While the allegorical method was largely ignored in the early twentieth century, it never was completely abandoned. Some of the literary methods popular in the late 1960s were not far from allegory. More recently, Craig Blomberg developed a method for the interpretation of parables which offers a strictly limited use of allegory. Blomberg observes that some parables have intentional allegorical elements identified by Jesus himself. The birds in the parable of the Sower represent Satan according to Matt 13:18-20. This limited kind of allegory is similar to rabbinic parables.

Interpreting the ParablesBy way of method, Blomberg argues the interpreter should only attempt to find a “point” for each character of the parable, normally three characters, sometimes two with an implied third. This point or lesson is stated in propositional language and is understood to be the intention of Jesus when he original gave the parable.

Blomberg is not advocating the kind of polyvalence represented by Crossan but he does seem to open the way for a metaphor to function as a more or less fluid literary device.  The meaning of the metaphor is, however, to be found within the text and is a part of authorial intent rather than an open-ended reader-response hermeneutic.  In a very real way, Blomberg is advocating limited multiple meanings, specifically only those meanings which were intended by Jesus in the first telling of the parable in a real historical context.

The Prodigal Son is an excellent paradigm of the most common pattern of three point parables (the so-called monarchic pattern).  The title of the parable is misleading since if places the focus on the son that leaves.  The parable might very well have been titled “The Forgiving Father” or “The Hardhearted Brother” based on the characters in the story.  If a parable can only make one point, then the parable of the Prodigal son must be interpreted in such a fashion so as to downplay two of the three major characters.  Is the story about repentance?   Is the story about forgiveness? Is the story about acceptance?

It appears that all three of these themes are present.  The interpreter following Jülicher would seek to formulate a single theme that somehow was broad enough to cover all three of the themes above.  Blomberg argues that this will water down the message, making it so general that it is of very little value.    By allowing one application for each main character the interpreter is free to work all three themes.

Similarly, the three main points of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin resemble those of the three points of the Prodigal Son.  In each of the three parables something is lost that is of value.  The lost item is considered valuable to the “master” figure in the parable.  In the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, the “master” figure seeks out the lost item, in the Lost Son the father is seen waiting for the son upon his return.  The results of finding the lost item is an occasion for great rejoicing, although in the Lost Son the rejoicing is tempered by the poor reaction of the older brother

Blomberg represents an evangelical response to the literary studies of Funk and Crossan in that he treats the parables as capable of more than one meaning.  He establishes controls for what elements of a parable may be used for application and which should not be “allegorized” in order to refrain from the wild allegorizing of church history.  By limiting his “points” to one per character, Blomberg methodologically limits himself when approaching other elements of a  story.  Is the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and 25 in some way to be related to the kingdom of God or the consummation of the age?  Perhaps, but Blomberg’s method seems to preclude the possibility since only the characters can be used for the development of a “point.”

In the end, Blomberg has created a Jülicher-like method by restricting meaning to three points and three points alone. Does this “one point per character” work for all the parables? How can the method described here help restrain the excess of most allegorical methods?

Bibliography: Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1990); Interpreting the Parables (Second Edition; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2012).

 

Beale, Gregory K., Daniel J. Brendsel, and William A. Ross. An Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek: Analysis of Prepositions, Adverbs, Particles, Relative Pronouns, and Conjunctions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014. 96 p. Pb. $15.99. Link to Zondervan.

This short book combines a lexical analysis and exegetical syntax for the always troublesome “little words”: prepositions, adverbs, particles, relative pronouns and conjunctions. It joins Murray Harris’s Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 2012) and Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan, 1996) as a specialized tool for Greek exegesis focusing on logical relationships between propositions (p. 6).

Interpretive LexiconIn the introduction to the Interpretive Lexicon, the authors explain the need for a handy list of words that used in the Greek New Testament to indicate relationships between clauses. The book uses a series of abbreviations for the types of logical relationships possible. For example, Alt = Alternative, C-E = Cause and Effect, C?-E = Condition, T = Temporal, +/- = Negative-Positive, etc. The authors provide brief descriptions of these abbreviations and offer a short introduction on how to read the entries in the Lexicon.

