Notre Dame’s Gary Gutting doesn’t think much of the real import of the Sermon on the Mount:
The Sermon on the Mount, however, does not offer a clear view of what makes for a good life. Many seem to think Jesus is saying little more than be nice to everybody. Others see a call to a heroic life of total non-resistance or self-sacrifice. Still others hear him as requiring little more than an enhanced version of the Ten Commandments (e.g., avoiding not only murder but also anger, not only adultery but also lustful desires).
He’s obviously never tried to live it. Evangelicals are notorious about their blasé attitude towards it, one partly conditioned by the fact that their modernist/liberal counterparts advertised that it was at the centre of their understanding of Christianity (as does Andrew Sullivan).
But for those of us raised in the Episcopal Church before modern Biblical scholarship (which reduced the New Testament to a patchwork of unreliable sources) become fashionable the Sermon on the Mount was serious business. For some of us at least…
Growing up in Palm Beach, it was obvious that most of those who professed and called themselves Christians (and that included most Gentiles) didn’t manifest a serious go at observing it. But I gave it, as my first Latin teacher would put it, the old college try, long before I actually found out what the old college try was all about.
When you’re on the bottom of Palm Beach’s social system, that isn’t easy. Things got better, temporarily at least, when I got to my Episcopal prep school. One command that got a workout there was the following:
Give to him who asks of you; and, from him who wants to borrow from you, do not turn away. (Matthew 5:42)
To follow that makes you a real mark in prep school. One classmate in particular, a preacher’s kid from up the coast, took advantage of this, and his call of “Lemme borrow a dime” was a frequent one.
Another one with unusual consequence was as follows:
You have heard that it was said–‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ I, however, say to you that you must not resist wrong; but, if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also; (Matthew 5:38-39)
One time a group of guys was running after me to attack me, but then their leader turned them away. One of them asked the leader why. His response? “He won’t fight.”
I thought for the longest I was the only one like this, but years later I had a a friend who was a) a high church Episcopalian and b) a scion of an old Charleston family. When she went to Ashley Hall, she did the same thing! (In those days the girls weren’t as much for physical fighting as they are now, but borrowing money was another story…)
And then Mr. Gutting has this to say:
Another problem is that Jesus does not explicitly or decisively endorse central contemporary values like democratic government, the abolition of slavery and the equality of women. Proponents of these values have found inspiration and support from his morality of love, but Jesus’ words alone do not push us in their direction.
In a world where elections (and governments) are bought and sold for billions, sex trafficking is on the rise, and privacy and personal liberty outside of sexual is going out the window, his characterisation of these “central contemporary values” is a little triumphalistic, to say the least. And I’ll bet that the financial people who buy and sell governments and people alike don’t find Matthew 5:42 to their taste.
The Sermon on the Mount may be hard to fulfil in this life, but life is certainly better when we give them the “old college try.” (And my first Latin teacher, BTW, was a Harvard man).