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Jesus: The New Moses
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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes)
Matthew 13: 44-50 (Parables)
This week, we move from Mark’s portrait of Jesus to that of another evangelist, Matthew. As I explained last week, virtually every modern scholar believes that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written down, and that Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark on which they based their new portraits of Jesus. Matthew’s distinctive portrait of Jesus is focused through one dominant lens. Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, great teacher and giver of the new law for the new covenant which will be the guide for Jesus’ community, the Church. As part of this portrait, Matthew understands Jesus to be the one who fulfils the Torah (Law-Teaching), and who fulfils the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Just as the Torah of the Hebrew Scriptures is divided into five books, so Jesus’ teaching in Matthew is divided into five great sermonic/teaching discourses. Just as Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, so Jesus’ first and greatest discourse (Matthew 5-7) is delivered on a “mountain” and is known as the Sermon on the Mount. (I put the word “mountain” in quotation marks because Matthew is given to hyperbole. The place where Jesus likely delivered this sermon is really a small hill just off the Sea of Galilee. And the “Sea” of Galilee is really only a good-sized lake.)
The second portion of Jesus’ great teaching is in Chapter 10, and is known as the Mission Discourse. The third is in Chapter 13, and is known as the Parabolic Discourse, since it is composed of a series of parables. Jesus’ fourth great teaching is found in Matthew 18, and is known as the Discourse on the Church, for in it he lays out a sort of “community discipline” for his band of disciples, the nascent Church. The Lord’s concluding teaching is found in Chapters 23-25, just before Jesus is arrested, tried, and executed, and is known as the Olivet Discourse, because it is delivered on the Mount of Olives. In the Sermon on the Mount, two of the best-loved and most formative parts of Jesus’ teaching are given to us. The Beatitudes—which can be understood as conferring “blessing”, or “happiness”, or “gratitude” on those who hear and heed these aphorisms—are guides for what will make one’s life a blessing for oneself and others, and as the roots that will produce happiness and gratitude in the life of anyone who follows Jesus. And the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ succinct teaching on how to pray. It is, perhaps, the single most prayed prayer in the history of the world. And among the more than two billion Christians alive today, it is prayed daily by many, and weekly by all who attend worship on the Lord’s Day.
When Jesus says in our memory verse for this week (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,” what do we understand him to mean? To fulfil can simply mean to carry out a task or duty, or role as pledged, and so in that sense can simply mean that Jesus is wanting his followers to continue following the Torah traditions they have received. But to fulfil can also mean to bring to completion something that was promised or predicted, and so in this sense Jesus is pointing to himself as the one who “fills out” the meaning and practice of the Torah as God had originally intended, and guides his followers into new ways of carrying out those traditions given to Moses. In this sense, Matthew’s Jesus points to himself as the one who completes what Moses and Israel have left unfinished, and who himself is the embodiment of the new law and new heart that many of the prophets had predicted. (See Jeremiah 31:33, and Ezekiel 36:26.) It is in light of this new law, new covenant, and new way that one can begin to understand the emphasis on judgment in Matthew’s Gospel. This new community that Jesus is forming must follow a stricter covenant than the people of Israel had followed before. Jesus’ followers must love their enemies (Matthew 5:44), and care for those who are strangers, or sick, or hungry or thirsty, or in prison (Matthew25:34ff.) if they want to be part of this new community of radical love that Jesus is forming to change this world’s kingdoms into the Kingdom of God. Judgment can be understood, then, not as something that God imposes on you when you fail to live out these new laws, but as the natural negative consequences of failing to love and care for others in the ways Jesus has commanded.
Questions for Reflection
Which of the Beatitudes are you most drawn to? How does living that way make you blessed, happy, grateful?
Which of the Beatitudes do you find least attractive, and why? Can you imagine what it would be like to feel blessed, happy, or grateful if you could live by that Beatitude?
Has an enemy ever shown you love? What impact did that have on you? Have you ever made your way into loving an enemy? What impact did that have on you?
What is hard for you in Jesus’ words of judgment? Is there a way to hear his words of judgment in a more positive light? Has a strict boundary, with the judgments that are part of it, ever been helpful to you?
How does the Jesus you know “fill out” some aspect of the Jewish tradition that helps bring it to life for you, and helps you in your daily living?
The Lord’s Prayer (paraphrased from “A New Zealand Prayer Book”)
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever.
"Jesus Teaching: The Sermon on the Mount" (from the Sistine Chapel) - See Above
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