The main purpose of the books is to help interpreters tease out the often subtle connections between phrases and clauses in order to shed light on the text. Because the book is a brief handbook, a student can quickly identify the types of logical relationships possible for any given preposition when working on a discourse analysis of a pericope.

The lexicon itself is only 69 pages. It includes mores prepositions, adverbs and particles, but it is not exhaustive. Each entry begins by providing the page numbers in either the second edition of Bauer (1979, BAGD) or the third edition (2000, BDAG). Entries also include page references to either Harris or Wallace. Each entry is subdivided into usage (preposition with the dative, adverb, etc.) and the entry is “tagged” with an abbreviation indicating the type of logical connection the word usually indicates. The word ἐκεῖ, for example, is an “adverb of place” in BDAG, the Interpretive Lexicon identifies it has an adverb, either L (location) or NLR (no logical relationship). Other entries are more complex, ἐν includes six logical relationships as well as references to Wallace and Harris, plus separate entries for ἐν τῷ + and infinitive and ἐν ᾧ.

There are other guides that are similar to this Lexicon, such Steven Runge’s Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010) or Harris’s text used throughout this Interpretive Lexicon. Runge is far more detailed, which is to be expected in a monograph that runs over 400 pages. This Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek is therefore a valuable exegetical aid for the student reading the Greek New Testament. Considering the book low price of the book, it is an affordable addition to any student’s Greek reading aides. It will in a valuable handbook for those working on a discourse analysis of a text.

NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

In a previous post, I suggested the Parables “fit” into the culture of first century Galilee. One way to read parables properly is to study the material culture of the world of Jesus in order to highlight the rhetorical impact of the imagery he used. But how does one study a two thousand year old culture?

BedouinTentKenneth Bailey has written a number of books on parables. He argues Jesus’s parables are representations of the culture of the Mediterranean world of the first century. Bailey’s method is unique because he reads the parables through the eyes of modern Middle Eastern readers with whom he has lived for many years. Bailey thinks the culture of the Mediterranean world has not changed that much since the first century and many of the unusual elements of the parables can be explained by paying attention to the eastern culture from which the stories first arose. This “oriental exegesis” attempts to read the parables as Oriental churchman have throughout the centuries (Poet and Peasant, 29). In order to do this, one first must know the ancient literature and be able to assess it properly.

The most controversial point of Bailey’s method is his insistence that the culture of present Middle Eastern culture is archaic and accurately reflects the culture of the parables. Life changes slowly in the Middle East and it is intentionally traditional. Therefore some cultural phenomenon observed today may in fact go back to the first century.

This observation is not new, although the sorts of memoirs which were published in the late nineteenth century as travelers began to visit the Middle East are of varying value. What Bailey seeks to contribute is a method and control for the study of present culture as a window for understanding the first century. Books are of less value to Bailey than personal interviews with people who have spent at least twenty years in the Middle East collecting observations orally, in Arabic. Bailey has found 25 dialogue partners who satisfy this requirement and are also literate enough to understand the point of the questions he put to them concerning the parables.

MDG : Seed : Plowing a field and sowing seeds in EthiopiaA second methodological consideration is what Bailey calls “theological clusters.” Bailey believes that Jülicher’s belief about the relationship between allegory and parable has been proven false, although the idea that a parable makes a single point persists. Bailey argues that parables are intended to evoke a decision, but the response to a parable is informed by a “theological cluster,” each element of which may be examined separately (Poet and Peasant, 41). It is the point at which all of the theological themes come together that a single response is evoked. A single response is different than a single meaning, the meaning may vary from listener to listener, but there is still only one response.

