How to interpret the Sermon on the Mount has been the subject of debate since Jesus first uttered these powerful words. There is this eternal tension that this teaching is true and resonates deeply in the soul, but at the same time cannot fully be followed. Nor can they be taken just at face value without adding context and interpretation.
There are those who want to interpret these verses on a very literal basis. They stand opposed to all divorce (Divorce – Mt 5:31-32), do not swear in before a court of law (oaths – Mt 5:23-37) and give the drunk person on the side of the road all their cash (Mt 5:42). The only problem is that the choice of which Scriptures in the Sermon they choose to apply literally becomes a discriminatory selection. If all the verses are to be taken literally, why do people still have their eyes and hands? Because most people on earth have wrestled with lust (Mt 5:27-30) and it says clearly, cut these off and pitch them out..
Jesus and the Literalists
We also have to look at how Jesus lived. Did he live his life based on a literal interpretation?
“A city on a hill cannot be hidden…Let your light shine before men” – Jesus kept his identity quiet (Mk 8:27-30)
“I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to judgment” (Mt 5:21)- Jesus got angry (Mk 3:5)
“anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Mt 5:22) – Jesus called the Pharisees “Snakes” (Mt 23:33)
“Do no swear at all” (Mt 5:23) – God swore an oath (Heb 6:13)
“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also (Mt 5:39) – Jesus slipped through crowds and/or escaped their grasp when they attacked (Lk 4:30-32; Jn 10:39)
Clearly by Jesus example we see that Jesus wasn’t advocating we carte blanche let ourselves be abused based on this text. If a husband beats his wife it isn’t teaching she must turn the other cheek, or that any anger towards anyone is wrong, or that we give all our money to everyone who asks. Jesus’ life showed that there is interpretation to be had with this teaching.
A literal interpretation just does not fit the context. It wasn’t that Jesus was a hypocrite it was that his teaching was addressing different issues at a different level.
Is Figurative Interpretation the Answer?
Figurative translation isn’t exactly acceptable either. Do we understand it in such a way that Jesus didn’t mean what he said he meant? That would wash away the power of his instruction. He did mean what he had to say. And he did mean we should live it. Clearly.
I wonder if in many ways that Jesus wasn’t trying to give a picture of perfect love:
- Righteousness and kindness reaps its reward
- Anger is deadly and to be dealt with in appropriateness
- Relationships should have a high priority of reconciliation
- Marriage and singleness should be holy not only in body but in minds and hearts
- Marriage is a life-long, love-long covenant
- Kindness in the face of evil prevails
- The people of God walk in the opposite spirit
Jesus’ teaching has stirred hearts and minds for thousands of years. The Sermon on the Mount is both a calling and a provocation, an invitation to life and a conviction of crime, a beacon of hope and an obstacle too high to overcome. Perhaps it’s good that we always have to wrestle with these words. It would be much worse to claim we have the answer and to go on with life like growth wasn’t a process.