. It’s not sufficient to just invoke the name of Christ in self-servicing actions. That would be a weak and insufficient foundation that will not endure. A strong foundation in Christ’s teachings consists in living according to ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos),  “The Way”. How we treat the least, the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), is everything. It is absolutely definitive of our discipleship to Christ and imitation of the image of Christ, who is The Way.

Matthew 7:28-29

“And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

People were repeatedly “astonished” at Jesus’s teachings; the words ἐξεπλήσσοντο (eksepléssonto) and ἐθαύμασαν (ethaúmasan), “astonished” and “amazed”, come up again and again, and seem to me like one of the most common reactions to Jesus, anger maybe being a close competitor. Makes you imagine and want to know what it would have been like to be in his presence to hear him teaching.

Even at a distance of two thousand years and through the medium of the testimonies of the scriptures I find myself “astonished” and “amazed” at Jesus’s teachings. They’re life-shaping and life-changing.

The Sermon on the Mount is challenging. It’s the core and the marrow of Christ’s gospel. I think it gives a singular view of Christ, “The Way” that is Christ and that we follow as Christians, as disciples of Christ.

So that’s the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve found this close study very rewarding. And if you’ve listened to it I hope you’ve found it useful and edifying. Thank you much!

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 6

In this second part in a series on the Sermon on the Mount we go through Matthew 6. The Sermon on the Mount is especially instructive on “The Way” disciples of Jesus Christ are to follow. In Matthew 6 Jesus taught about charitable deeds and fasting with sincerity rather than hypocrisy, about simple, humble prayer, the kingdom of God, forgiveness of debts, devotion to God rather than to riches, and trust in God’s providence rather than preoccupation with worldly cares.

This is the second part of a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. Last time I went through Matthew chapter 5. This time we’ll get into Matthew chapter 6.

Before getting into the chapter itself I want to review a few framing ideas. One is that I’m looking at this sermon for insight into the nature of “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos), of Christianity. This is how early Christians referred to what we would call the religion they were practicing. They called it “The Way”. And it’s to understand The Way that I come back to the New Testament for grounding, to see how Jesus taught his followers to live and how they lived. And The Way was remarkable in a couple important ways. For one it was very different from the way people lived in the wider Roman and Hellenized world in which they were embedded, different in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine today because we don’t live in that world. We don’t live in a world where people can think of just going to gladiatorial games and seeing people, people thought to be the expendable, being ripped limb from limb in a bloody spectacle for our entertainment. We would find that horrific. And that’s a testament to the way that the world has been radically transformed. But The Way of Jesus’s teachings is also remarkable because it’s still so different from the way the world is today. Even though our norms in the West have been shaped by Jesus’s teachings, whether we’re Christian or not, they still surpass what we consider practical or sensible. And I find that fascinating.

Also important to remember the significant theological insight that Jesus Christ himself is The Way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). So this is all an investigation of Christ himself as well as of the way we are to live.

So let’s get into it.

Matthew 6:1-4

“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”

Last time I brought up this passage as a comparison to Jesus’s teaching to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) There seems to be an important difference in motivation: who is meant to be glorified? Are the good works intended to glorify God or self?

I’m reminded of the difference between an icon and an idol. An icon is an important theological concept spoken of favorably in the New Testament. For example, Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ Υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ (tes eikónos tou Huiou autou) (Romans 8:29). The elect are to be conformed to the image, or εἰκών (eikón), of the Son. We also read in Colossians that Christ is “the image [εἰκὼν (eikón)] of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This concept of the icon, or image, shows up in the Old Testament as well. In Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him”. In Hebrew this “image” is צֶלֶם (tzelem), the image of God, צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim). In the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, this is translated as the εἰκὼν (eikón) of God, εικόνα θεού (eikóna theou). A very important theological concept. So that is a good thing. We should be icons that point toward God. People should see us bearing the image of God, seeing through us, toward God.

An idol is different. An idol is not an image that points toward God but an image that replaces God. And we can be idols in the way we go about doing ostensibly good works. If the motivation is not “Praise God” but instead, “Look at me”, it is the kind of ostentation that Jesus condemns. Jesus says this is the behavior of the ὑποκριταὶ (hupokritai), the hypocrites, play-actors, pretenders, dissemblers. Why do they do their charitable deeds? “That they may have glory from men.” And interestingly enough, Jesus says that that is what they get. “They have their reward”. But the strong implication here is that this is all they get. What they don’t get is the reward of those who do their works out of genuine concern, they don’t get their reward from the Father.

Jesus says to do our charitable deeds “in secret”, which is superior to self-glorifying display. But it’s also useful to remember and compare this to the teaching in chapter 5 that we actually should let our good works be seen by others, so that they glorify God. Something to reflect on.