Bailey illustrates this with the Parable of the Sower. The response is “hear the word of the kingdom and bear fruit.” But there are at least four theological points made by the parable which contribute to this response: The kingdom is like a seed growing slowly; God’s grace includes sowing the seed where the ground is unprepared; fruit bearing is an essential part of the kingdom; there is the hope and assurance of a harvest in spite of difficulties. All of these theological motifs (and perhaps others) converge to illicit the response to the parable intended by Jesus.

Bailey has been rightly critiqued because he draws very little from rabbinic parallels. Bailey brackets this evidence since it is extremely hard to date evidence from post-Mishnah Judaism, but relies on evidence from modern Mediterranean culture. If the general lines of the culture have survived since the first century in practice, then those cultural elements one finds in the literature like the Talmud may very well be an accurate reflection of first century culture.

Charles Hedrick offers a number of criticisms of Bailey’s methodology which ultimately question the value of the study (Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fiction, 45-46). Hedrick’s most important criticism is the chronological distance of Bailey’s sources. Is it reasonable to think that the Mediterranean culture Bailey experienced in the twentieth century is an accurate representation of the culture of the first century?

In addition, Hedrick points out that Bailey ignores the Islamization of Palestine. For the last 1400 years Islam has ruled Palestine in some way, but when Jesus lived in Israel it was ruled by the Romans through a Jewish bureaucracy. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that Islamic Bedouin of the modern era have the same sorts of practices that the Jewish peasants of Galilee did. Yet anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Middle East knows that Bedouin culture is extremely conservative and has only recently has tradition been eroded by the modern world (cell phones and blue jeans, mostly!)

Despite these criticisms, I find Bailey’s books stimulating and insightful. He has a slightly different perspective that most writers on parables and in almost every case I find his comments helpful for teaching and preaching the parables.

Are the criticism of Bailey’s method fair? If there is a problem, perhaps what seems very “preachable” is not accurate – but is the use of contemporary cultural observations valid?

 

Kenneth Bailey Bibliography:

Poet & Peasant; and, through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.

Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2008.

Robert Funk is an example of a literary approach to the parables. He adapted Dodd’s work along literary lines, using the parable of the Great Supper as a test case for his theory of parables as metaphor. The imagery of a parable is drawn from common life yet intends to engage the hearer by its vividness or strangeness. But Funk differed with Dodd by taking parables as extended metaphors. Similes simply illustrate a point that is known. Metaphors create meaning by juxtaposing two somewhat incompatible objects in order to impact the imagination. Metaphors are the “superimposition of the everyday with the ultimate,” and the parable “cracks the shroud of everydayness lying over mundane reality” (161-2).

Funk and the ParablesMetaphorical language is inherently creative because it is incomplete until a listener hears the text and discovers the meaning in some way. The act of listening to a parable, therefore, creates meaning out of the text. Since meaning is grounded in the act of listening, each listener may discover a unique meaning as they encounter the text, as Fuchs says, “the parable interprets the reader” (151). Picking up on Dodd’s thought that the parables are left open ended to tease the hearer to make their own application, Funk argues that the whole point of the parable is to provide the opportunity for the hearer to make an application of the parable.

Metaphors may live on beyond the text, changing and “constantly refracting in the changing light of historical situation” (141-2). Here Funk is reflecting literary theory on metaphors which describe how metaphors function within a language and applying this thinking to the parables as extended metaphors. A given metaphor may function differently in a new historical or cultural context, making new meanings in each new circumstance. Parables are not intended to transmit some proposition, but rather to open “onto an unfinished world because that world is in course of conception” (“Good Samaritan as Metaphor,” Semeia 2 (1974): 75).

Funk agrees with Dodd’s principle that the application of parables was left some way imprecise and vague in order to allow the hearer to make their own application, but things Dodd did not take this far enough. For Funk, it is impossible ever, once and for all, to say what a given parable means. Parables simply do not transmit ideas and cannot be placed into a historical context as Dodd and Jeremias did. To put them back into any “real life situation,” either that of Jesus or the Church, is pointless and does not allow the parables to function as parables. In fact, the tradition which has placed the parables in the gospels is described as a “deformation” of what Jesus original spoke.

