Brief thoughts on McKnight on Pennington on the Sermon on the Mount

Scott McKnight read J. Pennington’s book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, and while he liked the book, he found the argument for a virtue ethics reading of the Sermon on the Mount helpful, but not totally convincing. This doesn’t surprise me, McKnight wrote a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that rejected any attempt to do what Pennington’s book attempts to do. 

As an aside, in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, McKnight wades briefly into the deep waters of philosophical ethics and utterly dismisses the arguments made by Kant on the basis of their being “leveled” by Stanley Hauerwas (ha!): 

“Kant’s statement of the categorical imperative is an attempt to free us of the need to rely on forgiveness and, more critically, a savior. Kant’s hope was to makes [sic] us what our pride desires, that is, autonomous.” 

I’m all for pithy dismissals of academics and dead people whose influence has gone on too long. But this doesn’t refute deontological ethics or the need for a categorical imperative (for instance, Christian theology must admit of at least one naturally available law of conscience: do what God says). Hauerwas just states Kant’s alleged intentions without any evidence that Kant thought or felt this way! For instance, if I intend to over-populate the world to destroy the human race by famine, and therefore, devise great anti-abortion arguments, they are not thereby refuted if Stanley Hauerwas tells everybody what my journal or his crystal ball says my true intentions were.

On to McKnight and Pennington.

Here are McKnight’s criticisms of the ‘virtue ethics approach’ used by Pennington:

So, while I would agree with the general description of virtue ethics he offers, the question for me is Whether or not Jesus taught that habits form a character that form a character-who-acts virtuously. I don’t see that habit of thought for Jesus.

 

So, too I can agree with this in general but I wouldn’t put the emphasis on what he does: “Namely, the Sermon is offering Jesus’s answer to the great question of human flourishing, the topic at the core of both the Jewish wisdom literature and that of the Greco-Roman virtue perspective, while presenting Jesus as the true Philosopher-King” (36).

 

Thus, too, I don’t agree: “Thus, to conclude this discussion we can arrive at an important point and depict this dual context intentionally. The point is that both of these contexts overlap in their goal of and emphasis on whole-person human flourishing, but the basic orientation of the Sermon is first and foremost that of the eschatological story of Israel, the coming of God’s reign/kingdom with Jesus as the King. This redemptive-historical perspective greatly shapes and modifies the virtue vision of the Sermon relative to its otherwise similar approach in Greco-Roman philosophy” (38).

 

So, to the point directly: Pennington finds Solomon or David behind the Sermon more than I would and he does not find Moses enough. Nothing is more clear from Matthew’s text than Mosaic themes in 5:1 with 7:28-29 and the whole — yes the whole — of 5:17-48. Not enough Moses, too much Solomon/David, and too much Aristotle. My contention is the Sermon has three plus more angles: an ethic from Above (God’s revelation as with Moses), an ethic from Beyond (eschatology of judgment/prophets) and an ethic from Below (wisdom tradition), plus christology and plus ecclesiology and plus Spirit.

 

A few thoughts:

