Matthew 5:11-20, The Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

[February 9, 2014] In this text we move beyond the Beatitudes into the body of the Sermon on the Mount. The eight Beatitudes are in the third person and describe the Promised Land that is in Jesus and in the relationship to Jesus that is discipleship (please read the previous two posts, on 4:12-23 and 4:24-5:10). The ninth Beatitude is in the second person plural and begins Jesus’ instruction to his disciples: instructions to his disciples in full view of the crowds, so for the sake of the crowd—and thus as an example of what Jesus says to the disciples in verses 14-16 (about being a light for the world, etc.).

In fact, verses 11-16 form one unit of thought. The sayings about salt and light begin with the thought of persecution on account of Jesus. As Jesus begins to speak to the circle of his disciples surrounded by the crowds, he speaks about the disciples’ relationship to the society that surrounds them. As Jesus sits on a hill above the crowd, he says to the disciples seated or reclining around him that they are to be a city built on a hill-top for all to see. (He was then and there building them as such.)

Verses 17-20 introduces another unit of thought, the six antitheses of verses 21-48, about the correct interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, indeed, interprets the Halakah (the rules of the Torah) by the whole body of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy), especially its interpretation by Deuteronomy, in the light of the Literary Prophets (Isaiah to Malachi). Moreover, Jesus not only interprets the Torah by the Prophets, but he interprets it in the light of his coming (the presence of the Messiah promises by the Prophets).

So, what we are going to try to understand today are these two distinct units of thought. Before we get into that, however, it seems wise to try to understand the connection between all three units of thought: (1) the Beatitudes of verse 3-10, (2) the relationship of the disciples to the society that surrounds them, in verses 11-16, and (3) the proper interpretation of the Halakah introduced in verses 17-20.

As I have suggested, the Beatitudes describe the “Promised Land” under God’s blessing, which is the personal sphere of Jesus into which he brings his disciples by virtue of their particular relationship to him. Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom of the heavens. Verses 11-16 describe what it is like for this “place” in its environment. On the one hand it is persecuted by an anonymous “they” in verses 11-12. Yet the earth, or the land (the Land of Israel? see 2:21), is invigorated by its presence. And its presence in the midst of others shines a light on them in their darkness (see 4:16). The imperative is therefore that it must retain its saltiness (and not lose it) and situate itself (and not hide) so that it can be seen by all.

For the disciples to have this function, they must “walk” (this is what the word halakah means in Hebrew) in the world in a certain way. Jesus gives six examples in verses 21-48. The Torah must be interpreted correctly, in the light of the Prophets and ultimately in the light of Jesus himself who is the fulfillment of the promise proclaimed in the writings of the prophets (even if he does not yet fulfill in the world all which is promised).

Verses 11-16 tell us there is a contrast implied by the Beatitudes of verses 3-10. There is a place where there is blessing, implying that what is not in that place is where the blessing is not. The earth or land needs its salt and the world needs its light. This beginning of the Sermon on the Mount is paralleled by the conclusion of the Sermon in 7:13-27 which contrasts the two ways, the true and the false, and the two foundations.

Verses 17-20 specifically introduces the main body of the Sermon on the Mount while 7:12 (the “golden rule” which is “the Law and the Prophets”) concludes it. Similarly, within the main body of the Sermon on the Mount, 5:21-48 is paralleled by 6:19—7:11, and within that, 6:1-6 is parallel to 6:16-18. At the heart or core of the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is, with its immediate frame, the “Lord’s Prayer” in 6:7-15. Thus the entire Sermon on the Mount forms a chiasm: the center is the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13); framing it are verses 7-8 and 14-15; framing this are verses 1-6 and 16-18; framing this are 5:21-48 and 6:19—7:11; framing this are 5:17-20 and 7:12; framing this are 5:3-16 and 7:13-27; and framing the whole are 4:25—5:2 and 7:28—8:1. One can also think of concentric circles. In other words, everything moves towards the “Lord’s Prayer” which puts on the lips of the disciples Jesus’ own relationship to the Father. This is what is shared with the disciples when they enter the personal sphere of Jesus: they share his personal (hypostatic) relationship to the Father. Around this the entire Sermon is formed and from this it entirely flows. This place where the Son meets in communion with the Father is the Promised Land, the place of Beatitude.

In the little time that I have, let us see what we can do with this passage.

They Will Persecute You (Matthew 5:11-12)

“Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.”

