The Prophetic Narrative of Israel’s Scriptures
In my last post I argued that the Sermon on the Mount presupposes a certain apocalyptic and prophetic biblical narrative. The Sermon is not foremost a work of ethical reasoning. It is foremost a prophetic announcement of coming judgement and vindication.
We can find this prophetic narrative elsewhere throughout the gospels. It is crystallized in the often overlooked parable of the wicked tenants for instance.
A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
The story Jesus tells follows these lines: The gracious covenant God of Israel secured His people in the land of Canaan so that they might be a royal priesthood (Exodus 19:6). Israel wandered from his God and continually rejected God’s prophets. Israel will now reject God’s final messenger, His own son. In doing so, Israel will once again awaken the wrath of God. The wicked tenants in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful will inherit the vineyard.
This parable should remind us of the central message of the prophets. Jesus is retelling the prophetic narrative—the Lord will arouse pagan Babylon to crush His people for their sins. The Lord will then save a righteous remnant and defeat Babylon. Here is Amos’ rendition of the paradigm:
Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob… I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the LORD your God.
Amos 9:8; 14-15
What is the Sermon on the Mount?
In the last post I tried to show that the introductory Beatitudes and the concluding parable of the great flood fasten the Sermon on the Mount into this same historical-prophetic narrative. The Beatitudes and the parable disclose who it is that will be vindicated on the day of judgement: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). The meek and the poor in spirit and those who hunger for righteousness will find reward in God’s imminent reckoning. Jesus gives the Sermon then not to provide a timeless definition of the good—or even to teach what is required to go to heaven. He gives the Sermon so that the people of God might survive the coming historical cataclysm.
The Old Testament origins of much of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon point in this same direction. The third beatitude, for instance, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” is a quotation of LXX Psalm 37:11. The righteous of Israel are about to inherit the land and the evildoers are about to perish.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more… But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity. The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming… The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving; for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off… Mark the blameless, and behold the upright, for there is posterity for the peaceable. But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.
Psalm 37:8-13, 21-22, 37-38
The psalm has clearly influenced sayings found in Matthew 5-7 regarding peacemaking, violence, anger, and lending to an evildoer. Jesus’ admonishment to not worry and his teachings on reward and punishment likewise fit the tone of psalm 37. Of course, while psalm 37 has a prominent place in the Sermon, other Old Testament passages stand in the background of other sayings as well. The command to turn the other cheek may derive from LXX Isaiah 50:6 or Lamentations 3:30, both apocalyptic texts of judgement and coming salvation.
I have given my back to scourges and my cheeks to blows, and I did not turn away my face from the shame of spittings… Look, the Lord helps me; who will harm me?Look, all of you will become old like a garment, and as it were a moth will devour you.
Isaiah 50:6, 9
Another plausible connection is Matthew 5:11-12/Isaiah 51:7. These parallels, I argue, bring into focus the objective of Jesus’ program. Like Jeremiah before him, Jesus foresaw a “boiling pot, tilted away from the north” that would soon pour out to wash away Second Temple Judaism—the house built upon sand. Those who believed his message and became obedient unto death would inherit the kingdom, that is, a new historical hope for the people of God, an existence of safety and prosperity. The marginalized and cruciform existence of Jesus’ Jewish followers in first century Israel would usher in this age to come. In the same way, the marginalized and cruciform existence of Paul’s Greek followers in the Jewish diaspora would usher in the reign of Christ over the once pagan nations of the Roman Empire. Second Temple Judaism and Pagan Imperialism would soon collapse and the battered communities of Christ would be publicly vindicated. The God of history was about to judge and save once again.