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Don't Suppose

Don’t Suppose

(Matthew 5 and the Inner Logic of the Matthew’s Gospel) One distinct advantage to reading the entire Gospel of Matthew (or any of the Gospels) in a short amount of time is that it rescues the text from over familiarity. That seems counter-intuitive since we are reading more of the Gospel than we may be used to. But the trouble with our traditional devotional readings is that they are generally so short and fragmented. In three days of fifteen minute devotionals, by day three, we have forgotten much of what Matthew said on day one. But Matthew’s Gospel was meant to be read together. It has its’ own inner logic and carefully crafted layout that gets completely missed out or distorted when we only read in fifteen minute segments. We are in the habit of reading the Bible as a collection of isolated teachings, sermons, and sayings. But the Bible is mostly narrative. The Bible is a story and stories are best read in large chunks. When we start to read the Bible in large chunks, we begin to hear the writer’s own inner logic and thought patterns, instead of the thought patterns that we assumed and then brought to the text. Matthew 5, the beginning of the so-called “Sermon on the Mount”, is an excellent example of this. Many people who are already familiar with the Sermon on the Mount come to this text very un-engaged. We know it is good teaching, but we have heard it all before many times. To us, it is simply a block of Jesus’ teaching on how to be good. Many will anxiously and quickly add to that summation that Jesus is teaching this to show us how impossible it really is to be good and to show us that we cannot earn our way into heaven but must trust in the sacrifice that He will make and be for our sins. This further summarization has the further unintended effect of causing people to disregard the teaching almost altogether. After all, if the teaching is about how to be good, but we can’t be good and can’t earn our way into heaven; why bother much about the teaching? We have already grasped the concept. Why depress ourselves by meditating on goals unattainable? I don’t think that there is a good reason. But there is good reason for meditating on the Sermon on the Mount because it is very different from the above caricature. We can begin to see this when we reach Matthew 5:17: “Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the Law of the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, I came to fulfill them!” If what we have supposed is true, that Jesus is using this “sermon” to issue a challenging moral law that He knows we cannot keep, why would He think that some people in the crowd would accuse him of “destroying the law”? In the first sixteen verses of this sermon, Jesus has said absolutely nothing against what many in our day call “works based righteousness”. He has not accused anyone of “legalism” or of trying to earn their way into heaven. Jesus has not drawn attention to hypocrisy among the Pharisees who promote Torah observance (what we are calling “the Law”). Jesus has not issued a teaching to challenge the moral high ground of some of the more pious Jews. In fact, and this is my point, Jesus is not exactly issuing a “teaching” in the way we are used to thinking of that word. Jesus isn’t offering us a new set of laws. Here is where the adage I have learned from N.T. Wright comes in very usefully: “The Gospel is good news, not good advice.” This is not a teaching on how one should live. This is an announcement about something new that is happening, a new reality. Jesus isn’t saying, “Here are the new rules to keep.” Jesus is saying, “This is the way that things are going to be now that I am in charge.” And by making this claim, Jesus is redefining and revolutionizing some of the most cherished identity markers of the Jewish people. He is also offering a critique from within Judaism. Jesus is not throwing out the old identity markers (the accusation that Jesus is “destroying the Law”). Jesus is radically redefining them on the basis of the exciting and dangerous claim that He is making about God doing something radically new through Him and His community. This is dangerous, exciting, and explosive talk. This is relevant. This, I submit, is the only way to make sense of the text. Many of us were disengaged with the text to begin with because we thought it made so much sense as to be almost unnoticeable. But when you begin to read the text in large chunks, you begin to see that the meaning we bring to the text cannot make sense of the text as a whole. We can bring meaning to the text that we lay over top of isolated sayings, teachings, and events, that seem to make perfect sense, but when we back up the lens to take in the whole picture, our imported meanings confuse, distort, and distract from the inner logic that the original writer possessed for his own text. Until we are willing to let our supposed meanings be challenged, we will never hear what the Gospel writers are trying to tell us. Do not suppose that I am trying to re-write the gospels, rather I am trying to re-establish them!

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