Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of October 2020
Today I am giving you less of a ‘reflection’ and more of an academic exercise. I want to look at the difference between Paul and the author of the Gospel according to Matthew in their attitudes to the Law. In today’s epistle reading Paul tells the Philippians that although he himself was blameless under the Law, he now regards that as rubbish and instead believes that his righteousness comes purely from his faith in Christ. On the other hand, in today’s gospel reading Matthew describes Jesus telling the scribes and the Pharisees that they have got things wrong, and so Israel is going to be taken away from them and given to people that produce ‘the fruits of the kingdom’. While Paul rejects the Law, Matthew argues that the problem with the scribes and Pharisees is that they are not following the Law well enough.
There are some things concerning the Gospel according to Matthew about which biblical scholars agree. They agree that it is a ‘Jewish’ gospel, written by a Jewish Christian for a community primarily made up of Jews. They agree that it was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. They agree that it was written in the context of a dispute between followers of Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees, about which group was the authentic heir of Second Temple Judaism. They agree that all the anti-Jewish, anti-Pharisee, rhetoric it contains is coming from a family dispute and should certainly never be used against Jews today.
In 70 AD after a siege of six months the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Temple had been the central unifying institution for the people of Israel. How could they survive as a people without it? We know of two groups who answered that question so successfully that they still exist today. One group, descended from the Pharisees whose focus was the Law, the Torah, rather than the Temple, became what is now mainstream Judaism. The others, who declared that the Temple was no longer necessary because Jesus’ crucifixion had been the final sacrifice after which no more sacrifices were needed for atonement, were our ancestors. Today we are two different religions, but at the time Matthew was writing that was not the case. Matthew did not think followers of Jesus were part of a ‘new Israel’ that was replacing the existing people of God. Matthew thought instead that followers of Jesus were the legitimate leaders of that nation.
This is what we see in today’s parable. The idea of Israel as a vineyard comes from the prophesies of Isaiah: ‘My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill … he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.’ (Isaiah 5:1-2) According to Isaiah the vineyard itself, the entire nation, was to be destroyed: ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ (Isaiah 5:7) But Jesus here says that the vineyard, the kingdom of God, will be preserved. It is the people who tend the vineyard who are going to change. In this parable the tenants are the chief priests and the Pharisees, as they realise when they hear it. The slaves are the prophets, and the landowner’s son is, of course, Jesus himself. This parable argues that the vineyard, the kingdom of God, the house of Israel, will be taken from the priests and Pharisees and given to ‘a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’. That is, leadership of Israel will be given to followers of Jesus.
All the way through the gospel Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,’ and uses the repeated formula: ‘You have heard that it was said… But I say to you’. (Matt 5) Jesus argues with the scribes and Pharisees about which of them is truly following the Law of God, and which of them is instead substituting their own human traditions. (Matt 15:1-20) Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach.’ (Matt 23:2-3) For Matthew, Jesus has come to ensure that those who follow the Law are following it correctly, which is why in the Great Commission at the end of the gospel Jesus tells the disciples: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ (Matt 28:19-20)
Matthew’s gospel was written in part in opposition to the scribes and Pharisees, who argued that it was their movement that was the true descendant of Second Temple Judaism. But was it also written in opposition to the Apostle Paul? After all, Matthew has Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’. (Matt 5:19) Is the one who teaches others to break the ‘least of these commandments’ Paul, who taught Gentiles that they did not need to be circumcised or to follow all the Jewish rules around eating? In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote that ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:3), but Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ (Matt 7:21)
Today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians makes it clear that Paul does not believe following the Law is necessary for salvation. Paul argues that he himself was a Pharisee who righteously followed the Law, but that he now regards all of that as ‘loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’. The NRSV very politely tells us that Paul regards all these things as ‘rubbish’, but the Greek word used is ‘skubalon,’ which means ‘the excrement of animals’. To put it into Australian, Paul considers righteousness according to the Law to be ‘bullshit’. He instead values the righteousness that ‘comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith’. Was the author of the Gospel according to Matthew, writing at the end of the first century, responding to letters like this from Paul, written maybe a generation earlier? I have absolutely no idea. That is why I said at the beginning that what I was giving you today was less of a reflection and more of an academic exercise. It is the sort of thing I love pondering, but I do not imagine it will change the way anyone lives.
Instead, I want to end with a reminder of something about which Paul and Matthew would have fervently agreed. Love is the fulfilling of the Law. In the gospel Jesus explains that obeying the Law means following two commandments: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.’ (Matt 22:37-40) Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law’. (Romans 13:8-10) He told the Galatians, ‘you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole Law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Galatians 5:13-14) Matthew and Paul might have vehemently disagreed about whether we need to obey the Torah, whether we had freedom from the Law, but when it comes to how we should live they are in complete agreement. We are to love one another.
We are coming to the end of our year reading the Gospel according to Matthew. We are approaching a series of parables about the coming of the kingdom of heaven in which there will be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But these scary parables end with the most wonderful description of what the righteous can do for Jesus, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. (Matt 25:35-36, 40). This is a description of what it means to be righteous with which both Matthew and Paul would agree. So, let us go and do likewise. Amen.