One reader of my last blog post lamented that I left you hanging. I suggested that scribal communities are sometimes fairly insular or defensive when it comes to mission. They live deeply in the alternative world of Scripture as a way to avoid the world in front of them. Matthew seems to avoid this temptation, I suggest, and promised I would explore why that was the case. Truth be told, I was working on a hunch and didn’t have much more to say at that moment. But I’ve thought about it more and think I have some things to say.
Let me begin by stating a commitment I have in terms of the word “missional.” For me, the word missional points less to a view of the church or a list of activities that might make one missional, and points more to the new era in which we live. We are not in Kansas any more and now have more of a missionary engagement within our own cultural settings. We can no longer assume that we are at the centers of cultural power and influence, and will have to learn a more apostolic way of being God’s people in a de-centered space. This is good new for the world and for the church. The legacy of mission within the realities of Christendom was too often colonialism. When the church is at the center of societal power, it is easy to confuse its own cultural expression of Christianity as normative. Taking Western civilization and Christianity are easily confused. “Missional,” in my estimation, is an attempt to define the God-church-world relationship in a way that resists colonialism.
A big part of keeping the church from identifying its particular form with the presence of God in the world is to work within open structures. For instance, I think it’s fair to say that Western theology had an over-realized eschatology. The kingdom of God wasn’t coming, it was here in the form of the church. Trinitarian views of God were largely ignored, especially social trinitarian views in which the communal nature of God was also open to the world. Salvation was viewed as a transaction between God and the individual, ignoring the larger views of salvation in Scripture that involve a coming new creation. I could go on here, but the point is that theological notions that tend toward closure, that are not open to the ongoing work of the coming and living God, tend to support a more colonial practice of mission.
The same is true for Scripture. If you think of Scripture as a complete statement of what it means to be God’s people for all time in every place, then there’s little need to pay attention to your world in which God might still be active. You end up defending the gains of the past instead of living creatively in the dynamics of Word and world. Scripture becomes the final word, a closed system, not the first word that pulls you deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. Matthew, I believe, sees being a people of the Word in this latter sense.
Let me reiterate that in Matthew Jesus is committed to a certain performance of Scripture. He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and not a jot or a tittle will pass away until all is accomplished. Both Jesus and the Pharisees, however, realize that Scripture has to be interpreted in light of Israel’s new circumstances, circumstances very different from the ones in which they originated. In the previous post, we have already noted that Jesus reads Scripture with a priority of mercy over sacrifice. I think it’s safe to say that the way of mercy is more open-ended than the path of sacrifice. After all, Peter asks, “how often should I forgive, seven times?” Seventy seven times is Jesus’ response, in other words, an option that never seeks closure.
But I think the clearest place this might be seen is in 5:21-48, the section in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus contrasts traditional teaching (You have heard it was said) with the way of the kingdom (but I say unto you). “You have heard it said, you shall not murder (closure)…, but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother is sister… (open)” (5:21-22). In each case, Jesus pushes beyond the traditional teaching in such a way that the hearer is pulled deeper into the “exceeding righteousness” of the kingdom, deeper into the life of God and neighbor. This more demanding way is so because it can’t be reduced to a set of rules or precedents. The kingdom is a coming reality that requires ongoing discernment. This is how I understand Jesus’ invitation to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). It is less a destination and more a call to continuously be drawn into the life of God and neighbor.
This call to a deeper commitment to God and neighbor, however, is a gentle yoke and light burden precisely because the God who stands behind it all is merciful. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the way of mercy makes us into the kind of people who demonstrate the exceeding righteousness. These are the people who can be trusted with the authority of heaven. And at the risk of another cliff hanger, that will be the focus of the next post.