Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Friday, March 4, 2011

Starting with Jesus

Perhaps an appropriate place to start a blog about biblical is with the ethical manifesto of the central character in the Bible’s story: Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). While teaching through this text last year in my Biblical Ethics class, I created a periphrastic translation (what I call a translaphrase) in order to put a fresh and contemporary spin on some of Jesus’ most enduring, shocking and life-altering words that are as powerful today as the day he spoke them on a hillside in Galilee. I pray you read with “ears to hear.”

1When Jesus saw the crowds around him, he climbed a hill and sat down to teach. Eager followers[1] came to listen and learn. 2So he taught them.
3Blessed are the spiritually needy
For the Kingdom of the Heavens is for them[2]
4Blessed are the mourners
For they will be comforted
5Blessed are the humble
For they will enjoy God’s earth
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice
For their longing will be satisfied
7Blessed are those who show mercy
For they will have mercy shown to them
8Blessed are those with undivided, fully-devoted hearts
For they will see God
9Blessed are those who work to bring God’s peace
For they will be named God’s children
10Blessed are those who persecuted for doing right
For the Kingdom of the Heavens is for them
11Blessed are you whenever people insult and persecute you and when they smear your reputation because of me. 12You can rejoice and be glad because you’re earning great reward in the heavens. [And you’re in good company.][3] They persecuted God’s past representatives the same way.
[And God’s representatives are precisely what you are!]
13You are like salt in the earth – adding flavor and preventing decay. But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can it do the job of salt? It is useless for everything except being tossed out and trampled over. 14You’re also God’s light in the world. It’s impossible to hide the light from a metropolis on a mountain.[4] 15And people don’t put a chandelier under a bowl. No! [That defeats the purpose!] Instead, they hang it from the ceiling, so it lights up the whole house. 16You, too, should let your life-light shine before everyone, so they’ll see your good deeds and praise your heavenly Father.
17Don’t think I’ve come to nullify the Old Testament Law and Prophets. No, I’m not here to nullify them,[5] but to achieve their purpose, fulfill their promise, finish their story! 18The real truth is, until heaven and earth pass away, not a dot on an “i” or a cross on a “t” will pass away from the Law; none will lose force until all of its promises come to pass.[6] 19So then, if anyone eliminates or ignores even one of the most insignificant commands and teaches others to do the same, that one will be called insignificant[7] in heaven’s kingdom. But if anyone obeys [the commands] and teaches [others to obey them] that one will be honored in heaven’s kingdom! 20For I tell you that if your goodness does not go beyond[8] that of your pious pastors and Bible teachers, you’ll never even enter heaven’s kingdom![9]
21You’ve heard that it was said to ancient people, “Do not murder.” And the murder will be subject to just punishment.[10] 22But I say to you that whoever gets angry at a brother or sister will be subject to just punishment; and whoever says, “You stupid moron!” will be subject to the State Supreme Court; and whoever says, “You flaming fool!” will be subject to the flames of hell! 23So then, if you’re offering your gift at the altar and, while you’re there, you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24then leave your gift right there at the altar. First, go make amends with them; then come back and offer your gift. 25Make friends quickly with your opponent while you’re on your way [to court] so he doesn’t hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you to the guard to be tossed in prison! 26Truly I say to you, you’ll never escape until you’ve repaid the last penny!
27You’ve heard it said, “Do not cheat on your spouse.” 28 But I say to you whoever looks at a woman to entertain lustful desire has already done the deed in his heart. 29If your right eye is your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. For it’s better to destroy a part of you than to have your whole body thrown into Hell. 30And if your right hand makes you fall, cut is off and throw it away. For it’s better to destroy a part of you than to have your whole body go to Hell.
31And it was also said, “Whoever sends his wife away must give her legal divorce papers.”[11] 32But I say to you whoever divorces his wife for any reason besides unfaithfulness, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33Again, you’ve heard that it was said to ancient people, “Don’t make vows you don’t intend to keep, but keep your vows to the Lord.” 34But I say to you, don’t be a vow-maker. Don’t swear by heaven, for it’s God’s throne; 35don’t swear by earth, for it’s his footstool; don’t swear by Jerusalem, for it’s the city of God, the great King; 36and don’t swear by your head because you can’t even determine the natural color of your hair! 37Just be honest and give a straight answer. Anything beyond this is from evil.[12]
38You’ve heard it said, “Eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth.” [Punishment should fit the crime: no more, no less.] 39But I say to you, don’t fight back against an evil person. If someone slaps you on the face, let him spit in your face too! 40Or if someone tries to sue the pants off you, give him the shirt off you back! 41Or, if someone compels you to carry their load for a mile, haul it around for two! 42Give to the one who asks you and don’t reject the one who wants a loan.
43You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. 44But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. 45When you do, you will become children of your heavenly Father. [You’ll be acting like him]. After all, he makes his sun shine on the evil and the good and he gives rain to the righteous and the wicked. 46Think about it: if you love people who love you back, do you deserve a big reward? Shoot! Even treacherous, tax-collectors do that! 47And if you welcome only your friends, do you go beyond [what anyone else does]? Don’t even godless pagans do this? 48So [go further;] become whole, as your heavenly Father is whole.
6:1Watch out that you don’t do the “right things” in front of people just so they notice you. Otherwise, you certainly won’t receive a reward from your heavenly Father.
[Let me illustrate.]
2When you give to the needy, don’t make a scene in the synagogues and on the streets like the hypocrites do, so everyone will honor them. Truly they receive what they seek: the reward of a “righteous” reputation. 3But when you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing, 4so your merciful giving is hidden. Then your Father, who sees hidden deeds, will give back to you!
