The Sermon on the Mount read by Virgin Eyes
In the 1980s Virginia Stem Owens, a professor of English literature decided to have her students read the Sermon on the Mount in her classroom at Texas A&M. The response surprised her, even in the heart of the Bible Belt 30 years ago.
“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.”
What’s so helpful about this is that it is likely closer to the reaction of Jesus’ original audience than what you’d find in the sliver of the population today who might adorn the sermon with a Precious Moments picture frame.
Because of the chapter headings we usually mark the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5.
Matthew 5:1–12 (NIV)
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Well meaning people will often today claim the introduction is beautiful and meaningful. I think this is at least in some cases due to a selective romanticism about the poor, the weak and the vulnerable that has become part of our contemporary culture. We tend to substitute in people we find favor with usually at a reasonable olfactory distance. Real people of these categories if we happen to know them, or live with them or are unable to avoid them are usually less tolerable. We should probably listen to the honest clarity of the university students from the 1980s.
The Debate About the Beatitudes
There is no shortage of “beatitudes” in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and other ancient writings. It is a fairly standard literary convention. Scholars find there are actually two types of beatitudes, wisdom beatitudes and apocalyptic-eschatalogical beatitudes.
Wisdom beatitudes are fairly simple. The force of the saying is that doing a particular thing will lead to good outcomes. A contemporary one might be “Blessed is the one who eats right, exercises faithfully, and listens to their doctor for they shall be given long life.”
The force of this wisdom saying would be a sort of exhortation and promise. Do this and you will receive good things.
The apocalyptic/eschatalogical beatitude invites the hearer to consider an alternate reality from the regular regime of cause and effect. Apocalyptics literature, both ancient and contemporary asserts that deeper forces are moving beneath the veil of the mundane and that at some point in the near or distant future the veil will be removed and a shocking, alternate deeper reality will be exposed.
It is common for people to try to read the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount as Wisdom but they usually have to do so selectively. We can look at being humble or a peacemaker as a good thing and try to read into it good outcomes but others in the list seem to fail the test. There is no virtue in mourning or being persecuted. Most pretty clearly identify these as apocalyptic or eschatalogical.
A Progressive Secular Romantic Apocalypticism
While Virginia Owens’ university students objected to the moral teaching coming later in the Sermon on the Mount I imagine parts of the introduction here would receive applause from many. While they might have trouble with Jesus’ claims of divinity they love Jesus for his care for the vulnerable, the oppressed and the dispossessed. It isn’t hard to read that care in these Beatitudes because it is there.
What tends to happen, however, is that this sets up an interesting situation which is less from Jesus and more from a romanticism and a strained apocalypticism. It goes something like this.
“Jesus says kind things about the oppressed, the vulnerable, the weak and this shows why Jesus is celebrated as a great moral teacher.”
This is correct. Jesus is kind to the oppressed, the vulnerable and the weak. Jesus stands in continuity with the tradition of the Old Testament where God hears the cries of the weak and oppressed and is especially concerned with their welfare. Justice should be done.
Now we find a second step. “The vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed are wise and should be listened to. The powerful and the strong should be silenced.”
This step is a bit more dubious. I have often found that the underclass knows the overclass better than the overclass knows the underclass. As human beings we are continually deluded by self-serving biases and class differences bear this out. My favorite illustration of this is the rigged monopoly game that shows how wealth can blind those who possess it to themselves.
This, however, is different from imagining the poverty always enlightens. I call this a romantic notion because people by their actions display that they like to promote the idea but they really don’t believe it. There is nothing really meritorious about suffering and while it can in some people enlighten them it is no sure-fire formula for it.
We see this in the dual, other reality that “hurt people hurt people”. If we were to imagine that injury, poverty and being the victim of abuse somehow necessarily improved someone then we would imagine that the abused among us would be saints. What we find is often the opposite. People who have had terribly childhoods often have to do a tremendous amount of work to overcome the abuse and not have the abuse turn them into an abuser of a similar or opposite reality. The child who was neglected becomes a controller. The child who was not respected now demands inordinate respect and control.
