The lens of Covenant

sermon-on-the-mountThe gospel text for this Wednesday of the 10th Week is take from the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s gospel: 

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19) 

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) has these introductory comments about the entire sermon: 

The focus of Jesus’ teaching concerns the “good news of God’s empire/reign” (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). The sermon is not, though, a comprehensive manual or rule book not a step-by-step “how to” book. Rather it offers a series of illustrations, or “for examples,” or “case studies” of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign. (p.128) 

For those who belong to the minority and marginal community of disciples of Jesus, the sermon continues the gospel’s formational and envisioning work. It shapes and strengthens the community’s identity and lifestyle as a small community in a dominant culture that does not share that culture’s fundamental convictions. The community is reminded that the interactions with God, with one another, and with the surrounding society are important aspects of their existence which embraces all of life, present and future. Mission to, love for, and tension with the surrounding society mark their participation in this society. Integrity or wholeness defines their relationships with one another. Prayer, accountability, and the active doing of God’s will are features of their relationship with God and experience of God’s empire. (p.129) 

Carter’s insights about the “relationship” language and images present in the Sermon are so far present in the Beatitudes (5:1-12) and metaphors of salt and light (5:14-16) – in describing not the “terms and conditions” of the relationship with God and God’s people, or a halakah (rule of life) – but rather is meant to stimulate the imagination and personal responsibility of freely entering into the covenant relationship with God.  What does it mean to truly be God’s people? 

Too often the Sermon (and similar texts in Luke and Mark) are read as though it was a halakah without considering the idea of fulfillment in the Gospel according to Matthew.  “Fulfillment” in Matthew’s use means that he has looked back into the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and seen – not predictions – but patterns of the way in which God has related to his people. All of the patterns of history are completed in the person of Jesus – He possesses in himself the fullness of the promises of the covenants. Yes, plural – covenants! 

Covenantal theologians identify four primary covenants: (a) Noahic, (b) Abrahamic, (c) Mosaic, and (d) Davidic.  Some scholars also argue for a fifth, earlier covenant, the Adamic – but that is not key for our purposes. How do the four covenants point to fulfillment in Jesus? R.E. Friedman put it ever so clearly when he wrote that with “the Noahic covenant promising the stability of the cosmic structure, the Abrahamic covenant promising people and land, the Davidic covenant promising sovereignty, and the Mosaic covenant promising life, security, and prosperity” we have a framework to understand all the stories in between.  In other words, if you removed these four passages, you would have an anthology of stories, but no meta-narrative by which to understand them. As it is, we have the promise of God – much of which is unconditional – that our right relationship with Him, provides a wholeness for life by which we can freely enter into a full relationship with God. 

It is God building for Himself a people.  From family (Adam), clan (Noah), tribe (Abraham), federation of tribes (Moses), a nation (David), the covenants point in line and in pattern to the whole of the world as the people of God in and through the Covenant in Jesus. If one loses sight of this, then one forever asks “what do I have to do” instead of “what am I becoming.” 

Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)

Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000)

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