  1. Regardless of New Testament background, if virtue ethics is true and philosophically demonstrated to be true, then that is the ethical context of humanity and therefore the proper mode of applying the Sermon on the Mount to life if it is accepted as true on the basis of its divine source. And so regardless of whether Matthew or Jesus had the Aristotelian background of virtue ethics in mind, if such a theory of human flourishing is true, then it provides a thought-space within which to interpret a divinely provided summary of ethics. 
  2. It is important to see Moses in the Sermon on the Mount (obviously), but it’s equally important to see Moses as a literate Hellenized Israelite Christian might have seen him. Philo and Josephus saw the way of life exemplified and taught in Moses’ life and law as the exemplary life of a philosopher.
  3. I would add that neither McKnight nor Pennington see Abraham enough in the Sermon. Jesus is presented as ‘the son of Abraham.’ How does that theme appear in the Sermon? I suspect in Jesus sharing a blessing with the world as Abraham was promised his children would do, and going back to Matthew 4:1-17, by being a light to the gentiles, in particular Jesus is a light of truth about the true nature of righteousness. And Abraham was also read by Philo as an exemplar of the philosophical life. Matthew doesn’t have to mean this for the resonance to be present. And Philo’s views weren’t novel. The letter to Aristeas shares similar concerns and predates Philo.
  4. In McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy, he defines ‘kingdom of God’ as basically the church: a people with a king and laws. But if that’s true, then in Aristotle’s taxonomy of politics and virtue, it is only natural that an ethos of a sort will arise from and is exemplified in the laws of a kingdom. And so this provides some coinherence of ideas between the New Testament and Aristotle.
  5. It’s well established that μακαριος is synonymous with Aristotle’s eudaimonia by the writing of the gospels. 
  6. The Old Testament itself treats flourishing as something like contemplative action oriented toward God which leads to prospering/blessedness over time, especially Psalm 1. 
  7. In ancient writings, claims of divine revelation were frequently written/interpreted as a form of philosophical discourse. Parmenides is the paradigmatic example, having written little over a century after the time of Isaiah. Socrates and Heraclitus did the same. Stephen Clark’s work Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy or Yoram Hazony’s Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. And it is in the case that several Jewish works from just prior to and during the time of Jesus and the New Testament authors (re?)interpret the Old Testament as a book of philosophy: Sirach, Wisdom, and 4 Maccabees all come to mind. 
  8. Finally, nothing in McKnight’s approach comes close to negating an Aristotelian synthesis, aside from McKnight’s insistence that it does. If Jesus’ ethic is ‘from above, from beyond, and from below, what prevents us from learning from Aristotle, and empirical psychology/social psychology about the nature of habits and their acquisition in order to help us become the sort of person Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This is what Aquinas was attempting in all of his writings, but McKnight hardly interacts at all with Aquinas, which makes sense because books cannot be infinitely long.
  9. The apparent stoic influence on the New Testament is well documented. This could be because the authors imbibed from stoicism or because the moral universe they inhabited was so thoroughly influenced by a stoic virtue ethics that they simply wrote that way. This cannot be left unsaid in a discussion of the role of human flourishing and virtue ethics in the New Testament. 
  10. The New Testament simply doesn’t have to utilize the language of philosophy to answer philosophical questions. I’ve hinted at this twice above, but I felt the need to be clear. 
  11. Finally, by the time of Justin Martyr the Christian lifestyle and thought world was considered ‘the true philosophy.’ The question is this: was this a natural development from the nature of the source material or was it imposed upon Christian discourse by the apologists? Some confirming evidence is that some recent scholars interpret Jesus as a cynic philosopher (he was obviously more than that and also probably was not self-consciously attempting to be that).  

As an aside, I’ve only skimmed a prepublication copy of Pennington’s book. So I don’t know if I agree with his whole argument. But I certainly see what he generally says is in the Sermon on the Mount in there. I recommend his article Resourcing a Christian Positive Psychology From the Sermon on the Mount

Seek first the Kingdom of God…how?

A lot of Christian advice boils down to platitudes with neither moral nor practical content. Sadly, our tendency to speak in airy nothings to one another as a time saving mechanism as stripped many of Jesus’ central ideals of meaning and practical content. An example is, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” People will rattle off this advice in a well-meaning fashion in order to overcome the difficulties of telling other Christians, “You’ve gotta get out of debt, apologize to your spouse, discipline your kids, or organize your life.” What does this command mean?

Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd of potential disciples listening that the trappings of the good life, clothes and food, are not the keys to happiness (remember how Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount offering the blessed or happy life to those who hear). Instead Jesus says to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness and these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

But what does this mean? Is it a mystical promise that God will do miracles to see to the provision of disciples who literally never seek food, clothing, or money?

I think not.

To understand this commandment, we need to determine what the phrase, “kingdom of God” means.

