Monday, March 13, 2017

Matthew's Magnificent Gospel, Pt. 2

Who has not heard of the Lord's prayer? Almost no one. It has been at the heart of church gatherings since the first century. In fact it is quoted in full from chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel in the Didache, an early 2nd century manual for church and Christian practice. I quote the Didache  chapter 8 here:

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever."

   It is not the Lord's prayer alone, however, that is quoted from Matthew and memorable for
Christians for 20 centuries. Think of the Beatitudes - "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" -  and the instructions regarding fasting and giving and the warning about attachment to things. All these are found in a dearly loved section of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount.

Pithy and Personal
   What makes the sermon, I think, so well loved and so memorable and quotable is the sound of Jesus' voice in the words and his heart in the message. His words are pithy and personal. It sounds like he is talking directly to us. Over and over again he uses you: "You are the salt of the earth. You have heard it said. When you give. When you pray. You cannot serve both God and money."

   But there is something more about Jesus' words; they are penetrating. Who does not find himself guilty of judging others when Jesus says, "“Do not judge, or you too will be judged." Or "love your enemies." Or when we are struck, "turn to them the other cheek also." Or "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth."

   In fact, Jesus' words are so penetrating that we cannot rush over them and move on. We are compelled to return again and again. It is like coming in from a walk on a blustery March day and catching sight of ourselves in  a mirror with our hair blown and our clothes all disheveled by the wind; we are aghast, and we cannot put what we see out of our mind. We find ourselves humbled before the Lord, and his words "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" prick our hearts. But do they make a difference?

   A blogger recently remarked in a conversation with me about Matthew's Gospel and in particular this sermon, what difference does it make if these are Jesus' words quoted accurately by Matthew when Christians disregard much of what Jesus says. And he was right . . . and wrong at the same time.

   Christians are pricked by Jesus' words. We fall short of the standard of perfection we see in the Father. My blogger friend was right. But we do not disregard Jesus' words, for there is this hope: forgiveness.

   Here I return to the prayer: "forgive us our debt ." Those words and the promise implied in them allow us to stand on our feet again and look forward to what we can be and will be by God's grace. It was this in Jesus' words that drew crowds. And continues to draw crowds. Hope and grace.

   An old slave trader some years ago who turned to Christ for forgiveness said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” (John Newton) Jesus words do not condemn us; they challenge us to step into the grace of God that enables us to move higher.

   That is why Christians return again and again to these words of Jesus preserved for us by Matthew; they speak hope. They point us upward with the anticipation that if they are not perfectly lived today they will be more truly tomorrow and perfectly in the kingdom of heaven to come. They are powerful words. They do not condemn. They change us.



Neil said...

So is what you're saying here, Don, that although Christians can't actually do what Jesus commands them to do (being 'pricked' by his words is not the same as acting in accordance with them) they'll be okay because they've got St Paul's convoluted theology instead?

You'll notice in the prayer you quote that Jesus incorporates some of his measure-for-measure teaching within it. He spells it out further in Matthew 6.14: 'For if you forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.' This idea is crucial to his concept of 'righteousness': show compassion and God will show compassion to you (Matthew 5.7); don't judge then you won't be judged (Matthew 7.1); give to others and God will give to you (Luke 6.38); the measure you'll be given will be the measure you receive (Matthew 7.2) and so on.

Please see my blog post about this here:

My point is, Jesus measure-for-measure 'gospel' is very different from Paul's. So different in fact the two are not compatible; Jesus demands righteousness (by serving others) while Paul offers an easy magic formula - what you call 'grace'. I'm afraid you just can't get away with saying, 'don't worry if you're unable to meet Jesus' exacting standards, God's going to save you anyway', when this has nothing at all to do with what Jesus commands throughout Matthew and the other two synoptic gospels.

Don Camp said...

Hi Neil. What you see as incompatibility I see as a tension between God's high expectations and his mercy. But that was not new. It was not a tension between Jesus' gospel and Paul's. It is a tension woven into the Hebrew Scriptures through and through.

One of the most vivid pictures of it is in the story of Hosea. God told Hosea to marry a promiscuous woman. So Hosea does, and Gomer bears three children. One is the son of Hosea, but the others appear to be children of other men. The apparently Gomer leaves Hosea to consort with other men. However, God tells Hosea to take her back and love her again.

This story is a parable of Israel. They had been unfaithful to God in every way possible, and God divorced them and sent them away. Yet he loves them still with hesed, the covenant love God swore to their fathers. And God promises that he will take them back even as Hosea takes Gomer back.