In verse 10 “they” are persecuted in the cause of uprightness, that is, on account of their uprightness (or righteousness) or because of it. In verse 11, “you” are persecuted “on my account” (in my cause, or because of me). Verse 10 can describe Jesus, the upright one who pleases the Father (3:17). Verse 11 explicitly describes his disciples. They will be persecuted because they are disciples of Jesus and are seen as such. Jesus does not say that they are certain to be persecuted but the implication is that they will persecute you inasmuch as they persecuted the prophets before you; if they persecuted them, they will persecute you. It is also implied that if they persecute Jesus they will also persecute his disciples. They did persecute the prophets and they did persecute Jesus: therefore they will persecute you.

Persecution here takes three forms: abuse (or insults), persecution and calumny (lies or false charges). It is not meant to be an exclusive list but an inclusive one, that is, it is meant to take in the whole variety of persecution that we may experience. What it does not include is persecution that we merit because we are unlike Jesus (for example, when Christians are disdained because of their intolerance or judgmental and disdainful attitude towards others, or because they refuse to care about those less fortunate than themselves and try only to please the rich—indeed they are persecuted because of Jesus, but only because the name of Jesus which they bandy about shows them up for the hypocrites that they are).

Jesus does not say who the persecutors are. It is an anonymous “they.” Who persecuted Jesus? We already saw that Herod the Great persecuted Jesus, and that foreshadowed the persecution of Pontius Pilate. In both cases the persecution was on account of Jesus’ kingship. Herod the Great was afraid of the kingship of Jesus announced by the magi who arrived in Jerusalem looking for the “king of the Jews.” Pontius Pilate wanted to know from Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and nailed his indictment above him on the cross: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” We are brought by this thought to the opening of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is adopted by Joseph into the lineage of King David, and to his entry into Jerusalem as a “king, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden,” when he was hailed by people as “the son of David” (the Messiah-King). Herod and Pilate see only the matter of earthly kingship and fear Jesus’ threat to their kingship. Herod did, in any case; Pilate was not afraid of Jesus but simply chose to make an example of him as a deterrent to insurgents. However, what they did not perceive, but to which they were really reacting was a deeper issue of kingship. Jesus was the coming of the kingship of God, of the kingdom of the heavens. His actual kingship puts into question all worldly kingships, all worldly authority and power. It is on this note that Matthew’s gospel ends when the victorious Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

The disciples of Jesus are persecuted because of the anarchy that they represent because, while respecting those in places of authority, they only recognize the legitimate authority of God. All other authority is relative and indeed already under God’s judgment. It will all fall. This Christian anarchism, this non-recognition of human authority, infuriates the powers-that-be. Christians respect those in authority, yes, but they refuse to turn that respect into idolatry. Authority is provisionally recognized as ordained for the sake of order, but it is always temporary and never deserves existential subservience; it only deserves compliance when it is not in conflict with God’s authority. Christians consider any form of nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism) to be idolatry.

Later we will see persecution coming to Jesus from the Pharisees on the one hand and the chief priests and Sadducees on the other. It was not all the Pharisees who persecuted Jesus but probably only the school of Shammai, who taught a form of intolerant zeal. These were the “Judaizers” who later persecuted the Jewish on account of its gentile mission church and who hounded Paul. They were intolerant of gentiles and non-observing Jews (“sinners”) and others. They were leaders in the rebellion against the Romans in the following generation. They were intent on establishing the kingdom of God on earth by their own violent zeal. Their persecution of Jesus was over their different understanding of the judgment of God and the love of God. The conflict between them was between two diametrically opposed understandings of the kingdom of God: one was false and one was true.

The chief priests and Sadducees persecuted Jesus because he threatened their power in Jerusalem. The security of their wealth and power depended on a good working relationship with the Romans. Jesus accused them of attempting to steal God’s vineyard when they were supposed to be its stewards. Jesus was the rightful king in Jerusalem, but they instead were serving the Romans, not merely subject to them but making themselves rich by their subjugation to Rome. The chief priests might have tolerated Jesus’ words but not when the governor required their cooperation. Then they gladly handed Jesus over to him. Jesus and his “movement” threatened their security within the kingdom of Rome.

The basis of all this persecution, the reason “they” would attack Jesus and his disciples, has to do with the matter of kingship and authority. The disciples are persecuted on account of Jesus because of the kingdom of the heavens. When they are faithful to Jesus, the presence of the kingdom is felt by the world.