In my mind, Scot McKnight’s observations are the most enlightening:

Kingdom is-almost always, with varying degrees of emphasis- a complex of king, rule, people, land, and law. Church is also a complex: a king (Christ), a rule (Christ rules over the body of Christ), a people (the church), a land (expanding Israel into the diaspora), and a law (the law of Christ, life in the Spirit) …Slight differences aside, the evidence I have presented in this book leads me to the conclusion that we should see them as synonyms.”[1]

Kingdom of God, in the New Testament is referring to the church under the authority of God.

What does it mean to “seek the kingdom of God”?

This has larger implications, but for now, we’re answering this question:

What does seek first the kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness mean?

If McKnight is right,[2] then seeking the kingdom and righteousness takes on a clearer meaning.

To seek the kingdom of God is to seek:

  1. The well-being of the church family
  2. To use the proper means to spread the word of the kingdom (see the parable of the Sower)
  3. To pray to our heavenly Father (see Matthew 6:9-13)
  4. To be a part of the kingdom’s work of worship (See Hebrews 10:24-25, this is one of the most neglected passages in modern Christendom)

What does it mean to “seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God”?

To seek the righteousness of God (of God’s kingdom) requires a little more context to fully understand[3], but even without the extra explanation seeking the righteousness of which Jesus speaks means:

  1. Seek the character traits about which he had been teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20)
  2. Be willing to do deeds of righteousness solely because they are right and to please God (Matthew 6:1-18)
  3. Extend kindness to those outside the kingdom and even those who are opposed to it (Matthew 5:41-47)
  4. Be like God (Matthew 5:48)
  5. Learn to treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12)
  6. Base your character, as far as you can and as you understand it, on the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:13-28).

What does it mean to seek “kingdom” and “righteousness” first?

The word first probably can be taken metaphorically: seek them as the main priority:

  1. Try to make the church successful, not merely yourself. The financial principle for success known as “pay yourself first” should be “pay the church first” or “pay the Lord first.” In Scripture, this might mean anything from showing hospitality, to feeding the poor, and paying pastors.
  2. When a choice comes between doing the right thing and gaining some other good, choose to be righteous rather than receive good.  [4]
  3. This might be too literal, but start your day off with prayer.
  4. Jesus may also couple kingdom with righteousness here to remind us that the kingdom should only be pursued “righteously.” The ends don’t justify evil means in God’s kingdom.[5]
  5. It means to seek the other things, “not as the gentiles do,” in other words seek clothes, but not obsessively. Seek money, but like Proverbs says, “know when to desist” (Proverbs 23:4). Get property, but use it to bless others (see Proverbs 31).

What does “all these things will be added to you” mean?

In the ancient world, there were competing theories of what caused true human happiness or “the good life.”

For instance, Aristotle thought that we needed good of the body, external goods, and goods of the soul to have true happiness. The Old Testament has a similar picture in that the good life consists in health, family, honor, land, righteousness, and relatedness to God.[6]

The Stoics, on the other hand, thought that the good life/happiness consisted solely in having virtuous character.

Jesus appears to agree with the Old Testament version of the good life here because he uses the bodily and material blessings as motivation for putting righteousness and the kingdom first. Life is more than food and clothes, but it isn’t less than food and clothes.

While one can have true happiness without possessions, health, and so-on, Jesus acknowledges that these things are often necessary for life and important for happiness. Thus, he shows that one can have them without making them your main priority in life.[7] Elsewhere, Jesus makes this claim: “And all who leave houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). In Mark’s gospel, two things are added: “persecutions” and “in this life and the life to come” (Mark 10:28-29).

The point seems to be that loyalty to the kingdom of God and participation in the church (a group of people who are trying to care for one another the way Jesus loves us) even when things get hard, will lead to being taken care of. There’s not some mystical hope for magic provisions here (though the Lord can do that). There’s also not a woefully disregarded or infinitely deferred promise to make people happy. Instead, Jesus is saying that the fact of the matter is that kingdom people will take care of each other and virtue often leads to provision, and those facts are part of what makes the gospel good news.

