Monday, January 30, 2017

The Heart of the Law and the Light of the World

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Matthew 5:13-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. Your comments are welcomed. 

This is a difficult passage for many Christian folks to discuss, partly because it seems grounded in Matthew's own community's situation and partly because of the theological history of the Christian church. Particularly in those churches shaped by Pauline arguments regarding the law, there is a tendency to see the law as an oppressive misstep for Christians, in opposition to grace that comes by faith. That Pauline concern and the theological direction that it takes is, frankly, not the concern facing Matthew and needs to be bracketed to hear Matthew's text on its own terms. (I'm not sure that it is entirely fair to Paul either, but that's an issue for another day, another text.) 

What I am perceiving at work in this text is a reclamation of the law, but a reclamation of the heart of the law as it was interpreted through the prophets and incarnate in lives of justice, mercy, and faith. That is what I intend in my title by 'the heart of the law.' I want to see the relationship between the heart of the law - that which fulfills the law and the prophets - and the declaration "You are the light of the world." The law - in psalmic language as the lamp for the feet and light for the path - is, when incarnate in lives of justice, mercy, and faith, the light of the world.  

13  Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς: ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι
ἁλισθήσεται; εἰς οὐδὲν ἰσχύει ἔτι εἰ μὴ βληθὲν ἔξω καταπατεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
You are the salt of the earth; yet if the salt is flavorless, with what shall it be salted? It is good for nothing except having been scattered outdoors to be trampled by the people.
ἐστε: PAI 2p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
μωρανθῇ: APSubj 3s, μωραίνω, 1) to be foolish, to act foolishly  2a) to make foolish  2a1) to prove a person or a thing foolish  2b) to make flat and tasteless  2b1) of salt that has lost its strength and flavor
ἁλισθήσεται: FPI 3s, ἁλίζω, 1) to salt, season with salt, sprinkle with salt
ἰσχύει: PAI 3s, ἰσχύω, 1) to be strong  1a) to be strong in body, to be robust, to be in sound health  2) to have power 
βληθὲν: APPart nns, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls  1a) to scatter, to throw, cast into  
καταπατεῖσθαι: PPInf, καταπατέω, 1) to tread down, trample under foot
1. I’m using “salted” for ἁλισθήσεται, instead of the smoother “flavored” because it has the same root as the word “salt” (ἅλας).
2. The phrase “salt of the earth” has taken on the connotation of referring to a pretty decent person. It is also the name of a documentary about the profound photographer, Sebastio Salgado, whose work captures ordinary, hidden, hard working people throughout the world. I do not know if the phrase had specific connotations for 1st century Mediterranean folks.
3. For people who have the leisure to cultivate lawns, the idea of salt on the earth is not terribly attractive, since salt is a chemical that tends to kill grass. I’m sure this sermon has nothing to do with lawn care, but I have to be aware that many folks hearing this reading may have an experience like mine, when our neighbor scattered salt in her yard by emptying the water of an ice cream maker, leaving a long streak of dead grass as a result.

14  Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους 
You are the light of the world. A city which will be located on a hill is not able to be concealed.
ἐστε: PAI 2p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι, 1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and  resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable  circumstances, or by permission of law or custom  2) to be able to do something  
κρυβῆναι: APInf, κρύπτω, 1) to hide, conceal, to be hid  2) escape notice  3) metaph. to conceal (that it may not become known)
κειμένη: FMPart nfs, κεῖμαι, 1) to lie  1a) of an infant  1b) of one buried  1c) of things that quietly cover some spot  1c1) of a city situated on a hill
1. Like “salt of the earth” the phrase “light of the world” has taken on meaning over time. I do not know what a 1st century meaning would be, other than imagining that these phrases have enough resonance to be generally meaningful across time and cultures. Salt, as a preservative and flavor, light that enables us to see and guards against the perils of darkness – those meanings seem clear enough.

