In a New York Times article, University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting reflects on the provocative Newsweek cover article:
Forget the church; follow Jesus.
Gutting suggests that the Newsweek piece is saying the moral standard Jesus expresses in the Sermon on the Mount is the important takeaway from Christianity; no church is required.
The assumption is that the Sermon needs to be understood free from “dubious theology and corrupting politics that have plagued the history of the institutional church,” says Gutting.
Just a Good Teacher?
This is not a new idea. Many non-Christians over the centuries have taken this position.
Thomas Jefferson once called Jesus’ moral teaching, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.”
Even atheist Richard Dawkins has said, “Jesus was a great moral teacher.”
Are they reading the same text in Matthew that I read? My reaction every time I read the Sermon is very similar to what theologian Dr. Lloyd Jones is thought to have said: “If anyone has ever read the Sermon on the Mount with an open mind, they would fall down and cry out, ‘God save me from the Sermon on the Mount!’”
The Sermon on the Mount: Unfair and Outdated?
Recently I stumbled upon a refreshingly honest article (even though it is 30 years old) about students’ reactions to the Sermon on the Mount. Virginia Stem Owens, a professor at Texas A&M, gave her freshman English class an assignment to read the Sermon and write a response paper. She was very surprised at their reactions. Below are a few of her students’ responses:
The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.
I did not like the essay ‘Sermon the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.
The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery? That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.
After reading the reactions to this important biblical text, Owens came to an interesting conclusion:
…the Bible remains offensive to honest, ignorant ears, just as it was in the first century. For me, that somehow validates its significance. Whereas the scriptures almost lost their characteristically astringent flavor during the past century, the current widespread biblical illiteracy should catapult us into a situation more nearly approximating that of their original, first-century audience. The Bible will no longer be choked by cloying cultural associations.
Pennington: A Fresh Look at the Sermon on the Mount
A new resource is available that might help us apply the Sermon on the Mount in a powerful way to our everyday lives. IFWE’s friend, Jonathan Pennington, has written The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, due out in June 2017.
Pennington has written on the concepts of flourishing and shalom on a number of occasions for IFWE, and he authored a chapter in IFWE’s new book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, also due out this summer.
While Pennington’s book is a classic commentary with verse-by-verse notes on Matthew 5 to 7, it is also much more. He sets out to show how the Sermon on the Mount fits into the larger meta-narrative of God’s redemptive story—the Bible—and how the Sermon speaks deeply to the idea of human flourishing:
The argument of this book is that the Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced—How can we experience true human flourishing? …This flourishing is only experienced through faithful, heart-deep, whole-person discipleship, following Jesus’ teaching and life.
Pennington explains that the Sermon is clearly focused on providing a transformational vision for a way of being in the world—that here at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is painting a picture of what true God-centered human flourishing looks like.
Most helpful in this book is Pennington’s suggestion that we should not engage in the imaginative call to “be a certain way in the world” just because God demands it, or out of some sense of altruism, or out of a literal/legalistic tit-for-tat,
But rather, this [call] is based on the appeal to human flourishing for one’s own sake.
In this respect, the Sermon is very much like all the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. It is not a legalistic formula to appease God, but rather an appeal to our own self-interest to pursue happiness or flourishing through a correct relationship with God.
Properly understood, the Beatitudes cast a vision for life, according to Pennington, and an implicit invitation:
As prophet and sage, Jesus is offering and inviting his hearers into a way of being in the world that will result in their true and full flourishing now and in the age to come…Jesus presents not a list of heroes of the faith nor a list of moral behaviors that describe the truly pious but rather a redefinition of who the people of God are—they are ones whose lives look like this beatitudinal way of being (and like Jesus himself).
Seeing the whole Sermon in this light is transformative.
While this book is not an easy read, your effort will be well rewarded.
The Sermon on the Mount, along with the rest of the holy scripture, is much more than a guide to living a moral life. All of scripture provides, quite simply, the answer to the question, “How do we flourish?” This theme explains the very nature and goal of God’s redemption for us in Christ.
As Pennington writes,
the Bible, across its whole Christian canon of both Old and New Testaments, provides its own God-of-Israel-revealed-in-Jesus-Christ answer to the foundational human question of how to flourish and thrive.