Monday 9 March 2009

Walter T. Wilson on Matthew 6:19-7:12

Walter T. Wilson, ‘A Third Form of Righteousness: The Theme and Contribution of Matthew 6.19-7.12 in the Sermon on the Mount’, New Testament Studies 53, 3 (2007), 303-24.

Aside from the introduction (5:3-16) and conclusion (7:13-27), the main body of the Sermon on the Mount is regularly seen as divided into three parts: 5:17-48; 6:1-18; 6:19-7:12. It has proven difficult, however, to detect the overarching structure, subject matter, and purpose of the third major section (6:19-7:12).

In this intriguing article, Walter T. Wilson compares the section with various examples of wisdom instruction, each of which deals with the moral issue of ‘goods’, broadly understood as ‘that which confers good standing or status, not only in economic terms but in social and spiritual terms as well’ (303).

That’s the nutshell version.

Here’s the more long-winded version…

He begins by noting broader considerations about the possible setting and character of the gospel of Matthew, holding that ‘Matthew’s community developed out of a Jewish matrix’, and that ‘its most recent history is one of antagonism with Judaism’; that there was also a ‘growing openness in Matthew’s community to the Gentile mission’; that, in comparison with Mark, Matthew ‘seems to address an audience that includes a greater number of prosperous members’; and that ‘strengthening communal solidarity is a special priority for Matthew’, encouraging an ‘egalitarian ethic’ (303-305). [Of course, all this is read from between the lines of the gospel text itself…]

He then highlights how some scholars (W.D. Davies, Hans Dieter Betz, Ulrich Luz) have sought to understand the place of 6:19-7:12 in the sermon as a whole, but remains unconvinced about their proposals (305-309).

Next he explores the compositional history of the passage, noting that the extent and nature of changes suggests ‘a rather high level of editorial involvement on the evangelist’s part’ (310). It is here he suggests that the reference to ‘righteousness’ (in 6:33) near the centre of the third section ‘raises the possibility that the question of the readers’ moral relationship to “goods”… and specifically how they are to practice righteousness with respect to such goods, is a unifying theme for the passage’ (310). The section, he suggests, can be divided into three parts corresponding to its major themes – dealing with mammon, judging others, and dependence on God (315).

Wilson then looks at ‘self-regard’ and ‘other-regard’ in wisdom instruction (315-19), observing (with Robert Guelich) that ‘most of this material [in Matthew 6:19-7:12] belongs in form and content to the genre of wisdom instruction’ (315). He notes some sections of wisdom literature which provide ‘a sustained critique of what we might call an ethic of self-regard, according to which the significance attached to advancing one’s own interests overshadows the development of proper moral relationships with God, neighbor, and wealth’ (316), where the starting point of walking in singleness of heart is ‘one’s attitude towards such basic human concerns as money, food, clothes, and length of life’ (318).

He also considers similar themes in the letter of James: a section which admonishes readers not to judge (4:11-12), a section which criticises those who in profit-making presume to have gained control over the future (4:13-17), and a section which condemns the rich (5:1-6):

‘Within a relative close proximity we have an admonition against judging “brothers” to the neglect of divine judgment (Jas 4.11-12; cf. Matt 7.1-2), directives regarding the proper attitude towards “tomorrow”, namely that it lies in God’s hands and not in efforts to gain material things (Jas 4.13-14; cf. Matt 6.34), and a warning not to lay up the sorts of treasures that will spoil (Jas 5.2-3; cf. Matt 6.19-21)’ (319).

Such wisdom texts, according to Wilson, ‘illustrate how exhortation on the proper attitude towards material wealth, towards others, and towards God could be integrated into a unified instruction organized around an ethic that is not self-regarding but other-regarding in its orientation’ (319).

‘As with the wisdom authors, for the evangelist this is an ethic that eschews greed and envy, disparaging speech, and the presumption that life can be determined apart from divine justice and benevolence, embracing instead practices grounded in contentment, generosity, tolerance, and humility’ (319).

Finally, Wilson avers that the mention of ‘righteousness’ in 6:33 links the third section with the other two sections of the sermon, where righteousness is ‘thematized’ (5:20; 6:1), suggesting that ‘the full import of this concept cannot be grasped without considering the coordination of the three parts’ (321).

He considers triadic schemes in Philo’s comments on the Essenes (highlighting what Philo sees as their three basic principles of the love of God, love of virtue, and love of others) and from Qumran’s Damascus Covenant, arguing that the three categories interpenetrate even while remaining distinct (321-22).

He concludes about the Sermon on the Mount:

‘The first part (5.17-48) offers instruction on how to practice righteousness in one’s relations with others, expounded as an interpretation of the law. The second part (6.1-18) turns to the community’s religious life, the ways in which the readers are to practice their righteousness, not before others, but before “your father in heaven” (6.1). And the third part (6.19-7.11) instructs them on practicing righteousness with reference to “goods”, referring in the first place to mammon, but including other measures of personal worth as well… Consideration of texts like this… suggests that a triadic schema organized around the categories of God, others, and “goods” would have lent itself to forms of discourse whose purpose was to summarize a body of teaching or a way of life’ (323).

Finally, the three forms of ‘righteousness’ are ‘mutually interpretive’: it’s clear, for instance, that the issue of ‘goods’ is taken up in part 1 (5:38-42) and part 2 (6:2-4), while part 3 also includes instruction on interpersonal conduct (7:1-6) and religious practice (7:7-11), all of which contributes to the internal coherence of the Sermon on the Mount as well as demonstrating some of Matthew’s ‘principal concerns in explicating righteousness’ (324).

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