Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Matthew 5:13-20

This passage occurs in the Epiphany season of the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A), most recently February 2017.

I updated this a fair amount in 2017.
The basic meaning of the passage should not be lost:  Discipleship of Jesus means living our lives in contrast to the world's general order.  This might invite the preacher to lean heavily on the law for such a sermon.  A closer examination of verses 18-20 suggests that Jesus clearly rejects the law as a path to salvation.  First, those who don't do law are still in the kingdom of heaven; second, those who love the law do not have the necessary righteousness and finally, the law eventually will give way in the new creation. 

Key words:
μωρανθη ("lost flavor" or "made fools," aorist passive subjunctive of μωραινω, 5:13):  The word here means "lose flavor" but elsewhere means "make fools."  Paul uses this saying that people, thinking they are wise, have become fools (Romans 1:22; 1 Cor 1:20).  Interesting to think about salt (ie, us) becoming fools!  Maybe this is precisely the call of the beatitudes and the sermon on the mount:  We are to become beaten down by the world, trampled underfoot.  Our hope is not in the world's kindness, but the power of Christ's resurrection to renew and restore us.

ορος ("mountain" or "hill", 5:14).  A small reminder that this passage takes place during the sermon on the mount!  In another blog post I look at how Matthew uses mountains.

λαμπει ("shine," of λαμπω, 5:15; also 5:16; also 17:2, during transfiguration).  The only time anyone truly shines in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus during the transfiguration.  A reminder that the church only functions as the light when it reflects the light of Christ.

νομισητε ("think," aorist subjunctive of νομιζω, 5:17).  Jesus kind of does a play on words here.  He says that he has not come to abolish the law (νομος).  He starts out the sentence with a verb that has the same root.  Okay, nothing here for a sermon, more a little smile when you read the Greek :-)

ιωτα  ("iota," 5:18).  This is fascinating.  The law here has already been translated from Hebrew to Greek.  The tiddle of Hebrew has been changed.  Yet Jesus argues that even the smallest point of the law remains.  So do we assume here that this means the law is so eternal that it transcends language?

εως ("until," 5:18).  It is worth stopping for a second here -- until heaven and earth pass away, the law remains in power.  This suggests that the law is incredibly enduring, yet not eternal.  It too shall pass away.  It is worth remembering that the law was given to deal with sin (Galatians 3:19).  Once sin is gone, no more need for the law.  However, we will not get rid of sin until heaven and earth pass away and therefore, the law is with us.

ποιηση ("do" aorist subjunctive of ποιεω, 5:19):  Alas my Lutheran heart sinks.  Jesus actually expects us to do stuff.  It is fascinating to look up the word faith in the Gospel of Matthew.  Faith leads to sins being forgiven (9:2), heals people (9:22; 9:29; 13:58; 15:28), moves mountains (17:20), empowers prayer (21:22).  So it is not that faith and justification are separate in Matthew's Gospel.; rather, Jesus expects people to do stuff!

δικαιοσυνη ("righteousness"; 5:20)  If the Pharisees and teachers of the law have not achieved enough righteousness before the law to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, what hope do we all have?  Practically, I think Jesus reminds us that observation of the law is not just about the letter, but also the Spirit (which the Pharisees miss).  Existentially and ultimately, this verse, like so many others in Scripture, reveals that our righteousness before the law is not what gets us into heaven.  Even the most law observing people cannot achieve righteousness.  However, Jesus said in the verse prior that  people who don't do the right things are the least in the Kingdom.  So we need a righteousness that exceeds the most moral of people to get in; yet the least moral get in.  Clearly, righteousness before the heavenly throne is not based on the law.

Grammar review:  How to translate the aorist subjunctive
As you can tell from the words above, Greek likes to employ the aorist subjunctive.  This is both complex yet simple for the English reader.  It is complex because it is used in many and unusual ways.  "Subjunctive" normally refers to hypothetical events.  However, Greek conceives of the subjunctive in some different ways than English.  So understanding what is signified by the aorist subjunctive may not be very intuitive or directly translatable.  What makes it simple is that there are basically six (or so) categories of use and they all have a translation formula.  This passage has a most of the categories for translation.

εαν clause
In 5:13, you have the aorist subjunctive in εαν clause: μωρανθη
The word εαν signifies an uncertain event (technically ει αν) and will almost certainly have a verb in the subjunctive mood.  In this case, Jesus is saying that the salt may or may not lose its flavor.  The way to translate this is with the word "if."  If salt loses its flavor...

εαν + μη or ει + μη clause
In 5:20 you have this in εαν μη περισσευση.  The way to translate this is with "unless"

ος αν clause
This is akin to εαν in terms of hypothetical translations.  In 5:19 you have this with ποιηση, when its used with ος αν.  In this case you can translate it with, "whoever"

μη prohibition
5:17 reads μη νομισητε.  Greek will put simple commands in the μη + aorist subjunctive.  This implies that the listener should do this activity without implication of the action being on-going.  You could think of this as a prohibition.  It is how Greek does negative aorist prohibitions.  Like "Don't eat that" would employ aorist subjunctive.  In contrast, when Jesus says, for example, "Do not let your hearts be troubled," he uses the present tense, implying that they were worrying and they shouldn't ever again.  The way you translate this use of the aorist subjunctive is by saying, "Do not XYZ."  Aorist subjunctive makes no implication about past or future action.

