Progressives, Prooftexts, and the Sermon on the Mount

It’s not easy to correct the errors of your tradition. The absolute ‘No!’ that seems like the most radical course too often ends up preserving the underlying logic of what you’re trying to correct. (No one thinks more like a fundamentalist than an anti-fundamentalist.)

This is especially important for Christians to remember when interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ sharp oppositional rhetoric — ‘you have heard it said…but I tell you…’ — has emboldened well-intentioned Christian radicals since the earliest days of the church to hail Jesus as one who says just such an absolute ‘No!’ to all or part of the Old Testament.

Many progressive evangelicals point to the Sermon as the heart of a ‘Jesus-centered’ hermeneutic that justifies Christians in rejecting parts of the Law outright. They often make this point by quoting only the words ‘but I tell you’ — only the oppositional rhetoric of the Sermon. Greg Boyd cites Jesus ‘authoritative “But I say to you”‘ as proof that Jesus ‘repudiates’ and ‘refutes’ parts of the Law. Brian Zahnd offers another version of the same:

I don’t have to pretend that Jesus endorsed every depiction of God found in the Old Testament. Because Jesus did not!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…”

Something new!

Yet it has become increasingly clear to me that this ‘radical’ move is itself another version of that most conservative of reading practices: prooftexting. By ‘prooftexting’ I mean quoting a Scriptural text as if its meaning is self-evident and indisputable. A proof-texter tends to cite a verse as a knock-down argument; those who read differently must be blind, dishonest, or worse. (Notice how Zahnd portrays those who disagree with him as ‘pretending’).

Jesus uses the expression ‘But I tell you…’ six times in the Sermon — and as I will show, it means very different things in these different contexts. By quoting it in isolation, however, progressives imply that it always obviously means the same thingAnd this is to prooftext.

But if this phrase means many things, then there is no single way Jesus corrects the tradition, no single ‘Jesus-centered’ hermeneutic that will solve all our problems in advance. Paradoxically, recognizing this is the truly disruptive possibility that Jesus holds out in the Sermon.

Without further ado, then, here are four meanings of the phrase ‘but I tell you’:

1. Extending Tradition

Jesus quotes one of the Ten Commandments together with a legal tradition about its enforcement: ‘You have heard it said, “Do not murder,” and whoever murders will be liable to judgment’ (Mt. 5:21). Far from showing any squeamishness about judgment, Jesus says ‘but I tell you’ to expand its scope: ‘whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment’ (Mt. 5:22). He cannot only have divine judgment in view because, in the next sentence, he explicitly mentions the Sanhedrin, a human court (Mt 5:22). Instead of repudiating the Law, it may be that Jesus expands upon the Sanhedrin’s traditional jurisdiction!

2. Discovering Relationships

After quoting the command against adultery, Jesus says, ‘But I tell you: anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mt. 5:28). Surely Jesus is not contradicting the command against adultery here. Instead, notice that the Greek word translated ‘lust’ is the same as the word for ‘covet,’ used to translate the commandment against ‘coveting your neighbor’s wife.’ Here, it seems, Jesus says ‘But I tell you’ to clarify the relationship between the commands against covetousness and adultery: engaging in the one leads inexorably down the road to the other. Lust is ‘adultery in the heart.’ (The NT frequently sees covetousness as the beginning of sinful acts: compare James 1:15, 4:2, and Romans 7:7.)

3. Defending a Particular Interpretation

When Jesus discusses divorce, he refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-5, the only legal text that directly addresses the issue. But this passage, which legislates that a man who divorces his wife may not remarry her once she has remarried, nowhere explicitly allows divorce — it simply presupposes that it will occur. Because of this, even Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries argued about when divorce is permitted as a matter of Law.  The school of Hillel accepted divorce on most grounds; the school of Shammai prohibited it except in the case of adultery. Jesus agrees with Shammai. Moreover, this ruling can be justified as an interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, which says that the husband finds something ‘unseemly’ in his divorced wife (v. 1) and calls her ‘defiled’ (v. 4). So it may be that Jesus says ‘But I tell you’ to defend a particular legal interpretation.

Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies may go in the same category. Jesus quotes the command ‘love your neighbors,’ along with an interpretive gloss: ‘and hate your enemies’ (Mt. 5:43). This gloss may reflect an interpretation of the original verse: by specifically mentioning neighbors, does it not imply that enemies (the opposite of neighbors) should receive opposite treatment? Likewise when Jesus says, ‘But I tell you, love your enemies,’ he may be implying an alternative interpretation. Jesus implies as much elsewhere, when he offers the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, ‘who is my neighbor?’ (Luke 10:36).

4. A Higher Calling

Jesus’ teachings on vows and turning the other cheek are the most difficult cases. Here it is important to remember something progressive evangelicals often forget: even Biblical law is not morality. It orders a concrete social life and remains bound to particular institutions (courts, temple). Without challenging the legitimacy of these institutions, Jesus may be calling individuals to a perfection that goes beyond what the Law can reasonably presuppose in ordinary human beings. The Law permits making vows and requires one to fulfill them; Jesus says ‘but I tell you’ to demand that individuals live with complete truthfulness. So too, if we remember that ‘an eye for an eye’ is a legal penalty enforced by the court, then Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ may be read as an injunction to individuals or the church. This command goes far beyond what the Law presupposes, since it establishes ‘cities of refuge’ to which murderers could flee from avengers (Num. 35/Dt. 19). Jesus could be teaching: do not assume that because the Law presupposes private vengeance, you are permitted to seek it. Turn the other cheek; leave justice to the courts.

‘But I tell you’ makes a lousy prooftext; and its rhetorical opposition should not distract us from the variety of ways Jesus reads the Law: expanding on legal traditions, meditating on the relations between commands, defending particular interpretations of disputed texts, and discerning the highest ideals already implicit in the Law. If progressives really want to read Scripture like Jesus, let them imitate these things. For if Jesus is as radical as progressives rightly believe he is, their absolute ‘No!’ to parts of the Old Testament may be a good deal less radical than it seems.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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12 thoughts on “Progressives, Prooftexts, and the Sermon on the Mount

  1. I agree that Jesus was not repudiating the law. This is a provocative, nuanced analysis of what Jesus was doing in this beloved passage.
    Re. The lust versus covet translation – male-female entanglements are not necessarily reducible to sex. Covet is more comprehensive.
    Re. Love your enemies – am grateful to cling to this even as I share the indignations and anger against enemies expressed in many psalms. There is a time for hate, but love is a more excellent way.

  2. I think that Jesus was critiquing pharasaic traditions and halacha rather than Torah. “You have heard it said” is not the same as “Moses commanded you.” Even where he does refer to Moses (“Moses permitted you…”), he doesn’t contradict Torah, but expands on it. He doesn’t give any truly new commands and certainly doesn’t throw any out. He merely discusses their application to daily life.

    As you pointed out, his statements about lust and hate aren’t new commands or abrogations of old ones. He merely draws a connection between coveting another man’s wife and actually taking that man’s wife, between hating a person and killing him.

    He changes the venue of the commands from physical actions to states of the heart. Both are sinful, but one can be prevented by avoiding the first. You don’t want to murder anyone? Great! Stop hating. You don’t want to commit adultery? Stop lusting after other men’s wives.

    In no case did Jesus reject the Law or imply that anyone else should.

    One of the most important guiding principles in understanding Scripture is to let the clear and concrete inform the fuzzy. There are fewer more concrete statements than this part of that same sermon:

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
    (Matthew 5:17-19)

    1. Jay: Thanks for your comments; I take it we basically agree.

      One place I would want to push back, though, is on your principle that the clear should inform the fuzzy. It seems to me that no text is so clear that it can’t be understood differently (though one is responsible for actually showing how it could be differently understood). I tend to treat a claim like ‘In no case did Jesus reject the Law’ — with which I agree — as a rule that means: ‘try reading every verse as if this were the case.’ Every hypothesis has its difficulties (in our case, for example, Mark 7:19); some are more difficult to sustain than others. Some I think are truly impossible (like Marcion’s ‘Jesus preaches a different God than the God of Israel’). In any case, I want to be cautious about assuming any verse is so clear and concrete that one can take it as a solid premise. Every hypothesis will have its ‘clear’ verses and its ‘obscure’ ones!

