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Monday, 18 March 2019

Completion, fulfilment or ending?

I'm trying to understand Jesus' attitude to the Law.
Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, and Moses' great gift to Israel was the Law.
So what is Jesus doing? Is he bringing a new Law? Is he getting rid of Law altogether? What respect does he have for that most fundamental and precious part of Jewish life, the thing that made them distinct from every other people?
It's captured in one Greek word, plerosai.
Jesus says, "Don't think that I've come to abolish the Law & the Prophets. I haven't come to abolish them, I've come to plerosai them."
The word means "to fill," and is usually translated "fulfil." I haven't come to abolish the law, I've come to fulfil it. So does that mean we should still keep the law?
When you are filling a pot with water, you carry on pouring until it is full, then you stop.
So shall we stop keeping the law?

Perhaps the question should be, what are we keeping it for?
Jesus was emphatic in saying that the law will not pass away. He goes on to say repeatedly, "You have heard it was said, 'Do this,' but I say to you, 'Do that.'" Where 'that' is even harder and more stringent than 'this.'
So he is raising the bar.
Jesus seems to be asking for more than basic obedience, more than doing "just enough." Speed limits are imposed on drivers as a safety measure, and simply not breaking the speed limit doesn't necessarily mean you are driving safely. If you drive along at 29 miles per hour, but with your eyes closed, you might be keeping the letter of the law in terms of not breaking the speed limit, but you are not keeping the spirit of the law which is to encourage you to drive safely.
On the other hand, Jesus seems to be implying that just the letter of the law won't do. So if you even think about speeding, one day a telepathic speed camera might hand you a summons.
How can anybody keep laws this stringent?
Maybe that's the point.
As Jesus says - "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees ... you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Don't rely on keeping the law to fit you for heaven. We are going to need something else entirely to make us acceptable in God's eyes.
Something, or someone else.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

The sermon on the Mount - what actually is it?

So Matthew presents us with a block of teaching from Jesus as if it were a sermon.
ALERT! ALERT! Heresy coming!
Does that mean that I think Jesus didn't *actually* preach it all as one sermon?
Well, no, not necessarily. I think Jesus had a body of teaching that he delivered many times over, varying what he was saying each day, depending on the context, how well the crowd was listening, what people said to him in response, and so on.
What he didn't do, I'm pretty certain, was only say these things once, one one single occasion, just as Matthew wrote it all down.
Why do I think that? Well, most obviously because Luke's gospel also contains a lot of this material, but subtly different and in something of a different order, and says that Jesus said it on another occasion. (Not up a mountain, but on a "level place.") Mark has bits of this stuff as well, but not all collected together in one lump.
I also think this way because I'm a preacher myself, and I can't imagine preparing all this wonderful material and only delivering it once. I'm always recycling ideas, saying the same things over and over again in different ways, chopping and changing each week, depending on my audience and their reactions. My long suffering congregation know only too well that I have my favourite sayings, which crop up again and again.

So why does Matthew give it to us like this? One reason is it suits his purpose. He wants to present Jesus as a new Moses. New and improved. Just as Moses went up a mountain and came down with some instructions from God for the people to follow, so Jesus teaches from a mountain and gives people new and improved instructions to follow.
Several times over, Jesus says "You have heard it was said..." and then quotes Moses, then goes on to say, "well I say to you..." and gives a new commandment, a harder command.
New and improved. Right.
And here's another reason. It's good to have it all together. Like a manifesto, or indeed like a sermon, it's good to have the whole of Jesus' key teaching laid out like this, ripe to remember. Ready to land on our ears and filter into our hearts.
So I'm looking forward to committing it to memory. I don't think it will be too hard. There are a number of features that I expect will help. It has a rhythm and a cadence that is easy to assimilate. It works by constructing opposing pairs: "Do this ... don't do that." "People used to think this, but I'm telling you that." It has vivid pictures: salt, light, planks sticking out of your eye and houses built on sand falling with a crash. Jesus didn't say it like that to help me memorise it, he said it like that to prevent his hearers forgetting what he said, and so imitating the foolish builder themselves.
With God's help, I pray that my learning will make me wise.

Thursday, 14 March 2019


I've now got the first 16 verses of the Sermon on the Mount under my belt. Long way to go, I know, but it's a start.
What comes next is a whole series of "improvements" that Jesus offers to the law that Jewish people lived by.
If I was to stand up and say "I think we need to change the law," then people would rightly reply "Who gives you the right?"
But Jesus just assumed that he had the right to tinker with the law. What he actually thought he was doing to the law is a very interesting question and I'll talk about it another day, but for now, this is the question in my mind.
Jesus, who gives you the right?
I headed this post with a picture of a traffic policeman, because this is the best illustration I can think of to explain how Jesus was operating.
That cop doesn't have the power to stop the traffic. If a car kept going, the bobby would be knocked clean out of the way. But when a police officer in uniform stands in front of a vehicle and holds up her hand, the traffic comes to a halt.
Why? How?
If it's not power that does it, what is it?
It's authority.
Right at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has this comment:
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
If Jesus is the new Moses, he is better than the original, because Moses was just the messenger. Jesus has authority to make new law.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Can I cope with this?

I've given myself a "Mount"ain to climb. The Sermon on the Mount is 2400 words, over three chapters of Matthew's gospel. Lent is 6 weeks' long, so that's half a chapter a week. Shouldn't be too hard, but I've got a full time, demanding job, that needs a lot of memory work too.
The other day for instance, I spent the morning with 30 or so parents, grandparents and childminders, slowly getting to know their stories and learning not just their names, but their children's names as well. Then in the afternoon I visited a care home, where I met 12 new people, so that's 12 names to learn, along with some basic details about each one. In the evening I visited a family to plan their elderly father's funeral with them, listening to them telling me the story of his nearly 90 years of life. Next week it will be my job to tell his story to everyone who comes to his funeral - no one in the family wants the pressure of standing up on an emotional day and trying to do it themselves. I'll have to sum up a full and fruitful life in 5 minutes.

