The Old Rugged Words (John Frye)

The Old Rugged Words, by John Frye.

 We cannot separate the old rugged cross from Jesus’ old rugged words found in Matthew 5:38-42. “Let the word be as rugged as it really is; its ruggedness carries its rhetorical power to call his disciples into the kingdom where retaliation will end” (129). What are those rugged words? “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” We are reviewing chapter 9 of The Story of God Bible Commentary: The Sermon on the Mount by Scot McKnight.

About the text at hand Scot writes, “Our passage then becomes a classic location for virtue ethics and the Anabaptist or kingdom vision to part ways” (132). While well-reasoned differences exist about the meaning of this text, let me restate what I wrote in the last post. We cannot easily dismiss Scot’s interpretation by simply saying, “Well, there’s his Anabaptism influencing the text.” I personally do not want to hear Jesus say to me, “It wasn’t an Anabaptist view that Scot had; it was my Messianic Ethic from Beyond that he got offered.” We need to think seriously about this text. Martin Luther’s radical two domains view (private and public) is “utter nonsense,” as is Calvin’s softer two domains view (based on Augustine) which support a “just war” theory.

True to the SGBC series intent, Scot sinks this pericope into Israel’s justice system with its basis in divine revelation around the lex talionis. Scot emphasizes that not only did this provision curb violence, it was required: “Show no pity” (Deut 19:21). It was egalitarian—no one was exempt. Even though later halakhot tempered physical retribution with financial compensation, commensurable justice had to be meted out. Enter the new Moses. Jesus, in effect, changes “Show no pity” to “Show mercy.” “Instead of prosecution and instead of exacting retribution to redress the imbalance of justice, Jesus forms another way: show mercy and unravel the system of retribution that pervades our society” (130, emphasis Scot’s). Scot explains the four examples that Jesus gives in their cultural context. Jesus isn’t talking theoretical ethics, but offering a radical, practical alternative to be lived out by his followers.

People try to mitigate Jesus’ words. One commentator, in his interpretation, actually contradicts the very truth that Jesus declares (129)! Others try to smooth out Jesus’ rugged words by getting us to live by what Jesus would have said (e.g., about a different scenario of the good Samaritan story) based on virtue ethics’ hierarchy of values. Scot notes that none of this is in the text. Scot, also, notes that the Bible says a lot about war, but where do we go for definitive ethics? To Jesus, about whom the voice from heaven said, “Listen to him!” Not to Moses. Not to the Prophets.

That some think Jesus is unrealistic, as if he doesn’t really grasp the evil world we live in, is beyond me. Pacifism may be ridiculed as impractical at best and unrealistic at worst, but it was the way taught and modeled by Jesus. “Peter, put up your sword.”

How did Jesus engage his enemies? Do we see the Cross, the way of Jesus, etched into very word of the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus is about creating a new society of people. That new society is to live publicly every word Jesus taught no matter the cost. Jesus isn’t asking us to be realistic as defined by society’s standards of justice, but to be obedient to the new vision of being a new people. This is one of the most provocative chapters by Scot that I’ve ever read and I admit that I wrestle with its content. Scot ends the chapter with Jarrod McKenna’s story of not resisting an evil person. Jarrod asks some questions at the end of his story. This one stopped me in my tracks: “Who wants a Savior who loves the enemies we want to kill?” Friend, take up and read.

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