A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:1,2. Is the sermon practical?
This third question is that of the pragmatist. It is one thing to be convinced of the Sermon’s relevance in theory, but quite another to be sure that it will work in practice. Are its standards attainable? or must we rest content with admiring them wistfully from afar?
Perhaps a majority of readers and commentators, looking the reality of human perversity in the face, have declared the standards of the Sermon on the Mount to be unattainable. Its ideals are noble but unpractical, they say, attractive to imagine but impossible to fulfil. They know something of man’s self-assertive egoism; how then can he be meek? They know his imperious sexual passion; how then can he refrain from lustful looks and thoughts? They know his absorption in the cares of the world; how then can he be forbidden to worry? They know his proneness to anger and his thirst for revenge; how then can he be expected to love his enemies? More than this. Is not the requirement to turn the other cheek to an assailant as dangerous to the health of society as it is beyond the attainment of the individual? To invite further violence in this way not only leaves it unchecked, but actively encourages it. No. The Sermon on the Mount is of no practical value to either individuals or communities. At best, it represents the unpractical idealism of a visionary. It is a dream which could never come true.
A modification of this view, first expressed by Johannes Weiss in 1892 and later popularized by Albert Schweitzer, is that Jesus was making exceptional demands for an exceptional situation. Because they believed that Jesus was expecting the end of history to arrive almost immediately, they argued that he was giving his disciples an ‘interim ethic’, which required them to make total sacrifices like leaving their possessions and loving their enemies – sacrifices appropriate only for that moment of crisis. In this case the Sermon on the Mount becomes a kind of ‘martial law’, which only a major emergency could justify. It is emphatically not an ethic for every day.
And there have been many other attempts to accommodate the Sermon on the Mount to the low levels of our moral attainment. In the fourth and fifth chapters of his book *Understanding the Sermon on the Mount*, Harvey McArthur first surveys and then evaluates no fewer than twelve different ways of interpreting the Sermon. He says he might well have subtitled this section ‘Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount’, for all but one of the twelve interpretations offer prudential qualifications of its apparently absolute demands.
At the opposite extreme are those superficial souls who glibly assert that the Sermon on the Mount expresses ethical standards which are self-evidently true, common to all religions and easy to follow. ‘I live by the Sermon on the Mount,’ they say. The most charitable reaction to such people is to assume that they have never read the Sermon which they so confidently dismiss as commonplace. Quite different (although he too believed the Sermon had been preached in order to be obeyed) was Leo Tolstoy. True, he knew himself to be an abysmal failure, but he retained a belief that the precepts of Jesus could be practised, and he put his conviction into the lips of Prince Nekhlyudov, the hero of his last great novel *Resurrection*, which was published in 1899-1900.
Tolstoy’s prince is generally recognized as a portrait of himself and a thinly disguised one at that. At the end of the novel Nekhlyudov re-read the Gospel of Matthew. He saw in the Sermon on the Mount ‘not beautiful abstract thoughts, presenting for the most part exaggerated and impossible demands, but simple, clear, practical commandments, which if obeyed (and this was quite feasible) would establish a completely new order of human society, in which the violence that filled Nekhlyudov with such indignation would not only cease of itself, but the greatest blessing man can hope for – the kingdom of heaven on earth – would be attained’.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:1,2. Is the Sermon on the Mount practical? (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.