I have started reading Dale Allison’s book, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. (You can find the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7.)
Allison’s first chapter, Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount, put me in mind of something that happened to me some years ago.
In most states clergy can easily get out of jury duty. I am not sure why that is. I always worried that a death or some other crisis would occur while the court required my presence. Anyway, in Oklahoma in the ‘90s clergy were not exempted. But that didn’t mean they were actually going to let me on a jury.
During jury selection the prosecutor asked me, “It is your job to forgive, isn’t that right?” He didn’t want anyone who would be forgiving on the jury. My answer was lame, and I became one of the people he challenged.
But the question seemed strange to me. Since I was a clergyman, he assumed that it was my job to forgive, but he didn’t put all Christians in the same category.
Dale Allison explains that one way of interpreting the Sermon on the Mount sees its commands as counsels of perfection. Jesus did not require all people to love their enemies, sell their possessions, avoid oaths, turn the other cheek, and not resist evil. Rather, interpreters skipped over to what Jesus said to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21, “if you would be perfect, sell what you possess, and give it to the poor.” They applied this to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus didn’t mean its commands for everybody, but only for those who would be perfect.
This became one of the reasons for monasticism. By becoming a monk or a nun, you separated yourself from the mass of humanity who certainly could not keep the Sermon on the Mount.
To the extent the prosecutor thought about it at all, that may be how he saw me. Perhaps, he saw me as someone who had taken the teachings of Jesus as counsels of perfection. Thus, Jesus required me to actually forgive. Other Christians? Not so much.
This points up a real problem. Keeping the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount seems to conflict with any public role. If you are on jury duty, or serving as a judge; a policeman; a soldier; or a social worker with Child Protective Services, can you really keep the Sermon on the Mount and still do your job? Heck, can you even be a parent?
Leo Tolstoy took the Sermon on the Mount radically and literally. He admitted that keeping it would mean anarchy. But he thought Jesus required us to keep it anyway. Anabaptists, like the Mennonites and Brethren, also tended toward a radical interpretation but tried to mitigate the most extreme implications. Protestants, especially Lutherans, tended to see the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal. Trying to keep its commands and failing would lead you to seek grace. Also, they combined this with a “two kingdoms” doctrine. The Sermon on the Mount applied to our private lives and our relations to God, but not in the public sphere. It applied to the Kingdom of God, but not to the Kingdom of this World. Thus, a cop would have to try to turn the other cheek if confronted as a private individual, but not if officially arresting a suspect.
Allison see that there are reasonable aspects to each of these views. The counsels of perfection idea is right that everything Jesus said did not apply to everybody. The radical view is right that Jesus was serious about his precepts, and that keeping them really would be transformative. But the impossible ideal interpretation is right that Jesus was not talking about the behavior of the government and people in public roles.
So I will keep reading and sharing with you Allison’s attempt to hear what Jesus really says in the Sermon on the Mount.