Conclusion

Seeking first the kingdom and righteousness is not just “woo-woo” speech or meaningless Christianese for “being spiritual.”

It is a practical command that has real world application and is meant to be put into practice in our relationship to the church family of which we are a part and to the sort of habits and character traits we acquire for ourselves.

Also, the command is related directly to the human pursuit of happiness by dislodging external and bodily goods from the center of happiness while still giving them due place in the taxonomy of goods that make us happy.

References

[1] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, 2014, 205-206

[2] He is right and if you request it I’ll catalog his evidence and add some of my own.

[3] Virtues like justice/righteousness in the ancient world were understood to be in relationship to one’s citizenship. Jesus means, “The righteousness appropriate or proper” for a citizen of God’s kingdom. It’s not just “universal righteousness,” but righteousness that can only make sense in the context of living in the kingdom of God now.

[4] Don’t buy into the lie that doing the right thing always has a negative result. That is a whiny mindset that will give you a defeatist attitude and it simply isn’t always true. Goodness is not always a tragic sacrifice.

[5] There are exceptions to this in Scripture, wherein the Lord will use evil people to accomplish good, but when the Bible tells us to imitate God is always about his mercy, holiness, or love. It is never with respect to God’s manipulation of specific historical events.

[6] Perhaps the best book on the nature of happiness in the Bible is R. N Whybray, The Good Life in the Old Testament (London: T & T Clark, 2002). Every chapter is filled with sound interpretive wisdom.

[7] Observe that making food and clothes one’s main priority can jeopardize one’s eternal happiness. The value tradeoff makes no sense.

 

Jesus and Matthew 6:33

Matthew 6:33 Now, see first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and these things will be added to you.[1]

Introduction

Everybody wants to be happy and every good wandering philosopher tries to tell them how to do it. Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ summary treatise on human happiness or how to live an honorable life.[2]

Like all teachers on human happiness, Jesus tackles the relationship between possessions, necessities, and human happiness. He counsels people to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness as a first priority in order to cure the anxiety one might have over the future acquisition of food or clothing.

Jesus neither trivializes these needs, as he says to pray for them later in the sermon, nor does he make them absolute sources of happiness or honor as many did in his era. Instead, he says that seeking God’s kingdom and its righteousness will suffice for happiness as well as for the acquisition of the goods of the body.

How can this be so?

Psychologically

On the psychological level, what Jesus is doing is telling people that if they focus upon what they can definitely change, they will not worry. Why is this? Jesus knew one of the great insights of the human mind. You can generally only focus on one thing at a time. If one is focused upon the purposes of God and gaining righteous character, then anxiety (the constant churning of unhelpful and negative thoughts) will slowly cease to be a persistent reality in the human mind.

The other psychological aspect Jesus exploits here is that he tells people to focus upon what they can do. The kingdom of God, in the sense used here, appears to mean “the people of God and his purposes for them.” So for Jesus to say to seek the kingdom of God means for people to be busy about accomplishing the commands of God, particularly, the commands which pertain to the wellbeing of other Christians. The second thing Jesus says to seek first is ‘its righteousness.’ That means that character that befits a citizen of God’s kingdom. In other words, seek to become the kind of person who is disposed and poised to act righteously. One has no control over the weather, the crops, the clothing market, etc. But one does have control over their character. By putting people’s minds on the things which they can accomplish (with God’s help, of course), Jesus is helping people to gain an internal locus of control. To have an internal locus of control is to live with a sense that you choose how you handle the world around you and are not by necessity merely the outcome of the events around you. The research is clear that people with an internal locus of control struggle less with anxiety.

