Guest post by Edmund Standing:
Reading the Gospel of Matthew, and indeed the New Testament in general, it is all too easy to narrow one’s focus to the apocalypticism that (in various ways) can be seen to run throughout. Indeed, since the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s seminal work The Quest of the Historical Jesus, there has been a strong tendency among many scholars to arguably place an excessive and reductive emphasis on this element of the writings of the early Christians. I once advocated such a simplistic approach and through it felt justified ultimately in dismissing the New Testament and the message of Jesus. In time, I have come to reject this reductive approach and at some point may offer some thoughts on the issue of apocalypticism in the New Testament.
However, for now I would like to look at a very different aspect of the teachings of Jesus, in particular the remarkable extent to which the picture of Jesus in Matthew illustrates someone who deeply reiterated and expanded upon the Hebrew wisdom tradition. Reading Matthew in conjunction with the Book of Proverbs uncovers the extent of the centrality of wisdom teaching in the message of Jesus. This post is by no means an extensive study or a final word, but rather very much a work in progress and an attempt to begin to consider the significance of this phenomenon.
Wisdom is mentioned in a number of places in Matthew. We read that ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ (Matthew 11:19). In Matthew 12:42, Jesus states: ‘The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!’ And in Matthew 13:54-56, Jesus’ wisdom is remarked upon as follows:
He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’
The teaching which astounded those who encountered Jesus has strong parallels in the wisdom teachings of the Book of Proverbs, as can be seen in the following comparisons:
The straight and narrow road
In Matthew 7:13, Jesus teaches of two paths: ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it’.
In Proverbs, the theme of walking on the path of righteousness appears time and again. We read of ‘the paths of justice’ (Proverbs 2:8), ‘those whose paths are crooked’ (2:15), ‘walk[ing] in the way of the good, and keep[ing] to the paths of the just’ (2:20), how God ‘will make straight your paths’ (3:6), of ‘the path of the wicked’ (4:14), of ‘keep[ing] straight the path of your feet’ and ‘not swerv[ing] to the right or to the left’ (4:26-27), of the ‘path of the righteous’ and the paths of righteousness and justice (4:18; 8:20), of how ‘the righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight’ (11:5), and so on.
The theme of the lamp
Jesus teaches his followers that they are ‘the light of the world’ and should be like a lamp that ‘gives light to all in the house’. ‘In the same way,’ he states, ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:14-16) Jesus also teaches that:
‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ (Matthew 6:22-23)
Turning to Proverbs, we find clear parallels as we read that ‘the light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out’ (Proverbs 13:9; 24:20) and that ‘haughty eyes and a proud heart – the lamp of the wicked – are sin’ (21:4).
Jesus’ teachings on how we relate to enemies are radical and certainly go against the grain of how we tend to react to those who are hostile towards us. He challenges the authority of the notion that justice should be based on retribution in kind (‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’) and instead teaches: ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’ (Matthew 5:38-39). He continues:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ (Matthew 5:43)
Again, while these teachings are radical, they are also firmly rooted in the Hebrew wisdom tradition:
Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you. (Proverbs 20:22)
Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble. (Proverbs 24:17)
Do not say, ‘I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done.’ (Proverbs 24:29)
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.(Proverbs 25:21)
Jesus warns against the accumulation of worldly riches, stating:
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (Matthew 16:19-20)
And, again, he asks how it will profit anyone ‘if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life’ (Matthew 16:24-26).
There are precedents for this teaching in Proverbs, where it is stated that ‘riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death’ (Proverbs 11:4) and that ‘those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves’ (11:28).
On the poor
Jesus teaches of the importance of kindness to those who are poor and who suffer, and identifies this as being central to our relationship with God:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.” (Matthew 25:34-36)
Similarly, Proverbs emphasises the theme of helping the poor and of how this is tied in with our relationship with God, for ‘whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full’ (Proverbs 17:17) and ‘those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor’ (22:9).
Indeed, Proverbs is unambiguous on this issue, stating that ‘those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour him’ (14:31) and also that ‘those who mock the poor insult their Maker’ (17:5). Further teachings on the poor include:
Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse. (28:27)
The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding. (29:7)
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (31:8-9)
Jesus commands: ‘Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you’ (Matthew 5:42), and Proverbs warns: ‘Do not say to your neighbour, ‘Go, and come again; tomorrow I will give it’ – when you have it with you’ (Proverbs 3:28). ‘If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard’, warns Proverbs (21:13), and Jesus warns: ‘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.’ (Matthew 7:21)
The bread and the wine
In Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, we read of Jesus gathering his disciples together for a final Passover meal. He breaks a loaf of bread and commands them to eat from it, stating that the bread symbolises his body (which will be broken on the cross). He then passes round a cup of wine, stating that this wine symbolises his blood (which will pour out from his body during the Crucifixion) (Matthew 26:26-28). Even here, there are echoes of the wisdom tradition.
In Proverbs, two kinds of bread and wine are spoken of. Firstly, we read of the ‘wicked’, who ‘eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence’ (Proverbs 4:17). This is contrasted with the bread and wine of the Wisdom of God. Wisdom calls:
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’ (9:4-6)
Comparing Matthew and Proverbs, then, we see the extent to which Jesus’ message stands in continuity with the Hebrew wisdom tradition. Jesus here is not the negation of what has come before, nor does he essentially teach anything that was not already present, but rather he re-states these commands with great force and with such authority that the people who hear him are amazed and, indeed, in many cases repulsed.
These radical teachings from the Hebrew tradition in many ways do invite a sense of revulsion in the reader. How tempting it is to say that this is too much, that the burden these teachings place upon us is too heavy to bear. But it is here that we recall that at the same time as these many demands are placed before us, we are also assured by Jesus:
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)
So, then, we are here presented both with radical challenges and also the prospect of a God who at the same time brings rest. Perhaps Christianity has often placed too much emphasis on the rest and not enough on the action. Certainly, looking at Jesus’ teachings and those of Proverbs, there is no room for a casual response. The ‘religion’ expressed here is not one of passive ‘spirituality’ or merely one of sitting around waiting to be taken up to some fluffy heaven in the sky. It stands against all conceptions of religion as quietism and escapism and calls upon the reader to become fully immersed in the here and now.