Jesus' Sermon on the Mount has always held great fascination for me, and it continues to fascinate me, as it has countless Christians and non-Christians down through the ages. Much of what 1 have to say here will not be new, but 1 do want to share some of my own insights into this great piece of religious discourse, hoping that they will be both helpful and timely in a day when teachings embodied in this Sermon greatly need to be heard.
Our world today has trouble enough, and the Christian church is also in crisis. The daily newspapers and news on the television remind us without letup how impure the world and the church have become. What then should we do? Pray? Of course, but we need to do more than pray. Christians in other times like out own have returned to examine the foundations of our faith to see what they can teach us, and I can think of no more foundational teaching in Christianity than Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Matthew features it prominently at the beginning of his Gospel, where it appears to be nothing less than a "new covenant" presented to the nascent church.
The world many times has been transformed by this Sermon. It profoundly influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in their efforts to achieve freedom and social justice. For them, Jesus' Sermon embodied not simply lofty ideals but teachings capable of being put into practice and capable of bringing about substantive change. Gandhi was particularly impressed with the Sermon on the Mount, saying, "it went straight to my heart." Quoting Matthew 5:39-40 about not returning a smite on the cheek and giving up one's cloak along with his tunic, he said that renunciation was the highest form of religion, for which reason Jesus' Sermon appealed to him greatly. (2) He went on to say:' The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount ... It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me." But, he added: "The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West ... Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount. (3) When Germany in the last century began experiencing deep crisis after Hitler came to power, one of its Lutheran pastors and theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a book titled The Cost of Discipleship, which was based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. (4) It was published in 1937, and had a great impact in its day as well as in the years subsequent to World War II.
Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), not long after his conversion to Christianity, wrote a commentary on the Sermon, which was the first of its kind. (5) He was also first to call this portion of Scripture de sermone Domini in monte ("The Lord's Sermon on the Mount"). Martin Luther did not write a commentary on the Sermon, or on Matthew, but his Weekly Sermons on Matthew 5-7, which were preached at Wittenberg between October 1530 and April 1532, contain a treasure of insights into the Sermon, such as we have come to expect from this extraordinary man. (6)
Beginning with Luther comes the idea that this Sermon preaches a way of life that is unattainable. Luther saw in the Sermon an impossible ethic designed to awaken us to our inadequacy and sinfulness, which would then drive us to seek God's mercy and help (Romans 5-7). (7) Luther is also recorded as saying that the Sermon on the Mount does not belong in city hall, for "one cannot govern" with it. (8)
Leo Tolstoy took the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, believing that these commands of Jesus had to be taken as obligatory in the most literal sense. (9) However, he could not live by them and ended his life tragically, abandoning his family to die at a railway station. (10) Fredrick Nietzsche was unimpressed with the Sermon, saying it taught a "slave morality." In its requirements of love and meekness he found a mood dangerous to the heroic temper. (11)
For many others, both believers and nonbelievers, the Sermon's teaching is too elevated. Robert Frost in his poem, "A Masque of Mercy," (1947) (12) includes a dialogue taking place in a bookstore late at night after the doors have been closed. Present only are the bookkeeper, who is the owner of the store, his wife, and a fellow named Paul. The dialogue goes as follows:
Keeper: Paul's constant theme. The Sermon on the Mount Is just a frame-up to insure the failure Of all of us, so all of us will be Thrown prostrate at the Mercy Seat for Mercy.
Wife: Yes, Paul, you do say things like that sometimes
Paul: You all have read the Sermon on the Mount, I ask you all to read it once again (They put their hands together like a book And hold it up nearsightedly to read.)
Keeper & Wife: We're reading it
Paul; Well, now, you've got it read What do you make of it?
Wife: The same old nothing
Keeper: A beautiful impossibility
Paul: Keeper, I'm glad you think it beautiful
Keeper: An irresistible impossibility A lofty beauty no one can live up to Yet no one turns from trying to live up to
Paul: Yes, spoken so we can't live up to it Yet so we'll have to weep because we can't Mercy is only to the un-deserving But such we all are made in the sight of God.
Gerhard Kittel, in similar fashion, echoes the sentiments of Luther saying:
The meaning of the Sermon on the Mount is: Demolish! It can only tear down. In the long run it has only one purpose: to expose and exhibit the great poverty in empiric human beings. He continues:
This is what you ought to do, you wretched weakling, but you can't succeed, as you well know. That is why you need God's gracious love for everything you undertake. (13) Karl Barth believed that constructing a picture of the Christian life from directives contained in the Sermon on the Mount has always proved impossible. He says: "It would be sheer folly to interpret the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount as if we should bestir ourselves to actualize these pictures." (14) Reinhold Niebuhr agreed, saying: "The ethical demands made by Jesus arc incapable of fulfillment." (15) And Krister Stendahl, Lutheran churchman and scholar, viewed the Sermon if not as Utopian at least as an unattainable ideal, putting him squarely in the tradition of Luther.
Some scholars have been content to say that Jesus' teachings are "exceptional." The great New Testament scholar Johannes Weiss, for example, said that the teachings on revenge and loving one's enemies constituted "exceptional legislation. (16) Albert Schweitzer believed the Sermon on the Mount contained what he called an "interim ethic," (17) for which reason it was on such a high level. Jesus' ethical proclamations were conditioned by an eschatological view of the world. The Sermon was to call people to repentance. When the end of the world is imminent, "unusual living" is expected. Paul's teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:25-31 builds on the same assumption.
The question I wish to ask is then: "At what elevation is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount?" How lofty is this sermon, and is there any hope at all of living by the teachings it contains? Some do not consider this an important question, but I believe it is of utmost importance. It is important if we are to take the Sermon seriously, and it is important once we have decided to take the Sermon seriously. After we have examined what the Sermon itself says about attainability, I want to comment on a couple difficult verses in the Sermon pertaining to attainability and then go on to discuss three specific teachings in the Sermon that have been particularly troublesome--those on anger (Matt 5:21-26), non-retaliation toward evildoers (5:38-42), and judging others (7:1-5). I shall seek to interpret them as 1 think they were meant to be interpreted, making them more serviceable to Christians and non-Christians in today's world. At the end, I will have a final word to say about the elevation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
There is, as I have said, a widespread notion that this great compilation of Jesus' teaching is no more than an ideal, and that none of us, indeed, no one anywhere, can actually carry it out. We may get this idea from the Sermon itself. I think of verses such as 5:19, where one is warned about relaxing even the least of Jesus' commandments and teaching others to do the same; also the next verse in 5:20, where Jesus says our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, or we will never get into the kingdom of heaven; and, finally, the word in 5:48 about our need to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. John Knox said regarding this last verse: "If Jesus' words in Matthew 5:48, 'Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,' are taken at face value, they set a standard for our moral life which there is no possibility of our attaining." (18)
For many the teachings on anger, non-retaliation, and judging others add to the perception that this Sermon sets forth a code of conduct by which we cannot possibly live, giving us only an ideal we can at best approximate. Even in that beautiful passage of 6:25-32, where Jesus says: "Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air ..." we have a teaching lifting up the life style of an Elijah, or John the Baptist, and how many of us want to give up the comforts we have, even if they are modest comforts, and Live like ascetics in the desert? Just how simple is a follower of Jesus expected to live? Reinhold Niebuhr says with reference to these verses: "No life can be lived in such concern for the physical basis of life." (19) And yet, at the end of this passage, it says that if we seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, all these things will be ours as well (v. 33). Perhaps this is not a call to the ascetic life after all!
Now it must be admitted that there is something to be said in favor of idealistic teachings. It is laudable...