A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance
Glen H. Stassen
Category: Christian Life & Discipleship
The constant stream of books and studies published on Matthew 5-7 shows the enduring appeal and challenge of the section commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Now Glen H. Stassen, Professsor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, has added another contribution, which forms one of the volumes in the 'Enduring Questions in Christian Life' series from Jossey-Bass, nicely produced as a compact-sized hardback.
Although written in a clear and engaging style, this book comes with the significant academic reinforcement provided by the volume Stassen co-authored with David P. Gushee: Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (IVP, 2003). This means that those who would like to do so may 'graduate' from this book to the longer, more detailed one; and those who for various reasons might deem Kingdom Ethics too unwieldy could find this one more useful for their needs.
Some of the points Stassen makes have been made before, but are worth making again. One is that the Lord's prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) provides an organising centre for the whole sermon with its main themes picked up in the surrounding text. More significantly, perhaps, is the reminder that Jesus' teaching comes with his claim that the kingdom of God has arrived in his ministry; and Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom needs to be understood in the light of the Old Testament, Isaiah especially, and its promises of salvation for the people of God. Some approaches to the Sermon on the Mount have tended to allow its teachings to float free as contextless ethical maxims. But Jesus understood his own mission in terms laid down in Isaiah, that God was reaching out to Israel and the nations through his own ministry of teaching and healing. This means the exhortations in the Sermon are not faceless demands, but presuppose certain things about Jesus and the kingdom he brings.
This alone should be enough to suggest that it would be hard to overestimate the significance of the Sermon on the Mount in reflections on Jesus' teaching and Christian ethics. It's also difficult to imagine there could be any fresh perspectives, but Stassen offers a distinctive view that the Sermon is not patterned in terms of 'high ideals' (that we don't be angry, and don't lust, and don't take oaths, and don't assert rights), but in terms of 'transforming initiatives'.
So, in Matthew 5:21-26 (on murder and anger), Jesus is often interpreted as giving a command not to be angry and not to call anyone a fool. In fact, Stassen points out, what's described in 5:22 is a vicious cycle we can get stuck in: we get angry, we insult one another, and it leads to trouble. Jesus does give commands, but they're not found in 5:22, they're found in 5:23-26, and they're examples, says Stassen, of 'transforming initiatives'; they are ways of deliverance from anger. They are not merely illustrations attached to a command not to be angry; they are the climax of the teaching. In this case, the angry person is transformed into an peacemaker who, in turn, transforms the enemy into a friend. Stassen sees the teachings in the main body of the Sermon as a series of such 'transforming initatives', where the main emphasis is placed on the third part of the sayings, not on negative commands but on the regular practices which enable us to participate in God's way of deliverance from vicious cycles. Even if this pattern is not always as clear as Stassen makes out, it does shed helpful light on a number of passages.
The Sermon on the Mount not only shows us what Jesus is like, but what God is like — the one who brings the grace and deliverance mentioned in the subtitle. It's a liberation which involves the things about which the sermon speaks: practising reconciliation, keeping our marriage covenants, telling the truth, making peace, loving enemies, forgiveness, economic simplicity. The challenge is not just to know these things but to live them out; hence the first word in the title, Living the Sermon on the Mount. The book could profitably be used by housegroup leaders or preachers working through the Sermon on the Mount, or as a devotional aid for an individual, and comes highly recommended.
Antony Billington, August 2007
Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).Order from www.christianbookshops.org