(Sermon 1 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)
I am fascinated by John Shelby Spong’s theory that the stories in the gospels follow the liturgical year of the Jews and that,
“To read the gospels properly… requires a knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling. It requires an understanding of what the Jews called “midrash.” Only those people who were completely unaware of these things could ever have come to think that the gospels were meant to be read literally.”
Christians forget, or were perhaps never told in the first place, that Jesus was a Jew his entire life, as were his disciples and his followers. In fact, most Jesus followers were still practicing Jews – going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, reading the Hebrew scriptures, following Jewish law, and participating in Jewish festivals and holy days – until the 9th decade of the first century. Christians also tend to forget (or, again, were never told) that we have no written records AT ALL until Paul starts writing about 21 years after Jesus’ death. But it isn’t until about 42 years after the crucifixion that the gospel of Mark appears. Stories of Jesus were carried on by oral tradition in the synagogues from 30-72 CE. And even more unique Jesus stories emerged in the three decades after that as Matthew, Luke and John added more parables and stories.
(For the full video version, click here.)
So, Spong’s theory (that you can take or leave, but I believe has merit), is that if the Jews who followed Jesus worshiped as Jews in the synagogue until about 60 years after the crucifixion, if they presumably used the synagogue to tell stories of Jesus (as we know Paul did), then it makes sense that the Jesus stories they shared in worship had some tie to the Hebrew scriptures that were being read on that day. You see, synagogues followed prescribed readings throughout their liturgical year, just as many Christian churches follow the Common Lectionary. In the course of one year at the time of Jesus, a synagogue would work their way through the entire Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or our Bible), as well as the prophetic writings and the psalms.
Through Spong’s research and study, he found significant correlation between the order of the Jewish liturgical year, and the content of the stories in Matthew (he also found the correlations in Mark and Luke, but this book and this sermon series will focus on Matthew).
Here’s how it worked… each Sabbath scripture readings would be read, a psalm would be sung or recited and then the rabbi would share thoughts on these scripture and/or invite others to speak. Now, a speaker wouldn’t stand up and extrapolate on the readings with stories that didn’t apply, they would tie Jesus in, just like I tie in stories on Sunday mornings. And it didn’t matter if the stories were factual or not (just like I don’t care if the stories I tell are factual), because they were (and are) told to make a point and to relate the essence of who the believed Jesus was and what he taught.
Therefore, to really understand what the author of Matthew was trying to convey, we need to understand the Jewish liturgy, Jewish symbols and Jewish history, or we risk assigning literalism where it wasn’t intended and missing the point.
I think of it this way… when my kids were younger I never saw a movie that wasn’t animated, and, as it works with kids, I saw them over and over and over again so that I could quote them ad nauseam. I still can’t help these phrases coming out of my mouth with my wife, Julie, even though she has no clue where they come from. For example, I’ll say, “that’ll do pig,” and she’ll look at my like I’m nuts because she’s never seen the movie Babe. I’m sure she’s wondering why I was calling her a pig! When I bring her a cup of coffee in the morning I love to say, “My life is but to serve you, my liege.” It comes straight out of Aladdin. But unless you’ve seen Aladdin, you wouldn’t know that.
So, if there are pertinent references back to Judaism, but we know next to nothing about Judaism, how will we know what they are really talking about?
Here’s a summary of the major points of correlation that Spong finds between the Jewish festivals and Matthew’s gospel:
Shavuot or Pentecost (May-June) – Moses receives the Torah at Mt. Sinai
Mt. 5-7 Sermon on the Mount
Rosh Hashanah (Sept – Oct) – Coming of a Messiah, Jewish New Year
Mt. 8-9 Miracles of Jesus
Mt. 11 John the Baptist
Yom Kippur (Sept – Oct) – Day of Atonement
Mt. 12 Breaking Sabbath rules, by whose authority did Jesus do things?
Sukkoth (Sept – Oct) – Harvest Festival
Mt. 13 Eight harvest parables
Hanukkah (Nov – Dec) – Festival of lights, light of true worship returns to the Temple
Mt. 17-18 Eight stories beginning with transfiguration
Passover (March-April) – Birth of a new nation
Mt. 26-28 Last Supper through the resurrection appearances
We’ll begin in this first sermon to look at the parallels between the festival of Shavuot and the content of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.
Shavuot, or Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after Passover, celebrates Moses going up on Mt. Sinai and receiving the law from God. This is not just the 10 commandments, but the entirety of Jewish law contained in the Torah. Shavuot remembers this story and calls people to renew their commitment to following God’s laws.
Interestingly enough, Psalm 119 is always read for Shavuot, and the first two lines of the Psalm use the words “Blessed are those…” The theme of this psalm is clear: as the people of God, you need to obey God’s laws. Now, imagine you are in the synagogue and have just heard the story of Moses going up Mt. Sinai, and then you sang Psalm 119, and someone stands up to offer commentary. They begin by saying that Jesus went up on the mountainside, and you’re thinking, “Wow, just like Moses went up the mountainside.” And then they told you that Jesus taught, “Blessed are those…” (what we now call the Beatitudes) and you recognize the echo of Psalm 119 in the words. Imagine that.
The similarities don’t stop there. The Sermon on the Mount is actually three chapters long (Matthew 5-7) and just begins with the Beatitudes. It continues by extrapolating on those eight “Blessed are those…” statements as well touching on the 10 commandments in new ways. It sure sounds like Jesus is being positioned as the new Moses.
So, if we run with this concept of Jesus as the new Moses, how does this flesh out?
- Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt
- With Moses it was imperative that the people follow the laws… that was the deal. God will take care of you as long as you follow the laws.
- Jesus is a new leader who is not only as good as Moses, but even better.
- Jesus acknowledges the importance of the law, but says there is more to it. The quote is: “I have not come to abolish the laws, but to complete them.” How are they completed? The Sermon on the Mount tells us that basically they are completed with love, compassion, and mercy. And those three things will spiritually unshackle us from the things that bind us (our own form of slavery, if you will) – our egos, our baggage, our prejudice, our judgments, our anger, shame, hatred, guilt.
- Yes, follow the laws, they will bring order and morality to society, but follow them with love, compassion and mercy.
- Psalm 119 begins, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of Yahweh! Blessed are those who keep your decrees…”
- When Jesus talked about those who are blessed, it wasn’t about following laws so that God would give you a good harvest, 10 wives, and a flock of sheep. God’s blessings fall even on those who are struggling, who are poor in spirit and mourning. God has not forgotten you. And when you work for justice, have mercy, live in peace and integrity with a genuine, loving heart, you are blessed.
I imagine that to those early Jewish followers of Jesus, he was like the missing puzzle piece to them. Perhaps they were following the letter of the law, but felt that something was missing. Or they felt they must be doing something wrong because there was so much suffering around them. Jesus reaffirmed God’s love and care for them even though life was tough. God loved the people not just for following the law (though he didn’t argue that that was a good thing), but even if they were grieving or meek, or depressed (poor in spirit). Jesus affirmed the blessedness of those who were striving to lift others up, be kind and forgiving, merciful and work for justice. And finally, he affirmed the blessedness of those who kept a pure heart… those who kept hope, love and joy alive, who didn’t get too cynical or too jaded, who didn’t lash out in hatred, anger, jealousy or prejudice. Blessed are you!
And, yes, blessed are each of us, when we don’t just go through the motions of our daily lives following the basic rules of earning a living, paying our taxes, going to church, and not breaking the laws. We are blessed and filled when we do these daily things with love, compassion and mercy. That’s the message.