[And so ends my series on the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt rejoice.]
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17 RSV)
There is a significant shift between commands #4 (to remember the Sabbath day) and #5 (to honor parents). That shift is from commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior before God and to commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior with other people. That shift has been widely noted and thoroughly commented on. However, there is another shift that occurs between commands #9 and #10, and it is a shift that I have not previously noted until I started working through this series. Maybe I read about it somewhere, but if I have it sure did not stick in my memory very well.
That shift is from overt behavior to an attitude of the heart. Think about it. Honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness – all of these require an action, or refraining from an action. But covetousness? That is strictly a heart issue. Therein lies a critical exegetical and hermeneutical point that I think many of us (okay, at least me) have missed when we study the 10 Commandments.
I have been raised with the understanding that the 10 Commandments were all about what you did or did not do. However, when Jesus came along he straightened everybody out and made sure that it was not just about what we did, but what we thought. Therefore (and I’m jumping over some intermediary steps here), the Old Testament is all about the flesh and the New Testament is all about the spirit. Therefore, we can reject the Old Testament and follow only the New Testament.
The only problem is, this is not true. The Old Testament was never just about the flesh. In fact it was not even primarily about the flesh. God simply used more fleshly illustrations in the Old Testament (animal sacrifice, oil lamps, incense, laws carved on stones) to teach His lessons. Like a patient and loving parent, God was showing his children how he wanted them to behave. But we do not discipline our children simply to inflict pain. We teach our children profound spiritual lessons through the use of very down to earth physical means. As they get older we can dispense with the physical, because they have (hopefully) already learned those lessons.
The truth is, the Old Testament is full of God emphasizing the spiritual truths that re-appear in the New Testament. But, if we dismiss the Old Testament because of a few bloody sacrifices and some arcane language about skin diseases and dietary restrictions we don’t see those truths. In fact, we consciously overlook them. And in so doing we excise a significant part of God’s complete word.
I know I have not dealt too much with the tenth commandment. So, let’s look at that command very briefly.
Why are we not to look upon our neighbor’s belongings (wife, servants, animals, anything) with longing eyes? Because, very simply, in so doing we are telling ourselves (and anyone who is sharp enough to catch on to what we are doing) that God’s gifts to us are not quite good enough. God loves other people more, and so if we could just have sex with our neighbor’s wife, if we could just own their servant (hire their employees in our world) or own their car then we would be loved by God just as much. Coveting what belongs to someone else is, at its core, a rejection of the grace of God-given to us. We shake our fist at God and say, “Not good enough! I want more, better, bigger, prettier, more expensive!” Coveting a neighbor’s wife is the sin of David – God would have given him anything he asked for, but no, that was not good enough for David (2 Samuel 12:8). He took that which was not only illegal, but primarily irreligious to have. He rejected God’s grace and demanded a physical pleasure. In one of the most amazing reversals of justice, God does not demand David’s death (which could have been expected due to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah) and completely upon the basis of grace extends David’s life. Not only that, but God elevates the son of this union, Solomon, to the throne of Israel. How about that for a reversal of fortunes!
I would encourage everyone to re-think their appraisal of not only the 10 Commandments, but the Old Testament in its entirety. Yes, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. Yes the old covenant practices are removed (more correctly defined – perfected) in the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, we have done away with the physical nature of the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly sacrifice of blood, the burning of incense, and the other trappings of the tabernacle/temple worship. But we also have to remember that the Old Testament was the Scripture for the first century church. By removing it from our study and our worship we have impoverished the modern church. It is time to recover this tremendous spiritual feast.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus on that mountain, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17).
Let us learn to read the 10 Commandments, and the entire Old Testament, with new eyes.
This particular topic cuts into several hot-button socio-political issues being debated in the church today, so I know I am treading on thin ice, out on a broken limb and cruisin’ for a bruisin’. But I will share these thoughts anyway, maybe not because they offer any clarity, but simply because some things need to be discussed and since this is my blog I get to set the topic.
