The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 1: Storytelling by and about Jesus

The primacy of storytelling

We human beings are vulnerable to the spurious power of the written word, particularly when it comes to our sacred texts.  The organic, evocative, ever-renewing power of oral storytelling can become frozen into words.  Then we tend to ascribe illusory authority those words, replacing the sacredness of shared human experience with the bureaucracy of received doctrine.

It is particularly common for us to use Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”1 in this way.  The book of Matthew alternates between narrative passages about Jesus’ life and five long discourses.  The author of Matthew portrays those discourses as if they had been given by Jesus as public teachings for both his disciples and the crowds of curious followers. 2

Unfortunately, we rarely attend to the original context either of Matthew’s audience or of the audience within the story itself.  What was the first-hand experience of these human beings?  How can their experience put flesh on the written bones of this story, so that it becomes incarnate in us?

It is essential to read the Bible as a collection of stories told to living human beings, not merely as a collection of historical or theological texts.  Stories evoke what can be experienced yet not put into words.  By nature, they include mystery and ambiguity and contradiction.  Stories challenge their audiences to fill in the blanks, bringing to the task their individual and cultural backgrounds, their imaginations, their speculations, their beliefs, and their faith.  Storytelling “is not a matter of authorship. It is a matter of embodiment.” 3

Learning from Jesus’ human presence
rather than his words

"Portrait of Jesus," Jacob Barosin (c. 1955)I suggest that it was Jesus’ human presence, not his teachings, that had a life-changing effect on the people around him.  His example is what transformed—slowly, incompletely, and with many false starts—his followers’ perceptions about themselves in relationship to each other and to the sacredness of all things.

Unfortunately, the teachings alone are often what some of the literal-minded among Jesus’ followers continue to cling to.  These readers are ensorcelled by words and formulas, as were their Pharisaic predecessors.  They parse and interpret and debate about the biblical texts, often instead of fully experiencing Jesus as a human being in story.

In contrast, the masses of Jesus’ time looked to him as a living person who could act and who did so.  They were not literate, educated people who dissected experience into words.  Rather, they saw, they felt, and they experienced directly.  And they were moved and challenged in ways they could sometimes not comprehend.

When Jesus spoke to disciples or crowds, his own storytelling was as much pragmatic as spiritual.  He was calling to mind for his audiences situations that they already knew of from their own experience.  He then opened new insights for them, using these familiar situations as examples.  For us to understand these stories, it is critical for us to learn more about the context of the original audiences for the stories. 4

Looking forward

This essay explores the story of the Sermon on the Mount from a number of perspectives.  The concern of Part 2 is to place the story in its historical matrix.  Who were the audiences in the story itself and for the book of Matthew?  How were the relevant Torah passages understood in the time of Jesus and of the New Testament storyteller?  And what sources, beyond the Torah itself, did the writer of Matthew use?

Part 3 contrasts two very different approaches to interpretation of Jesus’ words in the Sermon.  A traditional Christian approach reads the story from the perspective of later Christological5 notions about Jesus as a divine messiah.  From this viewpoint, Jesus is sometimes considered to have been replacing the Jewish Torah with a new theology and morality.

This essay’s concern, however, is the here and now of the Sermon’s historical audiences.  How did first century Jewish listeners understand the Torah instruction of a Jewish Jesus?  How did he expand their understanding by applying Torah to daily life under Roman domination and the rule of local Jewish collaborators?  And how might we use these openings of Torah to guide our own lives under the rule of 21st century powers?

In Part 4, we explore some specific examples of Jesus’ guidance.  How might people practice nonviolent resistance to the rule of force?  How might this differ from submitting to coercive power and waiting, instead, for  a metaphysical “end-time” when all wrongs will be righted?  How might we retain personal agency in the face of such domination?

Part 5 looks at two concerns on opposite ends of the spectrum from violence to mercy.  How is it not enough to simply condemn murder?  What else must we do to forestall our own potential for violence?  And what about the social violence of withholding our wealth from others who need support?  How do we find a balance between caring for our own and caring for others?  What does renunciation of the material really mean?

Finally, Part 6 asks the core question: what do we do now with the story that was told then?  Is it a vehicle for new divine laws laid down in expectation of an end-time judgment?  Is it a set of practical yet very demanding guidelines for moral life?  Might it be both, but in the form of a series of complex parables, ones that we must puzzle out over and over again each time old challenges arise in new forms under new circumstances?


Index


Image Source

Image by Jacob Barosin. The following is excerpted from The Empty Path, “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (2/20/2019).

“Jacob Barosin (1906-2001) was born Jacob Judey, the son of Russian Jewish parents in Riga, Latvia.  He grew up in Berlin, studied applied art and art history at the University of Berlin and…the University of Freiburg….

“In 1933, fearing the rise of the Nazi regime, [he and his wife] emigrated to Paris and adopted the surname Barosin.  Germany invaded France in 1940, and the Barosins went through a series of arrests as “hostile aliens,” internments in deportation camps, and escapes. Paris was liberated in August, 1944.  They then immigrated to the United States….

