The Pope's first Jesus Book– Chapter 4.1– Sermon on the Mount

The longest chapter thus far in the book is  Chapter Four on the Sermon on the Mount (pp. 64-127)  and it doesn’t end there because there is a whole separate chapter on the Lord’s prayer (pp. 128-68).  This is one of the areas of Catholic theology that Wesleyans and Anabaptists have the most resonances with Catholic approaches, because the Sermon on the Mount is foundational for their whole approaches to things as varied as holiness and pacifism.

The Pope begins on p. 64 with the important point that is made in Matthew that Jesus comes from Galilee of the Gentiles, which echoes phrases from Is. 8.23 and 9.1. The point is that it was natural for the light unto the nations to come from such a region.   This is an excellent point.  Not surprisingly  the Pope sees the teaching on the mount as a Mosaic motif—- Jesus being the latter day prophet like and greater than Moses.   While there is a stress that Jesus is particularly teaching the disciples with other listening, he doesn’t think this is restrictive, since any one who hears and follows can become a disciple.  Discipleship is not defined by lineage.   Jesus brings a new Torah, and in his exposition of the Sermon, the Pope will focus on three things— the Beatitudes first, then the new Torah teaching  (in which he plans to interact with Jacob Neusner’s  ‘A Rabbis  Talks with Jesus), and finally with the Lord’s Prayer.   What is missing in this is a treatment of the wisdom character including the parabolic speech and actual parables that are part of this Sermon.   The Pope however is well aware that there is a very different form of the Sermon in Luke, a more truncated form, and so he is aware that what we have in Mt. 5-7 is probably a compilation of Jesus’ greatest hits from various teaching times.

In regard to the Beatitudes the Pope stresses  (pp.70ff) that the first half of these beatitudes refer to the actual conditions of some of Jesus’ disciples who are poor, hungry etc. and the second half is eschatological character, though the Pope rightly stresses that there is some fulfillment of the promises even during the lifetime of the first disciples.  It’s not all pie in the sky by and by, and in any case it is not referring to fulfillment in heaven, but rather on earth.  He points to the same sort of paradoxes in Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 4.8-9 or 6.8-10.   What is being described here is true blessedness, not the be happy attitudes.   As the Pope says we are dealing with Jesus’ transvaluation of normal values and views of the world, and of what makes for a blessed or good or happy life.   The Pope is right as well that the first half of each beatitude could be said to describe Jesus’ own life since he began his ministry—he is hungry, he has nowhere to lay his head etc.   We see here counter-order wisdom quite unlike what we find in Proverbs where we are told that the more pious and Torah true you are the more prosperous and healthy you will be and the more people will bless you. But not when the times are out of joint and an evil scourge of a ruler rules the land.

The Pope takes ‘poor is spirit’  to mean the pious poor, not merely someone who is lacking in spiritual formation but might be physically quite well off (he seems to rely rather heavily on Gnilka’s Matthew commentary at various points).     The Pope sees however a continuity between what is said here and the later Christian ascetics, and here I would beg to differ.   You cannot take the Beatitudes of Jesus outside the context of the fact that Jesus was also known as a feaster, and in fact did not commit his disciples to rigorous fasting like John’s disciples. Indeed, Jesus contrasts himself and his disciples with that of John and his disciples on this precise point.   There is nothing in these beatitudes that encourages the commitment to poverty as a form of simpler or purer spirituality.   The beatitudes are statements about God’s blessings on those who are the least, last, and lost.  It is a mistake to read this material in light of later Christian asceticism.    The giving up of things to follow Jesus by the disciples was at all points a temporary thing during his ministry.  While on the road they relied on the hospitality they could find in villages. But they regularly returned home.  And we find Jesus himself regularly involved in feasting, even getting a reputation as one who socialized with sinners and tax collectors.   I have to disagree that the ascetical saints, like Saint Francis are the truest interpretations of such Scriptures.   Much as I admire St. Francis in various ways for his spirit and spirituality,  there are various ways in which he is at variance with what Jesus says about the normal Christian life.   There is in any case a problem with setting up two orders of discipleship— plain old ordinary discipleship, and the extreme asceticism of the uber-disciple.   Of this, the NT says nothing, any more than it says anything about a call of only certain highly blessed Christians to become priests.   The NT knows of only two priesthoods—the high and heavenly priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of all believers.   And we must do our best to avoid giving the impression that there is some special class of elite Christians who are super spiritual and more dedicated to Christ or better at living out the radical demands of Christ than others.  Oddly enough, this can become a sort of inverted elitism, at least in the minds and eyes of the ordinary Christians.  It may well involve living a simpler life,  remaining unmarried etc.  but frankly these sacrifices and this humility is no greater than the ones married people make all time for others, including their children.

The Pope is right that the third beatitude is indebted to Ps. 37.11- the meek shall inherit the land.  He rightly compares Mt. 11.29 which refers to Christ’s meekness.  The meek are not the weak, and the promise here is that they will not be the impoverished either— indeed they will inherit the land or earth.   The Pope also rightly points to Zech. 9.9-10 and links meekness with humility.  But humility is the attitude and action of a strong person, stepping down and serving others by choice.

