Tonight begins the Summer UCF Bible study. Joel and I will be teaching on Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount.
For someone preparing to do doctoral work in the UK, with insurmountable obstacles in my way, with inevitable sacrifices that will logistically and financially overwhelm my family, with the prospect of not being able to have certain “nice things” that are normally part and parcel of American middle class existence (oh for an extended cab pickup!)… for someone in this situation, these three chapters in Matthew are loaded with encouragement. Giving up everything to pursue what I envision to be my particular call to discipleship seems a bit less ludicrous.
To be clear, moving to live in Durham, England is not at all on par to moving my family into a Central American village racked with the violence of competing drug cartels. The anxieties of providing for my kids in a quaint English town can in no way compare to the anxieties attending life in militia-ravaged villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The beatitudes will certainly have a sweeter, more profound ring to them in the DRC and Guatemala City than they will in my mind while pouring over books in a centuries-old stone library.
But nonetheless, I am clasping hard to Jesus’ words in that sermon today. I might not make it without them.
One of the study resources Joel and I will be using in our teaching series is Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Though I feel fairly competent as an interpreter of the Gospels, I found myself instantly positioning myself humbly at Allison’s feet while reading this morning (few Gospel scholars deserve more rapt attention!). Allison opens the book with a number of misguided approaches to the Sermon on the Mount:
1] Viewing Matthew 5-7 as an encapsulation of Christianity. To read the Sermon as if it captures the quintessence of Jesus or Christianity is a grave hermeneutical mistake. Allison reminds us of the elementary interpretive principle of reading a text with its co-text, especially the co-text of the Gospel in its entirety. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus do not feature in the Sermon, so how can it serve as an accurate summation of Matthew’s theological vision?
2] Treating the Sermon’s moral vision as an “Impossible Ideal.” I have regularly heard (and at times taught!) that the commands in Matthew 5-7 (summarized in Jesus’ call to perfection!) are impossible, and that impossibility intentionally serves to expose our moral incapacities and therefore our need for Jesus to fulfill perfect righteousness on our behalf (and then impute that righteousness to us). This Lutheran / Protestant view is a distortion—there is no punch line at the Sermon’s end where Jesus says, “Gotcha! I’m totally kidding… just wait till I die and then I will grant you perfected righteousness by faith.”
3] Treating the Sermon’s moral vision as intended only for a select few. This distortion has been seen more in the Catholic tradition. The reasoning is that since the moral demands are so rigid and hard, they can only be lived out in specialized settings by special people. Monastic life becomes the setting and monks/nuns the people. But clearly, Jesus is addressing a massive crowd, not only his select disciples. Furthermore, as Allison points out, Jesus tells those disciples in the Great Commission to teach others to do everything that Jesus has taught them.
So what are we supposed to do with Jesus’ teaching in this most (in)famous of His sermons? Maybe it is not so complex as we think—maybe we are supposed to obey… monks, nuns, theologians, plumbers, homemakers, doctors, accountants, tellers… all of us.