Materially

Jesus observes that for those who seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness “all these things” will be added. Here he clearly means the goods of the body (clothing, food, human resources in general). But how will they be added? Are we to believe that Jesus is making a promise of miraculous intervention for all do are good enough? I don’t think so. Jesus was aware of the martyrs, Job, and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Instead, I think Jesus is making a general claim about the nature of virtue. If you have a good relationship with God’s people and possess righteousness, you’ll generally get what you need. Jesus knew there were exceptions, the Old Testament speaks of them. He also never taught people to expect routine divine protection from harm, he even taught that often, the righteous may have to die for righteousness’ sake. So it appears that here he speaks of the general results of having virtuous habits. Here are the components of “righteousness” according to the book of the Wisdom of Solomon (a Jewish work which approximates Jesus’ thought world quite nicely):

And if any one loves righteousness,

Her [lady wisdom] labors are virtues;

for she teaches temperance and prudence,

justice and courage;

nothing in life is more profitable for men than these. [3]

 

For those who love righteousness as taught in the Hebrew Bible, wisdom works in them even the four virtues of pagan morality: justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. And while the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is colored by Jesus’ specific teachings, there is really no reason to suppose that it was no longer seen as an all-encompassing virtue by Jesus or the gospel authors. And besides, “nothing in life is more profitable for men than these” is quite similar to what Jesus was saying.

So the point I wish to make is that if somebody have the righteousness of the kingdom, they essentially are growing in the virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and prudence and they can find ways to acquire their needs, stay out of trouble, avoid over indulgence, and take appropriate risks for the good. Such people are able to manage their lives in the world contently and without compromising with evil.

Not least, as I hinted at above, people who seek first the kingdom of God, will find themselves in a community of people who will help them through their trials.

Theologically

Theologically, it’s important to note that Proverbs teaches that:

Riches profit not in the day of wrath: but righteousness delivereth from death.[4]

And for Jesus, no need of mankind was more desperate than the need to know God. And so the central aspect of human happiness here is that those who enter into the kingdom of God and receive righteousness from Jesus Christ will survive the day of wrath.

Final Thoughts

To seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness first, in my mind, implies that it should be a first priority and driving motivation for our actions but also a temporal one. In our day we should begin with prayer for God’s kingdom to come, forgiveness from sins, and help to do his will. This is why the Christian practice of beginning the day with Scripture reading, meditation, and prayer is so crucial for Christians today. Without this discipline, we’re so likely to rush off into the day and seek anything but God’s kingdom or his righteousness.

References


[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 6:33, “ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν ⸂βασιλείαν [τοῦ θεοῦ]* καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην⸃ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν.”

[2] The word in Matthew 5:3-10 translated ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ carries with the connotation of ‘those who are in this state are honorable.’ Matthew 5:3 could be translated, “How honorable are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

[3] The Revised Standard Version (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971), Wis 8:7.

[4] The Holy Bible: King James Version., electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. (Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995), Pr 11:4.

Don’t resist by means of evil

Text

38 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ °καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. 39 * ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλʼ ὅστις σε ῥαπίζει εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν σιαγόνα [σου], στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· 40 καὶ τῷ θέλοντί σοι κριθῆναι καὶ τὸν χιτῶνά σου λαβεῖν,* ἄφες αὐτῷ καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον· 41 * καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει μίλιον ἕν,* ὕπαγε μετʼ αὐτοῦ δύο. 42 τῷ αἰτοῦντί σε δός, καὶ τὸν θέλοντα ἀπὸ σοῦ δανίσασθαι μὴ ἀποστραφῇς. [1]

Translation

38 You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I am telling you to not resist by means of evil, but whoever strikes you upon the right cheek, turn to him also the left; 40 and to whomever desires to sue you and to take your tunic, give to him him also the cloak. 41 And whoever obligates you to go a mile, go with him two. 42 To whomever asks of you, give, and to him who desires to borrow from you, do not turn away.