Funk said, “Strictly speaking, the parable does not say something else . . . the parable does not teach something, but it gestures toward” (196).  The church “deforms” the parables by applying them to new situations – but for Funk and many post-modern readers of parables, this is not a bad thing at all.

I will readily admit that most people read the parables this way, applying them in new and creative ways, using them to speak to new situations in church and culture. This is certainly the way metaphors work – but is this a fair method for reading the parables with clarity?  I am not sure that it is helpful to say that parables do not express a point until they are read by an individual.  Does a combination of “writer and reader” meeting in a text create meaning?   Does the author’s intention count for anything?

Bibliography: Robert Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper, 1966.

C. H. Dodd’s The Parables of the Kingdom was a major step forward from the foundation of Jülicher. Dodd attempted to read the parables in their proper historical context (Sitz im Leben Jesu), but he also attempted to deal with the problem of eschatology raised by Schweitzer. Schweitzer argued that Jesus thought of the kingdom as present in his own ministry and that his actions in Jerusalem would bring the kingdom fully into the world.  Dodd, on the other hand, understood the kingdom of God as having fully arrived with the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus is not reforming Judaism or correcting their misunderstanding of the Kingdom, he is creating something new.  The parable of the Patched Garment and Wineskins, for example, indicate that the old has already passed away and the new has already come.  Jesus did not come to reform Judaism, but to bring “something entirely new, which cannot be accomplished by the traditional system” (117).  There is no future eschatological climax to history; history has reached its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. The parables of the kingdom are an attempt by the early church to take the words of Jesus and create a new eschatology as an alternative to that of the Jews of the Second Temple period (35-6).

SowerThis “realized eschatology” controls Dodd’s reading of the parables so that he occasionally detects places where the evangelists have obscured Jesus meaning.  For example, the parable of the talents was originally about the Pharisees and ethical conduct but the early church adapted it to the delay of the parousia.  But the eschatological parables are from Jesus himself, there is no long drawn out period of oral transformation within the life of the church (122-39).  Form criticism is correct that the parable must be taken out of the artificial context of the Gospels, but Dodd does not propose a method of determining the artificial context.

Dodd deals with the eschatological parables in his chapter on “parables of crisis.”  By this point in his book he has repeatedly argued that Jesus was not expecting a future apocalyptic kingdom, so he merely re-affirms his belief that the apocalyptic interpretation of these parables is a secondary addition developed by the early church.  In the parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants in Matthew 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-36, Jesus’ original parable concerned responsibility of those charged to lead and faithfulness to the task given. He had the chief scribes and teachers of the law in mind, not a future coming kingdom.  This idea was “naturally enough and legitimately enough re-applied” by the early church to a new situation (160).  The parable of the Thief at Night (Matt 24:43-44, Luke 12:39-40) originally referred to the coming persecutions of Jesus and his disciples, and the destruction of Jerusalem.  Both the Faithful Servants and the Thief in the Night parables referred to something that was already happening in the ministry of Jesus, but the early church took them over and re-applied them to the situation present after the resurrection (170-71).

The evidence for this is the re-use of the saying (which Dodd would associate with Q) in 1 Thessalonians 5.  For Dodd, Paul is re-applying something he picked up from the traditional sayings of Jesus and re-applying it for the Thessalonian church (168).   The parable of the Ten Virgins is interpreted in a similar fashion.  Jesus taught preparedness for the “developments which were actually in process in the ministry of Jesus” (178).

Dodd’s chief contribution, so-called “realized eschatology” attempted to deal with the apocalyptic Jesus described by Schweitzer in such a way that did justice to both the texts which describe the kingdom as present and those which describe the kingdom as future.  This theological position will be extremely influential on subsequent parables studies, especially those by Smith and Jeremias.

