Why do we assume that in his sermon on the mount Jesus addresses the whole church throughout the ages? Much of the teaching has to do with what it means to fulfil the Law of Moses, which Jesus categorically says he has not come to abolish—at least, not until heaven and earth pass away (5:17). The unrighteous are threatened with the same fate (corpses thrown into Gehenna) that Jeremiah prophesied for Jews in Jerusalem ahead of the Babylonian invasion. Jesus borrows metaphors from the prophets (two roads and a house swept away by a storm) to describe the dilemma faced by first century Israel under Roman occupation. He speaks as a prophet to Israel about Israel.
So why are we so eager to read Matthew 5-7 as a compendium of classic Christian wisdom or a manifesto of radical Christian ethics? Presumably because we find in it such powerful and enduring sentiments as “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “You are the light of the world”, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent, etc.”, “Love your enemies”, “You cannot serve God and money”, “seek first the kingdom of God”, and so on.
That’s fine, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the sermon as a whole, in context, just four chapters from the end of Malachi, is directed at a revolutionary movement within first century Israel. The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) is not prescribed as a piece for routine liturgical recitation. It’s a prayer for the direct intervention of YHWH in the affairs of Israel. To seek his kingdom and his righteousness—to hunger and thirst for righteousness—is to believe that he will redeem his people from trouble, that he will bring them back from their various forms of exile (Matt. 5:6; 6:33; cf. Ps. 107). The sermon on the mount is a manifesto for immediate eschatological renewal.
The sermon on the mount is like a beautiful old car. We strip off the shiny bits—the bonnet ornament, the hub caps, the bumpers, the grill, the head lamps—and display them round the house to show off our taste in retro motor chic. But we leave the car—the real substance of the matter—to rust away on the scrap heap of history. We have no further use for it.
Here’s another example of how we massage the text to suit our own perspective. Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land (tēn gēn)” (5:5). Most translations will have “earth” for gēn, which is a legitimate sense of the word. But Jesus is quoting Psalm 37, which is an exhortation to the righteous in Israel, who suffer at the hands of the wicked, to persevere. They will not be put to shame. The Lord “laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming”.
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. (Ps. 37:10–11)
In the Beatitudes Jesus tells a Jewish story. The “poor in spirit”, whether or not they are also materially poor, are not the world’s poor. They are the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, who wait for YHWH to restore Jerusalem (Is. 61:1; Matt. 5:3). Those who mourn, who will be comforted, are those who mourn over the wretched condition of Zion (Is. 61:2-3; Matt. 5:4). Jesus speaks, likewise, to those Jews who are waiting for YHWH to bring on his “day of vengeance” (Is. 61:2), when he will put the world of his people to rights.
Then, these poor, these broken-hearted, these captives, who mourn in Zion, will be “called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord”; they will be called “the priests of the Lord”; they will consume the wealth of nations; they will no longer suffer shame and dishonour; and “in their land they shall possess a double portion”.
The meek shall inherit the land.
Hagner notes ‘The “earth” (tēn gēn) originally referred to the land of Israel’, but argues that
in the present context of messianic fulfillment it connotes the regenerated earth (19:28; cf Rom 4:13, where kosmos, “world,” replaces gē), promised by the eschatological passages in the prophets (eg, Isa 65–66).1
But in the context of the Gospels that is an overstatement of messianic fulfilment. Three quick points: 1) Josephus uses palingenesia (“regeneration”) for the “restoration” of Israel, which makes perfectly good sense in the context of Matthew 19:28; 2) Paul is not interpreting Psalm 37:11 in Romans 4:13, he uses kosmos arguably to avoid the ambiguity of gē, and things have moved on; and 3) the language of “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65-66 is figurative for the regeneration of Israel following judgment.
I think that Jesus would have been closer to the Qumran community than to Paul regarding the broad application of Psalm 37:1, though he would have disagreed over the identity of the “poor” or “meek”:
And the poor shall inherit the land and enjoy peace in plenty. Its interpretation concerns the congregation of the poor who will tolerate the period of distress and will be rescued from the snares of Belial. (4QpPs 37)
So it’s not about God’s people inheriting the whole earth. That comes later—after the revolution. It’s about the meek in Israel inheriting the “land” from the current unrighteous leadership. It’s the message of the parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14). The invited guests go off to attend to their farms and businesses; some of them even fatally assault the king’s servants. So the king sends his servants out into the streets and they “gathered all whom they found, both bad and good”.
The poor and meek, both good and bad, shall inherit the land. And we need to exercise a little hermeneutical restraint. It’s not all about us.
- 1. D.A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (Word Books, 1993), 92-93.