Revolution or collaboration?

Matthew 5:13-20 (Psalm 112:1-9 [10], 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16] 

Launch a revolution, or become a collaborator?  Engage in guerrilla warfare, or act like Benedict Arnold?  Resist, or accommodate?  That’s the context in which Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount, part of which we encounter in this week’s Gospel.  At Matthew 5:13, we’ve come to the end of Beatitudes (“Blessed are…”), but the sermon continues.  

Israel is occupied by the Romans.  The temple, the capital city, the land promised to the Hebrew in their exodus, is defiled.  How do the people relate to God now, in this awful context?  As E. C. van Driel points out, there are two extreme examples offering a response to these very questions: revolt/resist is typified by the Zealots; and cooperate/accommodate by the Sadducees.  The Pharisees seem to have retreated into an isolationist position: withdraw from the political sphere, and live solely in the religious sphere by being scrupulously attentive to faith teachings, rules, and behaviors.  Jesus shares his authoritative teaching on the subject in his great sermon, (and here I continue to mirror van Driel):

5:38-39: Turn the other cheek

5:40-42: Be extraordinarily generous.

5:43-44: Love your enemies.

A stark contrast to the teachings of the Zealots!  Yet the Pharisees don’t fare any better:

5:20: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisees argue for a spiritual withdrawal from the world into a pure community. Yet Jesus admonishes that a city on a hill can’t be hidden, nor should a lamp be placed under a basket (5:14b-15).  Instead the city should be seen by all the world, and the light ought to illuminate the house for all to see.  Yet, Jesus isn’t arguing against the Old Testament; he is fulfilling it, brining it about, completing it in himself.  And he’s doing so for all to see.  After all, what use is there for a hidden Messiah (or, for that matter, a secret disciple!).

What accounts for the difference between the perspective of the Pharisees and Jesus?  The Pharisees look toward a day when God’s reign would come (an eschatological perspective); whereas Jesus sees that reign having begun in him (a kingdom perspective).  For Jesus, acting as if the Kingdom has come means radical love, hospitality and generosity.  It is in living out the Kingdom life that the believer shows the world that God is doing a new thing.  This is how Israel confronts an empire (as van Driel puts it).  This is how Jesus challenges Israel to be Israel (as N. T. Wright powerfully states).  

Israel’s vocation revealed in Isaiah (42:6) as a covenant to the people and a light to the nations, is the vocation of all believers: to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:14)