Matthew 6:5-7

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

What is the purpose of prayer? Prayer can certainly be a public act, though it can also be done privately. Praying in a community can bring a church community, in Greek a συναγωγή (sunagoge) or “synagogue”, closer together and at the same time closer to God. But what’s the wrong way to do it? It’s not right to want to be heard for your πολυλογία (polulogía), your “many words”. And that’s definitely a temptation. As I’m sitting here doing my own podcast and literally listening to my own voice I can appreciate the narcissistic appeal of hearing your own voice and the allure of polulogía. But that’s not what prayer is for. It’s not a time for performance. And so Jesus teaches a remedy: keep it simple. And he gave as a model what became one of the most important passages in all scripture: the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 6:8-14

“Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Some manuscripts also include at the end of the prayer: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” 

It’s interesting that Jesus says that the Father already knows what we need before we ask, a fact he seems to mention as refutation of the need for polulogía, many words. So we might ask again, what is the purpose of prayer? Is it to actually inform the Father? Seems not. Is it to influence his will? Maybe, but still seems perhaps not. Is it to bring about some change in us? That seems closer to the mark to me. But that’s just an interpretation, for what it’s worth.

The Lord’s Prayer is very simple. Not ornate. It’s quite short. So it’s interesting what Jesus chooses to include in such a short prayer.

One feature is reverence for God. “Hallowed be Your name.”

A second is an expression of the desire that the Father’s Kingdom come. This is a major theme that we see in Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels. If we could give a one-sentence summary of Jesus’s message I’d go with: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). His message was all about “the Kingdom of God”, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basileia tou theou). Most of his parables were framed as parables of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew it’s expressed as the “Kingdom of Heaven”, ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (he basileia ton ouranon).

“And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:10-11) The parables are meant to convey the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” So, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matthew 13:24). “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31). “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44). “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls” (Matthew 13:45). “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).

These all start the same way. Jesus tells these parables to tell what the Kingdom God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is like. And it’s this Kingdom that we will to arrive in the Lord’s Prayer. I think that one line in the Lord’s Prayer here in Matthew 6 is thematically connected to the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. And thinking of both together will enhance an understanding of both sections. What is the nature of this Kingdom that we are willing to come? That’s a challenge, I think an exciting and interesting challenge, to understand. Jesus’s parables are quite conspicuously and intentionally difficult to understand. I know they are for me. So when I pray the Lord’s Prayer I feel like I still have some work to do to understand what I’m praying for. But I think at least I know where to look to find the answers.

“Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven.” That’s an interesting line. Is it that we affirm God’s action to bring about his will, on earth as in heaven? Or are we committing to bring about his will by obedience? Or is it both? I think it’s both. And that it’s not just in heaven, but also on earth is interesting to me. This isn’t a wholly other-worldly Gospel. It’s relevant to the world we live in. This world is supposed to be a certain way. And it’s not just disposable. Explicitly not. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17) This world is supposed to be saved. God loves the world, so we should love it too and work for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. What would this transformed, saved world look like? I think we know quite well what it should look like. It’s “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). Everything Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the way the world is supposed to be.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” We are physical beings and we have to eat. Jesus will tell us later in this chapter that we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves about that. God will and does provide for our material needs. But we should recognize that it is God who meets our needs. Without nourishment we will die. It’s God who sustains us and gives us life.

“And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors.” Now there’s a provocative statement! It’s important to note here that, as Jesus said in chapter 5 that he is fulfilling the Law that was given through Moses, forgiveness of debts goes back a long way and was an important part of the Mosaic Law. Forgiving debts brings hope, new life, and freedom to people. For people without wealth, debt is a necessity. To get started in life certainly but sometimes even just to survive. And being able to pay off debts is not guaranteed. Certainly not in a Christian worldview. Recall from the previous chapter Jesus’s teaching against oaths: “ Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:36) Christian humility involves understanding that much of our fate, including our prospects for income and wealth, are outside our control.

The Torah also reminds us of this. “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God… lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them;  and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’ And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18) We can call this the providence of God, that aspect of things occuring in our lives to our benefit or misfortune, but that lie beyond our control. I think here of the expression, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Perhaps not unrelated to that important fact is the commandment to forgive debts. Also in Deuteronomy: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

Here in the Lord’s Prayer what kinds of things are being forgiven? I think it could be all sorts of things. Certainly literal debts on our part, as we forgive our own debtors. To God our debts would seem to be in the form of sin, not having paid what we owe to him under the Law. And we might also have debtors in those sorts of intangible ways. People who have not given us what they owe to us, maybe in terms of respect and love. Those are also debts that we can forgive. In Deuteronomy it speaks of there being a “release”, a שְׁמִטָּה (shmita) from the verb שָׁמַט (shamat), to let something drop. I think that’s a great way to think of it. At some point we just need to let things drop and stop trying to keep account. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, trying to keep account of offenses by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the world blind and toothless. Reconciliation requires letting things drop. This is the path to reconciliation, both between us and God and between each other.

