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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: March 2010

I was asked by the church I attend to write a short study/meditation for the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. It was part of a larger, 14-week study the entire congregation had been doing.Having just finished it, I wanted to post it here in case anyone is interested. Each day was supposed to have some specific reading, either from the Sermon on the Mount itself or from a separate passage relating to it. The guide was supposed to also offer opportunities for meditation, reflection, and response.

The Upshot: Concluding the Sermon on the Mount

Day 1: Matthew 7:7-28

What do you expect at the end of a sermon? We all give sermons to others, or at least we imagine giving them occasionally. How do you finish yours?

Matthew 7:24-28 is not really the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the conclusion of the conclusion. The larger passage from 7:7-28 is the conclusion of the sermon. In the body of the sermon (5:21 to 7:6), Matthew reports specific teachings and admonishments, the commands Jesus mentions in 5:19. The conclusion, though, includes no such specific requirements and possesses a different texture.

Does Matthew 7:7-28 incorporate the aspects you expect in a sermon’s conclusion? How?What do you consider the basic purpose of the Sermon of the Mount (either in Jesus’ ministry or in Matthew’s presentation)? Does your reading of the conclusion support this view or ask you to alter it?

Day 2: Matthew 28:18-20

What common themes can be found by comparing the end of the Sermon on the Mount (verses 7:24-29) to the end of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20)?What imperatives are given in both? What justification is given for the commands discussed in both?How does the wording of Matthew 5:19 connect the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount to the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel?

Jesus asks Peter, John, and the rest to make disciples of all nations. What does this word mean to you? Is this meaning reflected in the passage? Are there ways you see yourself fulfilling the call to make disciples? Are there endeavors you are considering that would fulfill Jesus’ call to make disciples of others?

What aspects of the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20) do not appear to have counterparts in either the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount or its conclusion?

Day 3: Luke 11:9-13

Comparing Matthew 7:7-11 to Luke 11:9-13 reveals something interesting. The “good things” that the Father will give according to Matthew’s gospel are rendered as “The Holy Spirit” in Luke’s account.How does this relate to the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel mentioned in yesterday’s meditation? In particular, how does it relate to those aspects that might not have obvious parallels in the introduction or conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount?

Very rarely, a rabbi would arise who was said to have “authority” (Jewish term: semikhah, though many other transliterations are possible.) Such a rabbi had the right to promulgate new interpretations or rabbinical traditions. These teachings would then be passed down to later rabbis. This practice maintained a certain degree of consistency among the teachings of Judaism since rabbis were not generally free to make up their own interpretations.

But occasionally someone received special revelation for a short time and would do or say things while being “in the Spirit.” We normally think of this in terms of prophecies, but often it was for instruction. An utterance made while “in the spirit” was cherished and given special authority. The biblical writers use this idiom in Matthew 22:43, Luke 2:27, and Acts 19:21 to describe actions or words provoked by God’s call. The idea that the Spirit of God would be available to everyone all the time was probably incomprehensible, and it is unsurprising that the apostles spoke in such humbled terms of the Spirit’s availability. It is called the “gift” and the realized “promise” multiple times in Acts, and chapters 13-16 of John put the Spirit in the spotlight as well.

If we temporarily set aside the mental pictures Matthew 7:7-11 plants in our Western, individualistic minds, we can grope for how Jesus may have intended this message on a community-wide scale. The Sermon on the Mount repeatedly speaks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” that the Jews were expecting to come upon them as God’s people. The Jews of Jesus’ day commonly prayed for their national salvation. If Matthew 7:7-11 is an allusion to that, we see in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount the first hints at one of the most amazing nuances of the coming Kingdom: that it would be a revolution by spiritual revelation. Instead of suggesting his Jewish brothers ask for an army to bring about their deliverance, he asks them to pray for the Spirit to come.

Just imagine living in a faith society where the Spirit of God had been almost silent for centuries, very rarely possessing anyone and only for short periods of time. How amazed early Jewish Christians must have been to find the Spirit pervading their community and touching all believers! That which was once desperately rare had become abounding, as though diamonds were falling like rain.What role does the Spirit have in your life?

Day 4: Matthew 7:1-6 and Romans 11:11-21

In the sermon’s conclusion, Christ discusses the twin dangers of following those who should not be followed and failing to follow those who should be.

Christ’s final admonition, Do not judge lest you be judged, leads into this conclusion by suggesting the Jews in general are not being a good example to others. He tells them to remove the plank from their eye so they can see to remove the specks from their brothers’. And he follows that up with a curious statement: Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs, otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.

