“You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .”
“What is the most challenging aspect of the Sermon on the Mount?" the professor asked, after the course syllabus and schedule were hurriedly surveyed. He was eager to put on theological hiking boots and hit a dusty path leading up to the mountaintop of the Jesus’ well-known “sermon.”
I still marvel at how I ended up on that mountain and in that sermon. Being a first-year student at Fuller Theological Seminary, I had been bumped out of all the classes I wanted, and the only available option was a course titled "Christian Ethics," taught by Professor Glen Stassen. Dr. Stassen, an avid student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a radical pacifist, changed forever the way I read and understand Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount.
Of course, it was not my first encounter with the sermon. As a pastor, I had given homilies, taught lessons, and prayed prayers informed and inspired by the words from "the Mount of Blessings." However, what I learned on that overcast September day would leave me with a sense of finding my own pearl of the great value.
“What is most challenging?” His opening question lingered. For me the most challenging facet of the sermon was not the words themselves, but rather people—people so naïve as to take the mountain top words of Jesus literally. “Please, Dr. Stassen,” I said to myself, “this is my first class at Fuller. Don’t tell me I have to drop out before I even start—don’t tell me you want me to believe that Jesus set up for us ethical standards so high that the peak of the Mt. Everest looks like a speed bump in comparison.”
The professor gave his answer: “The most challenging thing in the sermon is its unrealistic but vitally important expectations.” By the time that sentence was finished, I was on my laptop, searching for any still available classes to take—just to get off this misguided, frustration-inducing path toward an unattainable ethical mountaintop.
“I suggest,” he continued, "we notoriously misread the sermon. These are not ideals and antitheses intended to make us all feel guilty or lost." Instead, he explained, the teachings should be read more as descriptive than prescriptive. The sermon is meant to demonstrate how the Kingdom of God is breaking in and breaking up the sinful reality of vicious cycles of moral failures.
I closed my laptop, my theological curiosity hesitatingly reaching for a pair of hiking boots. I had never heard anyone speak about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that way. Usually, New Testament scholars view Jesus' statements as pairs of contrasting ideas, the tradition versus Jesus new teaching: “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .”
But Stassen proposed that we read Jesus’ statements not as pairs of tradition versus alternative religious practices, but rather as patterns of three, which demonstrate the redemptive nature of God's kingdom.
For example, beginning with the "Do not murder" command in Matt. 5:21-26, Dr. Stassen articulated three movements. First, Jesus reminds the disciples of the traditional teaching on the issue of murder: “You have heard ‘don’t murder’” (v. 21).
Second, Jesus describes how a negative attitude toward people inevitably leads to devastating consequences and vicious cycles for those who let anger and hate to get the best of them: “But I tell you, anyone angry with a sister/brother is liable for judgment” (v. 22).
Third, Jesus outlines practices—transforming initiatives—of the Kingdom that can potentially save people's lives, breaking up the vicious cycles of sin and injustice: “Go quickly and be reconciled, before engaging in worship and before going to court” (vv. 23-26).
Notice how the invitation to reconcile does not negate the traditional teaching expressed in verse 21; rather it invites us to take specific steps to join God in the redemptive work on behalf of humanity—to participate in that inbreaking Kingdom of God!
And that was just the first of the fourteen teachings. As Stassen painstakingly analyzed every one of the fourteen triads in the rest of the sermon, I held my breath. It was not the height of the mount that left me awestruck but the breadth of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ unapologetic proclamation of the gospel.
My course with Dr. Stassen became a truly life-transforming experience. Admittedly, this sort of effort is not a walk in the park; on the contrary, it can be a challenging theological climb to the mountaintop of the Sermon. We may get a few blisters on the way up, but what a view opens up when we there.
(A final note: I am grateful to have experienced Glen Stassen as my first professor at the seminary. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us; an aggressive type of cancer lead to his untimely death in 2014. Thankfully he summarized his teachings in an excellent book titled Living the Sermon on the Mount.)