Summary Matthew Chapter 6

This chapter is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. As such, it should be read in the context of Chapter 5, and we should consider what is said here in relation to both this previous chapter and the one to come. That being said, there are more or less two separate themes running through this chapter. If they are not quite identical with themes in Chapter 5, they represent a development of the ideas presented in that chapter.. The first is the idea of doing one’s good acts in secret, rather than ostentatiously like the hypocrites. The other is the “leave tomorrow for tomorrow” idea of non-materialism. I suppose we could count a third if we separate out the Lord’s Prayer. This latter is, really, a complement to one of the themes, I think, instead of something on it’s own. Now, whether this actually traces back to Jesus is a huge theme, but it’s not one that really is suitable for the current forum.

The idea of doing good in secret represents a big step forward in Western thought. I say “forward” relatively; it’s a big step on the road to what Christianity became, so it’s “forward” in the sense of moving down that path. Saying “forward” can also imply a value judgement. That, of course, is subjective, but I happen to think that it is a good thing. This sets up the mindset that we need to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and not just because everyone will praise our action. Without this mindset, we get a situation in which we can try to get away with as much as possible, and that we’ll skate so long as no one finds out. Personally, I don’t find that sort of morality all that appealing; heaven knows we get enough of that with the interior-guilt mindset. It’s basically the motivation of a criminal. Whatever he does is fine, unless he gets caught.

The significance of this step isn’t so much that it’s novel; it really isn’t. This is where generalized morality was heading, and some groups in different parts of the world may or may not have gotten there first. It’s important because it hereby becomes embedded in proto-Christian thought (more on that at some point), and so it would have a very prominent future before it. This will play a role in the way the West is supposed to think, even if we all too often fall so very short of the ideal.

But there is also more to this. It ties in with the Beatitudes; it’s the idea that we will be rewarded by the father in the sky. Now, the idea of being rewarded for proper behaviour by God or the gods is as old as the idea of gods. What is novel is that, now, the reward will not come, necessarily, here on earth. Rather, we are storing up our treasure in the sky. I’ve been a bit uncertain about how developed the idea of an afterlife was, and how developed was the idea of a final judgement in which the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Turns out, this judgement dates back to the book of Daniel, perhaps two or three hundred years prior to Matthew. The idea is also present in Paul, and to a lesser extent in Mark. Plus, we have the idea of the coming wrath in both Paul and here in Matthew. So, putting all these separate pieces together, I think that, with this chapter, we can take it that this idea was now firmly embedded into the proto-Christian thought-world.

[ As an aside, I’d like to point out that I’m still pretty ignorant about a lot of the cross-connections in the books of the NT. The result is my inability to be sure that we have a developed doctrine on the afterlife and other things. Reading the NT the way I am, getting down into the details and getting granular (as was the term in the business world) sometimes makes it easy to lose sight of the big picture. Reading some of the secondary literature has helped me in this. My current book, James Tabor’s Paul and Jesus has been immensely helpful. ]

Back to the topic, given the beliefs set out in the previous paragraph, and given the Beatitudes, I think it’s probably accurate to speak of Christianity. This is, I think, no longer the Jesus followers, or the Jesus movement, or even proto-Christianity. With this combination of good behaviour, a reward in the sky–presumably after death–and Jesus’ divinity, I think we have enough of the pieces in place that we have attained an actual Christian faith. True, we haven’t come to the sine qua non of the Resurrection, but we know that this part is coming, so this cannot be taken as a point against. The community that Matthew is addressing is a Christian community in all but the name. That, of course, won’t happen until later. Suetonius, writing in the 90s CE, still refers to them as the “followers of Chrestus”, so the term Christian had not attained widespread acceptance a decade or so after Matthew wrote. But, for our purposes, I suggest the term is absolutely appropriate, and I shall use it from the this point forward.

