We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Matthew 5:1

New Testament scholars recognize the Sermon on the Mount as being a collection of saying passed down to the earliest generations of churches, which the author of Matthew put together in the form of a single sermon.  This first verse contains a couple of hints that this was the case.  First, Jesus went up a mountain, recalling Moses going up Sinai to receive the commandments of God.  Second, he "sat down," meaning that he was delivering formal, authoritative teaching.  The first generation of Jesus' followers heard him teach in a wide variety of settings.  They committed what they heard to memory and shared what they remembered with others who joined the Jesus Movement later on—and who, in their turn, passed those teachings on to still others.

Studies into oral traditions suggest that they can reliably preserve material over long periods of time.  But variations do creep in.  Moreover, newer church members would have had no way of knowing which sayings really came from Jesus and which were attributed to him but not really his.  Our author saw that it was necessary to assemble an authoritative set of Jesus' teachings, which could be trusted as his, and get them written down so that later enthusiasts and sectarians couldn't mess with them.

The gospel, thus, is not a tape recording.  It does not contain the words of Jesus.  What it does contain are the words the very earliest church remembered him saying.  The principle of incarnation is once again at work here.  The Spirit winds its holy way quietly through human agencies, the carpenter's son being the key, profoundly significant agency for his followers down to the present.  The Spirit, we are convinced, is also present in the stories and teachings contained in Matthew's gospel, but in a human way.

Certain Christian groups have gone to great lengths to try to convince us that Matthew's words are literally God's words.  They invent elaborate theories to that end.  The Spirit, however, doesn't work that way.  It works through broken-ish human agencies to inspire self-understanding, repentance, humility, a desire to serve, mercy, and clean living—all of which inspire Jesus' followers to be peacemakers. The goal is not a set of absolutely True beliefs beyond doubt or reproach.  The Spirit rather works to the end that we take up Jesus' ministry of calling the world to its senses and then getting things turned around so that we together can live profoundly peaceful lives grounded in the Spirit itself.  Amen.