      Anyways, thanks for reading!

  3. Agreed. The problem is compounded by the number of personal, cultural, and linguistic filters between us and the original events. Perhaps I should say that the more clear and, especially, more consistent passages should inform the less clear.

  4. Mark,

    I do not disagree with what you say above as far as your exegesis of the SOTM. What I do however think is pretty self-evident is that genocide and slavery are immoral. When folks like myself question the OT we are questioning these things. So when you then want to “correct” us in that I find myself asking “wait, is he seriously wanting to defend keeping slaves and commiting genocide?” I can’t believe that’s true. But then I’m at a loss as to what the point is i
    of saying we are wrong to question the morality of the OT. It seems to me you are straining a gnat (making a subtle point about exegesis) and swallowing a camel (how profoundly immoral things like germicide and slavery are).

    “Many progressive evangelicals point to the Sermon as the heart of a ‘Jesus-centered’ hermeneutic that justifies Christians in rejecting parts of the Law outright.”

    Yes I reject the part of the law that commands slavery. It is immoral. It is wrong. Do you think we should instead keep slaves? Yes I reject the part of the law that calls genocide God’s will. Genocide is evil. It is not God’s will. Again are you pro-genocide?

    I doubt it. But then I’m at a loss as to what it is that you are opposed to? What is it that needs to be “corrected” if you also are not in support of these things?

    1. Derek, thanks for your comments.

      Of course I agree with you in rejecting slavery and genocide. And I’m glad to hear you agree with my exegesis of the Sermon.

      I am not opposing WHAT progressives conclude but HOW they use Scripture to get there. I think progressive evangelicals have a very narrow conception of the hermeneutic possibilities, inherited from the conservatives they are trying to correct. At root, they believe what the Law/OT says is patently obvious — so obvious that the only choices are to accept it or reject it. My disagreements with you here and elsewhere are not defenses of conservatism, but attempts to expand our hermeneutic options.

      Now, you worry I’m straining the gnat of exegetical subtleties. I don’t understand why you think this, not least because your own book is devoted to learning to read ‘like Jesus did’. If my interpretation of the SOTM is right, as you say, then doesn’t it follow that ‘reading like Jesus’ includes worrying about exegetical details and intra-legal questions? This does not mean that slavery and genocide are to be accepted. But it does mean that if we are serious about ‘reading like Jesus,’ the path to refusing slavery/genocide may be through exegeting and interpreting the Law, rather than ‘rejecting’ it. (Would you at least grant that if Jesus teaches us to ‘question’ the law, he does not do so in the SOMT?)

      Here is what frustrates me: progressives are happy to proof-text the Sermon on the Mount to defend their hermeneutic. Yet here I have offered a close reading of Jesus’ own words, and that you AGREE with — and yet I am ‘straining a gnat!’ Why not rather say I’m trying to imitate Jesus??

      So I have this sincere question for you: how do you think we should discover ‘how Jesus read’?

      I appreciate your taking the time to read my blog, and for the ongoing conversation.

  5. “you worry I’m straining the gnat of exegetical subtleties. I don’t understand why you think this”

    Sure, let me explain then where I am coming from: I’m saying it is far more important to first state where we agree–that genocide is bad–before we worry about exegetical nuance.

    For example I agree with atheists who focus on living a life of compassion. That does not mean we agree on everything (since I am very much not an atheist), but where I do agree with them is important to stress. I find more in common with atheists who agree that genocide is bad and focus on love than I do with some conservative Christians who affirm genocide and preach hate.

    Since genocide is a matter of life and death, and exegesis is… well, clearly not… I think it’s really important to put that in perspective. We can of course get to the nitty-gritty stuff. But life and death stuff comes first. Big life and death stuff comes before nuance.

    “Would you at least grant that if Jesus teaches us to ‘question’ the law, he does not do so in the SOMT?”