That alone is a pretty big deal. We have Christians. Tied in with this is another concept that became a foundation stone of Christian theology: the omniscience of God. In church this past Sunday, the priest giving the sermon was talking about a book/idea put out by some militant atheist whose name I don’t particularly remember. Now, I can respect someone who has concluded in their heart that they are a sincere atheist. What I can’t abide is a militant atheist who uses all kinds of pseudo-arguments to “prove” their case. They can no more prove there is no God than a believer can prove there is. That’s the whole concept of faith. If God could be proven, then where is the virtue in believing? I believe that the office of President of the United States exists, but I don’t get any points for that. So if God could be proven, then…it’s just another fact, and the whole basis for faith goes away. But back to the point, this gentleman was going on about how horrible the God depicted in the OT/Hebrew Scriptures was. The details are not necessary; we’re probably all familiar with them. Then think of the words of the First Commandment. “I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt not have other gods before me.” As a kid in religion class, we were always told to take the “other gods” as symbolic: money, fame, or the other allures of the world. But when written, it literally meant “other gods”. Such as Baal, or Marduk, or Assur. The point is that the idea of God developed with time, and in this chapter we get another such step: God is omniscient. I don’t wish to debate whether the Hebrew Scriptures depict God in this way simply because I don’t know. But I do know that other gods were not. They could be fooled or tricked. But since God can know what you do in secret, we are entering the world of the later Christian God that was (eventually) considered omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This is another prop to the argument that we have a Christian community before us.

The other prominent theme in this chapter is the non-, or anti-materialist attitude being promulgated. Don’t worry about physical needs, for God would provide. Don’t worry about tomorrow; it can take care of itself. This practically borders on “hakuna metata” a phrase anyone familiar with The Lion King knows very well. As someone who observed the 60s without actually participating, it was, sort of, one of the hippie ideals; Jesus as hippie was a very common theme back then. It’s also the attitude of the Buddha, and the Cynics. So again, it’s not like it’s being invented for the very first time here, but it’s still significant. Once question I don’t see being asked much is “where did this idea come from?” Did Jesus pick it up from the Cynics, as Burton Mack dearly believes? Did he take a trip to India and learn it from a disciple of Siddhartha Gautama? Did he come to it on his own? Did he get it from John the Dunker, who lived on wild honey and locusts? Did he arrive at it independently? This is the ideal of apostolic poverty, that Jesus was a small-c communist who eschewed personal possessions. And since we’re talking about being poor, we really need to ask how this ties in with those who are “poor in spirit” if perhaps not poor in monetary terms? Is there a connection?

Of course, I have been hatching a theory. Recall the Synod of Jerusalem, as described by Paul in Galatians. Do you remember the condition James imposed on Paul when the former gave official sanction to the latter’s message? It was that Paul was to “remember the poor”. At the time I mentioned a group that came to be called the Ebionites. This group was at least semi-Christian, had some overlap with the more mainstream version. The term, supposedly–according to one theory at least–was derived from a Hebrew/Aramaic/Other word for “poor”. One of the main tenets of the Ebionites was an insistence on what people in 1250 would call “apostolic poverty”. And, oddly, the name of James the Just has been associated with this group for centuries. This is all fascinating, and very much a tease. One thing that needs to be considered is the length of Jesus’ ministry. Traditionally, it’s said he preached for about three years. From 30-33 CE. James was the leader of the community after Jesus’ death. He was executed, if we can believe Josephus (and I’m not sure there’s any great reason to doubt him) sometime around 62. Now if we do the math, we notice that James was in charge of the Jesus movement for about 30 years, vs. 3 for Jesus. IOW, James was the leader of the Jesus movement for approximately ten times longer than his more famous brother. Is it possible to think that, in this long tenure, James did not shape the ideas of the community to some large extent? He must have had an enormous impact on the beliefs of the community if only by sheer longevity. You hang around as the leader for 30 years, some of the stuff you say sticks. Heck, by hanging around for 20 years some rock-n-roll bands (cough, Pink Floyd, cough) have moved into the realm of not-so-lesser deities. Their words have taken on a level of seriousness, and been treated with a level of respect that would never have happened if they had come and gone in a decade. After twenty years, James would have become venerable, and no doubt venerated. Of course he had an enormous impact on the thought of the community, and left an indelible mark.

