We come to the upper levels of our archeological dig into New Testament ethics: the Gospels. The writers of the Gospels wrote them as bioi, that is, biographical narratives of the words and deeds and death (and resurrection) of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are not ethical codes of conduct. Burridge points out that there are no rabbinic parallels to the Gospels. So that while filled with the Jewish story around the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Gospels have an Hellenistic biographical shape (genre), pointing to the startling (radical) change that rather than the Torah being the central focus of Judaism, Jesus becomes that central focus. Even with four accounts, we discover a reasonable coherence even in the diversity. The question is, however, is there “an ethical concern” in each of the four Gospels (158)?
With Mark, Burridge makes an intriguing observation: we need to study the Gospels not to focus on the titles of Jesus, but on the words and deeds of Jesus (as “lives” are intended to be studied). None of Jesus’ titles can be understood fully apart from the narratives (and this would be true of all four Gospels). Bluntly, focus on stories, not titles.
For Mark, the controlling question is: “Who do the people say that I am?” Jesus’ miracles and teachings prompt questions or comments about Jesus’ identity, ending with the Roman centurion’s remark (Mark 15:39). Is Jesus ‘the son of God’?
Holding to Markan priority, Burridge believes that Mark was written in the 60s when all the tumultuous pressure mounted against Jews and Jerusalem (and Christians). Believing that Mark is addressing predominantly non-Jewish followers of Jesus, Jesus’ almost adverse view of the Law is examined in order to help new converts to understand why they do not need to follow the Jewish laws as followers of the Jewish messiah. In point of fact, however, it is not the Law that is the problem, but the hostility of the law-teachers, law-interpreters, law-keepers that are the major problem for Jesus. Christians experiencing persecution or rejection by Judaisers will find direction in Mark. Jesus compresses the law into the prevailing ‘law of love’ (Mark 12:29-31).
Mark brings everything under the authority of Jesus–family, marriage and divorce, children, money and possessions, (new view of ) power existing in an empirial state. Burridge points out that Mark’s image of Jesus is not one that is friendly to the popular and political “family values” current in a lot of discussions. Jesus radically redefines the family around the will of God his Father.
To imitate Jesus is to associate with and encourage “sinners” who desire to follow Jesus and his new ‘kingdom of God’ ways. Even though the disciples struggle to understand Jesus, to “get it,” and so they, too, serve as examples of what the process is like to follow Jesus “to Jerusalem” (to the cross). Jesus is not easy to follow.
The double love command: love God, love others, helps Mark’s readers navigate around issues of Jewish law as they seek to imitate Jesus in the context of the new (upside down) society of people living in the kingdom of God.
The first Gospel is strongly Christocentric. The error most often made with this Gospel is to lift out the Sermon on the Mount and study it as a thing in itself. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the most famous of Jesus’ teachings and is often considered his code of ethics. For Burridge and others this popular view causes us to lose the impact of both Jesus’ famous Sermon as well as denigrate the compelling biographical narrative of Matthew’s Gospel.
The thematic term for Matthew is “righteousness” and Matthew’s programmatic verse is “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Like a new Moses, we have five sections of teachings in Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount being just one of the five. Burridge suggests that the third segment of teaching is pivotal, that is, the parables of the kingdom of God (Matt 13). And once again, it is Jesus’ life that is the hermeneutical key to his teachings. The “righteousness” that Jesus introduces in Matthew is the righteousness of mercy, forgiveness and extravagant love. Jesus does not bring a new law; he presents himself as the true interpreter of the Law. Matthew helps his readers steer a path between antinomianism and legalism.
Burridge endeavors to defuse the emotional unrest of Matthew being an anti-Semitic document. Burridge quotes Scot McKnight, “…Matthew’s Gospel, however harsh and unpleasant to modern sensitivities, is not anti-Semitic. It is, on the contrary, a compassionate but vigorous appeal to nonmessianic Judaism to respond to the Messiah” (196).
In all the discussion about “the righteous life,” we are brought by Matthew to Jesus’ declaration of the great commandment (Matt 22:34-40). To imitate Jesus is to invite sinners into our lives and fellowship (only in Matthew is the term ekklesia, “church,” used) and to live a life of mercy and forgiveness before them. When the religious leaders ragged on Jesus at Matthew’s party, Jesus did not use the “physician among the sick” rebuttal, but quoted Hosea 6:6 “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is to become a welcoming, inclusive community of merciful, forgiving love. Jesus is the righteous life incarnate and we are called to worship and follow him, and to go and make him known.
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