5And when you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites, because they love to stand up and pray in the synagogues and city streets so everyone will hear them. Truly they receive the reward they seek, that and nothing more. 6But when you pray, go into your private room and shut the door; there pray to your Father, who is hidden. And your Father, who sees hidden deeds, will give back to you!
7And when you pray, don’t thoughtlessly repeat words like pagans who think God will hear them because they babble endlessly. 8No! Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you even ask him. 9Therefore, you should pray like this:
9Our Father in the heavens
Bring honor to your holy name!
10Rule and reign as King among us;[13]
Do your will on earth just as you do in heaven.
11Give us today what we need for today,
12And forgive our sins
As we have forgiven those who sin against us.
13Do not let us stray into trials and temptations,
But save[14] us from evil.[15]
14For if you forgive people for their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 16But if you refuse to forgive people, your Father won’t forgive your sins!
16And when you fast, don’t make yourself look miserable like the hypocrites. They wear their false piety on their face so their “fasting” will shine.  Truly they receive their entire reward: human recognition. 17But when you fast, condition your hair and wash your face, 18so your fasting doesn’t shine before people but before your Father, who is hidden. Then your Father, who sees hidden deeds, will give back to you!
19Don’t treasure up treasure where clothes get holes, gold and silver corrode, and thieves break in and steal. 20But treasure up treasure in heaven, where it is indestructible and secure. 21For where your treasure is, your heart will be too. [Your devotion follows your desire.]
22The light of the body is the eye. Therefore, if your eye is sincere, your whole body will shine with radiance, 23but if you eye is evil, your whole body will be dark. So if the light in you is really darkness, that darkness is dark indeed!
24No one person can[16] serve two lords. You’ll either hate one and love the other or you’ll devote yourself to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and wealth.
25That’s why I tell you not to be so anxious about the daily needs of life, like what you’ll eat or drink and what you’ll put on your body. Isn’t your life more than food and your body more than clothes? 26Look at the birds: they’re not laboring for food or storing it up in the pantry, yet you’re heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? 27How will your anxiety possibly increase your maturity?[17] 28And why do you fret about your clothes? Check out how the wildflowers grow in the field. They don’t run themselves ragged or shop till they drop. 29But I’m telling you even King Solomon, in all his glory, was no match for the flowers, beautifully adorned by God. If that’s how God clothes wildflowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you? You trust so little! 31So I’m telling you, don’t worry! Don’t ask, How will we afford food and drink, and how will we clothe ourselves? 32Godless people are consumed by all these pursuits. And your heavenly Father knows you need them all. 32Instead, passionately pursue his Kingdom and his righteous character, and he will provide for all these needs. Then you’ll be free from anxiety about tomorrow, because [you know] tomorrow will have its own anxieties; each day’s trouble is enough!
7:1Don’t judge so that you won’t be judged! 2For you’ll be judged[18] with the same standard of judgment you use to judge others and you’ll be measured with the same standard of measurement that you use on others. 3Why do you notice the speck of wood in another’s eye and fail to see the beam of wood in your own eye? 4How can you say to your neighbor, “Please let me take that speck out of your eye,” and look! there's a beam in your own eye! 5You hypocrite! First, take the beam out of your own eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the speck from your neighbor’s eye. 6Don’t entrust holy things to dogs and don’t throw precious pearls at pigs or they’ll trample on them and then turn and attack you!
7Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives and everyone who seeks finds and the door is opened for the one who knocks. 9Which if you, when your child asks for a sandwich will give him a stone. 10Or when he asks for fish, do you give him a snake? 11So if you, even though you’re evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him?
12Therefore, whatever you want people to do to you, you do the same to them. This is [the heart of] the Law and the Prophets!
13Enter [life] through the narrow entrance, The way to destruction is broad freeway with a wide entrance; many people take that road. 14[But] the road leading to life is a tough trek that includes affliction; the entrance is narrow, and few people find it.
15Look out for those with a false and deceptive message from God. These people show up looking innocent as sheep, but inside they are fierce, famished wolves! 16You’ll know who they are by how they act, by their fruit. Can you collect a bunch of grapes from a thorny bush or a fig from a thistle? No! 17It’s the same with trees: every good tree produces good fruit but the rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18A good tree can’t produce bad fruit and a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit meets the chainsaw and becomes firewood. 20Here’s the point: you’ll know who is who – [who’s true and false] – by the fruit of their life.
21Not everyone who addresses me as “Lord” or “Master” will enter heaven’s kingdom; only those who do the will of my heavenly Father will actually get in. 22On the day when verdicts are given, many will say to me “Lord, didn’t we speak as your messengers and drive out demons as your delegates and do many powerful deeds as your representatives? 23At that time, I will declare to them, “I never knew you! Get away from me you who break the Law by your evil deeds!
24So it comes down to this: whoever hears my words and obeys them will be like a smart, forward-thinking man who built his house on a rock. 25And when the rain dumped down and rivers flooded and the winds blasted and beat against the house, the house did not collapse because it was founded on solid rock. 26And whoever hears my words and does not obey them will be like a stupid, shortsighted fool who built his house in the sand. 27And when the rain dumped down and rivers flooded and the winds blasted and beat against the house, the house collapsed and was utterly destroyed!
28When Jesus completed his message, the crowd sat stunned by his teaching, 29because he taught with authority, not at all like their Bible teachers.