Reflections

  1. Eye for an eye was an Old Testament legal precedent applicable to situations in which an unborn baby or neighbor is injured by violence. The law was also a precedent for cases concerning false witnesses.
  2. Jesus does not seem to be claiming that courtroom judgments should be abrogated. He uses court circumstances and assumes their enduring relevance in two previous triads. Instead, he seems to be correcting the use of these passages as justifications for using evils suffered as justification for evils done.
  3. The way out of the cycle of returning evil for evil is illustrated in four ways, but I think it’s important not to limit the process to these specifics and indeed, Jesus himself does not treat these commands as absolute rules for all times but as wise ways to avoid resisting evil with evil. So turn the cheek, go the mile, give the garment, and so-on are illustrations.
  4. For instance, Jesus tells people, “No” when they ask him for a sign (Matthew 16). He also criticizes a man for striking him (John 18:23).
  5. So, if there are exceptions, it is perhaps best to think of this teaching as recommending that one do the shocking or disarming thing to create peace in the face of institutional oppression and personal honor challenges.
  6. Jerome Neyrey sees this particular passage as a way out of the tit for tat honor/shame game played in the ancient world. I think that is part of the idea, though probably not the whole idea as Jesus and the apostles in Acts participate in that game verbally.

References

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:38–42.

Let your yes be yes

Translation Matthew 5:33-37

33 Again, you heard that it was said to the ancients, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill your oaths to the Lord. 34 But, I am telling you not swear at all; neither by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 nor by the earth, because it is the footstool for his feet, nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king, 36 nor should you swear by your head, because you are unable to make one hair white or black. 37 Instead, let your word be “Yes, yes, no, no.” Indeed, more than this is from the evil one.[1]

Reflections:

  1. One of our main tendencies when seeing the words of Christ in places like this is to try to find ways out or exceptions to the rule.
  2. This instinct can be dangerous as it can be simply a way of getting out of what Jesus said.
  3. This instinct can be very wise because it is important to fully understand a command before obeying it or to understand an ideal prior to pursuing it. “Jump.” “How high, on what, when?”
  4. In this case, there are good reasons to ask, “Are there times Christians can take vows?” For instance, Paul takes a vow in Acts (it’s why he cuts his hair in Acts 18:18). The ancient Christians had baptismal/confirmation vows. Similarly, Jesus speaks highly of marriage and never proscribes it, but marriage is a covenant with vows/oaths.
  5. So, what vows is Jesus prohibiting? I think that Jesus is prohibiting vows which endear the speaker to the hearers as a sign of honor. “I swear by the temple that I’ll do thus and such…” Jesus is essentially telling his disciples that while the ancients rightly said, “don’t break oaths, I’m telling you just don’t take them. Instead let your word (yes/no) be enough because it’s based on goodness.”
  6. The reason I feel comfortable interpreting things that way is that I think that Glen Stassen’s triadic structure of the Sermon on the Mount makes the most sense. Each teaching is a three-part block with the emphasis on the third part which is a transforming initiative:
    1. Traditional piety
    2. Cycle of judgment
    3. Transforming initiative
  7. The instruction about the futility of oaths and the reasons for avoiding them is not the actual imperative in the passage, but rather a description of the way things are. The command is “let your word be yes and no.”
  8. The point here is very similar to the point made in chapter six. We’re supposed to do things because we see them as God’s will/the right thing to do, not as a way of advertising our piety to others. Our relationship with God is public insofar as it leads us to do good works. But it is to be hidden insofar as public displays of piety tend to be a part of the world of attention seeking rather than the world of virtue and interior transformation.
  9. So ultimately, the point is simple: let what you say reflect what you’re going to do and then do it or not. Don’t embellish what you say to gain religious honor (which is a silly kind of honor, anyhow).

References

[1] Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Mt 5:33–37, “33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις,* ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως· μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ, 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ, μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως,* 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι ⸂μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν⸃.* 37 ⸀ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ⸂ναὶ ναί,⸃ οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.*”

Rhetorical Assumptions in the Sermons on the Mount and Plain

In Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 are the sermons on the Mount/Plain. There is a lot of debate about the relationship between these two sermons, but what interested me the other day when I was sitting in a waiting room (thankfully I took a legal pad) was what Matthew and Luke assumed would be interesting and would be known to the readers/listeners.*

Now I cannot have certainty about those things. But if we assume that like any piece of written rhetoric, the author had an audience who knew certain things in mind, then we can make some inferences. In all of this it’s important to remember that when we construct a speech, we appeal to what we think will interest people in order to help them find interest in what we think will benefit them (or get them to buy our product). But in an extended speech there might be several subaudiences to which we appeal.