 15 οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον ἀλλ' ἐπὶ τὴν 
λυχνίαν, καὶ λάμπει πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ.
No one lights a lamp and places it under the barrel, but on the lamp stand and it shines on everything in the house.
καίουσιν: PAI 3p, καίω, 1) to set on fire, light, burning
τιθέασιν: PAI 3p, τίθημι, 1) to set, put, place  1a) to place or lay  1b) to put down, lay down
λάμπει: PAI 3s, λάμπω, 1) to shine

16 οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν 
ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. 
In the same way shine your light before others, so that they may see your good works and may glorify your father in the heavens.
λαμψάτω: AAImpv λάμπω, 1) to shine
ἴδωσιν: AASubj 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
δοξάσωσιν : AASubj, 3p, δοξάζω, 1) to think, suppose, be of opinion  2) to praise, extol, magnify, celebrate
1. “Shine” is the third imperative in the Sermon on the Mount. The first two were “rejoice” and “be glad” in v.12.  

17 Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον τοὺς προφήτας: οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι.
May you not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets; I came not to abolish, but to fulfill.
νομίσητε: AASubj 2p, νομίζω, 1) to hold by custom or usage, own as a custom or usage, to follow a custom or usage  1a) it is the custom, it is the received usage  2) to deem, think, suppose
ἦλθον: AAI 1s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
καταλῦσαι: AAInf, καταλύω, 1) to dissolve, disunite  1a) (what has been joined together), to destroy, demolish  1b) metaph. to overthrow i.e. render vain, deprive of success,  bring to naught  1b1) to subvert, overthrow
ἦλθον: AAI 1s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
καταλῦσαι: AAInf, καταλύω, 1) to dissolve, disunite  1a) (what has been joined together), to destroy, demolish  1b) metaph. to overthrow i.e. render vain, deprive of success,  bring to naught  1b1) to subvert, overthrow
πληρῶσαι: AAInf, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full  1a) to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally
1. I have “may you not think” because νομίσητε is not an imperative but an aorist subjunctive.
2. Questions:
- What does it mean that Jesus will ‘fulfill’ the law and the prophets?
- Who thought he came to ‘abolish’ them? 
This sounds like a Matthean conversation, more than an authentic Jesus saying. At least it doesn’t seem to be something Jesus would say at this point in his ministry. Why would anyone think that he, at this point, was even capable of abolishing the law? Rather, it sounds like a post-resurrection (by 40-50 years) issue that faces the Matthean community.
3. It may be interesting to bring Paul’s references to the law into conversation with this reference, if we remember that, while Paul’s ministry followed Jesus’ ministry temporally, Matthew’s gospel was written decades after Paul’s letters.  

18 ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ οὐρανὸς καὶ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.
For amen I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, an iota nor one diacritical mark may not pass away from the law until all things come into being.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
παρέλθῃ: AASubj 3s παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by  1a) of persons moving forward  1a1) to pass by  1b) of time  1b1) an act continuing for a time  1c) metaph.  1c1) to pass away, perish 
γένηται: AMSubj 3s γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen  2a) of events  3) to arise, appear in history, come upon the stage 
1. I am not quite clear on how to interpret the repeated ἕως ἂν … ἕως ἂν. “Until … until” sounds awkward and there are actually 3 items in play: a) heaven and earth passing away; b) iota/mark of the law passing away; c) all things (of the law?) coming into being. Yet, the ἕως ἂν … ἕως ἂν construction makes it seem as though there are two items in play.   
2. Is the πάντα in this verse the referent that is implied in the ‘πληρῶσαι of the law and prophets’ in v.17? 
3. What does/can the phrase “come into being” mean?  Can it be something like the realization or reification of the full (fulfilled) meaning of the law? Does it “come into being” in the life and ministry of Christ, or in the eschaton, or when?
4. For those who are accustomed to thinking of “earth” as a temporal entity that will pass away, and “heaven” as an eternal entity that is with us for good, the phrase “until heaven and earth pass away” may prove problematic.
5. I originally had the phrase “until heaven and earth may pass away” because in my rough translation I tend to translate subjunctive verbs with the word “may,” in order to bring out the conditional meaning of the subjunctive mood. I have deleted “may” because, in this case, the condition seems not to be that heaven and earth might or might not pass away. The condition is the word “until.” 

