The Elves have scheduled Matthew 7:21-29 for Epiphany 9. Because this blog is going straight through the Gospel of Matthew in Year A, readers can get a jump on the rest of Christendom.
The writer of Matthew finishes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with a flourish of piety, almost as though the writer knew very well that the radicality of Jesus’ insistence that God’s realm belongs to the poor, not the rich, and that trust in God’s universe is all one needs for abundant life is not only impractical. Living like that is impossible under the kind of Roman oppression that Matthew’s community were likely suffering, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
His epilogue begins with Jesus suggesting people follow the Golden Rule – hardly an original thought. He warns that the gateway into God’s realm is narrow, but the road to destruction is wide and smooth. Most people opt for the easy way – again, not particularly newsworthy. He says, watch out for phony prophets who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Matthew then mixes his metaphors, saying that you will know who the wolves are by what they produce. At this point, Matthew’s Jesus goes apocalyptic, threatening that “every tree that does not produce choice fruit gets cut down and tossed on the fire” (Matthew 7:12-20). This part is never read in Matthew, but is picked up in Luke’s setting (6:20-49; All Saints and Epiphany 7 and 8, Year C). If – as happened in 2007 – there are only seven Sundays in Epiphany, and the church concentrates on Transfiguration on the seventh Sunday, then these portions of Matthew and Luke may never be considered at all. But perhaps it does not matter. Matthew’s conventional wisdom needs no interpretation.
Matthew’s Jesus concludes with the warning that even though some people have performed miracles – even exorcised demons – in his name, “I will tell them honestly: I never knew you; get away from me, you subverters of the law!” Pretty tough talk. He signs off with a coda: “Everyone who pays attention to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a shrewd builder who erected a house on bedrock.”
By combining Deuteronomy 11:18-28 with Matthew 7:21-29 and Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-3, the Elves seem to be telling us that the Sermon on the Mount carries the full force of divine law (and scholars generally agree that Matthew’s purpose was to replace Moses’ law with Jesus’ Way). If we don’t pay attention to Jesus’ Way, we have built our spiritual houses on sand. The traditional reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans says we are justified by our faith, not by the works we do that are required by the law. Nevertheless, it is our faith that upholds the law.
This is gobbledygook for most listeners in most pews on a Sunday morning. “Faith” means “belief” in our post-modern world. Cherry-picking Paul’s argument in his letter to the Romans leaves us with the conclusion that only belief in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us for heaven in the next life; work that is done because the law requires it does nothing. Matthew’s Jesus himself seems to agree when we look at the New Revised Standard translation: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
What a difference contemporary, scholarly translations make.
The Scholars translation of the Five Gospels makes clear that Jesus is not talking about “evil doers.” He is talking about “subverters of the law.” What’s the difference, you may ask. Isn’t anyone who subverts the law an evildoer? Was Martin Luther King an evildoer? Are the protesters in Tahrir Square “evildoers”? It all depends which side you are on. As far as Bull Connor was concerned in 1963, King was definitely an evildoer; King George the III thought the same of Washington, Jefferson, Paine, Hale, and a pantheon of early American revolutionaries.
It is highly unlikely that Jesus actually said what the writer of Matthew’s gospel has him say. But it is interesting that the scholars version does not talk about doing evil, but subverting the law. So what is meant by the law? Unfortunately, the Elves have cherry-picked Paul’s argument from Romans in order to insist on belief in the story of Jesus, not trust in Jesus’ experience of the nature of God’s imperial rule – God’s law – as illustrated by the lilies and birds.
Back to Deuteronomy: God says (through Moses) that “you shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul . . . If you will diligently observe this entire commandment, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then. . .” you will be blessed if you obey, and cursed if you do not. This is God’s law, coming down (metaphorically) from the divine realms to humanity.
Now look at the scholars’ translation of Romans 3:18-26: Paul is not talking about belief in a story. Paul is talking about trust in God’s rule. Further (worse, for those who insist on paying attention to pious convention) he overthrows the pious additions that religious tradition has added to God’s rule:
We know that whatever scriptures say is spoken to those under its authority so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world be accountable to God. Therefore, no human being will be acceptable in God’s sight on the basis of traditional religious observances; since through the tradition of the law comes knowledge of human waywardness. Only now has God’s reliability been made clear, independent of the tradition from the law, although the whole of scripture offers evidence of it. [Emphasis added.]
God’s reliability has now been made clear through the unconditional confidence in God of Jesus, God’s Anointed, for the benefit of all [emphasis in original] who come to have such confidence – no exceptions!
After all, everyone has messed up and failed to reflect the image of God [see Genesis 1:27]. At the same time, we are all accepted by God freely as a gift through the liberation that comes when we identify with the Anointed Jesus, whom God presented publicly as the one who conciliates through his unconditional confidence in God at the cost of his life, in order to show God’s reliability by overlooking, by divine restraint, how we messed up. This shows God’s reliability at this decisive time, namely, that God is reliable and approves the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’ unconditional confidence in God. . . . We contend that a person is acceptable to God through an unconditional confidence in God without regard to traditional religious practices. . . . Are we then nullifying the law through this so-called confidence in God? Certainly not! We are affirming the law. (Emphasis mine; The Authentic Letters of Paul, pp. 218-219.)
Paul affirms the law by eliminating the pious rules and regulations that end up subverting the law – as Matthew’s Jesus asserts.
But there is much more going on in this portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans than the Elves intend with their selectivity. Gone are the words “justification by grace” and “redemption in Christ Jesus”; and “sacrifice of atonement by his blood.” Instead we have “accepted by God freely as a gift through the liberation that comes when we identify with the Anointed Jesus”; and “conciliation through unconditional confidence in God at the cost of his life.”
Twenty-first century exiles from Christianity are struggling with “God language.” We no longer look to a personified god who intervenes in our lives, and who “has a plan” for each one of us. We are more likely to resonate with John Dominic Crossan’s definition of a “kenotic God, whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death” (In Search of Paul pp. 288-291). Paul’s first-century insight into grace as unconditional acceptance by God of humans who live in unconditional confidence in God translates into a metaphor that points to the possibility that humanity may yet evolve to a condition where justice and life holds sway over injustice and death.
We are witnessing that possibility in the non-violent insistence of the Egyptian people for justice and life. If what appears to be a leaderless movement that governs itself by consensus can maintain a context of non-violence, humanity may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift and the fulfillment of law that is grounded in the sacred.
May it be so.