When this happens you are to rejoice and be glad, not because you enjoy being hated by others, but because “great your reward in the heavens.” The heavens does not refer to the afterlife, as people are prone to interpret this, but rather to the invisible side of creation. There is no verb here making this a present or future reward. The reward in the heavens simply corresponds to the persecution that you suffer on earth. It is present now, though its enjoyment may be delayed. Therefore, I suspect, it is “kept in the heavens for you” (1 Peter 1:4) waiting for the day when our salvation is “ready to be revealed at the last time; in which time you exult, though for a little while at present, if it must be, you have been made sorrowful by various trials, so that the proving of your faith, much more precious than of gold which perishes though it is proved by fire, may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; whom having not seen, you love; into whom though not seeing him at present, yet believing, you exult with joy that is unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 5-9). The reward, in other words, we will receive—if we will—when the revelation of Christ is universally manifested and we appear before him for judgment in resurrection. The reward will be the enjoyment of the kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 5:3, 10).

But You Are Salt for the Land (5:13)

“You are salt for the earth. But if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet.”

Salt is a chemical, sodium chloride. As long as it remains salt it cannot lose its flavor. So what does this verse mean? When a woman goes to the market and buys salt, she can receive salt that is low quality, which means that it is mixed with impurities such as gypsum (hydrated calcium sulphate), natron, and sodium sulphate. The verb rai, to make tasteless, is in the subjunctive aorist passive tense. The meaning of “if the salt has been made tasteless,” is that what the woman has purchased has been diluted with impurities. Nothing can be done to it to restore its taste. It is good for nothing.

“You are salt for the land.” Salt was necessary for the fertility of the soil, though too much salt renders it infertile. Is this what Jesus is talking about? Are we fertilizer for the soil of the land so that the seed of the word can be sown in good soil and bear good fruit (13:23)? If the land of Israel, under the judgment of God declared by the prophets, becomes the Promised Land wherever Jesus is (4:23-24), then is our presence in the world preparing the world for his coming?

Salt is a necessity of life. Without salt in our diet we will die. We forget this when we have tend to have too much salt in our food that it actually poisons us. Athletes, however, and those who sweat much, do not forget this for they have to replenish their salt or suffer; nor do those living in certain parts of the world. Salt also seasons our food and enhance its taste, giving it zest. Salt also preserves food.

  We are still stuck with the fact that “earth” does not mean world. The earth is the visible creation, the land, and the soil. It does not normally refer to the people who live on the earth. The earth is the place which God has created, on which the Son has become incarnate, to which Christ will return in glory, and which will be transfigured when the purpose of God is fulfilled. God is interested in the earth and the environment—in itself!—and not just the human inhabitants on it. The earth belongs to God. The word “earth” also means “land.” The land of Israel belongs to God, and when the Israelites did not keep the Sabbath but abused the land, and turned to idolatry and spilled innocent blood on it, God removed them from the land. Apparently God has an interest in the land itself. Our civilization completely abuses the earth. We might think about we will be “allowed” to remain here (or will God purge the land of us).

“You are salt for the land.” If the people of Israel were faithful to God, it brought a blessing to the physical land they lived on. When they were unfaithful, they were driven from the land and the land was allowed to enjoy its Sabbaths (its rest). Jesus embodied Israel’s faithfulness to God. When we are “in him,” in his personal space by virtue of our relationship of discipleship to him, and when on account of that (on account of his relationship to the Father that he shares with us and thus has become ours) we become like him, we share his faithfulness to God. Thus we become salt for the land.

The land is literal, though it encompasses not only the land of Israel but the entire earth. The salt, and the being salted, is a metaphor. The spiritual sense unites the literal earth and the metaphorical salt. The spiritual sense has to do with the seed of the word (13:19) being planted in the soil of the heart. If the soil that receives this seed is “good,” it means that the person hears the word and understands it, and bears fruit and produces. Salt makes the soil “good.” Our presence in the world seasons the soil of people’s hearts, preparing them for the word. Thus the land itself—the literal earth—is preserved, as is our stay on it, for the coming day. We thus fertilize the land (both the earth itself and the people who live on it) and make it rich soil—when the people are ready to receive the revelation of Christ—in preparation for its coming transformation when Christ returns in glory.

How do we do this? How do we be salt? By being who we are when we are faithful disciples.