ου μη prohibition
5:20  ου μη εισελθητε.  This simply should be translated as "no, not ever"  Strongest negative possible in Greek!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

This passage occurs in the Epiphany season of the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A), most recently January 2017.
A very familiar passage.  What caught me this time was the focus on Jesus teaching them:  διδασκω.  Jesus is presented as a teacher in the Gospels.  Sometimes in our (Lutheran) emphasis on Jesus as savior we overlook Jesus as teacher.  This passage, if not Matthew's Gospel, can rub us the wrong way as theologians because it portrays Jesus as moralistic and therapeutic.  So where is the theology of the cross?  Well, in the beatitudes, God once again is showing up in the wrong places for the wrong people.  This is the theology of the cross and something worth teaching.

στομα ('mouth'; 5:2)  The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all use this expression to talk about the Word coming from the mouth of the Lord.  It does not seem an entirely common phrase, but one really picked up by these three prophets, all of whom faced false prophets.  I suggest with this strange wording, Matthew harkens back to this prophetic tradition, portraying Jesus as the Word of God who had spoken through the prophets.

εδιδασκεν ('began to teach'; imperfect form of διδασκω; 5:2)  Jesus teaches in all four Gospels.  The question is, what is he teaching them?  About heaven?  About how to live?  About how they are all sinners in need of grace?  Sometimes as Lutherans we want to avoid Jesus as teacher - making him into Moses - but the Gospels have no problem with Jesus teaching!

παρακληθησονται ('they will be comforted', future passive of παρακαλεω; 5:4)  This is a major word in the Bible; in fact, the word for Holy Spirit (the advocate in John 14:26) comes from this verb.  In Isaiah 40, God promises to comfort the people.  Have fun with the concordance on this one!  It is fair to say that, although Jesus is not simply a big teddy bear, part of the mission of God is comfort.

ονειδιζω ('reproach' or 'insult'; see also 5:11; 11:20; 27:44).  This word appears twice more in Matthew's Gospel...once when Jesus rebukes the unrepentant and finally when Jesus himself is on the cross.  This would mean that Jesus is blessed even on the cross.  Moreover, it shows that Jesus is not simply talking about his disciples' conduct, but talking about his own ministry.

μακάριος (‘blessed’ or ‘happy’: 5:3 and throughout the passage): The theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Spicq) gets to the core of this word and its striking use in the beatitudes. After a long summary of the Greek understanding of what it means to be blessed (pretty much what average Americans think, namely, healthy, wealthy and wise), the Lexicon finally assesses Jesus' use: “It is impossible to insist too strongly on the meaning of this μακάριος …This is much more than contentment; it is an interior joy that becomes external, elation translated into shouts, songs, acclamations. …Secondly, the new faith implies a reversal of all human values; happiness is no longer attached to wealth, to having enough, to a good reputation, power, possessions of the goods of this world, but to poverty alone.”

η βασιλεια των ουρανων (5:3; the kingdom of heaven): Matthew's Gospel does not use the phrase kingdom of God.  Some scholars speculate this may be out of deference to the word God that comes from Matthew's Jewish piety.  Generally Matthew only uses θεος in quoting the OT; κυριος (often the NT translation of YHWH) is reserved for its more secular meaning, "master." 

Grammar review and verse translation:  To be or not to be?
NRS Matthew 5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
μακαριοι οι πτωχοι τω πνεθματι οτι αυτων εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων

First clause:  μακαριοι οι πτωχοι τω πνεθματι
In Greek, you do not need to use the verb "to be."  You can simply add it.  So the sentence reads:  "Blessed the poor in spirit."  You supply the "are." 
The phrase τω πνεθματι is challenging for a translator, even though the words are straight forward.  The simplest translation is to interpret the dative as indicating location (where it is).  But then what does "Poor in the spirit" mean?  Psalm 34:18 has a similar phrase often translated "discouraged." 

The second clause:  οτι αυτων εστιν η βασιλεια των ουρανων
is more interesting.  In this case we have a "to be" verb - "εστιν"
What is most peculiar is the genitive case in which we find "αυτων" and "ουρανων."  The genitive can be translated a number of ways.  Consider how many relationships the word "of" can imply in English:  Kingdom of Fish.  Does this mean possessive (it belongs to the fish) or partitive (it consists of fish) or objective (kingdom for fish).  So in this case, "αυτων" might be a possessive genitive, like "the kingdom of heaven BELONGS to them."  However, nothing suggests why it couldn't be partitive, ie, "the kingdom of heaven CONSISTS of them." In fact, it might even be "objective," as in "the kingdom of heaven is for them."  I think "belongs" (possessive) is probably the most natural use of the genitive, but this exercise reminds us possibilities.  Likewise, "heaven" is in the genitive, which mean all of these translation possibilities exist for it as well.  (Also worth throwing in there is that οτι  can mean "because" or "that")

So, this sentence could read:
"Happy are the poor in spirit that the kingdom belonging to God consists of them."
"Blessed are the poor in spirit because the kingdom which belongs to God belongs to them."
"Blessed are the discouraged because the kingdom from God is for them."
And so forth!