Properties of Blood, Chapter I part D

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How are we to take these and other terrifying pronouncements?  St. Augustine quite properly regarded the Sermon on the Mount as a the loftiest compendium of Christian ethics, and, while he certainly recognized the difficulties to be encountered in living up to such a standard, he thought it was necessary for us to do our best.  Thomas Aquinas, in different ways, sought to distinguish the more practical from the more impossible strands in the Sermon, Thomas, by distinguishing between general commands issued to all Christians and the counsels offered to the clergy, and Luther in distinguishing between what one does as Christian and what one does as a human being with worldly responsibilities.

In more recent centuries many commentators have been troubled by what appears to be an impossibly high set of ideals.  John Calvin, who applied it to the everyday life of Christians, had to soften its severity, while some more recent Protestants (for example, the so-called Dispensationalists) have either given it a weak interpretation or else claimed it did not apply to our own circumstances:  Jesus’ harshest prescriptions were aimed only at the unredeemed.

Some Christians (Anabaptists and the Amish, for example), ignoring the rest of the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, have concluded that Christians are required to be communistic pacifists.  Others, particularly Catholic socialists, convert Jesus' injunctions to practice charity into a government-imposed program for redistributing wealth.

A more common solution in the pews is to regard Christ’s stark commands as an ideal to be celebrated in church on Sunday and safely ignored during the rest of the week.  Both types of “solution” are dangerous: the former, because it undermines society and the law that Christ did not come to overturn, the latter because it is the sort of hypocrisy He everywhere condemns.  “Blessed is he who is not scandalized by [that is, does not spiritually trip and fall over] my name.” [Mat. 11:6].  There is that word μακάριος again!  Thus it is not even enough to be meek and poor in spirit; we must accept Christ at face value, as the savior who means exactly what he says.  For a Christian, then, it is imperative to rise to the challenge Christ has set us in his Sermon, but, even for non-believers, it should be a matter of some importance to understand the Christian approach to social responsibility.  The Church has, after all, played a formative role in creating the civilization of the past two millennia.  I am not foolish enough to claim to have some novel interpretation of the Sermon, except insofar as I can try to set it in a context that both reflects the historical circumstances and applies to our own.

In Matthew’s story up to this point, nothing has prepared us for this shocking message.  We know only of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth, the precocious wisdom he displayed in questioning and answering teachers in the temple, his baptism by John the Baptist, and the testing by Satan, who had promised him material comfort and power if he would only challenge his Father, as Satan himself had done, and join the ranks of the fallen angels.

Emerging victorious over the Enemy, Christ now despises the very success that Satan had promised.  He has attracted a large following, not only from his home-area of Galilee but also from Jerusalem and Judea and even from the Decapolis, ten Hellenic cities that enjoyed important municipal privileges within the empire.  These cities had the benefit of Greek culture, which even the Semitic inhabitants (whether Jews or Syrians) had absorbed.  The mention of these Decapolitans in the audience is the first indication that Jesus is not necessarily preaching only to Jews or to men and women of exclusively Jewish cultural traditions.

What would Greeks or Hellenized Jews think of the Sermon, with its disturbing inversion of values?  Those who had read some Homer—and the Iliad and Odyssey were obligatory reading in any course of education—would have contrasted Christ's ideal with the noble heroes who populate epic poems.  They might first have thought of Achilles, whom some believed to lead a life of eternal happiness in the Isles of the Blessed, or of Heracles, whose career of bloody self-assertion had earned him a place among the gods.  These were men of violence and wrath, who took nothing from nobody, as the saying goes.  They were also members of a nobility that equated virtue with courage and defense of honor.  The only lower-class character in the Iliad, the ugly rabble-rouser Thersites, is rebuked and beaten by Odysseus for presuming to comment on his superiors.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina