September 9, 2016

Jesus' Moral Biography

The "sermon on the mount" isn't your to do list. It's Jesus' resume. If we mirror-read Jesus' public advice, it reflects (Matthew's claims of) Jesus' private experience. This is one place the Gospels may be read to provide biographical details about Jesus' so-called "silent years" in Nazareth. It even says so in the text. When Matthew 7.29 says Jesus "spoke with authority", that's in contrast with the hypocrites (5.20, 6.2,5,16, 7.5,29), which means the narrator's opinion (or, if you prefer, Matthew's Testimony) is that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He had already spent many years living his life in this way, before offering this advice.

Furthermore, this implicit claim is a follow up on a similar one in Matthew 3.17, which informs the reader (quite dramatically!) that God was pleased with Jesus. Ancient readers would not have accounted God's pleasure to fatherhood, in the way that modern parents sometimes say, "Of course I'm proud of you. You're my son!" No, for ancient parenthood, to express public approval was a sign that your child was doing everything in just the ways that you desired. Thus, 3.17 implies that Jesus had been living a God pleasing life, in those years prior to John's baptism. And shortly thereafter - one chapter later, when Matthew first represents Jesus' public teaching - we get a detailed illustration of exactly what pleases God.

Thus, Matthew 5-8 is the writer's implicit description of specific God-pleasing behaviors and personal attitudes which had characterized Jesus' personal life, before his public debut. These are Matthew's ideas about Jesus' background and identity, which may (or may not) also represent the historical Jesus. On one level, or both, the silent years are hereby echoed for three chapters.

What follows here is my attempt to invert some of Matthew's discourse, but hopefully moreso with logic than with pure creativity or devotional wishfulness. The idea here is to approximate some of what Matthew implied (believed? assumed? supposed?) that Jesus' own private devotional life must have been like. Eschewing literalism, and without pretending to much rigor, here is a first draft - a rough attempt - to infer some aspects of Jesus' not so "hidden" past.

You can be the judge, but remember this plays on two levels. First, you tell me how many of these things the Gospel implies are/were true of Jesus himself in the narrative story world. Second, you decide for yourself how many of these things might have been true about the historical Jesus in his life in Nazareth, before his public ministry.

Some of these lines have always been difficult to swallow. But now, instead of asking yourself "Are we really supposed to do all of these things?", try asking yourself "Did Matthew believe Jesus did all these things?" And then ask, "Do I believe Jesus really did all these things?"

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Jesus' Personal Attitudes

5.3) Jesus was blessed. Jesus was poor in spirit. Jesus desired the kingdom of heaven, and expected to obtain it.
5.4) Jesus had mourned and found comfort. Specifically, Jesus had personally felt comforted as if by God.
5.5) Jesus was meek. Jesus desired and expected to someday inherit the earth.
5.6) Jesus yearned to see and feel righteousness among others. He felt unsatisfied in situations when righteousness was lacking.
5.7) Jesus was merciful. He had experienced mercy. He desired and expected to receive mercy again.
5.8) Jesus was pure in heart. Jesus had seen God, or felt he had seen God, metaphorically and/or actually; cf. 3.16.
5.9) Jesus was a peacemaker. Jesus considered himself a child of God.
5.10) Jesus had been persecuted for righteousness' sake. He had acted righteously at some personal cost. Through those experiences, he had felt/claimed a citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
5.11) Jesus had been hated and mistreated and spoken evil of falsely. He considered it a blessing.
5.12) Jesus rejoiced in those things because he believed that he would be rewarded in heaven, and because the experience helped him to identify with Jewish prophets of old.


Jesus was Salt and Light

5.13) Jesus was the salt of the earth. He made the earth palatable to God. This quality in him was long lasting; Jesus did not lose his saltiness. God kept him and valued him for it.
5.14) Jesus was the light of the world. He was God's light in the darkness. He needed to be displayed.
5.15) Jesus did not hide his light; he had not hidden his light; his light was not hidden; it had been visible to everyone who had watched him.
5.16) Jesus had allowed his light to shine before others. People had seen his good works. Jesus believed this was evidence of God's greatness. Jesus felt his own good works were a way to glorify God in heaven. Jesus thought of God as his Father.


Jesus Upheld the Law (and then some!)

5.17) Jesus paid close attention to the Law and the Prophets. He believed he had the best interpretations about the Hebrew scriptures. He felt his own life was somehow the fulfillment of them.
5.18) Jesus was honest. Jesus revered the Law. He believed the Torah was for all time.
5.19) Jesus did not look for loopholes in scripture's commandments. Jesus followed them and taught them. Jesus believed he was a pretty awesome guy in the kingdom of heaven.
5.20) Jesus' righteousness was far above that of the scribes and Pharisees.
5.21) Jesus had never murdered anyone. (!)
5.22) Jesus kept a strict conscience about his emotions toward other people.
5.23) Jesus had cared more about interpersonal interactions than about gifts and sacrifices to God.
5.24) Jesus valued relational reconciliation, and affirmed giving gifts at the altar.
5.25) Jesus was a shrewd negotiator, and preferred to reconcile in person rather than by formal judgment.
5.26) Jesus recognized the consequences of debt and judgment.
5.27) Jesus had never committed adultery. (!)
5.28) Jesus kept a strict conscience about his behavior and intentions around women.
5.29-30) Jesus believed in strict discipline to the point of sacrifice.
5.31) Jesus acknowledged the legality of divorce.
5.32) Either Jesus had not been divorced, or he'd been married and she had been unfaithful.
5.33) Jesus had not sworn false oaths. If he had sworn anything to the Lord, he fulfilled it.
5.34-6) Jesus had not taken oaths, neither by heaven, nor earth, nor Jerusalem. Jesus believed Jerusalem was God's special city.
5.37) Jesus had answered people with a simple 'Yes' or 'No'.
5.38) Jesus recognized the legality of fair punishment.
5.39) Jesus had offered no resistance on occasions when someone had wronged him.
5.40) Jesus had given his personal property to those who demanded it (his kinfolk, perhaps?), and he gave them even more than they wanted.
5.41) Jesus had been commanded to walk a mile by someone powerful, and he walked two miles.
5.42) Jesus gave to beggars. Jesus loaned out money and items, when he was asked.