Our saltiness is what provokes our persecution: “People [will] abuse and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account … You are salt for the earth.” The salt that makes the land fertile apparently burns something else. Salt can kill corruption and provides an inhospitable environment for it. What is healing to the person is not experienced the same way by the germs that are making the person sick. If the kingdoms of the world and the false “kingdom of God” of the zealots (or any utopian vision) is a delusion greedy for power and control, the disciple of Jesus by her love, humility, weakness, and hidden spiritual strength, stands in the way of the delusion and threatens to expose it for what it is. Its self-appointed ambassadors attack the little ones of Christ and demand acknowledgment.

What does it mean to be salt with no flavor? It means that we blend in so well that the powers of the world, those who would persecute Christ, do not even know we are there. They assume our complicity, our compliance, our cooperation, our conformity. We do not confuse them. We do not disappoint them. We have no seasoning, no zest. We are spiritually so weak that we affect no one and nothing.

Then, of course, we do not help the earth at all. We are “good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet.” This is our story, not when the time comes for us to stand before our Judge, but already in the present. This is the time when we need to be salt. This would also be the time then when we are discarded as useless.

You Are Light in Their Darkness (5:14-16)

“You are light for the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”

We are salt for the earth but light for the world. The world, of course, refers to people. We leave behind the thought of persecution but continue the thought of being pointless: lighting a lamp and putting it under a tub. People are in darkness and in a shadow dark as death (4:16), and we are a light for them, though only on account of our relationship to Jesus. As Jesus is preaching on the hilltop, he is building his disciples into a city there. That is the picture; take us away from the scene and we have the Christian community within a larger community shining its light on them. That larger community is the “house,” and the Christian community within it is its lamp. The lamp needs to be visible, up on a lampstand for all to see. In the Book of the Revelation, chapters 1—3, the local churches are lampstands. The image is corporate, but the emphasis is not. As individuals we are always part of a community. The community is always assumed. The individual is too, however.

It is important for our light to be visible for people to see. However, our light is not our “good works.” We do not pray on street corners and give alms with trumpets and memorial plaques. Our left hand hardly even knows what our right hand is doing when we engage in “good works.” Much less are we trying to impress the public. Yet by letting our light shine, when people do see our good works, they will glorify—not us, but—our Father in heaven.

This is the first time Jesus refers to God as Father in the gospel. It is “your Father.” This is the new relationship with God that the disciples have been brought into by sharing Jesus’ own relationship to God. He is the Son of the Father, and he shares that communion with his disciples.

So, the light is distinct from our “good works.” What then is our light? Again, it is ourselves when we are what we are when we are in the personal sphere of Jesus as his disciples. What are we when we so shine? We are what the Sermon on the Mount describes. When we have that relationship to the Father, being to the Father what the Son is and before the Father what the Son is, in that place, then we are light. The light of the Father (because of our relationship to the Son) reflects off of us. If we are faithful as disciples, we cannot help but shine.

Yet we can hide our light. The problem when we put the lamp under a tub is not that the lamp has no light but that its light is hidden (though if we put it under a tub, it will not burn for long!). Perhaps this means that we should be open with people, confessing the name of Christ and not being ashamed of him. Jesus says that it is imperative that we confess him. He will be ashamed of anyone who is ashamed of him. Yet confessing does not amount to a good work. It is simply not being open and honest with people and living our lives in plain sight, without showing off (we are still very modest about our good works). It does not mean showing people how pious we are; it means letting people know that we belong to Christ. It is a question of showing people respect by being honest with them. Even though we face many risks, we come out of the closet.

I Show the True Interpretation of the Law and the Prophets (5:17-18)

“Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.”

I am convinced that the best way to understand what Jesus means by abolish and fulfill (complete) in this context is to understand it in the rabbinical sense of abolishing a text by misinterpreting it and fulfilling it by interpreting it correctly.  If a Halakah rule is misinterpreted, it has been abolished. This makes sense. Likewise, if it is interpreted correctly, its meaning is made full, or fulfilled or completed. For example, in 1 Kings 1:14 Nathan says to Bathsheba, “I shall come in after you and confirm what you say.” When the word “confirm” was translated into Greek, the same word was used that Jesus uses here: plēroō.

The problem is not the Torah or the Prophets. “Till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved.” This is true, however, only if it is correctly interpreted. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets by giving them their true interpretation; once that is done, it can be truly said that “not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear.”