But is a fully-realized eschatology the best way to read all of the parables?  I am not at all happy with ignoring parables which seem to be “apocalyptic” as later additions and not from the Historical Jesus. The Ten Virgins and the Talents seem to teach a long delay before the return of the Lord.  This may not be a product of the church but a genuine apocalyptic teaching from Jesus.  Dodd contributes much, but by removing the apocalyptic from the Parables he robs them of their Second Temple Period context.

What does Dodd contribute to the reading of Parables?

Bibliography: C. H. Dodd, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners 1935)

It is sometimes said that in the parables of Jesus we hear the true ipsissima vox Jesu: the real voice of Jesus. Joachim Jeremias, for example, begins his classic The Parables of Jesus by stating we “may be confident” we stand on firm historical ground when we read the parables. The parables reflect the sort of thing expected when a first century Jewish rabbi taught. The images are drawn from the life of the common people of Galilee and Judea and many have the “apocalyptic edge” we know is present in other literature of the Second Temple Period.

ParableYet many scholars wonder if the parables as we read them in the gospels accurately reflect the original form and content of Jesus’ teaching. Is it possible to interpret the parables in the context of the life and teaching of Jesus? Can we know that the parables reflect true voice of Jesus? Or to put it another way, have the original parables been creatively adapted and re-applied to the situation of a later church or community by the gospel writers?

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the parables were assumed authentic but the original intent of Jesus’ teaching was set aside in favor of elaborate allegories which applied to the time of the interpreter. Details of the story became fodder for preaching the gospel or some moral lesson, often incorporating elements of later church theology. For example, Augustine took the “meaning” of the oil in the parable of the Good Samaritan as the Holy Spirit, and the inn-keeper as Paul. Nothing in the parable even hints at this meaning, the “message” is from the mind of the interpreter.

This allegorical method was overturned by Adolf Jülicher. He effectively challenged popular allegorical interpretations by applying form criticism the parables. He argued that the parables were not allegories. He rejected the detailed and imaginative interpretations (Paul as the inn-keeper, etc.) Instead, parables had a single message, a “moral of the story” which could be expressed simple timeless truth. Rejecting allegory was a great contribution to the study of parables, but Jülicher also cast doubt on the possibility of knowing the original setting of the parables of Jesus. Elements of a given parable could have been added to the parable to make it more “up to date” and to make it more applicable to the present church. For Jülicher , it was not possible to know if Jesus was the original speaker of a given parable.

Here is a thought experiment you can try: Retell the story of the Prodigal Son to a group of junior high students. How much of the story do you change in order to make it “current”? How does the son spend his inheritance? (Big car, big TV, women, gambling, etc.) If you retell the story to a group of elderly ladies at their home Bible Study, my guess is that the prodigal spends his money differently (shawls and Matlock videos?) It is natural for there to be some shifting of details when a story is retold, but the sense of the story remains the same.

The emphasis of much of twentieth century scholarship has been on placing the parables into the context of the community which produced the synoptic gospels, often despairing of the possibility of recovering the words of Jesus. Perhaps it is better to ground the Parables in the life of Jesus as an itinerant teacher in Jewish Galilee. As I see it, this will allow us to “hear the voice of Jesus” most clearly.

How should we interpret the parables? How far should we “push” the application of a given parable away from the original context in the life of Jesus?

oath Oath taking was common in Jesus day, since it was permissible by the Mosaic Law (Deut 23:21-23).  An oath was pronouncing a curse upon one’s self if the truth was not spoken, or a promise is not fulfilled. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo defined an oath as an “appeal to God as a witness on matters in dispute, and to call him as a witness to a lie is the height of profanity” (Spec. Leg. 2.10). This was an important issue in lawsuits and daily life since it underscored the truthfulness of one’s statement. The oath was only required where truthfulness was in doubt, possibly in a legal situation.  The Law allowed for oath making but emphasized the importance of keeping an oath.  If you promise something you are to keep that promise.