One phrase that I hear quite frequently in discussions regarding several different topics is something like this, “How can you tell me I cannot exercise my God given calling simply because I am (a) __________________?” and you can fill in the blank with any of a number of supposed “victims” of the status quo. That might be a female, a homosexual, a divorcee, a professional musician or dance performer, or a repeat sex offender. There really is no limit to a real or imagined victimhood. Rather than pick on one of these truly “hot as blue blazes” issues, I will shift the conversation somewhat and discuss a somewhat arcane question, but a question that I believe relates back to any and all of these other particular situations.
One issue that has divided Churches of Christ for about a century is that of whether a congregation should have, or even can have, a “professional” ministry staff or if they should operate on a “mutual edification” process in which every male in the congregation is allowed to, and often is encouraged to, lead in the worship service including teaching class and preaching. A “professional” preacher is defined as one who has been to a training school, either a college, university or preacher training school, and who receives full compensation for his service to the congregation. Most who serve in mutual edification congregations do not accept any payment for their preaching/teaching services.
To begin with, I want to say I share a lot of sympathy with those who believe in mutual edification. I think sometimes those of us who are “professionally” trained tend to look down upon, or otherwise overlook, men and women in the congregation who are both capable and qualified to lead in significant ways. As with virtually every profession, there can be a measure of hubris the creeps into the heart of every practitioner.
That having been said, however, I have significant issues with those who claim that there is no Scriptural warrant for a paid, “professional” ministry position (for reference see 1 Cor. 9:9-14 and 1 Timothy 5:18 where Paul quotes the Old Testament Scriptures and even quotes Jesus in proclaiming that those who preach the gospel should get their support for doing so.) One of my main concerns is that in my professional training I have learned just how easy it is to twist and distort any passage of Scripture to mean what you want it to mean. Racists have been doing this for years. So have those who advocate building nuclear bomb proof shelters in their backyards and hoarding 15 years worth of food in order to survive the coming nuclear war (I often wonder – if the destruction is that total, what good would 15, or 50, or 100 years worth of food do? You just cannot argue with stupid). Another concern is that just because you have an opinion, a poem and a verse of Scripture, that does not mean you have been “called” to share that passage, poem and opinion.
The point is, those who hold an extreme position have to do so by doing two things. One, they have to ignore, twist, or explain away many clear passages of Scripture that contradict their opinion. Two, they have to magnify their own personal sense of investment in the debate so that, if someone disagrees with them or, more accurately stated, disagrees with their conclusions, then that person is described as a “hater,” “phobic” or worse and so the objector’s point of view is discounted a priori. So, if someone attempts to defend the use of a paid, professionally trained minister, the discussion gets hijacked into an attack on the qualifications of the one advocating the mutual edification position. Now, the mutual edifier may truly be inept and unqualified to teach and preach. But his talents and qualifications have nothing to do with the passages of Scripture which allow for, if not support, a paid “professional” minister.
As I mentioned above, this scenario has specific applications with those who advocate for absolute and undifferentiated equality for females as males, and for those who advocate for the acceptance of homosexual behavior, and for those who advocate for more and more entertainment styles of worship. Are there spokesmen who defend such movements as Christian, Godly and Scripturally supported? Absolutely! But, before everyone simply nods their heads with these prophets of relaxed (or erased) doctrinal teachings, let me remind you of the history of false prophecy in the Bible. It started in the Garden of Eden and it continued right up to and including the desert in which our Lord was tempted and the Garden of Gethsemane where he endured his final battle with Satan. The apostles warn frequently and fervently for those who have been enlightened by the Spirit not to be taken by by a spirit of false prophecy. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel in particular had to deal with the effects of false prophecy. The historical books of the Old Testament recount many tragic stories where God’s people listened to and believed false prophets. Just because someone says, “Thus says the Lord” does not make him or her a prophet of God. We have to use our keenest senses to determine whether a prophet is speaking the words of God or the words of the Deceiver.
To go back to the main title of this post. I do not doubt that many are hearing a “calling” to do whatever it is that they are advocating. My question to them is, “How do you know it is the voice of God you are hearing, or the voice of a false and deceiving prophet?” God would not command you to do something that He has prohibited for thousands of years. The last time anything even remotely similar to these advocates are promoting did occur, it took a miraculous vision of a sheet and some unclean animals to convince the recipient. And, lest I be misunderstood, God was trying to get Peter to do something that God predicted would happen several thousand years earlier to Abraham. And if there are several, if not many, passages in the Bible which contradict this “voice” you are hearing, what makes you think that God has suddenly changed his mind? Is the voice you are hearing not, in fact, your own just cast in a different tone and amplified in volume?
