Everything can be taken from a [person] but the last of human freedoms,
the right to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.
~Viktor Frankl

Bible Study

The “Bible Study” category will provide insights into biblical passages using modern interpretation techniques that focus in on the cultural and historical contexts in which they were written. Click one of these to see topics related to these book of Scripture:

Hebrew Scriptures:
Genesis
New Testament:
Matthew John

The Sermon on the Mount – 2: Congratulations (aka Beatitudes)

CLICK HERE to read all of Matthew 5 before beginning this session.

CLICK HERE to read basic assumptions about studying the Sermon on the Mount  before beginning this session.

We begin with what has been traditionally termed the “beatitudes.”  Many of our English translations of these passages begin with, “Blessed are the _______.”  However, I’ve chosen to use the Scholars Version, which begins with, “Congratulations _______.”  The primary reason is that with the different wording, we can more easily hear them anew.

Many have declared that the “congratulations” are only a statement of the status quo, simply defining what people are – and maybe always will be.  I believe that the underlying idea is that Jesus (and the gospel writers) are implying that we should strive to be like these who have been named, which I will try to make clear as we go through them one-by-one.

 

Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.

Matthew 5:3 (SV)

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s empire belongs to you.

Luke 6:20 (SV)

Most scholars feel that Luke’s version is the one that goes back to Jesus and deals specifically with the actual issues Jesus would have faced with the peasant class that was his primary audience.  This may be the case, but both have something to say.

First, notice that the “reward” in both is NOT riches.  The idea is not that God makes the spiritually or monetarily poor rich in their respective category; rather, each has the kingdom of heaven / God.

It is also important to realize that the statements are not that they will get the kingdom someday.  No.  They already have it.  This begins to give us a hint that Jesus isn’t concerned with us going to heaven when we die but making God’s kingdom manifest now in this life, which we will see more as we get deeper into the Sermon on the Mount.

So, what’s the point, then?  For Luke, it has to do with attitude.  Time and again, I hear people who have gone on a mission trip to help the poor.  First, they are amazed at the dismal situation that these people live with.  Then, they are amazed that these people they have come to help are often much happier than they are.  Sure, these would like to have a better financial outlook, but ultimately many of them have their priorities in a better place than many who are better well off.  They help others who are in similar predicaments and love giving out of their meager possessions to those who have come to help them.

Our church youth group provided a scholarship for a young lady to attend the Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, Texas, and she’d come each summer to work at our church.  In summer 2010, a group of adults and I were going to Lydia Patterson to work there, and in the process, we were taking her home.  When we got there, they had provided an extensive home-cooked Mexican food meal for us – much more than we could ever eat in one sitting.  They really couldn’t afford it, but they wanted to give back.  That is the kingdom of God in action – the poor already having God’s empire.  As in Matthew 6:25-33 (see also Luke 12:22-31), they don’t worry about what they’ll eat, drink, or wear but strive first for God’s kingdom and justice / righteousness that is a present reality.  They already have the kingdom, because they live it.

For Matthew, it is NOT about appearances.  Jesus’ opponents are Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and other Jewish leadership.  On the surface, these look “rich in spirit,” appearing to have everything all together.  Many of these lord their perceived superiority over others, often declaring that if the perceived “poor in spirit” would act right all their problems would be fixed.  Jesus, however, knows that the predicament of the poor in spirit (sometimes literally poor) is not necessarily their fault, and it is not a punishment from God.  They already have the kingdom of God when they treat people fairly, taking care of others – actually living out the kingdom.  Thus, they only appear poor in spirit to those in power, but ultimately the powers that be are not the ones to seek approval from.

Thus, we are to be like the poor and poor in spirit even if we aren’t.  The rich can live out the kingdom and live with integrity, even if it doesn’t look good to those in power.

 

Congratulations to those who grieve!
They will be consoled.

Matthew 5:4 (SV)

Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.

Luke 6:21b (SV)

First century peasants in Galilee had much to grieve and weep about.  Many had lost their lands and were unable to provide enough food for themselves or their families.  Due to likely malnutrition many were probably dying.  We know from archaeology and the study of skeletons that the average life expectancy for such peasants was 30 years of age (whereas the more wealthy had a life expectancy of around 50).