When this phrase is quoted today, people often think Christ is saying “don’t waste your time on those unreceptive to your message,” but there is nothing anywhere near Matthew 7:6 that suggests he has this in mind. It would be rather strange for Jesus to ascribe pearls of wisdom to those he had just called hypocrites and accused of having planks in their eyes. Furthermore, the idea that we should not engage those we do not believe are receptive would go against Christ’s own model. He debated the scribes and Pharisees in his own ministry and even addressed the aristocratic Sadducees, who were probably even less receptive to his views. His later disciples would similarly engage all manner of people, not allowing their prejudices determine who was fit to hear the gospel.

Instead, Matthew 7:6 is probably a reference to the danger of God’s favor passing to the Gentiles [“pigs” and “dogs” were both Jewish epithets for Gentiles, the former emphasizing their living outside God’s law, the latter emphasizing their idolatry]. By continuing in disobedience, the Jewish nation risked having their inheritance retracted and given to someone else. This theme has already come up earlier when Jesus asks in Matthew 5:13 (the only other place where “trampled” appears in his gospel): You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. This concern shows up several times later as well, in Matthew: 21:33-41, 22:1-10, 23:37-39, and perhaps 25:28.

We might think that his concern for the Jews is an academic one, irrelevant to us today. However, Matthew saw fit to capture this concern (as did Luke) in gospels many believe were written long after the Jewish leadership rejected Christ. How do Paul’s words in Romans 11:11-21 interpret the loss the Jewish nation suffered? Do Christians run the same risk?Do you see the modern Christian church prone to dangers like those Christ and Paul warned their audiences against?

Day 5: Luke 6:46-49 and Exodus 23:20-32

Luke’s version of the conclusion to Christ’s sermon (note how Luke 6:37-49 matches up with Matthew 7:1-27 if verses 6-14 are omitted) can aid our interpreting of Matthew’s account. Fitting together Luke 6:46-49 with Matthew 7:21-27 suggests that Luke 6:46, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I tell you? is Luke’s version of Matthew 7:21-23.How does Luke 6:46 guide your interpretation of Christ’s words in Matthew 7:21-23?In addition to comparing Matthew’s version to Luke, we can compare it to the scripture Matthew undoubtedly had in mind when portraying Jesus preaching laws on a mountain, an obvious reference to Moses on Sinai. The commandments given there composed the statutes for the Mosaic covenant, a “lease” of sorts between God and Abraham’s descendents for their occupation of the promised land.Covenants between rulers and vassals in ancient times shared a common structure. After the stipulations describing what was required of the vassal came a set of blessings, a set of curses, and provisions for the ongoing validity of the covenant. In the case of the Mosaic covenant, the stipulations were the Mosaic Law (e.g. Exodus 20:1 – 23:19) and a short version of the blessings, curses, and continuity provisions can be found immediately afterward (Exodus 23:20-32). (A longer version can be seen in Deuteronomy, where the Laws span from chapter 5 through 27, the blessings, curses, and provisions for the continuity are found in chapters 28-32.)The body of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:2) parallels the commandments given on Sinai, the stipulations for Israel’s occupation. It is unclear if the conclusion of the sermon is intended to be analogous to the blessings, curses, and provision for continuity typical for a covenant. Still, there are interesting parallels between Exodus 23:20-32 and Matthew 7:7-29.What points of contact do you see between these two passages?In the Exodus passage, the Israelites were told to destroy the altars of their pagan neighbors, and God promised to drive those idolaters from the land. How does this apply to us today? What altars are you called to smash down? What do you yearn for God to drive out from within you?

Day 6: Matthew 5:13-20

A common formula for public speaking is “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them what you told them you would tell them, and then tell them what you told them,” referring to the introduction, body, and conclusion of a speech. So far, we have looked at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount as its own entity, in comparison to Matthew’s conclusion to his gospel, in comparison to Luke’s account, and in comparison to the account of Moses giving the Torah. The final place to look for confirmation that we understand the sermon’s meaning is in its introduction.How do specific sections of Matthew 5:13-20 match up with Matthew 7:1-29?We tend to read the Bible in a piece-meal fashion, often remembering just a verse or short passage that speaks to us without reference to what part it plays in the writer’s overall design. When we see individual passages as relating to common themes in a letter, it can change our views on a passage’s intended meaning. Verses we assumed meant one thing we can find were really aimed at a different objective entirely. For each match-up you find, explain how seeing the introduction and conclusion in parallel modifies how you have viewed/interpreted the individual parts.

The Sermon on the Mount is a well known phrase. Many people have heard of it without being able to identify any particular part, other than perhaps the Beatitudes. If you overheard a group of people in a coffee shop laughing about how they all knew the phrase “Sermon on the Mount” without really knowing anything about it, what would you tell them?