The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

The Sermon on the Mount is an enigma. Its ethical demands seem unrealistic and idealized, its teachings contradictory to any grace-centric gospel, and its content little more than a random collection of oppressive moral standards. But Jonathan T. Pennington, in his book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, quite convincingly shows us that these problems are not ones inherent to the Sermon. In fact, many of our problems stem from the fact that we don’t read the Sermon as Matthew intended. We are clouded by modern moral theory, and thus prevented from the real message the Sermon intends to get across.

Pennington’s basic thesis is that “the Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced–How can we experience true human flourishing? What is happiness…and how does one obtain and sustain it?” (pg. 14) Read against this backdrop, the Sermon is less about how to be saved (easing the law/gospel tension), and more about how to flourish. Indeed, it may not be too much of a stretch to say that the Sermon is a guidebook to happiness.

Pennington begins by outlining the two “encyclopedic backgrounds” to the Sermon: the Hebrew wisdom tradition, and Greek moral philosophy. These come together in Pennington’s discussion of the word makarios, often translated “blessed.” This word starts the nine beatitudes, but is unfortunately thought of as referring to the blessing of God. On this reading, the pure in heart, for example, will see God as a reward for their purity, and the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit because of their spiritual poverty. In other words, this reading sees the Beatitudes (and the rest of the Sermon) as outlining requirements to receive the blessing of God.

Pennington helpfully points out that the word makarios simply cannot sustain that reading. Makarios is always used to translate a particular Hebrew word which refers not to blessings by God but to a state of flourishing. Thus the Sermon provides us a path not to receive blessings from God but to flourish in his world.

Armed with these insights, Pennington then meticulously shows how every command in the Sermon must be read from a virtue ethical standpoint. The introduction alone is worth the price of the book, and the rest is full of clarifying and insightful comments.

Pennington examines several other key terms in the Sermon before diving into a commentary on it. The commentary is probably the weaker half of the book, but it still serves as a clear and thoughtful guide to the ethical world of the Sermon. Throughout, Pennington delivers us one simple reading of these commands:

“The Sermon’s answer to the human-flourishing question is that true human flourishing is only available through communion with the Father God through his revealed Son, Jesus, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This flourishing is only experienced through faithful, heart-deep, whole-person discipleship, following Jesus’s teachings and life, which situate the disciple into God’s community or kingdom.” (pg. 13)

Pennington also highlights the central role of imitation in this. Imitation is found throughout the Sermon (5:17, 20, 48, 6:25-34, and 7:13-27). Unfortunately, many commentaries on the Sermon focus on the rules and commandments and their interpretation, rather than the interpretive key the Sermon itself delivers to us. That is, if true virtue is only found through imitation of God, then the ethical commands of the Sermon are simply descriptions of the character of God.

Thus, of course anger is not always wrong because God is often angry. But God also pursues reconciliation with his people at all costs–even the cost of his own life. Thus we are similarly to pursue reconciliation, not murderous anger.

Of course praying in public is not always wrong–God Incarnate prays in public! But crucially, Jesus does not deliver, for example, his prayer in John 17 to bolster his own self-image but to help his disciples.

If Pennington is right, the intractable moral conflicts we find ourselves in by interpreting the Sermon as a set of absolute commands rather than careful descriptions of a person may be the result of an unfortunate Kantian lens.

Thus, not only does the book carefully exegete the Sermon, it also acts as an incredible treatise on Christian ethics. Of course, Pennington doesn’t develop a full moral theory, but he gives us the groundwork to apply the paradigm of the Sermon to other ethical teachings in the Bible.

Pennington’s reading also resolves other key tensions throughout the Sermon. Is the moral vision of the sermon unattainable? Of course, because the basic message of the Sermon is: be virtuous exactly like God is virtuous. But that message is not a requirement to enter the kingdom but a path to achieve a happy life. The more one imitates God the more fulfilled, happy, and flourishing one will be.

One thing I wished Pennington pulled out more is the central role of habit in the Sermon. The Greek background places habit at the center of the ethical life. We become ethical by imitating a virtuous person, Aristotle would say, but we imitate them by littering our lives (as one of my teachers put it) with virtuous habits. So, Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics 2.1 says:

“Virtue of character results from habit…virtues…we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having previously activated them. For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it, becoming builders, e.g., by building and harpists by playing the harp; so also, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions. What goes on in cities is evidence for this also. For the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them, and this is the wish of every legislator; if he fails to do it well he misses his goal. [The right] habituation is what makes the difference between a good political system and a bad one.”

Matthew picks up on this in the solutions he gives to moral flaws. For example, in 6:5-6, Matthew identified praying in secret with the door shut as the solution to showy prayers. Of course, that in itself doesn’t fix the problem. Our hearts can still crave the approval of others even if we pray in secret.

Has Matthew completely missed the point? Not quite. Praying in secret with the door closed is the type of action a humble person would take. If you didn’t care about other’s opinions, you would pray in secret.

Matthew, then, is recommending a habit that will eventually reshape the heart. Augustine picks up on this in his analysis of the Lord’s Prayer:

“The question can be asked as to why there has to be prayer if God already knows what we need…The very intention to pray soothes and purifies our heart and makes it better disposed to receive the divine gifts…God does not hear us through the earnestness of our prayers, because he is always ready to give his light to us…yet we are not always ready to receive it because we are inclined toward other things and are under the shadow of our desire for what belongs to the temporal order. A movement of the heart, therefore, takes place in prayer towards the one who is always prepared to give.”

This pattern runs through the Sermon. We remove lust by removing the ability to lust, we fight anger by habitually pursuing reconciliation, we prioritize truthfulness by refusing oaths, we eliminate revenge by serving our enemy, we fight hatred by greeting the other, we stop showy prayers, almsgiving, and fasts by secret prayers, almsgiving, and fasts. In short, virtuous habits are the solution to sinful vices.

Despite this omission, Pennington’s book is definitely worth reading. His careful exegesis acts not only as a guide to the Sermon, but also as an incredible foundation for Christian ethics. Of course, Pennington doesn’t develop a full moral theory, but he gives us the groundwork to apply the paradigm of the Sermon to other ethical teachings in the Bible.

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing reads the text closely, presents relevant historical background, and radically re-orients our moral vision.I highly recommend it.

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