What should we do with the seemingly impossible demands of the Sermon on the Mount? The lofty character of the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:2-12), the expectation of pure attitudes and not simply moral actions (Mt. 5:21-47), the impossible ideal of divine perfection (Mt. 5:48). What do we do with all these demands and commands? Should we ignore them, explain them away, embrace them with all their implied perfectionism, or something else entirely?
This is the question that Scot McKnight wrestles with at the beginning of his excellent new commentary Sermon on the Mount (Zondervan, 2013). Like all the volumes in The Story of God Bible Commentary, McKnight’s book focuses on connecting the truth of the text with the everyday world in which we all live. And he starts strong with this book, quickly raising some good questions for those who want to place the “demands” of the Sermon inside a broader framework of grace. Although he’s clearly sympathetic to this approach, he’s aware that it can come with some major drawbacks.
Reading the Sermon through the Lens of Grace
McKnight begins his discussion by pointing out that there’s a long history of trying to “explain away” the Sermon’s radical demands. Some have viewed the Sermon much like the Mosaic Law, serving as a mirror to demonstrate our sinfulness in the face of God’s perfect expectations. Others, privatize the Sermon, emphasizing the right attitudes that we should have rather than our outward, public actions. And some have seen the Sermon as just for the most committed disciples, not for every Christian.
According to Scott, though, the most common way that people seek to de-radicalize the Sermon on the Mount is just to emphasize grace. As he says,
“the tendency today is to see the Sermon as preceded by something, and that something is the gospel and that gospel is personal salvation and grace. That means that the Sermon is a sketch of the Christian life but only for those who have been so transformed by grace that they see the demands not as law but as grace-=shaped ethics that can only be done by the person who lives by the Spirit. The Sermon, then, is Christian ethics, but it can only be understood once someone understands a theology of grace.” (p. 2)
And who would really want to argue with that? Of course Jesus’ ethic is based on grace. Just grunting out a little “obedience” isn’t going to cut it. God wants people whose hearts have been transformed by grace and who follow him out of love. Doesn’t that sound about right?
McKnight doesn’t necessarily argue with that approach, but he does point out two related concerns. And they are issues that anyone inclined toward a grace-based or gospel-centered approach to the Sermon on the Mount should reflect on.
Problem #1: Prioritizing Jesus over Paul
McKnight’s first concerns is that this approach tends to read the Sermon through the lens provided by Paul’s letters.
“those who take this approach more often than not end up denying the potency of the Sermon and sometimes simply turn elsewhere — to Galatians an dRomans and Ephesians — for their Christian ethical instruction.”
Now McKnight would be the first to say that this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Paul’s letters. Indeed, he’s rather fond of them, and he points out that a lot of recent scholarship has emphasized the significant continuity between Jesus and Paul, rather than the older emphasis on discontinuity.
Nonetheless, he’s concerned that the grace-based approach is so focused on Paul that it fails to hear the Sermon as Jesus presents it. Instead, he argues, “It is far wiser to ask how Paul relates to the Sermon than to make Jesus sound like Paul.” Regardless of how we understand the relationship between the Gospels and the letters of Paul, that seems like sound advice.
Problem #2: The Rose-Colored Glasses of Grace
McKnight’s second-but-related concern is that by reading the Sermon through the pauline emphasis on grace causes us to miss the radically command-oriented nature of the Sermon.
He has a similar critique for those emphasizing some kind of virtue ethics as the right way of understanding Christian morality. While he clearly has strong sympathies for this approach, he is concerned that virtue ethicists likewise miss something important in the Sermon: Jesus doesn’t emphasize virtue.
“The fundamental problem with virtue ethics is that Jesus does not overtly talk like this; he does not teach the importance of habits as the way to form character.” (p. 5)
When we read the Sermon through any pre-established ethical lens — whether it’s the virtue ethic of Aristotle, the deontological ethic of Kant, the utilitarian ethic of Mill, or the grace-based ethic of many modern theologians — we can easily miss the radical nature of the Sermon itself.
“There is something vital…in letting the demands of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness.” (p. 3)
In the next post we’ll look at what McKnight suggests as a better approach to understanding the ethical framework of the Sermon. For now, though, it’s worth reminding ourselves to read the Sermon as Jesus gave it, not trying to force it into a shape that more easily conforms to our expectations and lifestyles, but allowing it to challenge and reshape our notions of what it means to be disciples.