So how does that actually work? Can you actually forgive debts? Whether they be monetary debts or debts of obligation in conduct like criminal offenses? And this is where we get again into some of the surprisingly radical and seemingly impractical aspects of Jesus’s teachings and the Bible generally. The secular part of me can fully appreciate the dynamic power of finance and investment, of which debt is an essential part. Much of the modern world as we know it today wouldn’t function without loans and credit. Not to mention “usury”, i.e. loaning at interest, which the Torah prohibits. That’s something to think about. How to be a Christian and live in the modern world? And how does that relate to the coming of the Kingdom of God? How are things to change? What is God’s ideal that we will be moving toward? I don’t have conclusive answers. But I’m also reluctant to craft easy answers that compromise Christ’s teachings.

Matthew 6:16-18

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

This is a similar message to the teaching about charitable deeds, that we do them for the glory of God and out of genuine love rather than for drawing attention to ourselves. Another point worth noting in this passage is that we ought not to make religious practice appear severe and miserable. Living the Gospel can be difficult and Jesus often acknowledges this. But we don’t have to make a grand display of that.

The age of social media has transformed the ways in which we can present ourselves to the world. There are extremes of making our lives look better than they actually are or worse than they actually are. Either one is an act. Philosophically I’m inclined to think that some form of presentation is unavoidable. We are always interpreters, even of ourselves. But we can at least try to prevent excesses in our self-presentation. John Piper, in his book Desiring God, has advocated what he has called “Christian hedonism”, the view that Christian faith should bring us joy. And he argues this point from scripture. For example, Psalms 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD.” This doesn’t mean that we need to pretend to be happier than we are. But we should go about our lives normally. Jesus puts this in terms of regular grooming. Do your hair, wash your face, do the things that you normally do, even when observing periods of fasting. It’s not about trying to look miserable.

I think we can also read this teaching on fasting in light of Jesus’s teachings on the internalization of the Law. Recall Jesus moved the locus of sinfulness from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. Fasting also seems not to be about appearance but about internal edification. To the extent that it is for the benefit of others, that we are letting our let so shine, it is for the glory of God. And it’s also about an internal transformation of the heart.

Matthew 6:19-21

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Here is the first of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount regarding riches, or what he likely usually called “mammon” (ממון) in his native Aramaic. Jesus also contrasted treasures on earth with treasures in heaven when he told the rich man to sell what he had and give to the poor: “you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Treasures on earth are seriously downgraded in Jesus’s teachings, even discouraged if not outright condemned. The relationship is still a little complicated, which we’ll get to in a bit, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus sees treasure in heaven as vastly superior, and that’s where the focus of his followers needs to be.

Matthew 6:22-23

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

Because of its placement between the previous passage on heavenly treasures over earthly treasures and the next passage on serving God over mammon, this passage would seem also to pertain to the focus of devotion to God rather than to riches. This is a beautiful and richly figurative saying: Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός (ho luchnos tou somatos estin ho ophthalmos) – “the lamp of the body is the eye”. The source of illumination for our whole being is that part by which we center our focus of attention.

“If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.” That’s NKJV translation. The more traditional King James Version is: “if therefore thine eye be single,” which I think is a decent translation too. The greek there is ἁπλοῦς. It can mean “single”, “simple”, and “honest”. So there’s some rich meaning from the gospel writer there conveying both goodness and focus.

Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

As I mentioned earlier, “mammon” (ממון) is an Aramaic term for wealth. I like these Aramaic quotations in the Greek text because it gives us a little glimpse into Jesus’s own native voice. This is a succinct summation of the former two passages. Basically Jesus says you have to choose. Your master is either God or wealth. Can’t be both.

I said earlier that it’s a little complicated. But not for the reasons we might usually hear in the form of awkward accommodations, excusing our deviation (my own included) from Jesus’s literal teachings. It’s just that Jesus uses money and riches in his parables a lot. This doesn’t mean that he’s speaking favorably of literal riches. Jesus is after all the master of the nonliteral, and adamantly so. But it’s easy to forget that he may often be talking in such cases about treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth.

One classic example is his parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. And let’s recall here that a talent – τάλαντον (tálanton) – is a unit of measure, rather a special skill as we think of it in English. A man gives three servants five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The first two are enterprising and double the principal investment. The third man generates nothing, to his own condemnation. The first two would definitely be better examples to follow in our financial practices. That’s what I try to do in my personal finances. But Jesus’s message would seem to be something other than this literal meaning. He says it’s a parable of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven comes, without warning, as the master in this story. And we will be made to give an account and must be prepared.

Another, stranger example is the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-13.

“He also said to His disciples: ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’”

“Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’”

“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”

“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?

“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

What a strange passage! I love it. What does it mean? Again it would seem not to be meant literally. The parable concludes with the same teaching we see in Matthew 6: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Yet just a few verses before that it speaks of making “friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon”. It’s certainly strange.

I bring this up because I want to be fully transparent in the way we look at Jesus’s teachings. I think we often proof text to highlight the teachings that conform to our views and conveniently ignore some of the other difficult or strange things Jesus taught when they don’t fit the agenda. The best practice is to actively resist and counter that tendency.