What follows in verses 21-48 are six examples of where the Law has been abolished by being misinterpreted and where Jesus restores the Law by fulfilling it with its true interpretation. The true interpretation always comes from his own unique perspective as the Son in communion with the Father—who is the one whom the prophets foretold, the one who fulfills (or will fulfill) their words.

Disciples of Mine Should Keep and Teach My Commandments (5:19-20)

“Therefore, anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”

When Jesus now speaks of “these commandments,” he means the Torah (or Halakah) correctly interpreted, or in other words, his own commandments. At the end of the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to disciple the gentiles and “teach them to observe all the commands I gave you” (28:20). These are not new; they are the fulfillment of the old commandments. They are new only in the sense that they have been filled full for the first time by being given their true understanding. They could not have been fulfilled before, in this sense, because he had not yet come. He is the one whose faithfulness to God is complete, which gives him his unique perspective of the Law and the Prophets. The commands were always there, but they required his coming to bring them to light.

So, within the kingdom of the heavens, any disciple who infringes even the least of Jesus’ commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of the heavens. They will be considered the least when they appear before Christ when he comes in glory. If, however, a disciple keeps Jesus’ commandments (the Law and the Prophets correctly understood—understood, that is, in the light of Jesus’ coming) and teaches them (as we are told to do in 28:20), she will be considered great in the kingdom of the heavens when she stands before Christ at the judgment.

The correct interpretation of the Torah and the Prophets in the verses that follow are—in the Gospel according to Matthew—the commandments of Christ. I say, “in the Gospel according to Matthew,” because in the Gospel according to John the particular commandments of Christ fade into the background. The presence of Jesus is so prominent that all we see is himself into whom we are to believe and our love for one another in him. Let it be clear, however, that though they fade into the background they have—not the least of them—has been removed. When the tide of the Spirit rises high, as it does in John’s gospel, these commandments are kept spontaneously. They are the expression of genuine life.

“For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The uprightness of the scribes and Pharisees depends on their understanding of the Law and the Prophets. The uprightness of the disciples depends not only on their following the true understanding of the Law and the Prophets but on their relationship to Jesus as disciples. It is this relationship to him of fealty, in which he not only teaches us but takes responsibility for us, and brings us into the same relationship to the Father that he has, and the same relationship to the Holy Spirit (internally but also on the basis of his baptism)—it is this that enables the disciples’ uprightness to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.

If, however, we fall short and live as if our relationship to Christ made little or no difference, then we “will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of the heavens is the blessing promised in 5:3 and 5:10. It is the wedding feast of the Lamb, that into which we are welcome at the judgment seat of Christ. While he is universally manifested to all, we shall appear before him—in resurrection—and he shall be our Judge. We will be judged on the basis of his own relationship to the Father, for it is into that that we have been brought as his disciples. If we fall short of what is acceptable, we will lose the kingdom of the heavens as our reward (see verse 12). Yes, we may be Christians and still not enter the kingdom of the heavens. We have the gift of eternal life, the Holy Spirit dwelling within us; and we will be resurrected when Christ comes in glory; but we will miss the enjoyment of this which is called “the kingdom of the heavens.”

The kingdom of the heavens is not the eternal kingdom. It is something temporary. The kingdom, or kingship, refers to a time of overcoming or conquest, to use military language, when all the revelation of Christ abolishes “all rule and all authority and power,” when he reigns until God “puts all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). It is the time when all things in heaven and on earth are headed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). I suspect that this time of universal growth and transformation might last a long time, the proverbial “millennium” (though it may last for eons and eons).

The words “never enter” are not accurate. The Greek says, ou mē eiselthēte, “will by no means enter into,” or “will certainly not enter into.” The word “never” adds a temporal meaning that is not in the original. Such a disciple will certainly not enter into the kingdom of the heavens. They will be cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. They will miss the wedding feast. However, once they are purged by fire (see 1 Corinthians 3:13-15; the fire is metaphorical, of course) and have been made ready—for he will complete his work in us—perhaps they can then enter the kingdom of the heavens and enjoy their inheritance in Christ.

In reality this is no different than any other organic growth. The Latin judicial imagination has dominated Protestant thought on this matter. The imagination of the New Testament is far more organic. It describes the growth of life. Our modern understanding of the maturation of life and evolution is far closer to the evangelical and apostolic imagination than those male-dominated hierarchies that have long framed traditional theological discourse.

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