Jesus’ Love ethic as the interpretive center of the Sermon on the Mount
There is an extremism in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, parallel in Luke 6 as the Sermon on the Plain). Many in the history of the church have attempted to soften the teaching or restrict the application of the teaching to a class of Christian. Part of this radicalism, is Jesus Christ getting at the root of Sin, injustice, and unrighteousness. The sermon on the Mount is also, an articulation of Jesus’ ethic, the way of life or being for his body, the Church.
This ethic or way of life is nurtured in the soil of the Torah. The teaching is enriched by going beyond surface adherence of the commands of the Torah, so that one can dig into the richness of the Torah as life. This ethic also has its source in a radicalization of the Love command taught in the Torah: Love of God and neighbor as self. Jesus accepts this Love command as a summary of the Torah. In the sermon on the Mount love of neighbor (if neighbor is taken as someone one knows and with whom one shares an affinity) is radicalized as love of enemy. This radical neighbor love exposes how we justify our failures to live by the Torah and love of neighbor by cordoning off from ourselves certain others. We know this well: treatment of our in group (whatever that might be) stands in stark contrast to our treatment of the out group. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes explicit that the way of love Jesus shows and exhorts us towards doesn’t allow us to hate anyone even those who may harm us, that is our enemies.
Jesus’ love ethic and love command has two elements. One aspect is seeking to be neighbor to all (shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”. The answer to that question is the seeming non-sequitur question “Am I a neighbor?”). The other is love of those who do not return my love – love of those who hate me and seek my demise, even death.
If we conceive of love only as sentiment, we make pure nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. This radicalized ethic shows that the basis of love for Jesus isn’t only an emotion but also an action that extends love to all possible persons and all circumstances. Jesus’ teaching tells us that what is usually grounded in an emotive response to familiarity and affinity, is deeper and grander than our habitual way of understanding love. Love is more human and more divine than we realize or usually notice.
The Sermon on the Mount or Plain needs to be interpreted from this extreme love ethic rooted in the Torah and its summary as “Love of God and love of neighbor as self.” radicalized by removal of any limit we might put on “neighbor”. This is accomplished first through focus not on others but the self being a neighbor in any and all circumstances, this focus on self being neighbor and in the command to love one’s enemies.
Love of Enemy, Resist not the evil person and turning the other cheek
To hear correctly Jesus’ teaching on love of enemy, resisting not the evil person and turning the other cheek we must keep in mind that they occur in the portion of the sermon called the antitheses; “You’ve heard it was said (interpretation of the Torah…. but I (Jesus) say to you (new teaching on the Torah)…”. When we look at this section from the perspective of Torah summarized as love of God and neighbor as self, we can see this section as rooted in Torah and not it’s rejection. Jesus always has the Torah as the basis of the radicalized way of living and being he leads his disciples into, and moves it towards the extremity of the Torah’s meaning at points almost seeming to enjoin doing the opposite. Except that the Torah is never abandoned, but s clarified trough Jesus’ teaching. This is what is going on in the antitheses. Jesus isn’t questioning Torah but offering a different or new interpretation based on the love ethic.
Jesus’ teaching to ‘resist not evil” and turn the other cheek are often interpreted without reference to the love ethic. As often as not these sayings of Christ have been interpreted by powerful and privileged Christians to insist that the poor and the oppressed not upset the status quo, and endure their lot in life. While also being interpreted as not applying to Christians exercising the power of the state. There are interpretations of love of enemies, turning the other cheek and resist not evil all which subject the one suffering evil or oppression to accept the dehumanizing condition in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaching is turned into a defender of the status quo, rather than a uncompromising insistence on love that upend established order.
James Cone in his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X recounts Martin Luther King Jr’s account of influences of Kings child hood in Atlanta and of the example of his parents as key to his views. One of the incidents Cones recounts from Kings autobiography is an incident of King’s father being pulled over by a police officer when King was a child. Cone quotes King as saying that the elder King didn’t turn the other cheek but that the elder King insisted on being treated as a “man” and an equal. When the police officer called the elder King “boy” the elder King’s reply was that the younger king in the car with him was a boy but that he was a man. Turning the other cheek in Martin Luther King Jr.’s account is the opposite of standing up and demanding that one’s humanity be recognized in the face of degradation, oppression and injustice.
If this is Jesus intended teaching (accept and don’t stand against dehumanization) then what sense can we make of the Beatitudes, when what we see in the Beatitudes is the humanizing of those who are being dehumanized. When the Beatitudes are together with the command to love enemies, then we have a radical stance against dehumanizing any human being whatever they may do or have done, or however monstrous we may view the other. To refuse hate, even to refuse to hate one’s enemy but instead to love them, is a humanizing way of life that has no boundaries.
Jesus Christ’s love ethic is meant to humanize everyone and to eradicate within each of us the desire and need to dehumanize those who threaten us. We will next explore, In part 2, “turning the other cheek” and “resisting not the evil person” from this perspective of Jesus’ ethic as a humanizing way of life, that refuses all forms of dehumanization, and the ways in which this radicalism can lead us into a contradiction that is the very nature of our call as the church to confront (not avoid) Sin, unrighteousness, and injustice.
A prologue to this post is Hope as Virtue and discipline. The prologue this post and the following two posts on the Sermon on the Mount entail a sketch of my theology of resistance.
Leave your thoughts on how you’ve been taught to understand “turn the other Cheek” and “resist not the evil person.” How does viewing Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of a radical interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of love without bounds, including those who seek to harm us, reinforce or challenge interpretations of the sermon on the Mount you believe or have been taught?