Understanding the Sermon on the Mount: and getting what Jesus actually wants us to do

The commandments of the Sermon on the Mount are often viewed by Christians as unrealistic ideals that are intended to show us how sinful we are rather than to guide us in our practical obedience to Christ. What happens for many of these Christians in practice is that they praise Jesus’ teaching for its idealism but then devote themselves to another, more “realistic” ethic.

Part of the reason for this, Glen Stassen and David Gushee argue (Kingdom Ethics), is because many pastors and theologians simply interpret the Sermon as a series of antitheses. In each antithesis, Jesus refers to a teaching of the Old Testament or of Jewish tradition, and then responds by either intensifying that teaching or contrasting it to his own teaching. In every case, according to this view, Jesus’ emphasis falls on an ideal to which Christians are to aspire: freedom from anger, lust, hatred, etc. Jesus then illustrates his point in each case by offering some examples of what obedience to his commandments look like (i.e., go and reconcile with your brother, gouge out your eye, go the extra mile, etc.).

Stassen and Gushee do not deny the antithetical nature of much of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. However, they point out that Jesus’ teaching, especially in Matthew 5, bears a threefold structure rather than a twofold structure, and that the emphasis of that teaching falls on the third part (what is often viewed simply as illustration) rather than the second part. Jesus’ tendency is 1) to identify a commandment or practice of the Old Testament or Jewish tradition, 2) to diagnose the vicious cycle that inevitably leads to corruption in the area addressed by that commandment, and 3) to prescribe his own practice as a means of transcending that vicious cycle. Let me illustrate with a few examples.

In Matthew 5:21-26 we read,

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone being angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift…

Stassen and Gushee point out that Jesus does not begin using imperatives until the third part of this statement. The first part is his identification of the Old Testament commandment ‘You shall not kill.’ Jesus then responds, in the formula typical of Matthew 5, “But I say to you …” pointing out that the real cause of human violence and murder is not external actions but the vicious cycle of anger and hatred that most human beings tolerate in their lives. As long as people practice this anger and hatred, they will always be the kind of people who murder and kill. But, and here is the key, the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching does not fall on this identification of anger and insulting as the real problem. The emphasis of his teaching falls on the third part of the statement, in which Jesus commands the practice of reconciliation: “So if you are offering your gift … First be reconciled to your brother.”

What Matthew 5:21-26 calls Christians to, then, is not first and foremost the hard task of bringing our anger and hatred under control. Rather, it is to devote ourselves to the practice of reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, placing that reconciliation even above our worship in priority. Only if we follow the kingdom practice of reconciliation, in other words, can we expect to see the place of anger and hatred diminishing in our lives. Actively practicing reconciliation, daily, such that we never enter into the worship God without having sought peace with all of our brothers and sisters, is the key to obeying the commandment against murder.

The same structure outlines Jesus’ teaching about adultery. In Matthew 5:27-30 we read (and I am inserting marks to identify the threefold structure of Jesus’ teaching),

1) Old Testament commandment: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 2) Vicious Cycle: But I say to you that everyone who looks at a women with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 3) Transforming Practice: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Here again, the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching is not on the prohibition of lust. Rather, Jesus identifies looking at a women with lustful intent as the vicious cycle that inevitably leads human beings to commit adultery. It is not enough to abstain from the act of adultery itself. As long as human beings purposefully look upon one another with the intent selfishly to have or use one another, they will continue to commit adultery, because they are already committing it in their hearts.

But the imperative in this statement does not appear until the third part. Jesus commands the followers of the kingdom to tear out their eyes and cut off their hands if these parts of them cause them to sin. The command is obviously a rhetorical exaggeration but the point is clear. Believers are to devote themselves to the practice of eliminating anything in their own lives that causes them to look at one another with lustful intent. If they do this – if they follow this commandment of Jesus – they will find that the power of lust diminishes in their experience, and that therefore they do not fall into the temptation of adultery. The emphasis, however, falls not on avoiding lust per say, but on performing the practices that enable us to escape such lust.

Stassen and Gushee suggest that if we read the Sermon on the Mount in this way we will be confronted much more with the practical nature of Jesus’ teaching. As they put it,

[T]hroughout the Sermon Jesus was giving us regular practices that participate in God’s way of gracious deliverance from the vicious cycles in which we get stuck… Jesus taught practice norms. They are not mere inner attitudes, vague intentions, or moral convictions only, but regular practices to be engaged in. (136)

As we engage in these practices we witness to the fact that God is working in our midst, that the kingdom has begun to appear among us. Only when we do these things that Jesus has commanded us, do we demonstrate that we seek first his kingdom and its righteousness.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 6, 2012, in Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Understanding the Sermon on the Mount: and getting what Jesus actually wants us to do.

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