[1] Another good way to render “disciples”: committed kingdom apprentices (adapted from The Message)
[2] Or For they are living under heaven’s reign; For the kingdom of the heavens is theirs; For their life is aligned with heaven’s reign. Also v. 10.
[3] Words in brackets are additions to the Greek that fill in gaps and express Jesus’ meaning.
[4] Or A metropolis on a mountain is impossible to hide.
[5] Same verb as in 17a; the sense is do away with, annul, abolish, abrogate, invalidate, terminate, undermine
[6] Two questions remain: 1) What is the relationship between the parallel clauses “until heaven and earth pass away” and “until all things come to pass”? 2) How much of “all things” happened on the cross? In other words, does the completed work of Jesus change whether, and which part of, the Law is still “in force”? Or are we still awaiting the occurrence of “all things” so that we need a nuanced understanding of what it means for the law to remain “in force”? The common answer is that the “principles” from the whole Law remain binding even if the ritual regulations etc. are not.
[7] Or if anyone eliminates or ignores one of the smallest commands… that one will be called small
[8] The verb means exceed, surpass, go beyond, abound.
[9] Or never come to live under the lordship of heaven.
[10] Or, more traditionally judgment or justice. Another option for the whole phrase is: “will face just punishment,” but I’m not sure it fits as well in the next line, which reads the same in Greek.
[11] The legal documentation (“certificate of divorce”) prevents the woman’s humiliation and financial helplessness.
[12] Or from the evil one
[13] Or Establish your kingdom among us. Or Let you kingdom rise among us. The verb, gi,nomai (ginomai), can mean “come” but has the nuance of coming into existence or, in this case, coming in full force.
[14] Or rescue
[15] Or the evil one
[16] Or It’s impossible to serve two lords.
[17] Cf. John 9:21, 23. Alternatively: lifespan or stature.
[18] Who’s the subject? Will others judge you or will God judge you? Perhaps both.

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