Regarding the parable of the unjust steward, I’ve read a lot of commentaries on these verses and I’m not satisfied that any one of them explains them adequately or at least that any one of them is able to demonstrate any interpretation conclusively. The safest interpretation I’ve seen is that, as the dishonest manager was prudent in using the things of this life to ensure the future, so believers should be prudent in preparing for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a comparison.

Interesting to note here another example in scripture where shrewdness or craftiness is presented more positively than we would expect. I think here also of Jacob in Genesis, in his shrewd plans to get his father’s birthright and blessing from under Esau and to get the better part of his father-in-law Laban’s flock. The shrewdness of the unjust servant is, in greek, φρόνιμος (phronimos). Jesus uses the same word in Matthew 10:16 when counseling his disciples to be as wise (φρόνιμοι, phrónimoi) as serpents but also innocent as doves. The same word is also used in the parable of the five wise virgins. This kind of resourcefulness, prudence, and shrewdness is, intriguingly, encouraged. But the object or aim to which either wisdom or foolishness apply is important. Using another word for wisdom, σοφία (sophia), Paul told the Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Symmetrically “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We ought to be prudent, resourceful, and even shrewd for the things of God and of the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”

“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

This brings us back to the doctrine of divine providence, that events in our lives can occur to our benefit or misfortune, that lie beyond our control. Appreciating this is important for our well-being and happiness. But I think it’s also just an important part of understanding the nature of reality. And that makes sense. A proper understanding of reality would be conducive to well-being and happiness, at least in the long-run. What is the illusion that this understanding might dispel? The illusion of reality as something that we can direct and control. It’s not a total illusion. We can direct some things to an extent. But there’s always a limit. And remarkably, also fortunately, much in reality that we rely upon just happens outside of and beyond our control or even awareness.

One of Jesus’s parables is especially illustrative of this point.

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

We know more through modern botany about these processes but there is still a lot we don’t know and, significantly, the more we come to understand about the physiological and biochemical complexity involved in seed germination and plant growth the more astounding it is how all this just happens with minimal input from us. It’s miraculous. And that’s what the whole world is like.

It’s easy to forget this because we are always engaged in activity and it feels like we’re the ones keeping our lives going. And yes, there are things that we have to do. But the vast majority of what sustains us is given to us. Hugh Nibley had this line: “Work we must but the lunch is free”. Playing there off the expression in economics that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – TANSTAAFL. Work may be necessary but we shouldn’t conclude from this that our work is sufficient for all that we have. The greater part of what sustains us and makes our existence possible precedes us and is beyond our control and awareness. I think this realization is one of the first steps toward sincere piety.

Another side to this is that we preoccupy ourselves much more than we really need to. At least for the things that are needful. Jesus said, “One thing is needful”, χρεία (chreia) or necessary (Luke 10:42). But we preoccupy ourselves – μεριμνάω (merimnáo) – unnecessarily. But Jesus commands: “Do not worry” – μὴ μεριμνᾶτε (me merimnáte). And the list of things for which Jesus says not to worry gets down to what we might consider the most basic things.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.” Food, drink, clothing. Those are pretty basic things. Stuff we would say today goes right at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Is it possible to live like that? I honestly don’t know. I guess I’m in the class of people Jesus calls the ὀλιγόπιστοι (oligópistoi) – those of little faith. I’m not ready to take that kind of leap yet. But I think we can say this: if Jesus says we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with even those most basic things it’s reasonable to suppose that we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with the many far less basic things with which we do regularly preoccupy ourselves. Jesus teaches a much simpler way of life than the vast majority of people practice. Even as oligópistoi Christians, if we’re not able to go all the way to the kind of life Jesus teaches us to live we can at least move in that direction and simplify our lives.

The last verse of this chapter is one I’ve found personally meaningful. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I’ve found it easy to fall into unhealthy imaginative fictions about troubles the future might bring. Getting fixated on and upset about things that aren’t even real. That is not a good way to live. I get a kick out of Jesus’s half-sardonic, half-optimistic saying: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” We’ve got enough to worry about in the present moment. Don’t multiply worries beyond necessity or reality. But it’s not only trouble that we experience in the present. There is grace, free gifts, to be seen all around us right now. We can see this in the birds of the sky, the lilies of the field, and in countless other free bounties given to us by God. We do not need to worry and should not worry because God is mindful of us and watching over us.

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5

What are the attributes by which people can know followers of Jesus Christ? For this the New Testament is our primary source and grounding for guidance. The Sermon on the Mount especially is a key text that teaches how we are to live in order to be the “light of the world”. Here we look at Matthew 5, the first of the sermon’s 3 chapters, where Jesus teaches the fulfillment of the Law, that we are not to become angry or lustful, that we should not resist evil but rather love our enemies and give to all that ask, turning none away, having good will toward all indiscriminately, as the rain falls on both the just and unjust.

I’d like to make this the first episode in a series on the Sermon on the Mount, this episode focuses on Matthew chapter 5. So it will likely follow with a complete trilogy with Matthew 6 and 7. And maybe that will follow with an extended series on other parts of the New Testament.