Looking to Matthew 6:25-33 again (a very important passage for the entire sermon), we see the command to strive first for God’s kingdom instead of worrying.  When we live this way, we will console those who mourn, weep, and worry, and when we mourn and weep (are filled with worry) others who are striving for God’s kingdom will come to console us and help us to laugh.

 

Congratulations to the gentle!
They will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:5 (SV)

The Roman Empire claimed to have inherited the earth.  However, those in Galilee Jesus was speaking to would have known stories about the Roman legions.  Some may have remembered first-hand the devastation that Roman armies wrought in their region in 4BC following the uprising after Herod the Great’s death of the same year.  The city of Sepphoris (only about 4 miles from Nazareth) was destroyed, so younger people would have certainly heard of this.  For sure, the Romans were not gentle or meek.  Jesus is, thus, giving a new way to live in the world.  Instead of relying on power and might, one should rely on gentleness.

 

Congratulations to those
who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.

Matthew 5:6 (SV)

Congratulations you hungry!
You will have a feast.

Luke 6:21a (SV)

At the heart of these is Matthew 6:25-33, again.  Notice in particular vs. 33:  “Strive first for the kingdom and God’s justice / righteousness, and all these (food, drink, and clothes) will be given to you as well.”  That is clearly the same thing that is being said in Matthew 5:6.

Luke’s version is a bit more practical but still related.  Striving for the kingdom as opposed to worrying will ultimately result in being fed.

How does this work, though?  Maybe I don’t have food, but I do have water.  I share that water with someone who does not have water, but maybe they have clothes or food to share.  By sharing what we do have, we are striving for God’s justice and righteousness.  Others who are striving help provide our needs.

 

Congratulations to the merciful!
They will receive mercy.

Matthew 5:7 (SV)

To understand this “congratulations,” we have to be clear about the meaning of the words.  Too often, “merciful” and “mercy” have been interpreted as “feeling sorry” for someone.  If I feel sorry for someone, others will feel sorry for me.  However, in the Greek, these words mean “concrete acts of mercy.”  Congratulations to those who provide concrete acts of mercy, making God’s distributive justice and righteousness a reality, for they will get the same in return.  Again, the example from Matthew 6:25-33 is appropriate.

 

Congratulations to those whose motives are pure!
They will see God.

Matthew 5:8 (SV)

The New Revised Standard translation translates the first part as, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  The more clear connotation is blessed are those with a single-minded devotion to God – might I add, who hunger, thirst, and strive for God’s kingdom and justice / righteousness.

The phrase, “They will see God” is foreshadowing for an important aspect of Matthew’s understanding of the Gospel:

  • Matthew 18:20 – “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them.
  • Matthew 25:31-46 – “Just as you took care of the least of these, you took care of me.”

Thus, what we see is that Jesus believes that to be in relationship with God, we must be in relationship with others – both members of our community and the least of these (who may not be).  When we have devotion to God through devotion to others, we see God.

 

Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be called God’s children.

Matthew 5:9 (SV)

Here we find Roman overtones.  The Romans claimed to have brought peace, but they did it by power and sword – obviously not by peaceful means.  The caesars considered themselves sons of god(s) to have been able to bring peace – and many thought they were gods.  What we’ll see later in this sermon is that Jesus was a proponent of non-violence; thus, he does not intend that God’s children bring about peace by force.  Rather, in the broader context of the sermon and Matthew’s gospel, it can be argued that God’s children bring peace by providing enough of the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of all.

It is important to realize that in the Greek, the last phrase is “sons of God.”  For sure, I believe the inclusion of females is intended in the intent, but we MUST realize that the same Greek word calling Jesus “son of God” is used here of those who work for peace – even us.  Jesus, then, is NOT the only son of God.

 

Congratulations to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.

Matthew 5:10 (SV)

Some do not think this goes back to Jesus.  Whether it came off his lips or not, it is certainly his story.  He certainly hungered, thirsted, and strove for God’s justice / righteousness and was persecuted to the point of death for it.  The implication is clear:  we need to be willing to do the same!  Jesus didn’t die so we won’t have to.  The story of Jesus’ death sets an example for the rest of us of how to live a life of integrity.  When we are committed to something that is important, we stay single-mindedly devoted to it, even if it means death.