Jesus Practiced Righteousness

5.43) When Jesus had neighbors, he loved them. When Jesus had enemies, he hated them.
5.44) Jesus (also) loved his enemies. When people persecuted Jesus, he prayed for them.
5.45) Jesus felt this was a way to make God proud, for which he did not expect any special reward.
5.46) Jesus loved everyone, not just those who loved him. Jesus did not love like a tax collector.
5.47) Jesus was kind to everyone, not just his own kinfolk. Jesus did not live like the gentiles.
5.48) The only ones who had (so far) lived up to this standard were Jesus and God.
6.1) Jesus acted rightly whether or not people were watching. He was only motivated to please God.
6.2) Jesus gave to people in need, and he often did so very quietly. He believed his reward was in heaven.
6.3-4) Jesus was sneaky about giving, and preferred to give secretly. He always felt like God was watching.
6.5) Jesus prayed. He asked God for things. He did not call attention to those requests.
6.6) Jesus would often go into a room, shut the door, and pray to God in secret. And his prayers were answered.
6.7) Jesus did not use lots of words when he prayed. When he asked God for things, he got to the point.
6.8) Jesus believed God was paying attention to his daily needs.
6.9) Jesus had prayed prayers "like this" often. Jesus revered God. Jesus wanted God's name to be sacred.
6.10) Jesus wanted God's kingdom on earth. Jesus wanted God to rule on earth.
6.11) Jesus was hungry every day, and satisfied with daily bread. Jesus asked God for basic provisions.
6.12) Jesus felt a great debt to God. He felt he could not pay God as much as God deserved to receive. Also, Jesus had loaned money or items to people and had them fail to repay him, and Jesus forgave them.
6.13) Jesus felt temptation. He knew God would sometimes test him (Mt. 4:1). Jesus asked for less testing. Jesus desired to be spared from encountering evil.
6.14-15) Jesus had forgiven people when they'd wronged him. Jesus felt that God was forgiving toward him.
6.16-18) Jesus would sometimes go without eating, but he didn't tell anybody. To hide his own hunger and fatigue, Jesus would put oil on his head and wash his face, so that people would not notice. Jesus did these things to please his father, who was always watching from heaven.
6.19-20) Jesus was poor. Jesus did not store up treasure. Jesus focused on storing up treasure in heaven.
6.21) Jesus fixed his heart on pleasing God.
6.22-23) Jesus had a healthy way of looking at things, and he felt filled up by God's perspective.
6.24) Jesus served God and he despised money. He loved God and he hated money.
6.25) Jesus was not anxious about earning his living, or about physical needs. He ate and drank, he clothed himself and maintained his basic health, but he felt that his physical life in the body was worth only so much.
6.26-32) Jesus believed his daily food was provided by God. Jesus thought worrying about needs was like trying to grow taller. Jesus didn't try to impress people with his appearance. He trusted God to provide.
6.33) Jesus' first priority was always to treat God as king, and to please God by behaving correctly. He knew God would take care of the rest.
6.34) Jesus dealt with various problems on a daily basis. Jesus took life one day at a time.
7.1) Jesus did not judge others. Jesus did not want others to judge him.
7.2) Jesus was kind to people. Jesus believed God had been (and would continue to be) kind to him.
7.3-4) Jesus took pains to consider his own conscience before criticizing someone else.
7.5) Jesus had scrutinized his own behavior and attitudes so stringently that it made him able to see clearly when examining others.
7.6) Jesus often refrained from advising others on holiness, because he didn't want them to scorn truth.
7.7-11) Jesus prayed successfully for what he wanted. He sought after the kingdom of God and he found it. Jesus asked God for opportunities and they arose. Jesus asked God for good things, like fish and bread.
7.12) Jesus himself had treated other people the way he wished others would treat him. Jesus had spent a lifetime reflecting on the Law and the Prophets.


Jesus Lived the Right Way

7.13) Jesus had lived his whole life on a narrow path, watching many other people live destructively.
7.14) Jesus had difficulty on his path, and he found few others along that path (if any), but he felt it was the only way to live.
7.15) Jesus was a true prophet. His insides matched his appearance.
7.16-20) Jesus was known to be healthy and fruitful. People recognized that about his life.
7.21) Jesus didn't just talk about serving God. Jesus truly lived to do the will of God on earth.
7.22-3) Jesus saw himself as Lord of God's people. Jesus was wary of great speeches and exorcisms and other mighty works. Jesus despised phony righteousness. He wanted to know and to see people truly give their lives to doing God's Law.
7.24,26) Jesus heard God's words and did them. Jesus was wise. This was his foundation in life.
7.25,27) Jesus had suffered through troubles and hardships but his lifestyle stayed steadily in place.
7.28-29) When Jesus spoke, people trusted him. Jesus spoke from experience, and people could somehow tell that he knew what he was talking about. Jesus stood out as being different from the scribes.

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It's hard to avoid closing with "Go and do likewise" but we've heard that often enough.

I think Matthew had a very high opinion of Jesus' personal lifestyle, and I think Matthew implicitly testifies here that Jesus had been living by these standards for a very long time. If I'm right about that - and if Matthew was even half right about Jesus - then the "silent years" are hereby echoed in Mt.5-7. The "hidden years" are evidently made known by their fruit.

Jesus' past life in Nazareth is reflected in the content of his Galilean teaching.

That is, assuming you can believe it...

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