I’ve read the Bible quite regularly for a number of years but lately I’ve been focusing especially on the New Testament and the Gospels. I think of the New Testament as a focal point. It’s what I keep coming back to for grounding. It’s the primary source and the standard (canon) by which to measure everything else. Our word “canon” even comes from the Greek κανών for “measuring rod” or “standard”. That’s how I use the New Testament.

I posted this idea on Facebook a while back and a good friend of mine, who always has interesting theological ideas asked if I considered the New Testament divinely revealed and/or inerrant. It’s a good question, and brings up the interesting issue of whether or not you can interpret scripture without philosophy, which I don’t think you can because some kind of analysis beyond the Bible is always needed to think about the Bible. Anyway, I think the New Testament is divine but not inerrant. And that relates to the kind of text that it is. Euclid’s Elements is the kind of text that could be inerrant (it isn’t, but it’s pretty darn close). I think of the New Testament like I do the Torah. The Law is not a reflection of eternal truth, as in geometry or logic for instance, but it establishes a covenant, it brings it into existence. It’s divine because it’s a covenant with God. The New Testament establishes a covenant to live in a certain way, a way that is not mandated by nature or physical law. By the mandates of nature or physical law we don’t have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We don’t have to love our enemies. We don’t have to impart our substance, etc. Usually we don’t. And there are many ideologies that teach the opposite. But these are the kinds of things we are taught to do in the New Testament. We create that contingent truth by entering into the covenant. And they’re the kinds of things I want to embrace. The historical details of Jesus’s life as narrated in the Gospel’s or the authorship of certain letters don’t have to be a one-to-one correspondence to the events as they occurred in order to establish that it’s the kind of covenant that I want to be a part of.

So I want to talk more about that covenant. What is The Way that we follow as a disciples of Jesus? And of course this being 2020 I can’t mention The Way without a reference The Mandalorian: “This is the way”. But that actually is how early Christians referred to themselves, as “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). And “The Way” is referred to in a number of places in the book of Acts; Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. What is this Way? I think the Sermon on the Mount is key. And one reason I want to say that the New Testament grounds us, that it’s the primary source is because, in my thinking about my Christian ministry to a secular world I think there’s much associated with Christianity that obscures The Way. And I’m sorry to say that we Christians have to accept most of the responsibility for this. Not that there isn’t mischaracterization from outside the Church. But we also have to do a lot better at focusing on Christ rather than Christendom, the cultural, tribal accretions that creep into our Church. I won’t say any more about that but you can probably imagine what some of those things might be. But I want to stick to the positive proclamation of the true Gospel. And for that let’s turn to the words of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount.

There are lots of things we could point out as we go through these verses but what I want to focus on is The Way that is being shown here. One thing to keep in mind of course is that Jesus himself is the way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). As we go through this, what does it mean to follow Christ, to follow The Way?

Matthew 5:1-10

“And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What are the qualities here of the Blessed, the Μακάριοι (Makarioi)? The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Compare these to the martial and heroic virtues of Homeric Greece, Sparta, or even the Roman Empire. As Friedrich Nietzsche would later point out, and not at all favorably, one from these other cultures might look with disdain on these attributes as the attributes of a slave, not attributes to be celebrated and admired but rather seen as pathetic. In a sense Nietzsche wasn’t wrong, except that followers of Jesus see these as attributes of the Makarioi. David Bentley Hart has said of Nietzsche that “he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased”. “The losers” one might say. For Christians, the weak, the outcast, the infirm and the diseased are of central concern. They are the ones who matter most to us.

Everything here is a reversal, as is often the case in Jesus’s teachings. The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit, or as Luke records it, just, to the poor (Luke 6:20). According to legend, when Alexander the Great lay on his deathbed he said his empire should be left “to the strongest”. But Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven will be given to the poor and the Earth to the meek.

Matthew 5:11-16

“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

This is an interesting passage to compare with one in the next chapter, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. (Matthew 6:1) But in Chapter 5 we are encouraged to let ourselves be seen. What’s the difference? Probably it’s a difference of who we are trying to glorify. Are we trying to glorify God or ourselves? Jesus says that we should let our light shine before men so that they may glorify the Father. And that’s important. The Way of the Gospel is not only for personal edification. It is meant to be visible.

An important question to consider: what do people associate with Christ and his Way, on account of knowing you, that you’re a Christian and professed follower of Christ? Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Is that what people see?

This doesn’t mean that everyone will admire loving followers of Christ. Jesus says that we are blessed when people revile and persecute us and say evil things against us falsely for his sake. Even a loving character can be mischaracterized as hateful. So it’s important to think carefully about this. Just because people speak critically of you doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s right. What do fair-minded people think? Or, if fair-minded people aren’t on hand to ask, what would fair-minded people think?

It’s entirely possible for Christians to be judgmental and unloving in pursuit of purportedly Christian motivations. From later in the Sermon on the Mount, “‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’” (Matthew 7:22) Nominal devotion in Christ’s name doesn’t guarantee actual consistency with the Way of his Gospel. It’s necessary to think carefully about these things, since false, even if sincerely intentioned discipleship is not only possible but predicted by Jesus himself.

