Retribution in the Sermon on the Mount? (Or, the Jesus You Find At the Bottom of a Well)

JJesus and the crowds.D. Crossan has apparently written a book about How to Read the Bible and Remain a Christian. In light of the obvious, almost trite, irony of a man whose rejection of basic Christian orthodoxy extends to even a denial of the resurrection of Christ, attempting to tell people how to remain Christians, one must wonder what the point of engaging such a work with seriousness. Well, the reality is that he’s taking up one of the most recent causes du jour, which we’ve had reason to deal with on this blog on a regular basis: the problem of reconciling violence in the Scriptures with the allegedly non-violent God revealed in the preaching and person of Jesus.

Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read the text, but I have read his earlier God and Empire text, and from what it looks like, Crossan’s working with much the same presuppositions, with less of a focus on America-as-Rome narrative, but cashing out a more general thesis about Scripture and violence. Collin Garbarino has an excellent review of the work over at First Things. He quotes Crossan’s main thesis:

Throughout the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, every radical challenge from the biblical God is both asserted and then subverted by its receiving communities—be they earliest Israelites or latest Christians. That pattern of assertion-and-subversion, that rhythm of expansion-and-contraction, is like the systole- and diastole cycle of the human heart.

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ.

For Crossan, the Bible needs to be read in light of Jesus, but not the Jesus of Revelation, or anything like that, but the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount given in the Gospels. Garbarino quotes him again:

This biblical patterning of yes-and-no justifies my choice of the nonviolent Jesus of the Incarnation over the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse as the true Jesus. Put simply, the nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

What we see here is another variation, albeit a bit more radical, of some of the Jesus Tea-strainer hermeneutic.

In an oversimplified nutshell, for many, the arrival of Jesus, his preaching in the Sermon the Mount, his rejection of retaliation against enemies, his message of forgiveness, love, and open-armed reconciliation leads to a clear conclusion: Jesus rejected wholesale the logic of justice as retribution, or any component which contains violence. “Mercy over justice”, if you will. If that’s the case, then we must read the Scriptures as presenting us with two logics: a retributive, violent logic present in Deuteronomy, the Law, OT narratives, and Paul’s more unreconstructed moments, and a prophetic, non-retributive logic given to us in the prophets and ultimately in Jesus that overcomes retribution. God simply is not like that. Now go reorganize your atonement theology, doctrine of God, and revelation accordingly.

I bring all this up because I found his response to this sort of thing so helpful and compelling. With apologies to First Things, I’ll go ahead and quote it at length:

It seems to me that Crossan will need to cut the Sermon on the Mount down to just a few sentences bereft of context if he wants to maintain a Jesus who is primarily concerned with everyone getting their fair share. When read in context (that’s something we historians do), the Sermon on the Mount contains quite a bit of retributive justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that condemns the Jews for their inability to see Jesus for who he was. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew juxtaposes the king of the Jews with the gentile magi, a comparison which doesn’t leave the Jewish king looking too good. At the end of the Gospel, Matthew records the people of Jerusalem shouting, “His blood be on us and on our children!” The Sermon on the Mount is an integral part of Matthew’s argument that the Jews missed their Messiah, not some parenthetical aside that somehow managed to slip into an otherwise tightly constructed theological narrative.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as being the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Just as Israel experienced exile in Egypt, baptism in the Red Sea, and wandering in the wilderness, Matthew depicts Jesus as experiencing exile in Egypt, followed by baptism in the Jordan, followed by wandering in the wilderness.

Which brings us to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up on the mount to deliver a new law to the people. Crossan imagines that it’s here we see God’s distributive justice, “God’s radical dream for an earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its people.”

In Crossan’s defense, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sounds warm and fuzzy. In the Beatitudes, Jesus announces that those who mourn will be comforted and that the meek will inherit the earth. It seems to me, however, that Jesus demonstrates good homiletic technique—hook the audience and then let them have it. Jesus moves swiftly from comforting his audience to causing great discomfort.

After pronouncing blessings on all of the good people, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wait a second—didn’t he just say that the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven? So the poor in spirit must be more righteous than the Pharisees, the guys who were experts on the Law? The audience would do well to consider whether Jesus thinks them poor in spirit.

Then he says that we’re going to hell if we’re angry. And he also says that we’re going to hell if we’ve ever looked on a woman with lust. And then he says that we can’t defend ourselves from our enemies.

And then Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This talk of hell is pretty heavy stuff. Jesus’s law is heavier than the Law of Moses, and if you don’t follow his law perfectly, he says you stand condemned. Perhaps Jesus was referring to himself in those Beatitudes, not his hearers. After all, neither the prophets nor the Romans ever called the Jewish people “peacemakers.”

Here’s the frustrating part about this. There’s no real winning with this kind of hermeneutic, no matter how many texts you pile up.