It is worthwhile to note that the same “reward,” the empire of Heaven, is given in the first congratulations we considered.  By Jesus’ opponents, he was seen as “poor in spirit,” because he did not follow the rituals of his opponents.  Yet, he put up with the persecution to stay true to his understanding of God’s kingdom and justice / righteousness.  He had the kingdom, because he lived it.

 

Congratulations to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad!  In heaven you’ll be more than rewarded.  Remember, that is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you.

Matthew 5:11-12 (SV)

Congratulations to you when people hate you, and when they ostracize you and spread malicious gossip about you and scorn your name as evil, because of the Human One!  Rejoice on that day and jump for joy!  Because look:  your reward is great in heaven.  Bear in mind that their ancestors treated the prophets the same way.

Luke 6:22-23 (SV)

As in the previous one, some don’t believe these go back to Jesus, either, as they so closely mirror the experience of the early church.  Either way, we see this is also the story of Jesus, many of the prophets who preceded him (sharing a similar message as Jesus), and those (maybe even us) who stay true to living out God’s kingdom here and now.

Please, feel free to post questions or comments below!

CLICK HERE to read the next section on this series of the Sermon on the Mount!


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The Sermon on the Mount – 1: Beginning Assumptions

As we begin to consider the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5-7), I think it is a good practice to begin by reading the entire passage straight through before reading commentary.  That opens our minds to think about and consider:

  • What we are interested in.
  • What we already know.
  • What questions we have.

If we begin with a commentary, it drives our minds.  Let’s begin by driving our own minds.  If you haven’t already read it (or don’t have a Bible handy), CLICK HERE!

We have to be clear that we are focusing on Matthew’s version of the gospel, so we need to be aware of some of his focuses and biases.  Therefore, let us keep these things in mind:

  • By far, Matthew is the most Jewish of the four gospels, so he is more concerned about all things Jewish than are Mark, Luke, or John.  Related to this is his reverence for the name of God; thus, Matthew often speaks of the kingdom of heaven instead of the kingdom of God.  Why?  It is improper to overuse or misuse the name of God, so “heaven” is substituted.
    When you think about it, there really is no difference in saying the “kingdom of Caesar” or the “kingdom of Rome.”  In the first century, had you been in Ephesus, you’d have still been in the kingdom of Rome even though you were not in the city of Rome!
  • The book is likely written in Palestine between 75 and 85AD.
  • Jesus is the “new and better Moses” who gives a new or re-interpreted law. The two are often compared.  In terms of the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to remember that Moses received the “law” from God on Mount Sinai (or Horeb).  Jesus gives a new law (or interpretation of the law) on a mountain.
  • Matthew focuses on the conflicts of kingdoms (i.e. the Kingdom of God / Heaven vs. the kingdoms of this age / Caesar / Satan / etc.).
  • Matthew has a real concern for the  church / community (Matthew is the only Gospel with the word EKLESIA– i.e. Church / assembly in Greek).
  • Discipleship is key in being a follower, learner, disciple of Jesus.
  • There is no ascension story; thus, Jesus is with us always until the end of the age (when two or more are gathered and when we serve the least of these).
  • Matthew probably used Mark and possibly other sources such as Q, changing both along the way to fit his needs.

It is most unlikely that this sermon was copied down verbatim, especially considering that most of the people Jesus dealt with were peasants.  Rather, it is likely a compilation of Jesus’ teachings (with modifications by Matthew and others) that had circulated in oral and, eventually, written forms.  Some even argue that parts may be creations of Matthew or his sources, and as such, may not go back to Jesus at all!  This does not necessarily mean, though, that their ideas are not inline with what Jesus may have thought – though at times they may be against Jesus’ ideas!

An important distinction that should be made is that Jesus and much of the New Testament as a whole is combating a “prosperity gospel,” which is easily found in the Deuteronomic tradition (i.e. books like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) and in Proverbs.  This basic theology is, “Do good, get good,” and “Do bad, get bad.”  Thus, the extrapolation is that if you are poor, sick, or having bad times, you must have done something wrong.  God is punishing you.  Jesus (as we will see in the Sermon on the Mount) is saying that God is present with us even in the bad.  Sun and rain equally affect the righteous and the unrighteous in good and bad ways.  Thus, when faced with good or bad, we have a choice in how we will respond.  Will we respond in a way fitting of God’s kingdom or in line with the kingdoms of this world?

