By Jim Tune
When it comes to discussions about the teachings of Jesus, especially his “hard” teachings, I”ve grown tired of the tendency to tame any revolutionary teaching that seems just too radical or too naÃ¯ve or idealistic.
The conversation too often goes like this: “I know that”s what Jesus said, but what he really meant was. . . .” For example, when Jesus tells us not to store up riches on earth, we repurpose it to say, “Do not get too attached to the riches that you have, in fact, stored up on earth.” We read the Sermon on the Mount and declare it unrealistic to ever really work in the “real world.”
The contrast between Jesus” vision of life and our vision of our own life can be unsettling. It bothers many of us. Throughout church history many have softened, reduced, recontextualized, and in some cases abandoned what Jesus taught””ostensibly in order to be more Christian!
Pinchas Lapide, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, commented: “The history of the Sermon on the Mount can largely be described in terms of an attempt to domesticate everything in it that is shocking, demanding, and uncompromising, and render it harmless.”
Longtime minister Dean Smith said: “The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars.”
One could accuse the sermon of being maddeningly impractical. “How,” most ask, “can such a posture by followers of Jesus be realistic in our world?” “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also”? Sure, that”s what the text says (Matthew 5:39), but Jesus could not have meant it. Right? “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). Really? Who would do THAT?! And “love your enemies”? (Matthew 5:44). Can Jesus be serious? Doesn”t he know our enemies aren”t playing by those rules?
So we tame it. Augustine, and later John Calvin, helped to shape a doctrine known today as the “just war theory” because they needed a theology that would allow them to support the local skirmishes as well as the imperial conquests of the nations to whom they belonged. It”s interesting to note that prior to Constantine, apart from a few exceptions, Christians refused to serve in the military. No theologian or church leader supported participation in the military. Their refusal to participate was not a resignation to Rome”s might, but an ethic of resistance in the form of aligning with a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom””the church.
The earliest followers of Jesus did not enter the military because they were convinced Jesus meant business when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. They would have understood, in ways not readily comprehended by us, that Jesus” posture was the exact opposite of the Zealots, who believed God”s will was for a kingdom established through violence and force.
Maybe it”s time we stopped asking what is practicable and first ask what it means to really follow Jesus.