19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν: ὃς δ' ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Therefore, whoever might dismiss one of the least of the laws and might teach others the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whoever might do and might teach, that one shall be called the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens. 
λύσῃ: AASubj 3s λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened 
διδάξῃ: AASubj 3s διδάσκω, 1) to teach 
κληθήσεται: FPI 3s καλέω, 1) to call 
ποιήσῃ: AASubj 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  … 1d) to produce, bear, shoot forth 
διδάξῃ: AASubj 3s διδάσκω, 1) to teach 
κληθήσεται: FPI 3s καλέω, 1) to call 
1. There is an etymological relationship between καταλῦσαι (abolish) in v.17 and λύσῃ (dismiss) in v.19. 
2. In this verse, ‘dismiss’ λύσῃ is set in opposition to ‘do’ ποιήσῃ, both in action and in teaching others. 
3. They “shall be called…”: There is an implied understanding of who it is in the kingdom of the heavens who does the calling.
4. If the phrase μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων (one of the least of these laws) sounds familiar, it may be because of the language of Matthew 25:40, ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων (one of the least of these who are of my family).
5. “Whoever might do and teach” – is this how one “fulfills” the law?   

20 λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness might exceed the magnitude of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you may not enter the Kingdom of heaven. 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
περισσεύσῃ: AASubj 3s περισσεύω, 1) to exceed a fixed number of measure, to be left over and  above a certain number or measure 
εἰσέλθητε: AASubj 2pl, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
1. Like v.18 above, with ἕως ἂν … ἕως ἂν (until … until), this verse has a condition/fulfillment structure, with “ἐὰν μὴ … οὐ μὴ, (unless … may not).  
2. Matthew 23 contains a vivid depiction of Jesus’ critique of the manner of teaching and practice of the Scribes and the Pharisees.  (It also contains the “woes” that bookend the makarisms of vv. 3-12). Jesus’ critique includes:
- Weighing down others with heavy burdens and not lifting a finger to help;
- Giving more credence to swearing by the gold in the temple than the temple itself;
- Having higher regard for the gift on the altar than the altar itself;
- Locking people out of the Kingdom of the heavens; Hence, converting others into children of the Devil;
- Tithing mint, dill, and cumin, and ignoring justice, mercy and faith. 
The opposition to “the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees” is to “do and teach” even “the least of the laws” (v.19).

Think about what it means that salt has lost its saltiness and the question, “What will salt the salt?”
Arguments about whether Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians should follow the law seem retrospective and ill-structured to me.  It seems to me that Matthew’s understanding of ‘fulfilling’ the law and prophets is not just a matter of legalization, antinomy, or freedom, as this issue is often structured.  Fulfilling the law seems to be a process that was already begun by the prophets.  Do Hebrew Bible interpreters argue over whether the prophets were in ‘continuity’ with the law?  It doesn’t seem so, even when the prophets are being very critical of lifeless, hypocritical, or pointless attempts to follow the law.  Matthew seems to be putting Jesus in direct continuity with these types of prophetic critiques.  I do not see Matthew casting his vote on whether the Christian community is legally bound to follow the law.  Humanity is morally bound to fulfill the law, of justice, mercy, and faith.  


  1. "The law - in psalmic language as the lamp for the feet and light for the path - is, when incarnate in lives of justice, mercy, and faith, the light of the world." Love this connection, thank you for giving some clarity on how the two portions of this reading make meaning together!

  2. Thanks, Bobbi. That's the direction I'll be heading on Sunday as well.

  3. In regard to v. 13, please read Eugene Deatrick's "Salt, soil, savior" in The Biblical Archaeologist, 25 no 2 May 1962, p 41-48. He reads τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς as what we call rock salt, and considers its uses as a fertilizer and also in dirt roofing. Our unagricultural selves usually try to romanticize what we don't understand; Jesus was in no way romantic.

  4. This is a very deep and interesting post, even I don't understand greek but really meaningful and detailed work. Really good.

  5. Moraino is translated everywhere else as 'foolishness.' So if salt - a sign of covenant - becomes 'foolish' has it become cynical, mean-spirited, hypocrisy and a joke?

    1. Yes it is the same root as the word "fool" in v.22 and the root of our transliterated word "moron." If salt is intended here as a sign of the covenant, this is an interesting suggestion. That's not the use that immediately comes to mind for me, so I'll need to hold that suggestion for a while. Thanks.


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