Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Pt. 1

 The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded.  For our purposes, it does not matter whether or not Jesus gave the Sermon at one point or whether Matthew has arranged various of Jesus’ teachings into this current form, as many scholars believe. (A wandering preacher would most likely repeat many teachings in different forms before different audiences.) Many have believed that Jesus’ here gives incredibly hard teachings–counsels of perfection–that only saints can live (the Medieval Catholic view) or that no one can fulfill and which drive us to the sheer grace of God (Reformer Martin Luther’s view).  I contend (with others) to the contrary that the Sermon is full of grace and shows us the God’s gracious way of deliverance from bondage to mechanisms of sin.  (I will give a small bibliography on the Sermon on the Mount in a separate blog posting, but I will say that I am drawing strongly from the work of Walter Wink and Glen H. Stassen for much of what follows.)

First, to help us see the empowering joy of the Sermon on the Mount, we need a better definition of grace.  Too often we understand grace only in terms of forgiveness, of “God’s unmerited favor on sinners.” But grace is not only forgiveness, but empowerment to follow God. Grace enables our faith to be lived out in faithfulness.  Of course, we are never perfectly faithful. We fail and need forgiveness.  But to use that as an excuse for continuing in disobedience is simply wrong–and leads us back into the bondage from which Jesus delivers us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler, ran an underground seminary for anti-Nazi pastors, was marginally involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, and whose work to smuggle some Jews out of Germany led to his arrest and execution, called this kind of thinking “cheap grace.”  He contrasted that with the costly grace of the gospel.  Likewise Miraslov Volf, a theologian from war torn Croatia, says that to accept the comfort of the Crucified One while rejecting his Way to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology in place of the gospel.  So, let us approach the Sermon on the Mount prepared to hear it as a Word of empowering grace, delivering us from the mechanisms of bondage to various patterns of sin, enabling us as Christ followers to live by a new pattern, a way of life profoundly different from the world-system we know.

The Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 3-12).  The Sermon is given to Jesus’ disciples/followers and to crowds who are potential followers.  The crowds are not just any non-believers, but are those who have heard of Jesus (maybe even heard him directly) and are interested. They may even be half convinced that he is the Messiah, God’s agent for the redemption of Israel.  In presenting it in his Gospel, Matthew is saying that the Sermon is to be of continuing guidance for his Christian community–and the Church’s decision to include it in the New Testament is their recognition that Jesus continues to intend this Sermon to guide disciples and potential disciples, now.

The Sermon begins with words of grace, of blessing for those who are citizens of the Kingdom or Rule that Jesus brings.  Building on themes from Isaiah 61, these “beatitudes” are not commands or rules.  They proclaim God’s blessing or joy on those who display the grace filled virtues of the inbreaking Rule of God.  Because the characteristic of joy is so strong, Glen Stassen translates the beatitudes this way:

Joyful are the humble poor who know their need of God, for theirs is the very Reign of God.

Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.

Joyful are those whose wills are surrended to God, for they will inherit the earth.

Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.

Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.

Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.

Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Joyful are those who suffer because of working for restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.

Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God.  For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.

 

The “poor in Spirit,” are called simply the physical poor in Luke 6:20 (which we’ll examine more fully in our chapter on Luke) and are contrasted with those who are “rich now.”  So, who does Jesus bless, the poor or the poor in spirit?  The problem disappears when we realize that Jesus is referring to Isa. 61.  The anawim in Hebrew are traditionally the “humble poor.”  They are economically poor but they also, perhaps because of their poverty, realize their need of God. The rich often believe they have no need of help from God or anyone.  They trust in their riches.  But if you are poor, one lost paycheck can lead to hunger; one serious illness can lead to foreclosure and homelessness. One divorce (perhaps even against one will), one catastrophe, is enough to turn their lives from barely liveable to disastrous.  So, many poor more naturally turn to God.  Luke emphasizes the Old Testament theme of God’s care and protection for the economically poor (e.g., Ex. 22:25-27; 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15:7-11; 2 Sam. 22:28; Ps. 72:2, 4, 12; Isa. 26:6, 49:13, 66:2; Zeph. 3:12).  Matthew does not exclude this, but he puts the emphasis on their empty hand of faith before God.

The 3rd Beatitude is usually translated “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake,” but the same Greek word (dikaiosune) means both righteousness and justice.  And today’s English tends to mean by “righteousness” what the Bible means by “self-righteousness.” They make it about ourselves, about a personal quality of righteousness.  But Jesus wants disciples to be other directed, to seek to set right what is wrong.  He wants us to hunger and thirst for the kind of healing  justice that tends the wounds of individuals and societies. 

I skip the details of the other Beatitudes for brevity’s sake.  I note that they all fit together.  Life in the Jesus Way is characterized by poverty of spirit (knowing one’s need of God), by mourning/grieving the things that grieve the heart of God–so much that we are moved to action; by  wills completely surrendered to God.  The Jesus Way people hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful (practicing compassion in action), by purity of heart, by suffering for the sake of justice, by being persecuted for the sake of Jesus (just as the prophets were persecuted).  In this pattern are the peacemakers–not the warmakers–who are called the children of God.  Again, at this point, there are no commands.  The Beatitude does not command us to be peacemakers in order to earn status as God’s children.  Rather, Jesus’ followers are God’s children and joyfully make peace because they are God’s children.  In describing this vision in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not heaping burdens upon his listeners and potential followers, but describing a vision of JOY and INVITING us to participate.  This is the pattern of participation–a pattern that includes joyful peacemaking. 

Of course, while all of us disciples and would-be disciples want to live a pattern of life like this, full of joy displaying the joyous virtues of the Way of Jesus, but we also know that we often find ourselves trapped in other, more destructive patterns.  In our next installment we will see how the main body of the Sermon address these forms of bondage in 14 Triads that present a traditional moral teaching, describes the mechanism of bondage that make holding to that teaching nearly impossible, and then presents transforming initiatives–Jesus’ new commands that show us the way out of the destructive cycles that bind us–empowering grace, indeed.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, ethics, Jesus, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 12 Comments