Let me offer another example. While today people are highlighting injustices done against ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, economics underclasses, etc. no one in our culture is as marginalized as the mentally ill, substance abusing homeless population. To block a person of color in a local store would bring down lawsuits and TV crews, celebrities and politicians in righteous indignation, but the homeless, substance abusing mentally ill population is banned regularly and most reasonable people agree with it. Look out for this signs in restaurants and stores that say “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” and ponder who that sign is pointed at. They can’t do it against ethnic or sexual minorities. It is pointed at many who roam our streets and panhandle at the lights.
We know that this is reasonable because we easily see it is a behavioral issue. This population is disruptive, violent, obnoxious, verbally abusive, and dangerous. We won’t blame the shopkeeper or store manager for keeping them out because they make the other customers feel unsafe. They are bad for business. Are these people the sages of our time?
Now I sit and listen to this population about as much as anyone I know, and while I am at times impressed by the wisdom that some might possess I am not about to turn over the pulpit to them. They, like most underclasses have something to contribute to the public discussion on these matters but their marginalized and discriminated against status does not automatically imbue them with exceptional wisdom or extraordinary capacity. The reality is quite the opposite. They lack the capacity to manage even meager daily tasks or maintain the most basic of relationships.
Whatever we do we need to shed this romanticism when we are reading Jesus’ beatitudes if we want to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us.
Not Letting the Chapter Separation Destroy the Context
The first mistake we make in trying to understand the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount usually happens when we open our bibles to it. We begin reading at chapter 5 instead of going back to read the context Matthew set it in. The crowds mentioned in 5:1 are there in 4:23-25 following Jesus because of the miracles. The context is apocalyptic and eschatological. The context is the miracles.
Matthew 4:23–25 (NIV)
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
When it comes to a miracle of healing the definition of a miracle is that the power of God comes down and overwhelms any obstacle in its way. This is why the miracle is a sample, an embodiment of the invasion of God’s kingdom into the earth. The blind eyes have no choice but to see. The lame legs have no choice but to dance. The dead have no choice but to rise. The power of God destroys any opposition before it by its sheer power.
It was the power of God in a punishing way that John the Baptist was emphasizing. The miracles emphasize the power of God coming in a healing, restorative way and not malady or sin can oppose it.
If we want to understand Jesus’ beatitudes we need to see them in connection with the miracles. If seen in this light they begin to make sense.
These people who Jesus declare to be blessed will be blessed not because of some virtue that their status has qualified them for, just like those who received miracles didn’t qualify for them either. The point of the passage is that no one is, by virtue of their unfortunate circumstance or unfit character in this world able to resist the power of God when he comes upon them. By this Jesus shows that his invasion cannot be stopped by any human power.
Dallas Willard says it this way.
The Law and the Prophets had been twisted around to authorize an oppressive, though religious, social order that put glittering humans— the rich, the educated, the “well-born,” the popular, the powerful, and so on— in possession of God. Jesus’ proclamation clearly dumped them out of their privileged position and raised ordinary people with no human qualifications into the divine fellowship by faith in Jesus.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy (p. 128). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
This is Just the Introduction
We are just getting started here. The Beatitudes are just the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the reason that Jesus puts them up front is because many in his audience already had their pecking order established when it came to religious or spiritual talk. While all the needy lined up for the handout of miraculous healing, I imagine many figured they’d leave the line after they got what they got because life in this world has taught them that this was all they would ever get. They are part of the handout-class who know how this world works, and not just the world of money and power but also the world of spirituality and religion. Perhaps they can’t read. Perhaps they can’t pray. Perhaps they can’t behave. They will get their miracle handout and move along homing other handouts will be given.
Jesus stops them right away and says “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
What does that mean? Just like you don’t need religion or even its contemporary generic, watered down version we call “spirituality” to have God bless you, change you, invade you. Nothing in this world can oppose the invasion of the kingdom of God. Not mental illness, not crime, not even not caring. Why? Because all you really need is need.
I grew up in the NY/NJ area in the 60s and 70s so I remember the panic that the Son of Sam killings provoked. A few years ago I saw in the news that David Berkowitz became a Christian. This man is serving 6 consecutive life sentences and because another inmate shared Jesus and a Bible with him he is now a picture of joy and peace. It’s a dramatic story.
This story illustrates exactly the point Jesus was making. If God can change David Berkowitz and rescue him from himself, who can’t he reach?
