Emulating Jesus of Nazareth - Lessons From the Sermon on the Mount
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1 - 12)
The Beatitudes demonstrate the quintessential tension between the teachings of Jesus Christ and common, worldly wisdom. Namely, Christ counts suffering, want and persecutions as “good fortunes” since they signify the believer’s harmony with the Kingdom of God. A key question that emerges from a careful study of the Beatitudes regards audience: is the passage directed towards the multitudes following Jesus or only his disciples? While it is Christ’s aim to bend all souls to God’s salvific plan, the beatitudes, indeed the Sermon on the Mount, seems to be addressed to those that have already accepted Jesus as their Lord. Several internal characteristics of the passage reinforce this interpretation:
1. Rabbinical Technique—Followers call Jesus “rabbi” a dozen times in the Gospel narratives; there are as many sequences that imply a teacher—pupil relationship, especially in the Matthian account of Christ’s ministry. Rabbis often deployed startling or confounding propositions to arrest their students’ attention. Arguably, Christ begins his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes to separate himself not only from conventional wisdom but also from the prevailing teachings of the traditional Jewish teachers, the Pharisees.
2. Expert Testimony—Traditionally, the Gospel of Matthew has been read as a text honed for a primarily Jewish audience. For this reason, the writing makes legion references to the Old Testament, especially prophesy and the old law. Such references are minimal, even absent from the Beatitudes. While Biblical scholars have drawn external comparisons between several key passages from the Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament, there seem few if any direct overtures to the old law. This presumes that those listening to Jesus’ sermon had already accepted his teachings and required little external support to adopt its premises.
3. Promise of Persecution—Christ bluntly says that those who seek the Kingdom of Heaven will experience severe persecution. That Christ counts such suffering as a “stamp” of belonging to the Kingdom may presume that his listeners had accepted his “call” but had not fully contemplated the cost of discipleship.
Because the Beatitudes appear to be addressed to followers of Christ, they remain a challenge for contemporary believers as they continue to conflict with contemporary understandings of fortune and aspiration. Historically, the Gospel of Matthew has been read in the context of Christ ascending the Messianic Throne.
Valaam Monastery - Beatitudes
Murder (Matthew 5.21 - 26)
After fully describing the nature of God’s kingdom and the character of its inhabitants, Jesus re-interprets several well-known pronouncements on daily living for his listeners. Christ begins his discussion with especially egregious legal and religious crimes, murder and adultery. Jesus’ sermon shifts the understanding of these actions from decrying reprehensible behaviors to lancing the causes of such actions from every individual.
Contemporary society enjoys a hitherto unparalleled absence of violence. Homicide rates, ethnic violence and genocides and interstate wars have decreased by double digits in the last several centuries. In the first century, exposure to violence was a part of daily life. Disciples were privy to the excesses of imperial oppression, street crime and a myriad other inhuman acts they equated with evil they had escaped through following Christ’s teachings.
In this passage, however, Jesus at once denounces behaviors judged evil by the Mosaic Law but warns his followers the seeds for such actions reside in every human soul; that the impulse which causes murder and other extreme violence may be found in the everyday insults one might encounter in the agora.
Jesus extends this teaching to encompass ethnic and racial tensions. Christ’s instruction against murder derives from an earlier Levitical passage which admonishes faithful Jews to refrain from any hatred against their brothers. The operative in this selection comes from the Torah marks a filial designation. In custom, Jews were not permitted to enact violence or shame their fellow Jews. Such condemnations were more lax when directed at aliens, especially during periods of hostility.
For Jesus, such ethnic distinctions can find no quarter in the forthcoming kingdom. Here, Christ exclaims that his followers must accede above the sundry ethnic and national tensions that fostered violence in thought and deed, regardless the circumstance. Such teaching heralds later instruction in the Sermon on the Mount and other Gospel records—The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Love for Enemies, An Eye for Eye.
The Sermon on the Mount
Love For Enemies (Matthew 5.43 - 48)
The Jesus Seminar ranked the admonition to love enemies the third highest among sayings that almost certainly originated with Jesus … The injunction to love enemies is a memorable aphorism because it cuts the social grain and constitutes a paradox: those who love their enemies have no enemies. (Robert Funk)
The above selection from Jesus Seminar co-founder Robert Funk unveils a severe contradiction regarding Jesus’ teaching to “love one’s enemies”; that the admonition is well-known but rarely followed, even by obedient Christians. Another contradictions also emerges through careful contemplation of the teaching; the more easily one may identify an enemy, the more clear Christ’s call to love the individual.
Such instruction likely proved as difficult for Jesus’ original audience as for contemporary believers. Previous discussions have noted the violent, oppressive excesses of Rome against its conquered populations. Certainly the disciples following Christ sought the means to accede divine justice against the clear, outspoken enemies of God. Even so, Jesus provides instructs his followers to pray—petition God—on behalf of those that abused, robbed and sometimes harmed his chosen people.
Even when such actions are undertaken, serious Christians still risk several spiritual pitfalls. Such traps can be expected when one attempts to navigate such difficult (and sadly uncharted) terrain. One, as Funk intimates, treating everyone as “neighbors” erases the concept of enemies from the Christian vocabulary. Ultimately, this denies Christians the satisfaction of moral superiority while showing love to those that have exhibited harm toward God’s elect. Second, the admonition causes believers to defy the prevailing wisdom of society—revenge, justice, satisfaction. While Christians are encouraged to practice prudence in their daily lives, the call to love those that have only earned enmity requires obedience from one’s “heart” more than intellect.
Perhaps for this reason, Jesus addresses this and other teachings from the Sermon on the Mount to a plural personal audience. “We all” are charged as a community with expressing love to enemies and so must hold one another accountable for such actions.
The Wisdom Surpassing Ages
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