Can I cope with another memory task as well? I'm giving my hippocampus a bit of a workout this Lent. Maybe the exercise will do it good, that's what I'm hoping.
So far I've learnt the easy bit - the first part of the sermon, the Beatitudes, which couldn't have been designed better for easy memorising.
The rest of chapter 5 is more challenging, consisting as it does of more technical discussions about the Law, and what Jesus' attitude towards it is, and what ours should be. The helpful thing is Jesus repeating the same structure six times over, as he tackles six different subjects: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge and enemies. The hard thing is that what he says varies subtly with each section.
Linking these 6 discussions on aspects of law-keeping to the Beatitiudes there are two other sections - one on salt and light, the other introducing and summarising Jesus' attitude to the Law - he's not here to abolish it, but to fulfil it. Or to bring it to completion, to a finish. A very interesting word is used there, and I might talk about that next time.

Monday, 11 March 2019

The Big Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

Some of the advice I received about memorising a long speech was to understand the structure. What are the main sections? How does the meaning flow from one to the next?
So here's an attempt to analyse the Sermon on the Mount.
I've broken it down into five sections: how to be blessed, how to obey, how to live, how to think and how to choose. All together, it looks like this.

Sermon on the Mount
  1. God’s people – how to be blessed
    1. The Beatitudes
    2. Salt & Light
  2. What about the law? - how to obey
    1. The fulfilment of the law
    2. Murder
    3. Adultery
    4. Divorce
    5. Oaths
    6. Eye for eye
    7. Love for enemies
  3. Acts of piety – how to live
    1. Giving to the needy
    2. Prayer
    3. Fasting
  4. State of mind – how to think
    1. Treasure in heaven
    2. Do not worry
    3. Judging others
    4. Ask, seek, knock
  5. Opposites – how to choose
    1. The narrow & wide gates
    2. True & false prophets
    3. True & false disciples
    4. Wise & foolish builders
My hope is that if I understand the way the sermon is constructed, I'll be able to move from one section to the next more easily.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Memorising the Bible - how?

I've given myself the task of committing 2400 words to memory. If I was an actor, that would be nothing compared to learning my lines for a whole play.
But how am I actually going to do it?
I asked Google, and got the following advice for memorising a speech:
1. Write it out
2. Rehearse it with your script in front of you.
3. Memorise, big to small. Start with big chunks, then smaller paragraphs and phrases
4. Start with the biggest chunks - write out headings for each section
5. Move to smaller points
6. Memorise the delivery - think about how you are going to say each sentence for maximum effect.

Ok, thanks for that, Google. That makes it feel a bit more intimidating. But I appreciate the point about understanding the big structure, I think I'll try that.

What else could I do? Well, I'm a fan of It has, for instance, the whole of the NIV read aloud by Max McLean. On my phone I have, which has similar resources available. So I can listen to the words as often as I like.

Let's see how I go.

Friday, 8 March 2019

The Sermon on the Mount: which version shall I learn?

Before I begin to memorise the Sermon on the Mount, I need to decide which translation to use. (A colleague cheekily asked me if I was going to learn it in the original Greek - I said no way!)
I've got 14 different translations sitting on my bookshelf next to me as I type, but I quickly narrowed it down to four.
Here they are, with their pros and cons.
New Revised Standard Version
Dating to 1989, this is an accurate but still readable translation. Famously the first mainstream translation to use inclusive language rather than masculine nouns and pronouns wherever possible.
New International Version
First published in 1978, and twice updated, most recently in 2011, this is the Bible we have in our church.
New Living Translation
Using an approach called "dynamic equivalence," this version tries to render the sense of the original into easily understood idiomatic English. It has the strength of being vivid and easy to read, at the risk of sacrificing some accuracy of meaning.
The Message
The work of one remarkable man, Eugene Peterson, The Message takes the idea of dynamic equivalence to a new and poetic level.

And here's how the four of them deal with one part of the Sermon on the Mount - the Lord's Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13.
New Revised Standard Version
Our Father in heaven, 
hallowed be your name, 
your kingdom come, 
your will be done, 
 on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us today our daily bread. 
And forgive us our debts, 
 as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
 but deliver us from the evil one. 
New International Version
Our Father in heaven, 
 hallowed be your name. 
 Your kingdom come. 
 Your will be done, 
 on earth as it is in heaven. 
 Give us this day our daily bread. 
 And forgive us our debts, 
as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
And do not bring us to the time of trial, 
 but rescue us from the evil one. 
New Living Translation
Our Father in heaven, 
 may your name be kept holy. 
May your Kingdom come soon. 
May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. 
Give us today the food we need, 
and forgive us our sins, 
 as we have forgiven those who sin against us. 
And don’t let us yield to temptation, 
 but rescue us from the evil one. 
The Message
Our Father in heaven, 
Reveal who you are. 
Set the world right; 
Do what’s best— as above, so below. 
Keep us alive with three square meals. 
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. 
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. 
You’re in charge! 
You can do anything you want! 
You’re ablaze in beauty! 
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Which one have I chosen? Well, I've chosen the New International Version.
But the Message - oh wonderful! I would urge anybody who feels bored with the Sermon on the Mount to read what Eugene Peterson has made of it.
So why not choose the Message? There are two reasons, one which makes life easy for me, one which makes it hard, that have made me choose the NIV.
Easy, because many of the phrases are familiar to me - I've already half learned them over the years.
Hard, because people will be able to follow in their church Bibles, and notice my every mistake.

No pressure!!