I ask the question because the stakes are so high. If you are right and God has changed his mind, then I need to correct my thinking and get in line with God. But if I am right and the prophets of change are wrong, then there are many people who are at risk of following the thief as he leads them from the Good Shepherd’s safe fold.
We all are wagering something in this discussion. What is it worth to be wrong?
I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
Americans are obsessed with sex. Maybe not as much as other countries, maybe more than others. But, underlying all of our overtly expressive and occasionally repressive sexual mores lies a fundamental preoccupation with all things sexual. We demonstrate it in our clothing (or, lack thereof), our language, our advertising. I would argue we even incorporate our fixation on sexuality into modern praise/worship songs. There is just something that is profoundly icky to me when I hear someone wanting to be lovers with Jesus, or be intimate with Jesus, etc.
One of the ways in which we as professed followers of Jesus betray our schizophrenia as far as sexuality is concerned is to condemn and demonize certain sexual aberrations, while turning a blind eye to others. It is almost like we earn our heavenly citizenship card by standing up against homosexuality, pedophilia, and perhaps some other less than socially accepted sexual misbehavior, and after we convince others of our orthodoxy we are free to dive headlong into our favorite, and more socially acceptable, sexual misadventures.
In other words, we boycott Home Depot because they support homosexual marriage, but we have no issues at all with downloading an adult movie onto our computer or with divorcing our first, second or third spouse because “we just do not feel like we are in love anymore.”
I was going to say I wonder what God thinks about our flimsy little excuses, but I think I already know the answer to that question.
The same God who said, “You shall not kill” and actually meant it also said “You shall not commit adultery.” I think he meant it.
Adultery should not be thought of as simply mingling ones genitals with the genitals of someone of the same or opposite sex and who is not our lifelong mate. Adultery comes in many different sizes, shapes and colors. We can obviously violate our wedding vows with a one night stand or a multi-year affair. We can also violate those same vows by creating “emotional affairs,” office liaisons, addictions to pornography, and the mental journeys into fantasies that Jesus condemns in Matthew 5:27-30. Many marriage partners have been unfaithful to their spouse who would never seriously consider the physical act of unzipping his or her pants in an afternoon tryst at the No-Tell Motel.
And, believe me, the non-Christian world sees through this duplicity and it is one of the primary reasons that people will tell a professing Christian, “You can keep your hypocrisy to yourself, I don’t want any part of it.”
Have you ever wondered why God was so adamant about fidelity in our marriages and to our marriage partners? Might it be that the image of the marriage relationship is one of the primary images that He used to teach about His relationship with us? Is it not striking that one of the most powerful images of spiritual unfaithfulness in both the Old and New Testaments is that of adultery? God used the marriage relationship to teach us about His love for us and His commitment to protecting us, and He described our covenant relationship with Him in language that is identical to the marriage covenant.
This command is not an afterthought. It should not be a minor point of emphasis with Christ’s disciples. If we are going to raise our voices against the sins of homosexuality, pedophilia, polyamorous marriages and other sins of the flesh that we consider to be egregious aberrations of God’s holy nature, then it is well past time that we make the same noise against the sin of adultery.
That means adultery in every shade, color, size and permutation, from ogling the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalog to making that rendezvous at the No-Tell Motel.
Our gender-neutral older sibling in the ethereal realm -
How, like, totally common is your personal identification.
May your egalitarian and democratic socio-political relationship utopia be realized;
May your totally non-authoritarian suggestions be accepted;
On this environmentally protected sphere as well as your inter-planetary dwelling.
Give us, like, everything we totally want, as well as the obvious things we need.
And forgive all those self-righteous bigots who are constantly making it sound like we need being forgiven.
Don’t let us get too close to the homophobes, male chauvinists and other haters;
And, for Thomas Jefferson’s sake, please keep us away from the Pope and anyone else who happens to care about his backward religion.
Nice chattin’ with ya – see ya later.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
One thing I want everyone to know about this post – I am attacking myself, not others (at least explicitly). When I refer to others it is to illustrate my failings, not to heap scorn upon derision. This is a confession, not a broadside.