Matthew 5:17-20

“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.

There are a couple of interesting points here. One, which we’ll see a lot of in the following verses, is that The Way of Christ is hardly a permissive, anything-goes kind of ethic. It’s an intensification and internalization of good conduct that goes beyond what was previously taught. Yet Jesus also says that his burden is ἐλαφρός, (elaphros), “light” (Matthew 11:30) Something to think about.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting here is the role of change and development in God’s dealings with humanity. Jesus didn’t destroy the Law but he didn’t leave it as it was either. He came to “fulfill” the Law, πληρόω (pleroo). I don’t want to distract too much from the scripture with philosophy but, like I said before, sometimes it’s useful. The philosophical process of the dialectic makes use of this notion that in development prior stages can be, not negated but taken up and incorporated into subsequent stages. This is both useful and risky. Immutable principles can be inadequate to a wide range of circumstances or to changing circumstances. But they do have the benefit of being stable. The capacity for change also makes heresy possible. So what do we do? Well, as with seeking to let others see our good works we have to be careful. Latter-day Saint leader Hugh B. Brown said: “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.” The stories of the New Testament show a lot of changes: changes to dietary laws, changes to the practice of circumcision, etc. And these changes were challenging. Not only because of obstinance but also because it wasn’t obvious to sincere followers of Christ what the right answer was. So they had to get together in council to figure it out prayerfully. There’s an instructive lesson in that.

Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”

This is an astounding passage. And perfectly indicative of the high standards of The Way of Christ. How is a Christian to comport themself with others? As their light shines for others to see what is it that others see in the follower of Christ. Certainly it’s the complete opposite of violence but also aggression of any kind. Not just physical violence but also verbal violence or an unkind attitude. Needless to say this is extremely difficult. Especially since, as Jesus foretells, a Christian is to be the subject of much abuse. But the Christian is not to respond even with anger. Or to belittle another in any way. “Raca” is an Aramaic expression that also means essentially to call someone a fool.

I never met my maternal grandfather but he was by all accounts a wonderful person. I’ve heard a story where he was asked to think of somebody he didn’t like and had a really hard time thinking of anyone. Eventually he decided that if he had to choose someone he could settle on Fidel Castro. I always get a kick out of that. And I do think it’s closer to the kind of character Christians are to have. James spoke of being βραδὺς εἰς ὀργήν (bradus eis orgen), “slow to anger” (James 1:19). I think of developing a kind of incapacity to anger or to think in disparaging ways of others. The capacity to become angry comes so naturally, unsurprising since it is instrumental to our survival as animals in nature, “red in tooth and claw”.

Matthew 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

This is another example how it’s abundantly clear that Jesus, far from abolishing the Law and the prophets, or loosening its strictness, rather is even more strict. But in a way that, much like the intensification from not murdering to not being angry, follows a similar pattern of internalization. Not only is the act of adultery prohibited, but lust itself. The move is to focus on a deeper transformation of character that is the ultimate root of the actions that eventually follow from it.

If anyone in history is prone to the non-literal it’s Jesus. So it can be a puzzle sometimes to know what to take literally and what not to take literally. Since he so often rebukes his disciples for taking him too literally I figure it’s probably best to assume, when in doubt, that something is not literal. That would seem to be the case with the calls for dismemberment in this passage. Are we really to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they are implicated in our lust? (One might also consider other more directly implicating body parts). I think not. But the hyperbole serves its effect to emphasize the severity that Jesus intends. Lust is corrosive and offensive to the soul.

What are we to make of this as modern-day Christians? And I say “modern” because, frankly, cultural norms change. Certainly they do. In theory we live in a more sex-positive world today. And I think a lot of that is good. But is that the Christian part of me or the secular Western part of me talking? Well, I say we’re more sex-positive in theory. But we’re also very anxious. I think in recent years it’s becoming ever more apparent that sexual conduct has deep emotional and existential consequences. The MeToo movement that went viral in 2017 brought special attention to this. A need for structure in our sexual conduct is apparent from experience.

Jesus condemns adultery, not sex itself. And that may go some way in resolving the tension. The question of lust is a little more complicated. Is sexual desire itself bad or only when it’s directed toward someone other than a spouse? Paul gives us some insight into some of the perspectives of early Christians, or at least certain factions of them. He said to the Corinthians that celibacy is good but not for everyone. He also says married folks can take periods of sexual abstinence for periods of time but that they shouldn’t do it for too long. Why? “It is better to marry than to burn [πυρόω, puroó].” (1 Corinthians 7:9) The connotative meaning there being to burn with passion. Lust here, even between spouses, seems to be a not-good thing and sex between spouses is a permissible, if less holy, concession mean to prevent sexual desire between spouses, rather than to fulfill or celebrate it. At least, that’s one interpretation. I think this is one example where rational methods of theology and philosophy are needed to supplement the primary sources of scripture. But it’s important to do that honestly and transparently, without motivated reasoning. If we’re going to temper some of these passages on sexual desire within marriage we need to be careful about doing the same to passages about nonviolence and love of enemies, and be consistent.

