Lenten Reading: Sermon on the Mount #4

Reading the Sermon on the Mount has become a great way for my wife and I to spend some quiet time together in the morning before the day kicks into high gear. Today, she and I talked for a while about some patterns we saw in the “you have heard it said…but I tell you” passages in Matthew 5:21-48.

We remembered that the familiar “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38) refers back to commands in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The laws of ancient Israel authorized retaliation for injustices, but they also restrained the scope of vengeance. Retaliation was reciprocal. If I knock your teeth out, you get to knock out mine. But you’re not allowed to cut off my arm or stab me in the heat of anger. Civil laws are important and we should work to change unjust laws. Laws are often meant to restrain destructive human behavior. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

Yet in the Sermon on the Mount I hear Jesus urging his listeners to use what King and Gandhi called “soul force” to go beyond the standards of restraint to the standards of love. The end goal isn’t reciprocity, it’s restored relationship:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:38-48)

I think there is another area in which we need to apply these passages to 21st century America. Payback is a kind of economic calculus, but Christians need to resist the pressure to filter our relationships through the sieve of the standards of the free market. The more I read about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, the more convinced I become of its subtle treachery. Most relevant to this discussion are Rand’s ethics of self-interest and her politics of capitalism. “Politics,” as readers of John Howard Yoder will remember, refers to the ways people live together and make decisions. Rand envisioned a society in which all relations were governed by the rules of transaction, “offering value for value” and for a limited time only. Though we rarely hear talk about “objectivism” per se, self-interest and a reverence for capitalism that borders on idolatry are slipping into the American political mainstream. These are in direct opposition to the ethics of non-retaliation and redemptive suffering, and the politics of enemy love and reconciliation we see in the Sermon on the Mount. The end goal isn’t personal profit, it is restored relationships and God’s glory.

  • Susan Adams

    Well said, John! I have always thought that Atlas Shrugged was one of the most depressing books ever written, mostly because it demonstrates the extremem isolation and profound loneliness of capitalism predicated on individualism and competition. Thanks for helping us think about the idolatry of capitalism that has slithered into the hearts, minds, and decision-making of the church.

    • http://www.facebook.com/johnepattison John Pattison

      Thanks, Susan! You are so right about the extreme isolation and loneliness. Well put.


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