I have been struggling mightily with something over the past few weeks, months, and maybe even years. It has finally bubbled up to the point that I either have to deal with it or it will destroy me. Possibly it has already overcome me, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for quite a while.
But, political correctness is killing me. I don’t mean the kind of sloppy journalism or political hatchet jobs that continually assail me. I am talking about my own political correctness and how I seem utterly unable to confront or defeat it. For those of you who follow this blog regularly you might be surprised at that admission. There are times in my writings in which I become (or surrender to) my acerbic self. But, interestingly, that is part of the problem. This is my own little space of the cyber world in which everyone is invited but no one is forced to enter, or stay. If someone does not like what I write they ignore me. Thousands upon thousands assiduously do so on a regular basis. Knowing that, I steam and vent about subjects that are important to me, but obviously not too significant for others.
No, my issue with my own political correctness has to do with those with whom I am forced to deal on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. I fit the description that was leveled against the apostle Paul (although, to be fair, I believe he disavowed such an attack) that his letters were “weighty and powerful, but his physical appearance is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Cor. 10:10) I have visions of being a Great White Shark, and ultimately all I manage to portray is a spineless little jellyfish.
There are times in this world in which a person must stand up – speak up and say what needs to be said. Of course, it should go without saying that such statements need to be made in the spirit of love and correction, not hate and malediction. But still, you cannot read the gospels without seeing a Jesus that was both loving and welcoming as well as direct and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.
And so I struggle with the balance – and all too often I find myself swallowing my words, backing off of a confrontation that I think needs to be made, weakly surrendering to the pressure of the moment or of the possible consequences should my objection be objected to. I defer – and end up kicking myself for it. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – all had the spine to stand up and confront not only the minions of politics but also the minions of religion and all either paid a huge price or at least had the threat of paying a huge personal price.
I’m tired of my own cowardice, but I’m not sure how to overcome it without being churlish and vindictive.
I’ve just had it to my eyebrows with the skinny jeans, t-shirt and goatee wearing crowd lecturing me about how to fix the church when they have already written the church off as being unimportant. I’m sick to my stomach of authors criticizing spiritual leaders who have been loving and serving the church longer than these twenty-somethings have been alive. I recoil when I hear some academically trained yet theologically ignorant sycophant use some word like “missional” or “incarnational” as if by wielding such verbal weaponry they can slay their Quixotic opponent.
I stand mute when I hear a racist or homosexual loathing comment made in a Bible class, and I offer no word of censure when the same racist or homophobe stands a few minutes later to implore God’s blessings over the table of His Son’s memorial feast. I do not confront the obvious and blatant misrepresentation of Scripture that is done in manifest adoration of “the ancient paths.” When someone who leaves his Bible on the church pew so he won’t forget it next Sunday upbraids me because my hours of preparation and reading the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarship do not match his preconceived ideas, I say nothing. It might cause a scene. And causing a scene is the last thing a politically correct minister wants to do.
I swallow hard, and walk away. I do so because I think that it is better to maintain peace than to cause a disturbance. The times that I have tried to stand up have not ended well. My blood does flow hot, and all too often I let passion get the best of me. But the opposite has been that I say nothing. “Keep your mouth shut and be politically correct.”
I wish, just once, I could justifiably kick over a few money-changing tables and toss some thieving scoundrels out on their ears.
Sometimes being politically incorrect is exactly what God expects. His house is no less a place of prayer and of healing for the nations today than it was in the last week of Jesus’ life.
Maybe someday I will find the balance between personal disgust and zeal for God’s house. Maybe someday before I die I will manage to find my teeth.
I can always hope.
Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.
This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.
Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.
Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.
Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.
This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.
The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.
Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.
Have you ever been relatively sure of something, or maybe even profoundly sure of something, only to find out at a later time that you were relatively, or maybe even profoundly wrong? I hate it when that happens. Especially when I am the perpetrator and the victim.
Matthew 7:6 has always been a “question mark” verse for me. I know how others have interpreted it in the past, and for the most part I have agreed with them. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus is telling us to not call people dogs or pigs (I mean, in 7:1 he just told us not to judge, right?); but, as the interpretation goes, some people are just dogs and pigs. So, even though we are not supposed to, we end up judging people. We decide they are not worth having the gospel preached to them (“that which is holy” and the “pearls”). The amplified interpretation is that, while we are not supposed to judge people’s hearts or motives, we are supposed to be “fruit inspectors” (Mt. 7:16) and if someone looks like a pig, grunts like a pig, and acts like a pig, well, who are we to say otherwise?
