The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 6: What do we do now?

In a sense, we all come to the Sermon on the Mount backwards—as in fact we do with every other biblical story.  Regardless of our religious or secular backgrounds for reading these stories, we begin from the perspective of whatever we understand about Judaism and Christianity.  Then we read the stories as if that were what the original storytellers intended the stories to evoke.

And yet, as we found in Part 5, it is what we learn in story about how Jesus taught his people in the flesh that gives us the starting point for learning from him ourselves.  Perhaps we can temporarily set aside the theological propositions of the Church, along with those of the author and post-Temple religious community of Matthew.  Instead, we can simply be 21st century people listening to this 1st century master giving testimony about how to live faithfully under the disregard and brutality of worldly powers.

Making it personal

Let me make this more personal, more confessional.  Why have I done this long academic slog through Jewish New Testament scholarship?  Because, ever since childhood, this is where I meet the actual Jesus, in the storytelling of first century Jews. Both from their own historical present and, later, from the memories and imaginations of their parents, grandparents, and teachers.

In my teen years in the 1960s, I attended Lutheran confirmation classes.1  There I was introduced to the traditional creeds and doctrines and interpretations that Lutherans hold at the heart of their formal belief system.  I did my best to comprehend the standard answers to the questions in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.  And I tried to internalize and embrace these answers, to convince myself that they described my own experience.

In retrospect, though, this theological system simply did not fit with the Jesus I knew as a child.  It wasn’t the religion of Jesus.   It was a religion about Jesus.  I struggled with this conundrum into my early twenties.  I got as far as a first term in seminary.  Then I realized that I had to lay this belief system aside.  I could not teach or preach it with integrity.  Instead, I let the Jesus I know lead me into the wilderness, warily but with no other option.

How can we know the “historical Jesus”?

By his impact on his own times, we can trust that there was a historical Galilean, remembered in his native Aramaic as Isho (Yeshua in Hebrew), who lived and taught a radically nonconformist way of Jewish faithfulness.  It was a way of life based on the mutuality of shared community, not on either compliance with or rebellion against the boundaries of behavior and social status prescribed by priestly and imperial authority.

Those who did their best to live in Jesus’ way were not waiting for some future metaphysical intervention to heal the world.  They were practicing a covenantal way of living in community with God now, in a kingdom already present in creation.  It was Jesus’ example and their own that persuaded so many others to follow this nonviolent yet activist path of living in the moment.

However, we only know of this person and his teachings through other people’s storytelling.  The gospels are histories in the classical sense, narratives about what one has learned.2  Yet histories are always written from the author’s perspective, and so they are shaped by the author’s inward awareness and outward agendas.3

In other words, history writers are telling readers of their own eras how they think those readers should understand the past.  This need not be dishonest or propagandist, if the author works with integrity.  Nonetheless, testing the author’s portrayal calls for some knowledge of the original historical matrix.  The linguistic and cultural contexts, the values of the author’s times, and the nature and authority of the sources used.

The challenge therefore arises, how do we free our imaginations enough from the text to let these stories conjure up the original characters and situations.  Enough to evoke in us something of what the storyteller hoped to evoke in the original audiences?

Imagination is our door to the real

When we listen to or read or watch well-told stories, our brains have the knack of suspending personal knowledge and beliefs and entering into story time.  We experience what happens and react to what is evoked as if it were really happening in our presence.  We set aside our interpretive processes and simply go along with the narrative.

There is more to it than this.  In the context of storytelling, “real” versus “imaginary” is a misleading distinction.  Whatever happens in our imaginations has real-world consequences.  Our emotional reactions, the values we assign to those emotions, and our thoughts about all of this have a real effect on what follows in our lives.  In  short, what happens in imagination is real.

And because storytelling has real effects on our inward experience, it is a valuable exercise to experience stories—especially teaching stories—with some sense of their cultural context, and without the added interpretive biases of later times and cultures.  When we do this, we sometimes discover that the characters in story are giving witness to us in the present.

Recall what I wrote above about entering into story time.  Think of a character in story whom you know as well as you do an intimate personal acquaintance.  Someone you value as a friend and teacher to emulate.  Someone you have learned about through many sources with many variations and points of view—but first of all from the stories about them.

Over time, your imagination will have sifted through the details of those sources to create a consistent, archetypical representation of that person.  This is that person living in you.  With any new situation or representation, you can look within and discern what is true to that person’s real nature and what is not.