    No, I think that Jesus very clearly is challenging/questioning the law in the SOTM. Matthew frames the whole thing as Jesus being a “second Moses” with Jesus giving the sermon on a mount (as opposed to Luke’s version). Throughout we see Jesus doing a sort of “Law 2.0” where he brings things into completion (which is what the Greek word “perfect” means). With some things this means being striker (like oaths or divorce) and with other things it involves a complete shift (like replacing and eye for an eye rooted in the idea of retributive justice with the idea of enemy love which is rooted in the idea of restorative justice.

    In this I see Jesus as advancing, questioning, challenging, growing, correcting the law. In this he follows a long Hebrew tradition that goes back to the Psalms and prophets.

    “the path to refusing slavery/genocide may be through exegeting and interpreting the Law, rather than ‘rejecting’ it.”

    I would want to stress that it would be inaccurate to speak of “the law” and “rejecting it” as if it were one singular voice, one big book with one view. Instead the OT contains a multitude of opposing views, developing views.

    So to reject one part (say where the OT promotes racism in Ezra/Nehemiah) is to embrace another part (where it for example promotes compassion for people of other races in Ruth). So if I reject the idea that God wanted people to keep slaves and commit genocide (which I do) this does not mean I “reject the OT” but rather than I am engaging the OT in the same way that the Psalmists or the prophets did (and that Jesus does too) when they questioned hurtful things being done in God’s name.

    1. Derek,

      It was careless of me to say ‘rejecting the law’ in my reply — in my post, I think I was more careful. So your point is well taken there.

      Your last comments surprised me, since I thought you agreed with me, and yet my intent was to offer an alternative to Jesus as ‘challenging’ (parts of) the law! Where do you disagree with the details of my exegesis? For example, I distinguished the Law as a social institution from Jesus’ commands which might sometimes be moral/extra-legal. So the ideal of fairness expressed in ‘eye for an eye’ might remain appropriate in the context of court systems that retain social order, while ‘turn the other cheek’ might be the most perfect way to inhabit those systems. Do you disagree with the legitimacy of this distinction? (Would your theology be that even, say, American court systems should, in every case, abandon a tit-for-tat conception of justice?)

      For what it’s worth, my previous post was a critique of one conservative’s call for genocide, though I don’t come at it in the way you probably would (the key sentence is at the end):

      I would want to qualify your claim about exegesis not being a matter of life and death, partly because I think both of us are animated to oppose people who use exegesis precisely to — call for death! But I also think even most conservatives are not calling for genocide or slavery (indeed, fighting ‘human trafficking’ has become quite trendy among conservative evangelicals) — and so I’m not sure that it’s helpful or necessary to make every conversation about the OT begin with genocide or slavery.

      In general, my mantra is that the primary thing evangelicals lack is wisdom, not, say, moral urgency or conscience. You probably disagree with this; but in any case, it might help you to interpret what I’m saying charitably: assume that whatever I say is intended to call the church to wisdom of some shape or form.

      Thanks again for the conversation. (If anyone else has read this far, you might consider buying Derek’s upcoming book on this subject:

  6. Thanks mark I appreciate those clarifications. Good to understand better where you are coming from.

    “I distinguished the Law as a social institution from Jesus’ commands which might sometimes be moral/extra-legal.”

    For what it’s worth I would not agree with that. I do not think that the way of Jesus here should be limited to personal affairs and that on a societal level we should continue with the way of an eye for an eye.

    “Would your theology be that even, say, American court systems should, in every case, abandon a tit-for-tat conception of justice?”

    I would say that our current justice system is profoundly broken and ineffective. It’s view of crime ignores pretty much everything we know from modern psychology and neuroscience. I see hope in some of the reforms that are happening around restorative justice, but for the most part prisons in the USA are money making franchises that make people worse rather than better. I think we are a long way away from what Jesus pointed us to so long ago.

  7. What I especially appreciate about this excellent post is its elegant brevity. So much, compressed into so little. Thank you.

    1. That’s so kind of you to say, Nick! And thanks for taking the time to read my post. 🙂

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