The story simultaneously illustrates the objection to Jesus, his miracles and his kingdom invasion. Let’s for a minute assume that the Berkowitz story is all on the up-and-up. Why Berkowitz? Why not Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy? What good is this powerful invasion if it doesn’t overwhelm all?
We want a fair handouts line. What is the point of declaring outrageous availability if we can’t take advantage of that availability? We are looking for an instant fix, that magic wand, the wish, that miracle, that divine resolution of whatever it is that is in front of us. We can’t answer the challenge of why Berkowitz and not Dahmer because it isn’t in the control of either of them or us, at least not in the way we imagine control and accessibility. Jesus was available at the moment in time in those towns but not in the same way now. This makes us scratch our head and ask questions of justice and fairness.
My first response to this is that the Beatitudes declaring the radical availability of Jesus eschatological intervention are only the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount. He will have far more to say soon. He was stopping those accustomed to hand-out lines from bolting with the assumption that all they can expect from life in this world is a handout because the important people, the glitteringly spiritual, the well-connected powerful will take all of the positions of access leaving nothing for them, which is the way the rest of the world works. Jesus says right away “not in my kingdom”. So if you are sitting here imagining because you are not spiritual, or charmed with smarts, or looks, or well connected or given good circumstance that God’s kingdom can’t invade your space Jesus says you’re wrong and he will point to the likes of Peter and Paul and David Berkowitz to prove his point.
My second response is that this invasion may not be exactly what you want. This is something God knows better than you and perhaps respects. This will come out in the rest of the sermon and in Jesus’ life. John the Baptist puts us in touch with the fact that we are embedded in the ways of this world not only by circumstance and often by choice. It is also the case that for many of us we have managed to arrange ourselves in the world in ways that make it work for us. The invasion of God in these circumstances is feared, unwanted and criticized. Who is God to interrupt the way we have arranged things according to our convenience and liking. Our criticism of God’s selectivity actually mirrors our misgivings about his sovereignty. We want selective intervention. If he comes demanding all from us, we will object. If he offers us the choice of complete surrender to him in every thing, in every area of our lives OR maintaining our own imagined autonomy and independence from him at the cost of the limitations of our powers to control, he might relent. The space of this indulgence has a name, it is called hell. The partial invasions of miracles and conversions are only first fruits of the full invasion, one that the people of the earth saw with such alarm they cried for the mountains to fall on them rather than to see his face and the face of the lamb.
Revelation 6:9–17 (NIV)
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. 12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
My third response is that whatever objection you may make to God’s selectivity you cannot charge Jesus with corruption. Albert Camus, who wasn’t a Christian recognized this.
[Christ] the god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, and lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the “Lama sabachthani” and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony
Keller, T. (2009). The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (p. 31). New York: Riverhead Books.
Jesus when he was on the cross was mocked by his enemies declaring “he saved others but he can’t save himself.”
What they couldn’t see was that he was saving others, perhaps even some of them, by NOT saving himself.
The Invitation of the God-man
A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will say this.
Matthew 7:7–8 (NIV)
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
This is exactly in line with his Beatitudes. If Jesus is who he says he is, and if his availability is what he says it is then perhaps we ought to believe that just as we saw with his cross, we are in a poor position to judge whether he has heard our cries based on our judgment of the nature of his rescue.
It is easy to see that his disciples mostly died young, violent deaths like their master. Every early indication was that this might simply be another delusional sect which would flame out in a century or two at most and be forgotten in time. The opposite has been the case.
What Jesus had to say about human good and evil was of sufficient depth, power, and justification to dominate European culture and its offshoots for two millennia. Nobody even has an idea of what “Europe” and the “Western world” would mean apart from Jesus and his words. The historian of morals W. E. H. Lecky describes the teachings of Jesus as “an agency which all men must now admit to have been, for good or for evil, the most powerful moral lever that has ever been applied to the affairs of man.” 1
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy (p. 130). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
If this man whose teachings were so enormously consequential in all of human history also rose from the dead after bearing the mockery of the men he came to save offers to rescue you in ways you can’t understand and through paths you imagine cannot succeed, perhaps you should give him the benefit of the doubt and try him at his word.