This weekend I read a couple essays by Warren Carter titled “Power and Identities” and “Embodying God’s Empire in Communal Practices.”  In these two essays, Carter talks about the context of this man, Jesus, who preached the sermon on the mount. It’s very important to note that at the beginning of the sermon it does not say who is giving the sermon, so we have to look at context to understand who Jesus is, who he is talking to, and what he wants them to get out of the message.

Literary Context: Matthew spends the first 4 chapters of his Gospel explaining who Jesus is. I assume most people who read my blog are somewhat familiar with the life of Jesus and probably have read this book at least once in their life, so I won’t go into too much depth about any specific section. The following is what led to Jesus gaining a following and preaching the Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew

  • Genealogy: He was the son of Abraham and son of David as promised. He was in the line of priests, prophets, and kings as promised. Com
  • Commissioned to manifest God’s saving presence: “He shall save his people from their sins”, Emmanuel — God with us
  • Opposed by imperial status quo: From birth, Herod wanted him dead and used the elite to try to find and kill Jesus
  • Way Prepared: John announces Jesus’ task is to baptize with Spirit and fire
  • Sanctioned by God in Baptism: Spirit comes down, the Father identifies the Son
  • Tempted: Devil offers Jesus the chance to Feed the hungry, Trust God, and take charge of all the empires on Earth (but at his own bidding, not the Father’s)
  • Jesus located himself in Scripture: Read Isaiah 9 to the congregation
  • Calls his disciples: created a new community focused on God with new identities and a new purpose
  • Heals people: Jesus enacts God’s life-giving purpose

Imperial Context:

  • 2-3% of people had all the power and control in the Roman Empire, there was practically no middle class
  • Matthew wrote his Gospel in Antioch, Syria in approximately the ’80s AD when there was oppressive taxes to pay for the war Caesar declared on Jerusalem
  • Matthew’s Gospel was written in part to call out Rome’s ways and announce that people could join a new community who did operate contrary to God’s purposes (Salvation)
    • Rome’s methods included lies, spies, allies, and murder
    • The Gospel says that even with what Rome is doing, they are still accidentally furthering God’s purpose — Herod and Pilate both tried to end Jesus’ disturbance, but both failed while God’s purpose continued
  • Jesus announces that the rule of Rome is nearly over in Matthew 4:17 — It’s being changed into a theocracy in the kingdom of Heaven
  • The people being called “Blessed” in the Beatitudes are the people that Rome and the highest Jewish leaders have been beating up for generations
    • they are the uber poor, the destitute, the sick.
    • Their spirits have been crushed
    • they’ve lost hope
    • Jesus is disturbing the status quo by saying these people, not the Romans and not the leaders, are blessed by God. God’s kingdom and the earth belong to them. They will get justice for all the injustice that’s been done against them.

So like I said, Jesus was a rebel. It is evidenced by the people he addresses in the Beatitudes. He gets his following from the people who are barely hanging on to what little hope they have. He is calling to create a new community, separate from the Romans and separate from their own leaders. When Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer he starts by saying “Our Father.” Caesar was called father in that he was the ‘father of the fatherland’ and Zeus, the king of the gods was call father — but Jesus clarifies with “in heaven’ .. He’s saying these leaders are no longer the ones to be worshiped, God was. Jesus told the people that they should give gifts in secret because in those days the aristocracy won favor with the people by giving large, extravagant gifts with huge ceremonies. He told his followers to leave their sacrifices at the alter and instead go seek forgiveness from people we’ve sinned against and then come back, because the aristocracy made a big show of forgiving people in the public square. Jesus said they’ve received all the reward they ever will, but righteous acts done in secret (exactly the opposite of how things worked at that time) will be remembered by God and rewarded.

Jesus wasn’t just calling people to love each other. He was calling people to separate themselves from the current world order and exchange them for a community focused entirely on God. Here’s what I learned from the first few verses of chapter 6 (including the Lord’s Prayer): There are three acts of Justice. I won’t examine each of them for this post, but I sure will in the future. They are Mercy (6:2-4), Prayer (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18). The most important of these, I think, is mercy. Jesus called those who show it blessed and it is the first act justice that Jesus describes in chapter 6.