As I said, this was my standard interpretation – one I taught and preached for years. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with that interpretation because there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind about how 7:6 was related to 7:1. But, many minds much more brilliant than mine have taught this traditional interpretation, so I put aside my uneasiness and just assumed I was being a little too hyper-critical.
In his article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen has finally given me the answer to my question mark. I encourage you to find the article and read it in its totality, as I do not have the time or the inclination to repeat Dr. Stassen’s entire article here. However, to make a fine and complex argument very short, Dr. Stassen points out that in the contemporary literature that would be circulating during Jesus’ lifetime, the epithets “dog” and “pig” was most uniformly applied to the Romans, and to the Roman government in particular. It is true that the epithets were hurled at other groups, but the overwhelming majority of uses applies to the Romans and the Roman government.
As a striking example of how this played out in the gospel, note the story of Jesus healing the demoniac at Gerasa (Mark 5:1-20). Note the language. Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was, and the man replied, “legion.” Now, a legion is a lot of demons, but a “Legion” was also the identification of a Roman military unit. When Jesus cast the demon(s) out of the man, the “legion” entered into a herd of pigs. Dr. Stassen points out that in the first century, in a culture in which the Roman occupation was hated with a deep passion, this little play on words would not go unnoticed. Was Mark trying to make a point about Jesus’ power over the Roman government, or was this just a fortuitous slip of the pen? It does certainly give me pause to think that there is something else to be considered in Matthew 7:6.
By keeping the “triadic” formula in mind, we see that Matthew 7:6a fits the “traditional teaching” portion of the triad. The “vicious cycle” comes next – if we give that which is holy and the costly pearls to the dogs and pigs they will not care about them or us. They will trample that which is holy and valuable and turn to attack us. The “transforming initiative” then follows, with an extended illustration. We are to continue to keep asking God for that which we need, we are to keep searching for that which we need, and we are to keep knocking at the throne room of heaven. If we ask, we will receive; if we seek we will find; and if we knock it will be opened to us.
But what is Jesus talking about here? Going back to Matthew 6:19 (the verse that takes up immediately after Jesus’ emphasis on the spiritual disciplines) Jesus has been focused on the Kingdom of God, and our relationship to that Kingdom. What Dr. Stassen points out is that we are to keep asking, seeking and knocking for the Kingdom to arrive on earth. Our trust, our hope, the point of our asking, seeking and knocking must be the reign of God on earth. If we hope and trust in his reign, if we ask for it, seek for it and knock on heaven’s door for it to be opened, we will receive, find and have it given to us.
So, if “that which is holy” and the costly “pearl” is our hope, our faith, our trust, how do we throw those things to the dogs and pigs? Simply by giving our faith, our hope, our trust to any and or every human government that we find ourselves subject to.
Bingo! Just like the light bulb coming on over the cartoon character’s head, suddenly now I get it.
Jesus is saying here that the most precious thing we can give to God is our hope, our faith, our allegiance. If we give those things to an earthly government, it will not respect those gifts nor those who give them. They will trample those precious gifts underfoot and then turn and attack the people who surrender those precious possessions.
Can anyone say, “The United States Government?”
I know I sometimes sound like a broken record – the same line being repeated endlessly. But I am just struck by how profound this teaching is throughout Scripture, and this view of Matthew 7:6-21 simply magnifies that teaching to me.
For well over 200 years now Americans have given their allegiance, their hope, their faith, and their trust to a piece of paper called “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Certain individuals have viewed it as the 67th book of the Holy Bible. Some conservative Christians can quote from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence more accurately than they can quote the words of Jesus. But let me ask every conservative, red-white-and-blue, flag waving Constitutionalist what that devotion, how that adoration has benefited the church of Christ?