Traditionally one would “swear by” something.  Swearing by the name of God (or a god) was common (Exod 20:7, Lev 19:21), but God did not want his people using his name for oaths they did not intend to keep. Swearing by the King’s name was possible since the king in Israel was to be God’s representative. One might swear by his own life that his word was true, something like “swearing by my head.” Swearing by “heaven and earth” was also common, as was swearing by the angels, the temple, or parts of the temple.  Oaths sworn on things other than God were “less binding,” they were less serious (Matt 23:16).

Jesus is reacting against those persons who invoke God by oath and do not fulfill that oath. By swearing an oath the hypocritical Pharisee would imply that he was truthful.  But then he would say later than an oath made on the temple isn’t binding.  This is the issue in Mt. 23 16-20.  It is the equivalent to a child saying “had my fingers crossed.”

As with each other extensions of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ ideal is an absolute virtue: Do not swear oaths you cannot or don’t intend to keep.  If you cannot keep an oath, it is better to not swear oaths at all! The problem Jesus is getting at is that if your word cannot be trusted then you are nearly worthless to the kingdom of Heaven.

pinky-swearIn contrast to making an oath you may not keep, Jesus says:  Let your “yes” be “yes”, your “no” be “no”.  This simply means tell the truth, and faithfully do what you promise. Like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is extreme and hyperbolic – does he really mean his people ought never swear an oath? Like self-mutilation in the adultery passage, Jesus’ extreme statement emphasizes the heart of the original command: be honest and keep your promises!

This is a radical concept in our day as much as it was in Jesus day.  He is commanding that we live by the words we say!  If we promise it, we have to do it. Like anger and lust, Jesus stands in the tradition of the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs 12:17 and 19:5 threaten the false witness with punishment and Sirach 23:9 says “Do not accustom your mouth to oaths, nor habitually utter the name of the Holy One” and in 41:19 “Be ashamed of breaking an oath or agreement.” Like Jesus, the wisdom writers warn against hasty oaths that cannot be kept.

How does this principle of “let your yes be yes” extend to other areas of life? If we willingly break a law or policy we promised to keep, are we guilty of not “letting our yes, be yes”?

 

NB: While I did not cite this article, it was very helpful: Don Garlington, “Oath-Taking In The  Community Of The New Age  (Matthew 5:33–37)” TrinJ 16 (1995): 139–70.

 

adulteryJesus also extends the seventh commandment to include far more than sex outside of marriage. His method is generally the same as for murder in the previous section. It is not just the action of adultery that is the problem but the thought process behind it. If murder starts with an angry heart, adultery starts with a wandering eye. Adultery does not happen by accident, there is a period of temptation that occurs before the actual action itself.  Jesus points to that and says that the thinking itself is a problem, and is worthy of the same punishment as the action itself.

Other Second Temple period writers discussed the problem of adultery and also concluded that the eye is where adultery starts. For example, in the Testament of Issachar, the writer says on “I am a hundred and twenty-two years old, and I am not aware of having committed a sin unto death.  “I have not had intercourse with any woman other than my wife, nor was I promiscuous by lustful look” (T.Issachar 7:1-2). The Wisdom of Ben Sirach makes a similar point, but also offers a number of expansions on the Law to help the young man avoid adultery.

Sirach 9:1-9  Do not be jealous of the wife of your bosom, or you will teach her an evil lesson to your own hurt. Do not give yourself to a woman and let her trample down your strength. Do not go near a loose woman, or you will fall into her snares. Do not dally with a singing girl, or you will be caught by her tricks. Do not look intently at a virgin, or you may stumble and incur penalties for her. Do not give yourself to prostitutes, or you may lose your inheritance. Do not look around in the streets of a city, or wander about in its deserted sections. Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood you may be plunged into destruction.

