The Ethic of Love: The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount has been discussed by numerous theologians throughout the ages. Many have interpreted the teachings as law, making this reading some of the harshest words Jesus ever spoke to his gathered community of wayward fishermen, dispossessed people, and searching souls. The sermon is generally thought to be gathered isolated sayings from the early church communities. Each is a summary of something, like an original sermon of Jesus or the essence of a piece of his teachings, that could have taken the form of a question and answer. Joachim Jeremias, a German theologian in the 20th century, wrote that when the Sermon on the Mount is read as certain scholars have defined it as law, three understandings follow:
1. A Perfectionist ethic: Jesus is a Teacher of the Law who tells his disciples what is required of them—perfection. He says he has come not to destroy the law as old vs new prescription is contrasted. You have heard it said, but I say....” He is giving the disciples a clear directive of the will of God.
2. An Impossible ethic: Jesus is the Preacher of Repentance. When Jesus makes such unattainable demands, we know we cannot reach perfection, so despair at our own efforts sets in. Then guilt awakens in us a consciousness of sin, leading us to repentance and the possibility of mercy.
3. An Interim-ethic: Jesus is the Apocalyptic Prophet. Jesus was preaching to men who knew they were living in a time of crisis, that there was not much time left. It was a time to love your enemies. Pull yourselves together and live a death-bed lifestyle.
Joachim questions whether Jesus was any of these. He concludes that we are called to read the Sermon on the Mount not as law, but as Gospel. Another theologian of the 20th century Howard Thurman who was a peace activist and mystic, wrote about the Sermon on the Mount as Gospel. He was one of the fathers of the Civil Rights Movement, who influenced Dr. King so much that he carried Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, with him in his brief case. It was Thurman who wrote in the 1940s in the South under the oppression of Jim Crow that when we read the Sermon on the Mount as Gospel and live it out, “We are free at last.” The Sermon on the Mount explains an ethic of love that calls us to radical freedom. In an ethic of love, Jesus is the embodiment of the Sermon in deeds. As long as we see it as a legal prescription, something we have to live out as an obligation, we become slaves to it. But living into an ethic of love, we glimpse at the miracle of the haunting words, Don't worry about what you are to eat or what you are to wear, Take neither walking stick nor traveling bag, “Love your enemies,” Do not return evil for evil, Proclaim good news to the poor.
When Thurman describes this ethic of love, he begins by talking about loving people where there are rifts in our own world—the people we are close to in our circle. But then he talks about rifts in a separated world. These are the “others” and it is where people live in fear, shame, anger, and cynicism. For example, how the people on the hillside listening to Jesus might feel towards the tax collectors, their oppressors. This ethic of love does not ask us to condone the act, but the act does not cause us not to love. It’s not condemning the enemies’ actions; it is penetrating their thickest resistance so that we can all lay bare our interior walls and get to the heart. This person or group of people you consider an enemy is what holds you back from the altar and this person or group still belongs to God. When we awaken this gospel understanding in us and in our former enemies, change is possible. We all know that enemies of religious or political nature, can derail any of us. But politics are not our religion. Take Rome, for example, from the perspective of the occupied people in Jerusalem. Jesus lifted individuals out of that general classification and saw them face to face as equals—willing to teach, heal, and comfort them. It doesn’t mean there is not accountability, resistance, or that it doesn’t come at a great cost to the individuals stepping out of their bounds. But it means we change the balance of love in the world in the most powerful and poetic way. It means we reexamine our own prejudices and live as freely as possible with this guiding gospel.
This week I spent 4 days in LA as part of the CNN Heroes Award given to Thistle Farms. We were there to learn more about running not-for- profits and hear from the other nine groups that also won the award. CNN touts this award as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. As I sat and listened in light of this Gospel, I heard stories of communities wounded and underserved and realized the award should really be about extraordinary people who do ordinary things. I heard the story told by Luma Mufleh who began her talk with, “I am an immigrant, a Muslim, a lesbian, and I serve refugees. I guess you could say I hit the jackpot.” Luma founded the Fugees Family. The Fugees Academy (6- 12 graders) she heads has a very successful football (soccer) team. She told the story to a tear-filled circle of friends about an extraordinary thirteen-year old who was a refugee from the Congo. He had witnessed the death of his father, the rape of his mother, and experienced the hard journey refugees make to our country. Luma described this young man’s anger and how he hit another player on the field. She ran out onto the field and was herself struck. She then embraced the young boy and held her hand over his heart and kept repeating in Arabic, breathe. He placed his hand over her hand, so they were both holding his heart as he began to calm down. Slowly and surely over the next several years, he began the journey from woundedness and anger towards a world of enemies into becoming a passionate student and healer who has gone on to earn a full scholarship to college. It all began simply by holding his heart in an ethic of fearless love.
We all heard other stories of extraordinary people doing ordinary things: a young cancer survivor taking a kayak ride, a foster youth who aged out of a system and got his own apartment, a child with cerebral palsy riding a horse, a survivor of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction taking her first cruise, and a young man from public housing learning to ride a bike. Extraordinary people doing ordinary things not because they followed laws, but because they were casted out and then loved. An ethic of love can overcome any barriers, any divisions as we live out this Gospel in fellowship. Every time we walk out onto a field, take a hit, and then put our hand over a heart in response, every time we step out in love, every time we forgive what we once thought was unforgivable, every time we love an enemy, we are extraordinary and doing the most ordinary thing we were created to do… love. Love. Love.
What is it that still makes you read this Gospel as a perfectionist law we can never attain? What is it that you think you cannot forgive? Who is the enemy who prevents you from loving? That is a good place to feel the freedom embedded in these strange and compelling words. We hear these words, and then step out into a pretty harsh and scary world and remember the common worth and value of every single person we meet, in our circle and beyond our circle. The calling of this Gospel is not to condemn, but to free us.