There are some interesting reflections on the reason for the ‘promised land’ concept, namely that God wanted a zone on earth that was holy, free from idolatry, a place where his claim and his kingdom was recognized as reigning.  The Pope on p. 83 connects this to the idea of Sabbath— saying Sabbath shows us what creation is for, and its goal— peace on earth, good will to others, and the like.  I think there is some truth to this, but the goal is in fact the worship, not merely the conditions which make such worship possible, and the redemption project is the means to the end of that true and full worship and fellowship between God and his people on earth, as it is in heaven.   The Pope connects all this to the ‘blessed are the peacemakers….’ For Jesus is the prince of peace, and his disciples are meant to carry forth his agenda in this regard and when they do so, they are especially being sons and daughters of God.   Peacemaking, not war-mongering is the Gospel mandate.

The exposition on ‘Blessed are those who mourn’  is helpful in distinguishing a sort of mourning that indicates all hope is lost and leads to despair (he gives the example of Judas Iscariot) and a mourning that is productive, cathartic, healing and teaches one to hope again (p. 86).  We are not to grieve like those who have no hope, as Paul said.   He then goes on to connect this beatitude to the one about blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake.   Here there is suffering but for a good and godly cause which leads to mourning but not despair.   Once again, the Pope sees a Christological message implicit here— Jesus is the paradigm of the righteous sufferer, suffering for righteousness, and he is indeed the Son of God.

On p. 92 the Pope points out that the ‘every person should follow the dictates of their own conscience and chosen religion and this will lead to salvation’ while a modern mantra, is definitely not what Christ teaches.  He says that we must hunger and thirst for righteousness, for something we do not already have and have not inherited and Christ is definitely we don’t already inherently have within us.   We must inquire after God, seek his face with clean hands and a pure heart, and then we may see him.  Purification of the heart comes as a result of discipleship to Christ.   On p. 96 he speaks briefly about the corresponding woes in Lk. 6 and says we should see this in light of Ps. 1 or  Jeremiah 17—the two ways sort of discourse and he goes on the next few pages to take on Nietzsche’s view of true humanity which is largely a colossal reaction against the beatitudes.       Next up— the Pope takes on the Torah of the Messiah, beginning on p. 99.

  • CJ Tan

    Dear Dr Ben,

    Thanks for this insightful review. You wrote:

    “We see here counter-order wisdom quite unlike what we find in Proverbs where we are told that the more pious and Torah true you are the more prosperous and healthy you will be and the more people will bless you. But not when the times are out of joint and an evil scourge of a ruler rules the land.”

    Exactly so. Jesus was launching His ministry at THE eschatological crisis of Israel’s history.

    But what of Christians in today’s western and emerging economies? The financial crisis notwithstanding, society’s dream is to go and pursue prosperity and the ‘good life’ when the opportunity presents itself. Christians may conclude that if they are obedient to the Gospel, etc, they should experience blessings as what they see in Proverbs.

    Perhaps a better way to see this is to say we are still at the eschatological age that was inaugurated by Jesus. The counter-order wisdom embedded in the Beatitudes still holds very much true in our present day as it did in Jesus’ day. I agree that this ethic does not prescribe poverty or denial for it’s own sake – joy, fellowship and feasts should be a constant make up of discipleship in addition to praying, silence and fasting – but disciples are called to be ready for persecution, opposition and suffering when they live out the Gospel in an age that is hostile to God’s purposes.

    Blessings,
    CJ Tan

  • RickC

    ‘Discipleship is not defined by lineage.’ I couldn’t agree with you more on this and further more you couldn’t say it often enough to get the point across. “My daddy was a staunch… whatever!” “Okay, that’s good to know. How do you spell the word Jesus?” “G-E-E-Z-I-S”. “Excellent! You’re now the lead translator, like your daddy was, on the upcoming version of the RNB.”. (Red Neck Bible). “Just one more question. How do you spell mama?” “S-I-S-T-E-R”

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Thank you C.J. for your thoughtful response. I agree with you and your reflections.

    BW3

  • Luke Allison

    I recently spent three days in silent retreat at a Catholic hermitage, and had some great interactions with some of the Catholic brothers there. It reminded me of something: underneath all the scandals and caricatures are people who study and sit under the authority of Scripture. People who are actually willing to shun their own ideas of right and wrong in favor of what the Word teaches them. This was very refreshing after wading through the firestorm that Love Wins left in its wake.

    The mere fact that so many young evangelicals have been more bothered by the critiques of Love Wins than by the sloppy exegesis that you and Scot McKnight, among others, have pointed out is a testament to our relative disregard for anything approaching “authority” in the Scriptures.

    The fact that the Pope seems to desire to sit under their authority himself should put us (30-and-unders like me) to shame. Authority sees authority and submits. That’s the nature of the game. This warms my heart.


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