One really can’t argue with Crossan, however, because his methodology ensures that he’s always right. If one brings up some contrary evidence to his thesis, he’ll just apply his editorial pen more liberally and label that bit of Jesus inauthentic. This isn’t how one ought to read the Bible if one wants to stay Christian.

The same thing is true with (some) other versions of Tea-Strainer hermeneutic. Produce yet another text in the Old Testament or Paul, or whoever, and it’s often simply a text that needs to be overcome, or subverted, or read backwards, sideways, or in a code we finally cracked in the 1970s.

Here’s the problem, though: either you take Matthew’s presentation as the proper context for reading Jesus’s words as Garbarino does, or you’re left with a very awkward operation of reading the words of Jesus as given to us by Matthew against Matthew. This puts us in the rather intellectually unenviable position of having to assert that Matthew is a somewhat reliable witness to the historical Jesus in many cases, but that he’s a rather poor one in others, or simply an inept theologian. It seems that he, as a disciple, or the disciples from whom he gleaned these stories, words, and theological interpretations didn’t understand Jesus quite as well as we do now. Reading at a 2,000-year remove in the 21st century, we’re finally piecing together the real, true, deep intentions of Jesus, using hermeneutical presuppositions given to us through the witness of the text, despite the text, that his disciples who authored the text have missed somehow.

Or again, I’ve made this same point with the accounts of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira as well as the Tetrarch Herod in judgment in the book of Acts. In the text, the author clearly identifies God or God via an angel, as ordering the very retributive judgment. Now, the thing to remember is that this is the same author as the Gospel of Luke, who gives us a fair amount of the picture of Jesus who tells us to forgo vengeance, love our enemies, and so forth. Either we’re to believe that Luke, or whoever you think wrote it, didn’t see the very clear contradiction, or maybe we should allow Jesus, and the Bible, to have a far more complex, yet unified message than that.

This, of course, is just a rehash of the old historical-critical Jesus Seminar problem. First, you take a statement or two from the Gospels that you label “The sorts of thing we know Jesus could say”, whether because it’s different enough from the kinds of things later disciples said, or its similar to the particular political movement you’ve chosen to set Jesus against, (or it fits with your 1970s-style political socialism) something like that. Then, you measure all the rest of the statements against it, usually pressing for strict dichotomies in order to rule out “the sorts of things we know Jesus couldn’t say”, or “the sorts of things we’re not quite as sure about.” At the end, you get the classic problem of historians staring down the well of history to find the Jesus behind the Gospels, only to end up seeing a Jesus who looks very much like a bearded, 1st Century version of themselves looking back up at them.

The same sort of logic is at work in a number of the Tea-strainer hermeneutics. Attempts to split Jesus off from the “retributive logic” found in Scripture inevitably leads to accusing the New Testament authors of a schizophrenic presentation of Jesus himself, or with the inconsistent attempt to uphold the Jesus of the Gospels, without actually upholding the Gospels. With Crossan, a bona fide historical critic, you at least get the benefit of an explicit acknowledgement of what’s going on.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “Retribution in the Sermon on the Mount? (Or, the Jesus You Find At the Bottom of a Well)

  1. It bothers me that Garbarino just handwaves away the horror of nuclear weapons by saying “we’re not in the cold war anymore.”

    I doubt I would agree with much of Crossan’s thesis. But I think Garbarino was overplaying his hand in his reading of the Sermon on the Mount. I agree that wrath and retribution is there in the Gospels, but Garbarino’s reading of it seems off and to be making it too central. Then again, he is writing in reaction to an extreme position and has chosen a certain emphasis.

    • Your First Things author would do good to read the text ALL the way to the end. The righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees and the perfection that God requires is love of enemies. It’s always curious to me why there aren’t more one-eyed and one-handed Biblical inerrantists. I’m okay with Jesus using hyperbole because I know that ultimately what he desires is mercy not sacrifice and he will pound our faces into the ground when we try to self-justify on the basis of superficial moral “sacrifices.” And to be clear, I’m no fan of Crossan and reducing the Sermon on the Mount into a social democrat party platform. It’s just that in my zeal for God’s glory, I’m going to push back against anything which seems to turn the beautiful holiness to which God calls us into an arbitrary “because I said so.”

  2. Drained of typological movements, Crossan seems to be wandering in the dark when trying to discern the Bible. Like many Biblical Studies professors, the endless riches of the biblical imagination is drained for an arbitrary hermeneutic that ends with a Jesus that looks good for us (the staring in the well metaphor).

    Thus, Crossan has nothing to do with Jesus’ exorcisms. These were authoritative judgments on the demons, banishing them on a kingly whim. Retributive? No, of course not, demons aren’t real, so this is myth, so says Crossan. What narrative do we have left?

  3. Pingback: Hope and Perspective | Ronnie Murrill
  4. Pingback: Message to teenagers | Free Christadelphians: Belgian Ecclesia Brussel - Leuven
  5. Pingback: Social Behavioral Patterns–How to Understand Culture and Behaviors

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s