I've always wanted to write a series on the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Jesus' most famous teaching moment. The stark, uncompromising demands he makes, his inversion of the law and the religion of his day, has always challenged me. If we hear his words as somehow being the words of God, as being the foundation of our religious tradition, we are too often inclined to hear in them only what we expect to hear, what we've been taught in church and in Sunday School. They - radically unconventional in their day - become the new convention. They - a sweeping oratory against legalism - become the new law.
But if we hear these words as we might have heard them when they were first uttered, as the words of an unconventional teacher, part rabbi, part prophet, but not really either; as the words of a man who cannot really be pinned down: Is he a lunatic? Is he a genius? Is he a sage? Is he a fraud?, then we might hear just how strange they are. Just how challenging they are. Just how much their radical character demands of us, if we are truly listening.
If we give ourselves permission, just for a moment, to forget all we've ever thought we've known about Jesus and see him with fresh eyes, unshaped by two thousand years of Christological baggage, we might arrive at exactly what it is that Jesus was trying to teach the crowds that gathered around him that day.
But I've never had the intellectual ammunition or moral courage to do that. I've never been able to see the Sermon on the Mount through first century eyes. I've never been able to allow myself to hear the words of Jesus with the same critical ears I use when listening to anyone else preach or teach. And so, up until now, I've never written anything worth reading on the Sermon on the Mount. I've written on the person of Jesus. I've written on how Jesus has been seen through time, how our Christologies have developed. I've even written on how my own view of Jesus as the Christ has shifted oer time, how my own Christology has changed. I've exegeted more than a few parables, finding in them subtle nuances previously undetected (and quite possibly not there!). But I've never had anything meaningful to say about Jesus' most challenging teachings.
Still nursing my broken and now surgically repaired wrist, I've been unable of late to punch into the sporting goods time clock, a blessing and a curse. Being unable to work for my hourly wage, we're a little short financially right now. However, I'm long on time. There are so many books that I've been meaning to read, and as I nurse myself back to health (or, rather, as Sami nurses me back to health) I've finally got the time to read them.
So, with my new surplus of time, I picked up Rudolf Bultmann's treatise on the teachings of the "historical Jesus," Jesus and the Word. Much to the disappointment, I'm sure, of my college German professor, who used to impress upon me the value of reading the great German theologians and philosophers in their native German (Herr Baker. Du muss Kant auf Deutsch lesen!) I'm reading Bultmann in the 1934 English translation by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero. My German will, I'm sorry, never be that good. I'm too quintessentially American.
Anyway, Bultmann's project here is to bring his readers into an encounter with Jesus' teachings in their historical context, or at least to describe his own encounter. No comment is made about the person of Jesus, as Bultmann believes such knowledge is forever lost to history. As he puts it,
I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.
Further, he is unsure of the value of discussing Jesus' personality.
However good the reasons for being interested in the personalities of significant historical figures, Plato or Jesus, Dante or Luther, Napoleon or Goethe, it still remains true that this interest does not touch that which such men had at heart; for their interest was not in their personality but in their work.
Bultmann's concern, then, is neither with the Christology of the church, which he regards as legendary, nor with the study of the life and personality of Jesus, which he regards as both impossible and undesirable, distracting us from the real substance. No, Bultmann is exclusively concerned with Jesus' teaching.
Bultmann has long been presented to me as an almost exclusively negative writer. That is, he primarily negates traditional church teachings about Jesus rather than affirming something of value. Having not read any Bultmann before this week I cannot say whether or not that is true of the bulk of his writing. But I can say that in this volume on the teachings of Jesus, what is most interesting is not Bultmann's rejection and negation of traditional doctrine, but rather what he affirms about the teachings of the man who stands before and behind the religion which grew up around him.
He sees Jesus as both a rabbi and a prophet, but neither in a conventional sense. Like the rabbi, he shares a reverence for the word of God and a knowledge of the laws of God. But, according to Bultmann, he often inverts those laws, viewing them rather than as a system of commands instead as an invitation to radical obedience to the call of God. He shares the prophet's interest in reforming religion through an inversion of traditional practices, a call to a renewal which escapes rote religious repetition and ritual, and which incorporates and encompasses one's entire being. But he does not share the prophet's social concerns, he "does not speak of the state and civil rights."
The polemic of the prophets against the worship of false gods in Israel was combined with the struggle against political and social wrongs. Their teaching demanded justice and righteousness for the common people, and their demand was asserted by the command of God. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount show that Jesus sets the requirement of law and justice over against the command of God.
So while Jesus shares characteristics and concerns in common with both prophets and rabbis, he is neither a rabbi nor a prophet, nor truly some combination of the two. Rather, according to Bultmann, Jesus is best seen, through the lens of his teachings, as someone who calls others through crisis to the point of a radical decision. As such, it makes no sense to speak of the "ethic of Jesus," because Jesus calls us not to some universal ethic or ideal, but rather to a decision to be made over and over again,in each situation: to follow the will of God, or to rebel.
The Sermon on the Mount is often used to discuss Jesus' relationship to the law. And, rightly so. Like a good rabbi, this, his seminal teaching, offers an apparent commentary on the law. He looks at pieces of the law of Moses and offers fresh interpretations of them, radicalizing the law. These teachings follow a certain pattern:
You've heard it said
followed by a command from the law, then followed by,
but I say to you
followed by what is often seen as a kind of new law, a radicalizing of the previously given command.