Jesus’s teaching here is simpler: if you are inclined to lust, do even look at a woman. This does not apply only to “another man’s wife” but to women in general. In fact, Jesus’ words should be read as applying to both men and women, married or not. God’s people should live sexually pure lives.

It is not a very popular verse in our modern society for the exact same reasons that it was not popular in Jesus time, and it has led to some horrible oppression of women by sinful and stupid men. But that was not Jesus’ point at all! Since it is impossible to know what someone is thinking, we imagine our impure thoughts are private and have no real effect on anyone. Jesus explodes this myth by comparing private thoughts to the act of adultery itself. In the first interpretation of the Law Jesus says God’s people ought to control their anger, here he says they ought to control their lust.

A critically important observation is that Jesus is not condemning sex. He stands within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible that marriage and sex are created by God and ought to be enjoyed fully (e.g., Eccl 9:7-10). He is also standing within Wisdom tradition by warning people to avoid adultery (e.g., Prov 5:15-20). He is saying it is a man’s responsibility to guard his thoughts so that he does not begin adultery in his heart; it is a woman’s responsibility to guard her thoughts so that she does not begin adultery in her heart.

How does a person control their lust? Jesus uses some very strong language to describe how we are to handle this problem. If this is taken literally there would be a lot of blinded men running around. “If your eye offends you pluck it out” is hyperbole, an exaggeration. A blind person can still lust. This verse does not, however, teach self-mutilation as a cure for sin. Jesus is saying, in effect, “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Just as an alcoholic must avoid locations where they might be tempted, so too someone who lusts ought to avoid places where they will be tempted.

Is Jesus being repressive in this extension of the Law? Is it really important to guard one’s heart so that even our thoughts are pure, free from anger and murder?

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus discusses six issues drawn from the Law. While he begins with a quotation of the Law, he interprets the Law in a radical fashion in order to get to the heart of the original command. To use Scot McKnight’s three categories of Jesus’ ethic, the command is “from above” because Jesus is stating in clear terms what he expects from his people and he does this “from below” like a wisdom teacher. In the first two examples in this section, the law states “thou shalt not murder, commit adultery” and Wisdom literature observes often the folly of anger and lust. But there is an eschatological aspect as well since God’s people will live at a higher standard than they have in the past.

Anger ManagmentJesus deals with two of the Ten Commandments, first murder (5:21-26) and then adultery (5:27-30). This should not be taken as an indication Jesus had nothing to say about theft or bearing false witness. We can think of Jesus as setting up a new way of reading these commands since he is more interested in the mental and spiritual practices that result in a breach of the command. If God’s people to not hate, then they will not murder either!

In this interpretation of the sixth commandment, there is a progression from anger, to calling someone ῥακά (raca), to calling someone a fool. The results are also progressive: subject to judgment, brought before the council, and the fires of Hell. If someone thinks they are right with God because they have not murdered, can they say they have never been angry? If they have been angry, can someone say they have never used rough language to describe another person? Most people will be provoked to anger by the stupidity of others (spend a few minutes reading your facebook or twitter feeds; you are going to call someone a fool sooner or later!)

Jesus quotes the commandment they offers three clarifications or extensions of the command. First, Jesus says if you are angry with a brother, you are under judgment. The judgment for murder was to be taken outside town and stoned! Jesus says that even if you have never committed murder, if you were angry you have the same level of guilt as a murderer!

Second, if one calls his brother raca he is liable before the council. Raca is “an obscure term of abuse, probably from the Aramaic meaning “empty one” or even “imbecile.” N. T. Wright suggests the word refers to “vulgar and abusive language” in his translation of the New Testament. The council is the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land for the Jews.  This is to say something like “you will be taken before the Supreme Court” for judgment.  Both raca and the judgment are stronger than the first two statements.