Matthew 5:31-32

“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”

This is kind of related to the previous passage on lust and gets into the question of the views of Jesus and other early Christianity on sex, marriage, and procreation. Here Jesus gives a strong condemnation of divorce and by implication a strong endorsement of the sanctity of marriage, once entered into. This goes to show some of the complexity of Jesus’s views. Or at least it looks kind of complex, maybe because it doesn’t quite map onto the way we divide up different positions in our time.

In Matthew 19 we get some expansion on Jesus’s views on divorce.

“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.’” (Matthew 19:3-9)

So this is very consistent with Jesus’s statement in Matthew 5. And Jesus gives a very strong endorsement, or a sort, or marriage: “the two shall become one flesh”. But his disciples have an interesting reaction. They say: “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) That seems kind of cynical. But surprisingly Jesus gives qualified affirmation of this view.

“But He said to them, ‘All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.’” (Matthew 19:11-12)

Does Jesus mean this literally? As usual, it’s difficult to say. It cohere’s decently with the idea that “it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish”. I’m guessing it’s non-literal. But at the very least there seems to be an endorsement here of celibacy as a path of holiness and devotion.

Jesus also seems to downplay marriage when he is asked which – of the multiple men a woman had been married to and widowed by – this woman would be with in the resurrection. And Jesus says the question is meaningless because “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) Jesus doesn’t explain why this is, but one interpretation is that since in the resurrection people are no longer dying and the earth is not being depopulated there’s also no need to repopulate it. So marriage is unnecessary. If that is the reasoning the ends of marriage would seem to be much more directed at procreation than at romantic love. In our modern conception of marriage as a relationship of romantic love we certainly can imagine a reason, beyond mere procreation, for marriage to persist in the resurrection. We love our spouses and want to continue being married together. But this reason doesn’t seem to be on the radar of the Gospel writers and people described in these accounts.

This is another point on which modern Christians need to apply theological and philosophical reasoning with the primary sources in the scriptures to figure out how to properly understand them, especially where the first-century concerns and questions don’t quite map onto our twenty-first century concerns and questions. If the first-century writers didn’t address the same questions we have, we have to do some additional thinking.

Some food for thought along these lines. In Latter-day Saint belief marriage does persist into the resurrection. This is something of a doctrinal challenge given the teachings of the New Testament. It is interesting though that Joseph Smith, when he taught about the possibilities of carrying our family relationships beyond the grave spoke of the process as one of craftiness.

“If you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be crafty. . . . Go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory . . . use a little Craftiness & seal all you can & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven. I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me & my Council.”

Historians have noted how our conception of what marriage is supposed to be has expanded in modern times beyond procreation. We now see it as a partnership of romantic love. That does change the game a little bit. Could it be that Joseph Smith was thinking here to institute, by craftiness, something that was not in God’s plan previously? That in Jesus’s time marriage in the resurrection wouldn’t have made much sense, but to us today it does? Just a thought.

Matthew 5:33-37

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)

There’s probably not much interest these days in making ostentatious oaths anyway, in which we would invoke heaven, earth, or the Holy City. But what insights can we take from this? Once again it’s an intensification of the commandment. Not only should we not swear falsely but we shouldn’t swear at all. Why is that? Jesus seems to be saying here that these oaths imply a good deal of presumption to power that we aren’t entitled to. “You cannot make one hair white or black.” You can’t invoke heaven, earth, or the Holy City because these don’t belong to you and you can’t control them.

The Epistle of James gives further insight:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

I think here of the theological notions of providence and grace. There are things that happen that we have no knowledge or control over. And it is wisdom to recognize this lack of control. Last night I was sitting around a fire with my family on the front porch and it was really windy. The fire kept on moving from one direction to the next and my daughters were commenting on how it was acting so crazy. I brought up how Jesus taught that the wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but can’t tell where it comes from and where it goes. And how that’s like the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

With this we get into the heart of Jesus’s ethic of nonviolence. This is what I consider a core piece of Christ’s message that defines what it is to be a Christian, but one that has also been repeatedly ignored by the nominal Christianity of Christendom throughout history. And it is here where we must start to do some real introspection and soul-searching.

First a note about the quoted passage, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus is indeed intensifying this commandment. But what is he intensifying? These are sometimes known as talion laws or lex talionis. The basic idea being that the punishment should match the injury perpetrated. And it is indeed strict, but just. I don’t want to downplay that. In Deuteronomy it says “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21)

But it’s worth noting a more progressive side to this that we at least what we might call progressive relative to the surrounding nations. For example, when speaking of this lex talionis in Leviticus it says: “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 24:22). Foreigners are not to be treated more harshly. The standard is strict but it is also consistent.