Somewhat related to this discussion is the Greek word that gets translated as “righteousness” (or a form of that word) in most of our English translations of the New Testament.  Sadly, we typically interpret this word in very “individual” and “moralistic” terms:  i.e. I’m “unrighteous” if I tell a little lie.  However, the word can be equally translated as “justice.”  Yet, we’ve also put a narrow interpretation to this word.  With the backdrop of the U.S. justice department, we usually think this word deals only with making sure those who did something bad get punished and those who were falsely accused get off (retributive justice).  This idea is definitely one part of the Greek understanding of this word, but there is much more there.  The phrase John Dominic Crossan usually uses is “distributive justice.”  In addition to the punishment / reward idea in retributive justice, distributive justice means that everyone gets enough; thus, everyone should get what they need to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs met.  CLICK HERE to read a PDF with more information about this idea.

As a friend of mine recently noted, the Sermon on the Mount (and I’d add other teachings of Jesus) can be quite vague.  I think this was purposeful to make us think on two levels:

  1. Simply to engage our minds.  It’s Jesus’ way of making us find and eventually use our own voices – affirming we have a voice, even if we are “the least of these;” and
  2. To make sure we don’t fall into the trap that there is only one way to do something.  In other words, he is only giving an example of how we could react.  Using insights from that example, we are to figure out other creative ways to respond to life.

Books that have influenced the interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount that will follow (and that might be useful for your own edification) include:

CLICK HERE to read the commentary on The Sermon on the Mount – 2: Congratulations (aka Beatitudes).


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Faith In or Faith Of?

Much of modern Christianity is based around the idea that one must have “faith IN Jesus Christ” to have “salvation.” More often than not, this leads to, “There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ” – which makes me shudder.

I ask the question, where does one get this idea that one must have faith in Christ to have salvation? Well, the easy answer is, “The Bible says so.” Does it really?

Let’s look at a typical example in Scripture that is often used to support the idea of faith IN Christ:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith IN Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith IN Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith IN the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2, NRSV, emphasis mine)

WOW! Look at all that “evidence” – or is it evidence? Let us take a look at the footnotes found in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible. In each of the three instances above, many scholars would translate that “the faith OF (not in) Christ.” Let’s look at the entire passage with this translation:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through THE FAITH OF JESUS CHRIST. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by THE FAITH OF CHRIST, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by THE FAITH OF THE SON OF GOD, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2, NRSV, emphasis mine to highlight the footnote additions)

What’s the difference? Well, faith IN Christ easily becomes an intellectual thing. “I believe in Christ, or I have faith in Christ.” We easily translate that into meaning faith IN Christ, and no other, is necessary for salvation.

How different is that when we accept the translation that many scholars believe is more “literal,” that we should have the faith OF Christ? How different would our lives be if we had the faith OF Christ and realized that there is nothing that can happen to us in this world (even crucifixion) that God cannot help us through? Christ could see that even though he’d rather the “cup be removed from him,” that God was going to continue to work and inspire others to carry on the work he started. Whether one believes in a literal resurrection of Christ or not, one can see the resurrection of “the Way” after all the disciples scattered at the first sign of trouble.

For me, having faith IN Christ is not very helpful. It is only an intellectual statement. I wonder, though, how can it be that I can have faith IN Christ when, according to verse 20, Christ lives IN me? If we do allow Christ to live in us, whether we have faith IN Christ or not, aren’t we allowing ourselves to have the faith OF Christ? Doesn’t the faith OF Christ lead us to be more like Christ so that we might “live to God” (Galatians 2:19). If non-Christians have the faith OF Christ, aren’t they also justified or have salvation?

Why don’t we try to have the faith OF Christ? All too often, I think we are simply afraid to have the faith OF Christ, which is to have no faith at all. We’re afraid where it might lead us. Look at Jesus. Look at the early martyrs. Look at Gandhi (who, by the way, “religiously” studied the Sermon on the Mount). Look at Martin Luther King, Jr. They all died living the faith OF Christ.

Let’s live to God. Let’s follow the leading of the faith OF Christ. Remember, it might be Friday, but Sunday’s coming. (Get it… Jesus is said to have died on Good Friday and was resurrected on Easter Sunday – what do we have to fear except fear itself).

(Originally posted at http://theology-of-t-roy.blogspot.com/2005/06/faith-in-or-faith-of.html on June 2, 2005)


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