We now have abortion on demand – and millions of babies die each year at the simple request of their mother. We have some states in which assisted suicide is legal and protected. The use of mind-altering drugs is increasingly becoming legal and protected (the most obvious is alcohol!). Building, staffing and filling prisons with prisoners is a growth industry. We have states in which same-sex marriage is legal and protected. But formal prayers in public schools and in public meeting places is illegal. Posting portions of Scripture in a public place is not allowed. Increasingly we have more and more limits on what once was considered to be free speech. On the other hand, vulgarity, nudity and violence are common themes even in forms of entertainment that are primarily oriented toward children. The divorce rate is astronomical, the birth rate among unwed teenagers is unconscionable, and a federal judge just ruled within the past week that any female should be able to receive an abortifacient drug over-the-counter with no prescription needed. Yes, indeed. We truly are a Christian nation.
We gave everything we considered to be high and holy to the government, and it return it trampled those offerings under foot and now has turned and started to attack those who surrendered those gifts.
Just like Jesus said it would happen.
When will we wake up, disciples of Christ? When will we quit throwing that which is holy and our precious pearls in front of a government that despises them and us? When will we finally understand that the only thing that the government wants is more power? And how long will it take us to finally realize that the government will do anything and everything it needs to in order to achieve that ultimate power?
And when will we start giving our faith, our hope, our trust, and our allegiance back to God?
“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” Matthew 6:33.
This ends my series of thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount, and in particular, Dr. Glen Stassen’s profound explication of this sermon. I hope it has benefited you as much as it did me.
And I hope that we will soon begin to put this Radical Sermon into some very concrete behavior!
(Note: some bad grammar and punctuation fixed, and sentence clarified 4/14/13. Sorry about the confusing sentence.)
Dear “Personal Evangelist” “Door Knocker” ”Soul Winner” “Missionary” or whatever title you personally prefer,
I have a question for you, but before I ask my question I would like to compliment you on a few things.
First, I want to thank you for not asking how I was, or how my day was going before you decided that my soul needed saving. It would have slowed you down to have inquired about my health. It certainly would have taken much too long for you to have discovered that I am remembering the anniversary of my husband’s death. My daughter is suffering what might be a life shortening illness in another state, so I am glad you did not ask about my family. Living by myself I get very lonely, and so inviting you in to my home was meant to be a day brightener for me, so luckily you kept everything focused on your Bible and your notebook, so that I was not distracted by the struggles in my life.
As far as your Bible study goes, I must admit you were very well-trained by your supervisors. You stayed strictly on task, never swerving from your carefully constructed questions that only allowed me to answer one way. Of course you would have learned that I was a high school debate teacher if you had bothered to ask, but since you didn’t you never learned that I was able to see though your logic like a nicely cleaned window. But I did appreciate you taking the time to read me those passages of Scripture. The Bible has always been a great comfort to me.
I also want to commend you on the fact that you never once allowed the conversation to drift to what I might have been interested in. I actually do have some questions about the Bible, and you even touched on a couple of them, but as soon as I asked a question we always returned straightway back to the “program” that you have so obviously well memorized. Since you never answered any of my questions while you were here, I wanted to know how it was that you have your specific interpretation of a Scripture, but you are totally unable to explain or understand what your religious neighbors believe. I can tell you exactly what the other “personal evangelists” and door knockers believe, because they regularly visit me as well. But don’t be afraid, they cannot tell me anything about why their neighbors believe what they believe either. It seems like as much time as you all spend knocking on my door you might be able to spend an hour or two knocking on each other’s doors.
So, anyway, I just wanted to write this little letter of thank-you. Your visit was a diversion, although when you got to the point where I was supposed to give you a life-long commitment after you had only spent about 45 minutes with me I was a little put off. I may not be as well-trained as you, but it seems to me I remember that after Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus that Saul was given three days to think things over. I know it hurts your statistics, but it just seems like I could be given a little bit of time to think over what you were telling me. I am not a trained Bible student, and, to be perfectly honest, you are not Jesus, either.
Oh, by the way, I almost forgot. I had a question for you. You were in such a hurry to get to your next soul-winning appointment that after I politely refused to go with you to your church you left in such a huff that I never got to ask you this one. Please take as much time as you need to answer me, I will be here if and when you come up with an answer.
My last question to you is this, “Why should I be in a hurry to believe in a God who is so interested in saving souls that he is not interested in loving people?”
I’ll be waiting, but somehow I don’t think I will see you anytime soon.
Your last Bible study victim.