bits from bob....

"Trust" in the Sermon on the Mount

by Robert J. Young
©, 2003, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
This material was originally prepared for presentation at the Rochester Sermon Seminar during one of the devotional periods.

Backgrounds of Wisdom Literature
Blenkinsopp (Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament) suggests that wisdom and law are two great rivers which eventually flow together and find their outlet in rabbinic writings and early Christian theology. He notes the formal similarities between case law and proverbial sayings, between apodictic sentences of law and the instruction of wisdom literature.

He also suggests that Matthew in his gospel intended to place the teaching of Jesus within the ongoing tradition of Israelite and Jewish wisdom. In fact, of canonical gospels, Matthew seems most interested in presenting Jesus as the wise teacher. Thus Matthew organizes Jesus' teachings into five discourses, perhaps modeled on the Pentateuch. The first of these, the Sermon on the Mount, concludes with the familiar contrast between the wise person and the fool. Is the Sermon on the Mount wisdom literature?

Harry Hunt, professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has noted that the role of the sage and the priest become more prominent (Eccls. 38:24-39:11) as the role of the prophet becomes less visible during the intertestamental period. This he sees as a fitting bridge to the New Testament where the magi (sages or wise men) announce the birth of Christ, the one who is to become greatest of all wisdom teachers (cf. Mt. 12:42; 13:54).

Wisdom literature is a broad genre. The wisdom literature of the OT (the Writings) is echoed in the wisdom literature of the Ancient Near East. Proverbial, instructional wisdom literature was known in Egypt from the third millennium B.C. One relatively well known example is the Instruction of Amenemope from the first millennium B.C. Babylonian wisdom literature, e.g. Counsels of Wisdom, warns against the danger of dishonesty and unsuitable companions. There is no doubt that the OT wisdom tradition continues in NT, as wisdom is used in the NT with a variety of nuances.

I have in my files a quotation from Huber Drumwright, Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, the original source is not noted.

"There is in the Sermon on the Mount the clearest and fullest approach to the wisdom method to be found in the teachings of Jesus. The love of life and learning of large lessons with spiritual import from nature, both of which characterize the sages of the OT, are evidenced in Jesus' longest sermon of record. Even the short, pithy, sometimes antithetical method of the wisdom writers seems to have been employed by Jesus."

Some have contrasted Jesus' "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you" (Lk. 6:27-38, "Luke's Sermon on the Plain") to Sirach's "Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly" (Eccls. 12:4,5), suggesting Jesus was attacking the teachings of wisdom literature. So also in the Sermon on the Mount the phrase "you have heard it said...." has been explained as opposing previous teachings. A better explanation may be that Jesus recognized two types of wisdom: the one accepted, the other rejected.

Applying Wisdom Literature
Because wisdom literature is an unfamiliar genre to many in our contemporary world, the application of wisdom literature in today's world is often difficult. In this paper, a brief study of a single wisdom theme, trust, provides a model for applying wisdom literature to life. (Gerhard von Rad, in his work Wisdom in Israel, explores the use of trust as a wisdom theme.) We expand that study here, primarily from the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps there was no need for such a lengthy introduction, but some may wish an expanded justification for placing the Sermon on the Mount within context of wisdom literature. Now consider an overview of the content of the Sermon. The content of Matthew 5-7 is the Beatitudes, followed by several admonitions and a series of contrasts. We can outline the sermon with these sections. First, the Beatitudes lead to several brief admonitions and a climax, so that 5:20 seems pivotal in the Sermon. Second, Jesus' statement that one's righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and teachers of law is tied to six contrasts in the remainder of Matthew 5, "you have heard it said...but I say unto you...." Third, three areas in which one's righteousness can go astray are set forth in greater detail--giving, praying, fasting. Fourth, negative admonitions are given in three areas--things, worry, judging. Finally, the Sermon ends with a series of contrasts--fathers, gates, trees, and builders.

The rhythm of the Sermon--blessedness, righteousness, contrast--leads to pivot points at 5:20 and near the end of chapter six as the final sets of contrasts come into view. One topic in the Sermon on the Mount, and in much of wisdom literature, is priorities. What is the focus of my life? What shall I run after? What do I seek? What can I trust?

John Updike, in "The Bulgarian's Poetess," writes, "Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility." On too many days, the minister's life resembles Monty Hall's "Let's Make a Deal." Which door will I choose? What shall I do? By what power will I accomplish it? Whom do I trust? Solomon, allowed by God to choose one thing, chose wisdom. His wisdom is reflected in much OT wisdom literature, especially Ecclesiastes and portions of Proverbs. According to the beginning of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tried many things to give life meaning, but found them fleeting, a chasing after wind, emptiness, and vanity. Indeed, this is a hard lesson for us to learn--the lesson of trust.

I am reminded of Billy Crystal and the movie "City Slickers." What do you do, where do you go, how do you respond when life is boring, routine, and meaningless, and you are caught up in sameness? Crystal's character in the movie leaves the corporate world to be part of a cattle drive. There he meets Curly, played by Jack Valance. One memorable scene from the movie has Curly saying that all of life is summed up in finding that "one thing." That life is about finding "one thing" speaks to our priorities.

The statement reminds of Paul in Philippians 3 when he in a similar statement paraphrased here says, "I am focused on one thing, one thing I do. I forget the past, I forge on to the future, because there is a prize there worth more than anything else." In the teachings of Jesus, the same truth is present in the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13). Priorities are ultimately a reflection of our trust.

In preaching, few tasks are more difficult than discerning what matters, what is important, to what we have been called. We are surrounded by the siren songs of multiplied missions, opportunities, numberless challenges, and pressing needs. What shall we do? Where shall we spend our time? The trivia of the urgent often finds actuality impoverishing possibility. To turn from the trivia of the urgent to the priority of the essential is a first step in the kind of trust reflected in wisdom literature.

How will I ever get it done? Ministry is always a place for dependence and a time for trust. Where can I find refuge, focus, direction, priority? Jesus says such are kingdom issues (Matthew 6:33-34). Our answers are in the kingdom matters, not in the material world. Merely quoting the verses provides no panacea. The passage demands interpretation, because Jesus responds to our questions with the same words, "Seek first kingdom things." Can following Jesus really be that demanding? Are priorities really that important?

Wisdom literature sharpens our focus and defines our priorities. Where is my focus--on Jesus or on self? What shall I think about? Tomorrow? Next Sunday's sermon? For ministers, this is a special problem, for our tomorrow is often intimately wrapped up in "kingdom things." My very life is "kingdom things"--at least I can rationalize it so. Can I really be focused on kingdom things if I am not focused on Jesus Christ, the king? Can I really be focused on kingdom things if I am relying upon my own abilities to get my tasks done?

My task not to identify your kingdom things. My task is to remind you that all of life is in finding your one thing--"your kingdom things"--and pursuing it. Pursue it according to your talents, abilities, inclinations, personality, preferences, opportunities. But pursue it trusting in God's power, not your own. Find your kingdom role, seek God's power to fulfill that role. To say, "don't worry about what you cannot do--do what you can do" raises the wrong issue. Today I will seek God's will and God's way by God's power, for today. Tomorrow will take care of itself. That is trust.

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Last updated November 1, 2003.