“The most poignant of Barosin’s work resides in the Last Portrait: Painting for Posterity exhibit at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center.  The introductory text for the online exhibit tells this story:

During all of the war years in France, in camps or in hiding, Barosin painted whenever he had the opportunity to do so. In the Gurs Camp, he drew portraits of the prisoners, most of whom remain unidentified. Using a realistic, detailed style, Barosin immortalized the faces of men who lived in terror of the transports to the East. He documented the exhaustion and despair borne of endless waiting, and gave expression to the fear of the unknown.

“Barosin’s original sketchbook of Gurs is permanently with Yad Vashem. His 1988 memoir, A Remnant, describes his life in France during the Holocaust….

“The eyes of this Jesus are the eyes of every camp prisoner whose portrait Jacob Barosin drew. This is the Jesus of the Holocaust.”

Notes

 

  1. Matthew 5-7 (NIV); cf., Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” Luke 6:20–49 (NIV).
  2. There are various scholarly methods for examining biblical texts to reconstruct what might have been the historical contexts, intended audiences, and source materials for their original composition. As Phillip J. Long explains in “What is Redaction Criticism?” on his blog, Reading Acts: Some Thoughts on the Book of Acts and Pauline Theology (9/1/2014):

    Most scholars now agree that the material in Matthew 5-7 comes from a sayings source (Q), and that Matthew created the “sermon” by thematically linking the teachings of Jesus, beginning with “he began to teach” and ending with “they were all amazed.”

    A redaction critic might say that the Sermon on the Mount itself never really took place as a historical event. An evangelical version of Redaction criticism might say Jesus’ words are authentic and Jesus often taught like this, but the setting is contrived by Matthew.

    The Gospel writer has created a section of the teaching of Jesus (in contrast to the next two chapters, the miracles of Jesus, which end in a similar pronouncement). The other of the five discourses in Matthew (chap. 10, 13, 18, 24-25) were “constructed” in a similar way. Jesus really said these things but in various other contexts and not necessarily on a single occasion as present by the Editor Matthew.

  3. In “There is no author,” Judy Roitman (Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide, Fall 2022, pp. 45-51) describes an analogous situation with the 84,000 or so sutras of Buddhist scripture. The sutras are a collage of storytelling over centuries, not a perfectly transcribed historical record of the sayings of the Buddha.

    “Preaching of the dharma depends on the examination of the ancients. Words are the shoots of this mind, so how can you leave it up to your conjectures/judgment?” [16th century Korean Zen master So Sahn Hyu Jong]….

    [The sutras are], according to tradition, mostly a record of dialogues among Shakyamuni Buddha, his disciples, and other buddhas and bodhisattvas, unerringly remembered by his disciple Ananda, who dictated them to the assembly after the Buddha’s death. Their traditional claim to authority rests on their claim to this historical circumstance….

    The historical evidence indicates that, rather than being transcriptions of any buddha’s or bodhisattva’s words as dictated by Ananda, the sutras were written down centuries after the Buddha’s death in either Sanskrit or Pali, neither of which is a language the Buddha spoke. But the people who put them together didn’t make it all up.  They did it, as So Sahn (or, perhaps, his sources) puts it, by “the examination of the ancients.”

    Why does this validate, rather than invalidate, the text? “Words are the shoots”; they die unless they are rooted. The texts are meant to embody a community’s truths. They are not supposed to emanate from an individual mind….

    The tradition does not exactly change with time. Rather, it continually reinvents itself from earlier sources, like a really good sourdough starter passed down from generation to generation and added to over decades, the additions indistinguishable from their predecessors.

    Sources give rise to sources that cannot be pulled apart. It’s not that this leads to that. This and that are not different. They echo, but it is simultaneous echo. You cannot really say first or second. To pull something like this off, you have to completely absorb the tradition you are in.

    It is not a matter of authorship. It is a matter of embodiment.

  4. In his article “Science and Religion: A Pragmatist Critique” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn/Winter 2023), Michael D. Jackson cites anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (see Jackson’s footnote 7):

    If the earliest and most fundamental function of speech is pragmatic – to direct, to control and to correlate human activities – then obviously no study of speech except within the “context of situation” is legitimate.

  5. Christology: doctrine of Christ,” by Hans J. Hillerbrand and Matt Stefon, in Britannica.com.

    The underlying methodological assumption of Christology is that the New Testament contains the authentic and accurate record of Jesus, both explicitly and implicitly.

    The New Testament is taken to convey that the earliest followers of Jesus were  convinced that God was revealed in him and that they attributed a number of titles to him, such as “Messiah,” “Son of Man,” “Son of God,” and “Lord.” Christian discourse uses the portrayal of Jesus in the foundational documents of Christianity as a point of departure.

    Traditionally, Christological reflection has focused on two specific aspects of that portrayal—namely, the person and the work of Jesus. It has also sought to clarify and systematize the meaning of the scriptural depiction of Jesus.

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