For example, in any situation, I can stay, “Yes, my brother would do that.  No, he would never agree with that idea.”  This is how I know Jesus, as an real person in heart and imagination to whom I can turn at any moment, whether he is physically present or not.

James Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief

In 2008, I stumbled onto The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse, late emeritus professor of the history and literature of religion at New York University.  The book opens wide the horizon for reclaiming religion as an organic community experience, rather than as a static, institutionalized one.

Carse analyses the error he sees in most of our arguments over religion. Through compassionate yet incisive examination, he reveals that “what is currently criticized as religion is, in fact, the territory of belief” (book jacket). The distinction, as he defines it, is enlightening.

Belief systems are “comprehensive networks of tenets that reach into every area of thought and action” (32). They claim to define all that needs to be known, mark the boundary beyond which orthodox thinking must not go, and name what is beyond that boundary as enemy.

Religions, in contrast, “are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox.” (36) Roman civitas was a society ruled by law and structured by lines of authority.  But a religion is a communitas 4 that stretches across time and space, a “spontaneous gathering of persons who identify themselves and one another as members of a unified body.” (84)

While belief systems want only unambiguous answers, the very essence of religions is the continued expansion of the “discursive context,” that process by which communitas perpetually revisits its deepest questions and reinterprets its irresolvable mysteries. (100).

In this light, Carse writes that sacred texts “demand interpretation, but without any indication of what that interpretation should be.” What counts is the sincere expansion of the dialogues among members of the communitas.

“Moreover, there is nothing particularly rational in these extended dialogues. They explain nothing. Their power lies chiefly in the interpreter’s skill at provocation.” (199)

Storytelling as provocation

“The Road to Emmaus,” Claes Moeyaert (Dutch, 1591–1655), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
“The Road to Emmaus,” Claes Moeyaert
(Dutch, 1591–1655)

This last is a most powerful insight.  Stories only exist in the present.  That is, they only have real consequence when living people engage with them.

And each time they are retold, they call forth (provoke: Latin pro “forth” + vocare “to call”) new responses in those who hear them.  Responses which transform older understandings into new ones.  Including new understandings of old stories.

Though I didn’t recognize it until decades later, my original faith crisis arose from trying to embrace the formal Christian creeds for Lutheran confirmation.  We were taught the Apostles’ Creed and how Martin Luther had interpreted it.  Looking back at it today, I find it profoundly disturbing.  There is nothing in it about Jesus’ human life except for one clause:

born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

Everything else is metaphysical arguments5 about the nature and relationships of the “persons” in the trinitarian God.  There is no human story.

My personal approach to the 1st century Jewish stories about Jesus is very different.  I don’t argue with or throw out the creeds and theologies.  I simply lay them aside6 as the first Quakers did.

What I need is for Jesus to teach me moment by moment, not in some fossilized doctrinal past or imagined metaphysical future.  I became a “convinced Friend” in the late-1980s, once I saw that the Quaker way allows me to reclaim Jesus without having to pick up all of the doctrinal baggage again.

And he always provokes me to return to the basics of living in the kingdom already present in the world.

What does “already present” mean?

When Jesus tells his friends and the crowds to turn the other cheek, he is not telling them to submit to abuse and violence passively for the sake of some future reward “in heaven.”  He is saying, do not return violence for violence.  Instead, confront your abusers with the immorality of their violence publicly, with your own actual human lives.  And then accept the personal consequences.

He is telling them what the people of Montgomery’s Black community in the 1950s told each other during their 13-month boycott of the segregated bus system.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., said at the end of the boycott on December 20, 1956:

We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So … we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery (Papers 3:486).

Jesus is tell us—he is telling me in every situation I confront—to act as if we are already in God’s kingdom.  Because when we act that way, we are in the kingdom.

Whenever I suffer private pain or grief or public fear or struggle, what helps me most is to center down into an inward story time that is more real than what is happening.  I do not have to ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”  I simply remember him.  Centering down takes me back to awareness.  And then I wait for clarity.

What I have to do is find the courage to take what I already know is the next step on the path.  And the patience to trust that the good of the kingdom will come of it, whether or not I ever see that outcome myself.

And so it is.


Image source

Image: “The Road to Emmaus,” Claes Moeyaert (Dutch, 1591–1655), The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication].  The story of the road to Emmaus is told in Luke 24:13-35 (NIV). The resurrected Jesus appears unrecognized to two disciples and tells them stories as they walk together. At dinner that evening, they and others recognize him when he breaks bread with them.


