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the antitheses of matthew October 30, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in religion.
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The Gospel attributed to Matthew has been one of the most influential Gospels among the mainstream Christian church. The interpretation of Matthew’s theology has been revamped and reinterpreted by every different era and every different agenda. This has led to endless interpretations of the Gospel, of which I will investigate two that are currently popular within two different camps of thought. Although I personally do not ascribe to either, I do believe one is more plausible than the other. Focusing on the exhortations concerning the law which has often been called the “sermon on the mount” or the “antitheses” of Matthew, one can see how different the interpretations of Matthew can be, especially depending on one’s worldview.

Burton Mack proclaims that it is ironic that the Christian church adopted the Gospel of Matthew as the “gospel of the church”. He does this out of the belief that Matthew’s main purpose is to reconcile the theology of Christ as a new sort of “Jewishness”. It was discussed in class that Matthew’s proclamation that Jesus has come to “fulfill the law” rather than abolish (Mt. 5:17-19) it could be interpreted as a statement of not only supporting Jewish piety, but also pushing it farther. The argument of piety is supported by the continued exhortations that proclaim extensions of the Jewish law (Mt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Matthew is thus not ascribing a sort of salvation based on grace, but one based on an extension of Jewish piety through intensifying legal obedience. What is being implicitly suggested here is that Matthew’s attempt to explain the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish nation is because of the lack of obedience to the law.
I contend that the problem with this interpretation is that it is a reaction to the traditional “principle-oriented” interpretation offered by orthodox Christianity. The flaw in this interpretation is that it treats the Gospel as mainstream Christianity does so: with utmost literalism. The only irony that one might find in the church adopting this Gospel is that while they interpret the majority of the scriptures literally, they pick and chose what is meant to be literal and what is not. The thesis of the legalism in the antitheses of Matthew is restricted only to that particular section of Matthew and the implications are disregarded and contradictory with much of the rest of the book. The remainder of Matthew is complete with Jesus’ examples of lack of traditional Jewish piety: against fasting (Mt. 9:14ff), the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1ff), cleanliness (Mt. 15:1ff), Pharisaic teachings (Mt. 16:12) and others. If one is to interpret such oppositions literally as done with the antitheses, then there is a contradiction in interpretations.

Not only is there a problem with interpretations, but also with the implications. As described above, the implications set out by the legalistic attempt to interpret the antitheses leads to a salvation based on the extension of Jewish piety rather than on grace. And yet Jesus meets a rich man on the road who seems to be extremely pious, he is turned back because of his unwillingness to sell his possessions and follow Jesus (Mt. 19:16ff). A legalistic interpretation could state that this unwillingness is a shortness of piety, yet the passage continues. When the disciples ask who can be saved Jesus replies that it is impossible for man to be saved, but with God all things are possible (Mt. 19:25-26). Furthermore Jesus explains in an oft-quoted verse that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (Mt. 19:30). The implications of these passages seem to suggest a contradiction to the mundane piety of legal obedience. Obedience, as it is, gets you nowhere without the help of God. The Matthew 19:30 verse is especially troublesome since there is no way of interpreting piety in a sense of a hierarchy of pious obedience in the Kingdom of God.

This leads us back to the interpretation of the antitheses of Matthew. If I am challenging the legalistic interpretation of Matthew, that must imply a sort of interpretation of “principles of the law”. There is a problem with even this narrow interpretation because of repetition of the antitheses. If the exhortations were simply about the principle the explanations seem a little extreme, not to mention elaborately drawn out. To solve this problem I offer an interpretation focused on a climatic point in the antitheses: Matthew 5:48. Matthew 5:48 states, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This passage certainly disregards any literalism, be it of principle or legalism. No one can expect to be perfect, especially in comparison with God. It is the verses leading up to this, however, that give away a more than plausible interpretation. Matthew points out that God’s blessings, the sun and the rain, are indiscriminate to the righteousness of man. The direct context of the passage is alluding to being indiscriminate of friend and enemy and yet the extremism present in earlier passages appears to have been dulled. Matthew 5:48 is playing on Matthew 5:20 which exclaims that no one except those who are more righteous than the Pharisees will enter the Kingdom of heaven.

Already haven shown that even Jesus and his disciples did not appear to be the most pious Jews, it is hard to accept that Matthew meant both the surpassing of righteousness and equality to God’s perfection to be taken literally. Rather, I would stress a sarcasm that seems to be present not only throughout Matthew’s gospel, but the majority of the gospels, even some non-canonized ones. Sarcasm, as we know from other ancient dialogues (such as Plato’s portrayal of Socrates) appears to be a useful rhetorical device, and one that is often not paid much attention to in later readers. It is much harder to read sarcasm than it is to listen to it. Matthew portrays Jesus developing not only a hard-line approach to “Jewishness”, but an impossible one. It is not until the disciples finally ask about this impossibility that Jesus finally admits that it is through God alone that all things are achieved (Mt. 19:26). Directly after this admission Jesus gives a parable as an example of how no matter how hard one works, each gains the same amount of reward (Mt. 20:1-16). If we are meant to take Matthew literally in a legalistic sense, this passage would contradict himself. We would, had he meant the antitheses legally, expect to see a larger reward for those who worked longer and harder, the righteous ones. This is finally echoed in the woes to the Pharisees (Mt. 23:13-32) which admonishes the so-called outward “righteousness” of the Pharisees. He explicitly states the priority of justice, mercy, and faithfulness over tithing (Mt. 23:23) and continues on to rebuke the idea of outward piety.

In conclusion, it is actually quite apparent that any interpretation can be passionately argued with a strong case using many verses as examples. Neither interpretation can be easily dismissed. Much of the problem of interpretation is the vagueness of tone, at least in the English translations. Not only is there is a problem of translation, but also a temporal and cultural divide. Although not a professional scholar, my readings of many early Christian texts lead me to this belief of strong rhetorical devices that are often lead to misinterpretations of the text in question. Most of the canonized text especially is not so explicit about its emotional tone as a text such as the Gospel of Judas.

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