You've heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5: 21-22, NRSV)
Here we see an expansion of the law. Not only is murder forbidden, but anger, which leads to murder, is forbidden. Unkind words, a form of metaphorical murder, are forbidden. As Bultmann says of it,
He who indeed refrains from murder but does not master anger has not understood that he must decide completely [to follow, or obey, the will of God].
There are other such apparent expansions of the law which Bultmann considers:
Matt. 6: 27-28, in which Jesus expands the command against adultery to include lust,
Matt. 5:31-32 and Luke 16:18, in which Jesus expands the concept of marriage beyond the possibility of divorce,
Matt. 5: 33 and 37, in which Jesus expands the prohibition against giving false witness to a demand for radical honesty,
Matt. 5: 38-41, in which Jesus expands the proportional limitation which the law places on retaliation to a call for non-violence, and
Matt. 5: 43-48, in which Jesus expands the command to love to include even love for one's enemy.
Of these he says
In all these passages the decisive requirement is the same: the good which is to be done is to be done completely. He who does it partially, with reservations, just enough to fulfill the outward regulation, has not done it at all.
How does this, according to Bultmann, work out in each of the individual passages? We have already seen his treatment of the expansion of murder to include even anger and insults. Of the rest, he says:
He who avoids adultery, but keeps lust in his heart, has not understood the prohibition of adultery, which requires of him purity. He who refrains simply from perjury has not seen that absolute truthfulness is demanded. He who divorces his wife has not understood that marriage requires of him a complete decision, but thinks of it as a relative action which can be annulled. He who takes revenge for injustice does not realize that by so doing he himself upholds injustice; to reject injustice completely means not to retaliate. He who is kind only to friends does not know what love means; for complete love includes love of enemies.
This much is a fairly conventional, but still insightful interpretation of this teachings of Jesus. But to stop here runs the risk of doing what has so often been done in the name of Jesus, but which, according to Bultmann, is the antithesis of Jesus' own teachings: that is, to set up these teachings as a new law, and to see Jesus as a new lawgiver.
According to Bultmann this is, in fact, the opposite of what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is not replacing old commands with new ones, or even supplementing the old commands with new, permanently binding interpretations. Rather, Jesus is inviting the hearer to a radical obedience of the will of God which does not depend on any law, any fixed regulation.
Law claims a man so far as his conduct can be found by formulated precepts. Beyond these it leaves free play to man's self-will. Jesus' belief is on the contrary that the human will has no freedom before God, but is radically claimed by Him. Under the law, the question "How well does my conduct conform to the commandment?" becomes a question of content, of the What of the action. Obedience must be determinable, and therefore law must concern itself with the What of action, not the How. Hence formal obedience to the law as such is no radical obedience, though of course true obedience can exist in fulfillment of the law.
Jesus has wholly separated obedience from legalism; hence he does not set up a better law in opposition to a less good law; he opposes the view that the fulfillment of the law is fulfilling the will of God. For God demands the whole man, not merely specific acts from the man.
Jesus then sees the act as expressing thewhole man, that is, he sees his action from the view-point of decision: Either-Or. Every half-way is an abomination. It would obviously be a complete misunderstanding to take these "But I tell you" passages as formal legal precepts of an external authority, which can be fulfilled by outward behavior. Whoever appealing to a word of Jesus refuses to dissolve an unendurable marriage, or whoever offers the other cheek to one who strikes him, because Jesus said so, would not understand Jesus. For he would have missed exactly the obedience which Jesus desires; he would imagine that he could achieve and present an act of obedience when obedience is not really present as a determining factor in his life. All these sayings are meant to make clear by extreme example that it is not a question of satisfying an outward authority but of being completely obedient. It is also wholly impossible to regard Jesus' teachings as universally valid ethical precepts by which a man can once for all order his life. Unless the decision which is demanded in these sayings arises out of a present situation, it is not truly the decision of obedience, but an achievement which the man accomplishes; he stands outside of his action, is not wholly identified with it.
Jesus, then, is not establishing a new law, or issuing some comprehensive ethic which will apply in every situation. He is instead issuing a radically situational ethic: in all situations, in every thought and action, one must obey God. One must in every way conform to the will of God.
This is a dangerous ethic because, though it demands that humans surrender their freedom, it still leaves the decision making process entirely in the hands of us imperfect people, who often "hear" the voice of God speaking to us, even if it isn't God we hear at all. This crisis theology ethic of radical obedience, as reflected in Bultmann's reading of Jesus, is built in part of Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical, one of the most dangerous theological concepts I've ever encountered.
If we had perfect access to the will of God, then calling us to such radically situational obedience would be obviously beneficial. As Bultmann represents Jesus' teaching, we humans already know what we are to do. God speaks to us in every concrete situation, teaching us right from wrong, showing us how to obey. It is simply up to us to choose obedience in each moment.
And perhaps this is both an accurate representation of Jesus' teachings and our situation. Still, there are so many competing influences disguising themselves as the voice of God; and so often it is impossible for us, mired as we are in our own situation, chained as we are to our own perspective, to distinguish between our own wills and the will of God.
That, of course, does not mean that Bultmann or his view of the teachings of Jesus is wrong. It just means that, if we take this call to radical obedience seriously we must be constantly checking against ourselves, to make sure that we do not use the calling of God as a licence to disguise our own voices as the voice of God, and then pompously set our own wills up as a kind of idol in the place of God.
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