My point? Given James’ association with the poor, which is corroborated by Paul, at least to some extent, what if the ideas about non-/anti-materialism originated with James? Isn’t that a sensible conclusion to draw? Of course, there’s precious little evidence for this, but there’s even less (like, exactly zero) evidence for Q.

It goes beyond this, however. Since a lot of these sayings are considered an integral part of the Q material, attributing much or most of it could eliminate the need for Q. And it has the added advantage of explaining how much of this bypassed Mark. Mark was interested in what Jesus did, and was not particularly interested in what James said. When Mark wrote, probably within a decade of James’ death, the perceived  differences between the brothers was still, probably, fairly sharp. Ten or fifteen years after Mark wrote, however, some of these distinctions probably started to blur, if not disappear.  By the time Matthew wrote, the message had evolved beyond the message reported by Mark. The wonder-worker that Mark described was being superseded–literally; he was being sat upon by the newer composite message that included the James material. Tabor provides a list of topics contained in James’ epistle and the correlating passage in Q. There are half a dozen matching passages; of course. It is interesting to note that a good third of what is generally considered to be the earliest stratum of Q is closely related to the theme of poverty/wealth, let tomorrow worry about tomorrow, or something such. Of course, there are problems, too. There is far from a consensus on whether the Epistle of James was written by James. And a Q proponent would doubtless say that the author of the epistle also had a copy of Q. For a document that has left absolutely no trace–none, zero, nada–behind, it sure did “sell” a lot of copies.

I can’t leave this without saying something about the Pater Noster. In the comment, I described the prayer as all over the place. By that I meant that it does not have a tight thematic cohesion. But then, how many prayers do, aside from the Creed? And the thematic cohesion is pretty much the point of the Creed. Overall, though, this is a tough piece of writing to see with fresh eyes. It’s something I learned probably before, or only shortly after, I learned to read. As a result, it’s buried down there. Much of it is boilerplate. Holy be your name, give us our daily bread, lead us not into temptation; those are hardly remarkable for a prayer, which is a supplication of the deity to provide, and means of flattering the deity by hallowing it’s name.

But it does have one absolutely astonishing a line that advocates social social revolution. That’s something. And boy howdy, that sure does tie in with advocacy for the downtrodden. I really need to stress just how big a deal that is. The cancelation of debts–known as the Seisachtheia–under Solon was the most significant event of Athenian history in the 7th/6th Century BCE. As such, the common rendering of “forgive our trespasses” really, really changes the entire tone and meaning of the prayer. And frankly, I can completely understand why the change happened; calling for social upheaval of that magnitude is not something that the later, more established Church would have favored. This is the goal of a lower class movement, one that was made up of debtors, not creditors. But the Church Establishment that changed the word to “trespasses” is one that was more or less in cahoots with the creditors. In fact, the Church itself became a major creditor by the time Constantine legalized the religion. The Vulgate was created about 70 years after that, in a time when the Church had become a significant political power in the West, as well as a spiritual one. So the original wording of this was truly astonishing.

I do not have a true sense of how revolutionary the idea of “our father” was. Growing up the intimacy of this was pressed upon me, that it reflected a new and more meaningful relationship with God than had been known prior, when God or the gods were vengeful, requiring propitiation, not something that could be approached on such familiar terms. But I’m not so sure of that any longer. Zeus was the sky-father, after all. Neither Latin nor Greek have the familiar/formal “You” the way French, German, Spanish, and probably other languages do. So it’s hard to determine just how familiar the tone is here. In KJV English, God is addressed in the familiar “thee/thou/thy” forms. These correspond to tu/du/tu rather than vous/Sie/Usted. But the KJV is a millennium and a half later. And Zeus Sky-Father certainly resided in the sky, which we also term “the heavens”, and both Greek and Latin do the same. So maybe this doesn’t represent a large step forward in the annals of Western thought.

OK. time to publish this. I feel like I haven’t done the topic justice, but we’re still not done with the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps I will have more words of wisdom and a deeper analysis by the end of the next chapter.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 22, 2015, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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