  1. Adult Confirmation: A self-guided, online confirmation course for adults,” Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Portage, MI.

    Confirmation is a traditional rite of passage in the Lutheran church. When a person is baptized as an infant, their parents and sponsors make promises to raise them in the Christian faith. When they are old enough to think and decide for themselves, it is common for a person who was baptized as an infant to make a public declaration of their faith, claiming those promises to live faithfully for themselves.

    In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), this has traditionally been done with a specific course of study in the early teenage years that culminates in a rite during a community worship service where the confirmands publicly affirm their faith, making them full adult members of the congregation.

  2. Greek historia, “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative” (Online Etymology Dictionary).
  3. History as story, for better or worse,” an interview with Johns Hopkins University historian N. D. B. Connolly by Dale Keiger, in Johns Hopkins Magazine (Summer 2018).

    I think it’s really important to give people who are reading historical work a grounding, in some ways. Narrative is partly a way of making sure that characters are living, are breathing, and that readers can see where events are unfolding and how they’re unfolding.

    The thing about narrative is that we talk in narratives all the time, even if we’re not entirely sure that we’re doing it. So it really ends up falling on [writers] to stitch together enough information to be able to tell a story, and touch the story that most people already have in their heads for whatever event they choose….

    I think one of the things that’s most hazardous about writing these narratives is that you have to make choices. That comes with the territory. And so the question becomes, What justifies the selection and the choices that you’re making?

    There’s a really important book called Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History [2004; 2015], written by Michel-Rolph Trouillot….

    What he talks about is the need to be mindful of the fact that power enters at every stage of the process of writing a historical narrative…. [emphasis added]

    There’s a way in which we assume that the story will make itself evident just by virtue of what’s in the documents, but the story was already there in our own minds when we came to the material and made selections about what we were going to include and not include. [emphasis added]

  4. Religion and Communitas: Structure and Anti-Structure,” by Daniel Tutt (3/20/2015).

    One of the reasons that religion persists in human civilization is because it is able to incorporate what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas into structure, or normal society.

    Turner is a philosophical anthropologist, and in his classic study The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, he points out how the liminal or transitional experiences of rituals across different cultures and religions is something that can never find a home in what he calls structure.

    Structure is another word for hierarchy, order, authority and different cognitive forms of organizing human society. Anti-structure is what he calls communitas, a liminal and existential revolt against structure that seeks catharsis from the immunization of life and experience that structure imposes.

  5. The traditional creeds go back to theologians and councils of bishops under the Roman Empire during the 2nd through 4th centuries.  The most widely used is the Nicene Creed, commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in 325 because he needed one official religious belief system for the sake of political unity in his Christianized Empire.

    The Nicene Creed (/ˈnaɪsiːn/; Koinē Greek: Σύμβολον τῆς Νικαίας, romanized: Sýmvolon tis Nikéas), also called the Creed of Constantinople, is the defining statement of belief of Nicene or mainstream Christianity…. The original Nicene Creed was first adopted at the First Council of Nicaea in 325….

    The Nicene Creed is part of the profession of faith required of those undertaking important functions within the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Nicene Christianity regards Jesus as divine and “begotten of the Father.”

    Various conflicting theological views existed before the fourth century and these spurred the ecumenical councils which eventually developed the Nicene Creed, and various non-Nicene beliefs have emerged and re-emerged since the fourth century, all of which are considered heresies by adherents of Nicene Christianity.  (Nicene Creed, Wikipedia)

  6. The Boundaries of our Faith,” by Daniel Seeger, Quaker Universalist Fellowship pamphlet (1991).

    Quakerism offers us an austere spiritual practice, at once simple and awesome. In its laying aside of the creeds, trappings, icons, rituals, and magic that characterize most religious culture, it seeks to focus directly on the inner essence of the holy relationship of human persons to God and to each other.

    We know from our experience that our simple silence, the shared inner silence of our hearts and minds, can open us up to Divine Truth, a Truth that is in us and around us and always seeking to make Itself known to us.

    When we hear this Truth, each act, each moment, is an occasion of magic and wonder. Such hearing and obeying allowed our spiritual forebears to act prophetically in the arena of human affairs with an impact scarcely imaginable for a group of their small numbers.

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