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| ON FAITH / Jack Dwan

Rereading the Sermon on the Mount

September 02, 2000|Jack Dwan | Jack Dwan of Corona del Mar is a retired McDonnell Douglas executive and U.S. Army colonel who holds a doctorate in international relations from Yale University

Nowhere in Scripture is there a more compelling distillation of the Christian ethos than in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In rereading Matthew and Luke's accounts of the sermon recently, however, I found that I had mixed emotions.

Could it be that in good conscience I had reservations about some of these fundamental teachings? Yes, but at the end I was able to put this core of Christian teaching in a perspective that conformed to, and even reinforced, my personal belief system. That is because even the Sermon on the Mount requires the interposition of some rational human judgments but leaves its spirit intact as a valid body of guidance for our lives. How so?

Both apostles recount the sermon. Matthew's version is longer and contains wording that is more familiar, so I will use it and cite selected verses that exemplify both the spirit and my reservations. The numbers refer to selected verses in Matthew 5 and start with the Beatitudes.

3. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This implies that there is hope for those who have yet to develop their own system of values, those "poor in spirit" for whom all is not lost, for they can aspire to find value in their lives. Here is a teaching of optimism and hope.

4. "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." This enjoins us to be compassionate, a worthy teaching.

5. "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth." Here is my first reservation. How meek and under what conditions? Carried to the extreme, meekness leads to one's being walked all over and even abdicating worthy principles. Even Jesus was not meek when he drove the money changers from the temple. At the other extreme would be reckless assertiveness at others' expense. Some middle ground must be found. Here we find the need for human judgment.

6. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." This one calls for an intense dedication to doing the right thing. Again, a reservation. What is the right thing, and who decides it? I would opt for the decision of the human conscience, something that one generates from inside one's self.

7. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." No reservation here. Think of the alternative: vindictiveness, retribution, cruelty. This one is at the core of Christianity and of the humane life.

8. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." This lauds honesty, integrity, sincerity. No reservation here either.

9. "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Peace at what price? Certainly not at any price. There are principles that have to be upheld; but what principles and who decides what they are? Back to human judgment and choice.

10. "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This one enjoins us to stand up for what is right, in spite of persecution. This means sticking with your principles. But who decides what principles? Answer: the human conscience.

11. "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." This is another way of saying the same thing as 10, and generates the same comment.

So for the Beatitudes, I say they mean well, but not all can stand alone without common sense and reason. After proclaiming the Beatitudes, Jesus preaches the rest of the sermon, which is replete with instructions about how to lead a Christian life--guidance that I consider the core of the Christian spirit. I will pick just four that have to be subjected to human judgment. (There are more.)

These excerpts are also from Matthew 5:

29. "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee."

30. "And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee."

One may suppose that neither command is to be taken literally and that both are figures of speech.

From Matthew 6:

19. "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon Earth." Families, banks, savings and loans, and capital markets that are the driving forces of investment and economic growth certainly must be able to rationalize this teaching to mean don't lay up "too much" treasure, leaving to the individual's judgment how much is "too much."

34. "Take therefore no thought for the morrow." Again, common sense must come into play so that we do not ignore the need to plan ahead. Of all the teachings, this is the hardest to justify in terms of practical life. Again, human judgment is required.

Finally, what I consider the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is an injunction that mankind would do well to accept without reservation, a teaching that we all know in our hearts is right but have a devil of a time living up to: the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." Living up to that high standard would make ours a better world. It's up to us how we apply it.

Frankly, I was somewhat taken aback by my review and analysis of the Sermon on the Mount all these many years after Sunday school. It didn't come out the way I had expected. The challenge of determining how to lead a decent, humane life--Christian, if you will--lands right back in your lap or, better said, your mind. There is no substitute for assuming responsibility for our own values and for defining our own purposes, illuminated by insights of others who preceded us. We have to rely on our own consciences and integrity, guided by the Christian spirit exemplified in the sermon.

*

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Deanne Brandon.

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