Ron Sider, in If Jesus is Lord , examines the Sermon on the Mount and its implications for violence, war, and pacifism.
I consider Jesus’ teachings to be the most significant location for this entire discussion. If a kind of non-violence or pacifism can be found here … and if Jesus is Lord, the discussion is over. If not, the claims for pacifism are all but defeated.
Accepting Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom requires a fundamental reorienting of one’s thinking and acting. Jesus’s teaching shows his followers how they must allow their thought and behavior to be transformed in order to live in the new messianic time that has arrived in Jesus’s life and work.
Are the teachings of Jesus, esp in 5:21-48, corrections of misunderstandings or more? Do they actually go beyond OT?
In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg says that in the six antitheses of Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus “contravenes the letter of several of the Old Testament laws.”
As R. T. France notes, if Matthew 5:17-20 means that the rules of the Old Testament law must be followed “as they were before Jesus came,” Matthew would “here be contradicting the whole tenor of the NT by declaring that, for instance, the sacrificial and food laws of the OT are still binding on Jesus’s disciples.”
In other words, the messianic kingdom breaking into history in Jesus involves a new time that brings a new understanding of the Old Testament and transcends it in some sense.
The non-resistance passages, where the term resist refers to violent resistance, are discussed at length, followed by the absolutely noticeable and critical opposite stated by Moses in Deut 19:21, which is quoted after Jesus’ words:
Matt. 5:38 “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. 40 If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. 41 If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow (NLT).
Deut 19:21: You must show no pity for the guilty! Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
On Love Your Enemies:
Also striking is the fact that Matthew 5:38-48 is probably the most frequently cited biblical text when one collects all the statements about killing from the early Christian writers before the time of Constantine. Ten writers in at least twenty-eight different places cite or refer to this passage and note that Christians love their enemies and turn the other cheek. In nine instances, they link this passage from Jesus with a statement that Christians are peaceable, ignorant of war, or opposed to attacking others. Sometimes they explicitly link Jesus’s saying to a rejection of killing and war. In every single instance where pre-Constantinian Christian writers mention the topic of killing, they say that Christians do not do that, whether in abortion, capital punishment, or war. And Jesus’s statement about loving enemies is one of the reasons cited.
How do Christians deal with these passages? Sider’s summary statements:
- Jesus came to die.
- Jesus’s message is spiritual, not social.
- Jesus taught an interim ethic.
- Jesus’s radical ethics is for a special class of Christians.
- Jesus’s radical ethics calls us to repentance, not discipleship.
- Jesus’s ethics is for some future eschatological kingdom, not the present.
- Jesus’s command not to kill enemies applies to private not public roles.
Responding to this last view, which I hear all the time (and which some of our readers are right now saying to themselves), Sider says:
Careful consideration of this widely used argument is essential. I believe this argument: (1) ignores the historical context of Jesus’s teaching; (2) contradicts what seems to be the most obvious meaning of the text; (3) relies on pragmatism to set Jesus aside; (4) historically, has sometimes led to very bad consequences; and (5) ignores the first three centuries of Christian teaching about killing.
The most natural interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount seems to confirm that Christians in the first three centuries were right in thinking that Jesus intended to teach his followers never to kill.