Frances writes on this coming weekend’s Readings :- On the surface of things, there seems to be little to choose between the solemn moralising of Ecclesiasticus, (15:15-20) or as we should call him, Jesus Ben Sirach, and the Jesus of our Gospel passage (Matthew 5:17-37). They are however separated by at least 300 years and, as we know that Ben Sirach was writing C 180 BCE, and translating the works of his grandfather into Greek from his abode in Egypt, there are several things that might make us want to question this assumption. This writer, or rather translator, lived in Egypt under Ptolemaic rule, at a time shortly before the devastating invasions of the Seleucids from what we call Syria and Turkey. By the 160’s they would rule much of the territory previously held by Egypt, and in Palestine this occasioned the Maccabean Revolt after the ruler attempted to forcibly convert the Jews to paganism. When Ben Sirach’s Granddad wrote his pious texts, there was no belief in resurrection from the dead even in its Jewish form. Anyone who takes the time to read the whole Book will be immediately struck by the writer’s firm belief in the need to preserve Jewish identity in a foreign land full of pagan gods – to retain their law and moral probity – and by this method continue faithful to the God of Israel. Certainly, he calls to mind ideas and issues which Jesus discussed in his expounding of the Beatitudes in chapters 5-7 of Matthew, yet it is immediately clear that Grandad considered himself a writer of the ‘Wisdom’ school of Jewish thought, something akin to a philosophy of life, and very different to the life and ideas and mission of Jesus.
Our Beatitudes actually begin with a prologue in Matthew 4:23 ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.’ We are told that his fame spread throughout Palestine and the Transjordan. We must therefore see the Beatitudes and their long exegesis not in the way in which people read Ben Sirach, as devout Jews setting themselves right with God, but rather as a vision of life in the Kingdom of God. If we think about it, Jesus did not go around Galilee or Judaea exhorting people to become diligent fulfillers of the law of Moses. His ministry was devoted much more to the needs of the sick, deranged, poverty stricken and sinful, exemplified by tarts and tax men. Certainly at the start of our passage, Matthew presents Jesus as a devout Jew, one totally respectful of the law, but anyone even vaguely familiar with his savage attacks on the scribes and Pharisees will be painfully aware that rigorous devotion to the law was not seen to be enough. ‘I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.’
A quite different agenda is being set by Jesus, and one which consistently looks to God and the very specific understanding of the Kingdom which Jesus held. Indeed, Jesus’ unpicking of the Beatitudes presents us with a far more demanding self-understanding and community life, than that set by the Torah with its firm laws and obligations. Jesus’ teaching, when we look at it, would seem far more incisive, and impossible to attain. Which of us never gets angry with those close to us; and in these days of Trump who does not consider him a fool, even unhinged? But, faced with this impossible call to true holiness, we meet in Jesus one who did not curse his accusers and those who so vilely put him to death. Faced with the sexist society which was the Judaism of his day, Jesus went far beyond the requirements of the law to get his followers to search their very souls for a godlike purity even giving as an analogy the need to cut off offending parts of the body rather than offend another, which no Jew would ever have done. His teaching on divorce was extraordinarily humane and quite unique in an age in which Jewish men could dismiss their wives on the most trivial grounds, suggestive of a valuation of marriage and mutual care quite unknown in his age. Finally, in our passage, he called for simple integrity, unmasked by extravagant oaths, soon made and equally soon broken. No, Jesus was not a teacher of Wisdom in the Jewish manner, he was the bringer of God’s grace to all, and his life demonstrated how to live it out in all its fullness. This graced existence cannot be achievable by us, no matter how hard we strive, but is gifted to us in tiny almost unnoticed fragments, small graces, touches of the divine which illumine our earthly lives and join us to God.
This is undoubtedly why Paul (1 Corinthians 2:6-10) knocks the philosophies of Corinth with their various wise men who offered systems of living for the elite. In alternative language which was deliberately designed to attract the Corinthians he speaks of the ‘mysteries of God’ to a city abounding in Mystery Cults of the strange and exotic. Paul sees God’s great ‘mystery’, which began with creation and runs right through to our salvation by the death of Jesus as the supreme mystery. For it is of course quite unfathomable that God should care for his creation and destine us to share his being and glory. Paul promised the would-be converts to Christianity in Corinth that through the abiding Spirit of God, alive and active in each of them, God would reveal his will for us all, a will and love etched out in the life, death and resurrection of his Son who surrendered himself absolutely for us that we might become like God himself – full of grace and truth. And the unfolding of this mystery is his gift to every believer, the supremely smart, and the humblest peasant, the revealing of this is quite mind blowing for all of us, or it should be.