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Assumptions

  1. The readers/hearers were interested in being happy in the sense of flourishing human life. The beatitudes start with the word “blessed” which probably means something more like “in an honored state” or “possessing the best/most desirable life.” In the Greek Old Testament that word seems to function like Aristotle’s word for happiness.
  2. They cared about putting the law of God into practice. Jesus tells the audience not to be afraid of the possibility of him doing away with Moses’ law.
  3. They at least know an oral version of the Old Testament, “You have heard…,” never “it is written.”
  4. They are in contact with the Pharisees (see chapter 6:1-13 especially) or have pharisaical tendencies.
  5. They want honor and rewards.
  6. They find it valuable to “see God.”
  7. They  want to be wise.
  8. They want to be part of God’s kingdom.
  9. Some of them felt spiritually destitute (poor in spirit).

Luke’s Sermon on the Mount Assumptions

  1. Luke’s audience similarly desired “blessedness” or “happiness.”
  2. They may have been more financially successful and willing to infer that they were living the blessed life with God as a consequence of their good fortune.
  3. They knew Jesus was a teacher, but were not themselves as familiar with the law of Moses.
  4. They really wanted to be good people whose lives bore good fruit.
  5. Strangely, in Luke, being like a ‘wise man’ is not a motivation. But the same simile of the builder who uses a firm foundation is used. In this case, the idea is simply of having a life that is not susceptible to the trials of the world. These people wanted unwavering or everlasting life.

I would be willing to say more about Luke’s audience over all, but I wanted to go simply by what we could find in the respective versions of the Sermon on the Mount.

What did I miss?

*I’m of the opinion that by and large these sermons, regardless of the process that lead to it happening, preserve a common public sermon Jesus preached about the kingdom of God before he shifted to primarily using parables before the public. So of course there will naturally be overlap between Matthew, Luke, and Jesus’ audiences desires, interests, and knowledge.

Devotional Thoughts: Blessed are the pure at heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

In my opinion, the beatitudes here in Matthew are Jesus’ declaration that “the good life” is available to the people who are not typically seen residents in such an honorable estate. His idea, that those who suffer or are lightly esteemed can be blessed, is rooted in the Old Testament. It can also be found in Plato and the stoics (“Better to suffer injustice, than to commit injustice.”). The difference is that Matthew is making the claim that only through Jesus and his ministry the good life with God is definitively available, or rather through Jesus and his teaching can it be actualized with certainty. For Matthew seems to see several Old Testament figures as blessed in similar ways.

Now, the message of the four gospels is not merely the happy parts of Matthew 5:3-10. Indeed, there is more to being pure at heart than simply being good for a while and then seeing God and enjoying the good-life. Jesus, who would qualify as pure in heart in an exemplary fashion, certainly sees God. But his single-mindedness led him directly to the cross, where Matthew says that Jesus cried:

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)”

Now, I do not think that God the Father literally “turned his face away” from Jesus or anything like that.

But what I do want to point out is that becoming pure at heart and “seeing God” is often accompanied by the worst trials, the most profound temptations to sin, and the most unexpected assaults from evil (personified or not). The gospels are literary wholes, so we must take their promises for pleasure and ecstatic experience of God along with their expectations of pain and exposure to the evils of the god of this age. Indeed, Jesus says that our daily prayers should include, “rescue us from the evil one.” But there comes a time, perhaps not for all Christians, when the answer to that prayer is “My grace is sufficient for you.”

In this respect the good life, with all of its proportions of appreciation for God and his gifts must find its main satisfaction in God himself and his promises that remain unanswered and we have to learn that the eternal weight of glory far outweighs any momentary wasting away of the flesh, dimming of our vision of God, or feelings of abandonment in the face of the periodic crescendos of evil in our world.