Now this is a story of mercy toward a nation. But the same story of mercy is played out in David's life. He failed to meet God's holy standards so seriously that his sin was worthy of death. Yet God forgave him. Psalm 32 becomes his testimony:

1 Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.

Did God's holy standards not matter? No, that is not the case. Sin and failure matter, but mercy is greater.

So how is the tension resolved? It is resolved by God changing us. Paul explains it this way: "we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Jesus does not relax his commands or expectations. He raises us up to the place where we can meet those expectations. Yes. We learn to forgive as he forgives us. We learn not to judge. We learn generosity. And between time, he extends mercy to cover our sin as he did for David.

Neil said...

I understand this is how Christians explain (away) the disparity between Jesus' gospel and Paul's. However, if you take a long hard look at what Jesus actually says, Don, you won't find any of the theology you declaim here.

Isn't that rather odd, given Jesus was, allegedly, the Son of God - or even, according to some Christians, God himself? If what you claim was really Jesus' message then why didn't he say so when he was here on Earth? Instead, he wittered on about measure-for-measure morality; forgiving in order to be forgiven, being merciful in order to obtain mercy and so on.

Why, after visiting us in person, did the Almighty then leave it to an ordinary, though erratic and tempestuous human being - Paul - to explain to everyone what he was REALLY about?

Don Camp said...

Hi Neil,

>" If what you claim was really Jesus' message then why didn't he say so when he was here on Earth?"

He did. That is what the Passover/Last supper is all about. The final week of his life is documented in all the gospels. In fact that one week and the events of that week occupy the largest single of the story of Jesus.

In that week two events are central in the Gospels, the last supper and the crucifixion. In each of the synoptic Gospels the Passover/Last Supper explains the crucifixion. It is the shedding his blood and giving of his body as a sacrifice.

That is precisely what Paul describes and explains.

In the Passover a lamb was killed and its blood smeared on the doorposts of the home. That blood (and the faith accompanying it) saved the household from the death of the firstborn. In other words the lamb was a substitution for the firstborn. That idea of a sacrifice as a substitution is reiterated in the instructions about sacrifices in the Torah.

RE: the "measure for measure" theology you attribute to Jesus.

1) I skimmed through all the gospels to see whether your reading was borne out. I did not find it to be. If that was the message of Jesus, everyone but Matthew missed it.

2) Paul says it this way: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life." (Gal. 6:7,8)

I do not see a quid pro quo theology in which salvation is the result of showing mercy or our forgiving so as to obtain mercy or forgiveness. I see a reaping what you sow theology not connected to salvation. Salvation is the result of Jesus' sacrifice.

Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” That is the transaction as Jesus explained it.

We make that salvation ours by believing on him: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

>Why, after visiting us in person, did the Almighty then leave it to an ordinary, though erratic and tempestuous human being - Paul - to explain to everyone what he was REALLY about?"

Why not? Jesus adequately explained his mission and the need for those who would receive eternal life to simply trust in his sacrifice. Paul simply expands the theology,; he adds nothing new.

Jesus died for your failures and sin. Trust in him and in the adequacy of his sacrifice. AND turn around and go God's way (repent). The result in your life will be that you become more and more like Jesus, showing mercy, forgiving, serving others, giving. As you do, you will reap what you sow.

Neil said...

Paul adds nothing new? Oh, come on Don. It's all entirely new, not to mention alien to what Jesus is made to say in the later gospels.

And you don't find Jesus' measure-for-measure teaching anywhere other than in Matthew? Forgive me but I thought that this was what your posts were about - the 'magnificence' of Matthew. If 'everyone but Matthew' missed this teaching, then what does this tell us about Matthew's credibility? Or that of the other gospel writers; how could they have missed something so significant to Matthew? Does this teaching matter or not? If it doesn't (and you imply it doesn't, when you claim it's found only in Matthew) then why is it included at all? Are Christians at liberty to ignore it?

But wait, I've already referenced it in Luke - didn't you notice that? Yes, it's there in Luke (6.37-38 and 11.4). Oh, and in Mark (11.25-26). And there are remnants of it in John too (8.7) You didn't do a very good job of looking for it, Don, when it's there in plain sight. Looks like it was central to Jesus' teaching after all, or at least to those who wrote his scripts. Just not to Paul who came up with something entirely different to 'explain' what Jesus was REALLY about:

Don Camp said...

And what do you do with the Passover?