- Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Psalm 119:1-8
- 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
- Matthew 5:21-37
The readings set for this Sunday mostly follow the continuing series established over the past few weeks, but the first reading is drawn from Deuteronomy. Depending on the date of Easter, these readings are sometimes used in the series after Pentecost, but in other years they are simply omitted.
First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
In its present canonical location, Deuteronomy reiterates the account of the tribes of YHWH in the wilderness. It is both the conclusion to the great national epic narrated from Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Torah), and also the theological prelude to the subsequent prophetic recital of Israel’s political history that extends from Joshua and Judges through 1 & 2 Samuel to 1 & 2 Kings.
Deuteronomy is broadly cast in the literary form of a covenant document, but it is also something of a last testament for Moses whose death is one of the final scenes in the book.
The section read this week comes from the concluding section of Moses’ third and final discourse:
- Deut 5–11 – First Address
- Deut 12–28 – Second Address
- Deut 29–30 – Third Address
At the culmination this series of exhortations the Deuteronomist presents Moses as laying down a challenge for the people of Israel. They were to choose between two pathways, one leading to life and blessing in the land of promise, and the other guaranteed to result in suffering, death and exile. This is not a historical memory, but a projection back into the imaginary past of a theological value held dearly by the Yahwists of ancient Israel and Judah.
The following description of the radical Yahwists responsible for this book, and perhaps for much of what we have come to know as the Old Testament, comes from The Once and Future Bible (p. 84f):
What we find in Deuteronomy—and also in the books that follow it and reflect the same deuteronomistic mindset—is a radical redefinition of Yahwism as an exclusive loyalty to the national deity, matched with a determination to eliminate anything that may compromise their primary devotion to God. The late dating of this book is shown by its demand to kill all of the indigenous peoples of Canaan, matched with the call for all the traditional religious sites (the “high places”) to be destroyed.
Had this been the view taken by the earliest tribes of YHWH, the history of ancient Israel and Judah would have been rather different. Even the Bible acknowledges that the earlier generations of “settlers” did not drive out the people of land, and failed to eradicate the worship of Baal and Asherah. Had they done so, according to the Bible, Israel would not have been led astray by these pagans and their despicable practices. (See especially 2 Kgs 17:7–18 and 23:26–27.) The violence visited on Israel by God in punishment for their sins would not have been such a feature of their historical experience as a nation and, in particular, they would not have been sent into exile in distant Babylon.
This, of course, is the perspective of the “Deuteronomist” and his school—an informal tradition of prophetic leadership that was deeply skeptical of the establishment with its coalition of king and priest, palace and temple. It is not a view supported by history. Both the brief flourishing of the small kingdoms of israel and Judah, and their total collapse, can be fully explained by the larger political context of Palestine in the Iron Age II period. Other—non-Yahwistic—kingdoms thrived and collapsed in the same area and at the same times. But, as the Deuteronomistic prophets tell the story, history could have turned out differently—if only the people had allowed them to call the shots.
Had the anti-establishment religious fringe gained the public power it craved, we would have seen a total annihilation of the non-Jewish population of Canaan. There would have been more religious bloodbaths of the kind unleashed by Jehu following his religious coup against the northern dynasty of Omri (see 2 Kings 10). Local villages and towns would have been deprived of access to local sacred places much sooner than happened when the high places were suppressed during the reign of Josiah, and sacrifice restricted to the temple in Jerusalem.
Central to the theology of the Deuteronomist was a theology of punishment and reward, an ancient form of the prosperity gospel. Good behavior by pious people would always lead to blessings (possession of the land, good health, fertility of field and bed, and so on). On the other hand, failure to serve YHWH with total loyalty would inevitably result in loss of the land, famine and plague, invasion and exile. The good are blessed, while the bad are punished. The simplistic theology of the Deuteronomist was to be challenged in other parts of the Bible, but especially in the OT book of Job.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
This week’s excerpt from 1 Corinthians provides a glimpse into the contests and tensions that were hallmarks of earliest Christianity.
Far from being a golden age of theological purity and spontaneous unity, as the orthodox writers of the second and third century would have us imagine it, the hidden history of early Christianity seems to have been characterised by doctrinal confusion, factional disputes, and leadership rivalries. Some of this is easily surmised by the content and tone of Paul’s letters, many of which may never have been composed were it not for the problems he was seeking to address. We can discern the outline of Paul’s opponents in letters such as Galatians and Corinthians, and his passionate defence of his apostolic status is surely a barometer of the challenges to his authority from other parts of the early church.
In today’s passage, Paul is appealing for tolerance and shared loyalty to a larger objective. He suggests that spiritual maturity is demonstrated by a capacity to move beyond loyalty to particular persons, our favourite religious practices, and our pet doctrines. Yet acrimonious arguments over precisely those questions were to bedevil Christianity for much of its first three centuries, coming to a temporary settlement only when the emperor Constantine directed the resources of the empire to impose uniformity and suppress dissenters. With the lifting of civil constraints on religious diversity in the last few centuries we have seen a renewed passion for doctrinal debate, exclusive claims to truth, and the fragmenting of Christianity into hundreds of competing sects.
For further resources on diversity and conflict in earliest Christianity see studies such as the following:
- John Dominic Crossan (1999), The birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus. HarperOne
- James D. G. Dunn (2006), Unity and diversity in the New Testament: An inquiry into the character of earliest Christianity. 3rd ed. SCM Press
- Bart D. Ehrman (2005), Lost Christianities: The battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew. Oxford University Press
- Burton L. Mack (1996), Who wrote the New Testament? The making of the Christian myth. HarperOne
- James M. Robinson & Helmut Koester (2006), Trajectories through early Christianity. Wipf & Stock (reprint)
For a conservative critique of the consensus represented in the previous studies, all of which derive to some extent from the influential work of Walter Bauer (1877-1960), see:
- Andreas J. Kostenberger & Michael Kruger (2010), The heresy of orthodoxy: How contemporary culture’s fascination with diversity has reshaped our understanding of early Christianity. Crossway Books.
Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
This section from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount traditions is commonly known as The Antitheses, where Jesus is represented as setting his own teaching in opposition to the traditional sacred law of Judaism:
- Prayer and forgiveness
- On the way to the judge
- Radical holiness
Space will not allow a discussion of these separate points, but the Jesus Database pages listed below will offer the texts and some commentary.
- 395 Against Anger: (1a) Matt 5:21-22, (1b) Gos. Naz. 4
- 371 Prayer and Forgiveness: (1) Matt 5:23-24, (2) Did. 14:2
- 162 Before the Judgment: (1a) 2Q: Luke 12:57-59 = Matt 5:25-26, (1b) Did. 1:5b
- 396 Against Lust: (1) Matt 5:27-28
- 248 Hand Foot Eye (1a) Mark 9:43-48 = Matt 18:8-9, (1b) Matt 5:29-30
- 015 Against Divorce: (1) 1 Cor 7:10-11; (2) 1or2?Q: Luke 16:18 = Matt 5:31-32; (3) Mark 10:10-12 = Matt 19:9; (4) Herm. Man. 4.1:6b,10
- 372 Against Oaths: (1a) Matt 5:33-37, (1b) Matt 23:22, (2) Jas 5:12
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.