The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an important text. For scholars, it is valuable for understanding both the teaching of Jesus, and the view of Jesus held by Matthew’s author. For faith communities it potentially communicates quite a bit about the way Christians are called to live; what it means to follow Christ and how to respond to our neighbor and the world. And yet, the text has been understood in some drastically different ways since the writing of Matthew’s Gospel. These various understandings have a massive impact on the way that people read and respond to the teachings in this text. It is my conviction that, before the text and its various teachings can be properly understood, an interpreter must decide what they believe that the sermon is; what the nature of the text is and what the sermon is meant to be – how it is meant to function. Only after discovering what the sermon is can one interpret its parts and apply them accordingly. My discussion on the function of the sermon will come in three parts. The purpose of this first post is to provide a brief sketch of some of the ways that the nature of the Sermon on the Mount has been understood, in hopes that we may be open to new ways of reading the text before approaching it with certainty in regard to interpreting it. This post will only seek to baldly describe these basic approaches. Much of the reception history discussed here is brought out in greater detail in Dale C. Allison’s wonderful book The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination.
- The Absolutist (anarchist) Approach – This approach, held by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, sees the sermon in rigidly literalist terms. Every aspect of the sermon must be taken literally and absolutely to the letter, so that Christians should never take oaths (even in court), war is never justified as one must love their enemies in the total sense, one should never join the army or the police force, and all private property must be abandoned. This approach can be seen as anarchist because it calls for Christians to abandon much of the way society functions if they are to live the sermon out in the proper way. To Tolstoy’s credit, near the end of his life he began taking steps to follow the sermon on these terms.
- The Monastic Approach – This approach, held by some writers between the six and the twelfth centuries, was built on an understanding of Matt 5:48 – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Interpreting this verse with 19:21 – “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Realizing that not all Christians were called to sell all that they owned, the monastics believed that the sermon was targeted towards certain Christians who were especially called to obey its teachings. Most Christians were simply called to do whatever they could, but some, the monastics, would retreat from public, civil life and live the sermon out “perfectly.”
- The Lutheran Approach – Also considered the “impossible ideal approach,” this view holds that the sermon was only preached for the purpose of revealing human moral inadequacy. In other words, the sermon was never meant by Jesus (or Matthew) to be followed, rather, it was preached for the purpose of revealing Jesus’ moral standards and showing people that they could never live up to them. The sermon was preached to show people that they are incapable of living up to the moral life that God would require of them if they were at all asked to do so. The sermon was preached for the purpose of producing failure and pointing out to people how lost they are. What does this accomplish? It highlights the necessity of God’s grace and shows people that, through Jesus, they can be relieved of the harsh and impossible moral standards contained in the sermon. As Allison points out, in this view the sermon is interpreted almost entirely through Paul’s letters, and is a preparation for the Gospel.
- The Two-Kingdoms Approach – This view is associated with Lutheranism, but is also quite popular with many Presbyterians. It distinguishes between the private realm of religious life and experience, and the public realm of civil and political life. This view holds that the sermon is targeted towards the private, spiritual life of the Christian, and does not affect engagement in the public, civil sphere – therefore civil courts, military involvement, and other factors are not affected by the sermon. The sermon only seeks to direct Christians in terms of their moral manner in quite personal ways, so if the sermon conflicts with a Christian’s ability to function in public and social contexts, then the sermon does not apply. A Christian could then take an oath in court, but not in the context of private social conversations. A Christian could serve in the military or police force, but could not take counter measures against an enemy in private circumstances.
- The Ethics of Intention Approach – This view holds that the sermon is far too rigid to be followed directly, but that the intention is to help shape and direct our motives. As Allison puts it, the sermon is not about what we should do, “but about what we should be” (pg 6). It is about molding our thoughts and desires, our feelings and our wills, towards a new manner of being spiritual. It is about inspiring in us a proper moral imagination, which would lead to a life concerned with wisdom and in tuned with God’s will for our lives.
The second post to follow in a few short days will critique each of these approaches, followed by a third post where I will offer what I hope will be a more nuanced and fruitful approach to the sermon.