Christine Hayes said of this in her Open Yale course on the Hebrew Bible:

“This was a radical concept in its day, evidently. The punishment should fit the crime, no more and no less for all free persons — granted slaves are not included — regardless of social class. Equality before the law. And this casts the principle of talion, I hope, in a new light. The law of talion, which is essentially the principle that a person should be punished according to the injury they inflicted, it’s been decried as a primitive, archaic reflex of the vengeance or vendetta principle. The notion of “an eye for an eye” is usually cited or held up as typical of the harsh and cruel standards of the vengeful Old Testament God. But when you look at it in a comparative light in its legal context, we see that it’s a polemic against the class distinctions that were being drawn in antecedent and contemporary legal systems, such as the Code of Hammurabi. According to the Bible, the punishment should always fit the crime regardless of the social status of the perpetrator on the one hand or the victim on the other. All free citizens who injure are treated equally before the law. They’re neither let off lightly nor punished excessively.”

So I just wanted to give the “eye for an eye” principle fair treatment. But, how does Jesus intensify these limitations to punishment? He says “not to resist an evil person”. We are not even to apply the punishments of lex talionis. If someone gouges out your eye you’re not supposed to retaliate and gouge their eye out. If someone knocks out your tooth you’re not supposed to knock out their tooth. In a sense this is quite unjust. But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about that. What a radical ethic! Does he really mean it? Something millions of Christians have puzzled about for centuries. It seems impossible. He could not possibly have meant it. Hyperbole again?

Let’s keep going. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” My goodness! Really? And who does that? It’s worth noting here a tradition of interpretation that there is a kind of resistance in this nonresistance, of the sort of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems very likely that turning the other cheek to an oppressor will or should shame them for their oppressive actions. So this gives the victim some degree of power. Or another interpretation that if the first blow was a dismissive one with the back of the hand the second will have to be with an open palm, which is thought to be less dehumanizing. Maybe so. Those seem like decent secondary meanings. And there certainly is a paradoxical power in nonviolent resistance. But the primary meaning is still startling. We might ask, as other disciples asked in the Gospel of John: “Hard (Σκληρός, Skleros) is this saying. Who is able to hear it?” (John 6:60)

Jesus then says to go above and beyond what your oppressors demand. “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” But this generosity is not only for oppressors. “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” That last part may be meant to apply to oppressors but not necessarily. It seems like what’s being taught here is indiscriminate generosity and service. Which we’ll see more of in the next and final passage of this chapter.

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

This passage is all about universalization and indiscriminate benevolence. We are not to evaluate or judge the merits or desert of others to be recipients of our good will. It is to be imparted freely without thought of merit. There are no more labels, at least none of any consequence. If we have enemies they are not to be treated any differently from friends. So in what sense are they even enemies anymore? None on our part, even if they persist to think of themselves as such.

This is again something that I see as a definitive Christian attribute. And it’s much ignored. We can certainly be forgiven for not living up to this standard. But we can’t ignore this standard as Christians. This is central to our discipleship.

One of the things I love about the Gospel is its incongruity with human nature and the total irrelevance of that incongruity. Not retaliating, loving our enemies and praying for them. These things are very contrary to natural human tendencies. And that’s the point! Because we are not supposed to persist in our natural human tendencies. In fact we’re supposed to die to that kind of natural, animal life and crucify it. When Jesus told a rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him, and then said how hard it would be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, his disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus said, “For mankind it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:21-26) Yes it’s impossible. So a new life is needed. Paul said, “our old self was crucified with him.” (Romans 6:6) And also that for anyone in Christ there is a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”.

Much has been said in the past few decades about evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and the ways our behaviors are constrained by our physical makeup and its evolutionary background. Now, as a matter of scientific theory I find evolution very convincing. I do think we have shared ancestry with all the other animals and all living things on this planet. I actually think that fits perfectly with the idea of the moral inadequacy of our animal nature. We aren’t naturally inclined to love each other indiscriminately, to be peaceable, to not resist. In evolutionary terms that’s a recipe for extinction. So it makes sense that our animal behavior is very much contrary to that. But Christianity calls us to transcend this genetic and evolutionary heritage, to make a radical break and to enter this καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), this “new creation” in Christ.

I love the image Jesus gives of the indiscriminate nature of this benevolence and good will. God the Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” I think this relates to the notions of providence and grace I mentioned earlier. We are not in control of things in the world. The wind blows where it wants to. It is not for us to portion out good and bad things. As Christians, as followers of Christ, it is for us to put forth all our efforts to fill the world with good, for all people, as much as we can.

Jesus says, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Is this possible? As he says elsewhere, “For mankind it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” But my takeaway with all this is how to be the light of the world that Jesus talks about. How are people to know us as disciples of Jesus Christ? This is the stuff we should be striving for. When people see the way we live and want to understand why, if they turn to the Sermon on the Mount it will all make sense and explain our behavior, and they’ll think, “Ah, I see why they act like that now. This is what they’re trying to do. This is why Christians are so loving toward all people in such surprising ways.”

So that’s Matthew 5. I’ll follow this up later with Matthew chapters 6 and 7.