Third, Jesus says that saying “you fool” will place one in the fires of Hell. While the phrase “you fool” is not particularly strong in English, but in a first century context it was a serious condemnation. The Greek word μωρός (moros) is a strong condemnation, since the Wisdom literature routinely condemns the actions of the fool in contrast to the wise. It is possible Jesus has in mind a “rebel,” alluding to Moses in Num 20:10 (although a different word is used the the LXX, the angry condemnation of Israel is similar in tone). The “fires of Hell” is the word γέεννα (ghenna), a reference to the Valley of Hinnom. Since the valley was used as a place for Molech worship during the reign of Manasseh (2 Chron 28:3) and was often used as a garbage pit, it become a metaphor for fiery judgment.

Thus Jesus says the anger that causes murder is the problem. The people of God cannot think of themselves as righteous because they have not killed anyone, they need to realize that anger and harsh words are even more deadly and under an even harsher judgment that murder.

If this expansion and deepening of the command of the Law is model for applying other commandments, how might we “expand and deepen” the other commands of the Decalogue? Other than adultery, there ought to be a way of describing the attitude behind theft or untruth.

It is no coincidence that the Sermon on the Mount echoes throughout the Gospel of Luke, as well as in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament….  In the first three centuries of the church, no other biblical passage was referred to as often…There is no question that it was understood as the charter document for Christian Living.  Church leaders constantly quoted it when offering moral exhortation. Glen H. Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove:  Invert-Varsity, 2003), 31.

For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the core of Christian Ethics. As Stassen and Gushee state above, the early church used the Sermon frequently to describe how a Christian ought to live out their life in Christ. The same is true for modern Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously used the sermon as the basis for his The Cost of Discipleship, one of the most influential books on the thinking of Christians in the latter half of the twentieth century. For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation for Ethics, so that books like Kingdom Ethics can use Matthew 5-7 as a starting point for an ethical system.

But as Scot McKnight comments in his recent commentary on the Sermon, Jesus does not “do ethics” quite like anyone else. His teaching is not quite virtue ethics or utilitarianism or any other category of “modern ethics.” He therefore suggests “it is wiser to begin by wondering what Jesus sounded like—morally, that is—in a first century Galilean Jewish world” (Sermon on the Mount, 7).

Sermon on the MountAs McKnight explains it, the Sermon makes people nervous because it does not fit any one category of “doing ethics.” He suggests there are three dimensions to the ethics of Jesus, “from above, beyond and below.” “From above” refers to the commands directly from God as found in the Torah. The Law is not ethics in the contemporary sense since it claims to be a direct revelation of God’s will. Jesus speaks this way in the Sermon on the Mount. He teaches “by his own authority” (Matt 7:28-29). Even if he makes reference to the Law (Matt 5:21, 27) or seems to reflect rabbinical debates (Matt 33-37), Jesus declares “this is what I say.”

But Jesus does not simply command. According to McKnight, his ethics also is “from beyond.” Here McKnight refers to a “kingdom ethic.” The disciples of Jesus are part of the new age (already) even if that new age is (not yet) fully present. There is an eschatological dimension to the Sermon on the Mount since the “future has already begin to take place in the present…An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus nor Christian” (11). But Jesus did not have in mind a kind of other-worldly detachment from the present world. The coming Kingdom of God shapes the way Jesus-followers live right now in this world.

A third dimension to Jesus’ ethic is “from below,” by which McKnight means Jesus’ ethics are like biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom is intensely practical and is often based on observation of the human condition. Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matt 6:25-27 says worry is not worth the effort, one is better to find contentment in want God has already provided than worrying about tomorrow. This is not a “from above” commandment, “Thou shalt not worry.” Nor is it based on a prophetic look ahead to a future when one does not have any worries in a future kingdom. It is based on a common observation that people who are overly worried do not accomplish much.

In the end of his introduction, McKnight concludes that Jesus’ ethics are messianic and kingdom-oriented, but they also describe how a gathered, Spirit-filled people are to live. This observation bridges the gap between the original audience and later Christians who seek to follow Jesus.

Do other teachings in the Sermon fit into McKnight’s three categories?

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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