The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 5: From preventing murder to opening one’s hand

“Oblivious,” affluent young couple beside a homeless woman on a bench, Montreal, by Mike Shell (8/8/2013).

From nonviolent resistance and retaining personal agency under duress (Part 4), we move on to consider our own violent impulses and our desire to cling to material comforts.

The fence around murder

In  Matthew 5:21-25 (NIV), Jesus expands upon the Torah’s prohibition against murder.  Levine and Brettler explain:

[This extension of the Torah] begins, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…, ‘You shall not murder’” [Matt 5:21]….

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The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 4: Bringing the Torah’s guidance into daily life

“Carrying a Roman soldier’s furca,” from Backpacking in Ancient Rome: Old School, Minimalist, YouTube video by Kenneth Kramm.

As Part 3 suggests, listening to the Sermon on the Mount as storytelling rather than as doctrinal text we learn that Jesus is not reading from the text of the Torah.  He is paraphrasing passages that his audience already knows.

And his concern is not to prescribe ideals of righteous behavior, but rather to work out practical moral guidelines for life under Empire. Jesus is “building a fence around the Torah” in order to help people apply the behavioral

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The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 3: “Building a fence about the Torah”

Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 28a (1Q28a) from Qumran Cave 1

In Part 2 we explored the concentric circles of audience for the Sermon on the Mount. There are Jesus’ disciples and the surrounding crowds within the story, and next Matthew’s first readers.  Then, the Jewish and Christian traditions of interpretation which developed over the centuries.  And, finally, we who read the story.

We cannot possibly hear the story as those first Jewish listeners did as people living under Rome’s totalitarian rule.  However, we can free the story from it’s

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The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 2: Historical contexts, audiences, and textual sources

The Bible with and without Jesus: How Jews and Christians read the same stories differently (2020), Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler

I proposed in Part 1 that we miss the significance of Jesus’ human presence for his own people and for us if we do not recognize the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, NIV) as storytelling.

The Sermon is not just a set of moral pronouncements for people who await a metaphysical end-time.  The writer of Matthew is teaching living Jewish audiences in the first century by crafting a story about Jesus.  And Jesus is telling stories to

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

"Portrait of Jesus," Jacob Barosin (c. 1955)

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” in this way.  The book

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Teasing the scribes and pharisees

"Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens)," by James Tissot (between 1886 and 1894), Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons].

Some fun with words that may go deeper than we usually expect to go in reading the Gospels.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ Temple teaching, Jesus answers trick questions from the scholars and Pharisees and then responds with one of his own, translated in English as follows (Mark 12: 35-36):

How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?  David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right

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“A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”

"Portrait of Jesus," Jacob Barosin (c. 1955)

When I was a little Lutheran preacher’s kid in 1950s Ohio, the most familiar images of Jesus were ones with children gathered round and sitting on his knee. These accompanied songs like “Jesus Loves Me.”

I was blessed with caring parents and a child-friendly neighborhood, and my father’s sermons were about Jesus’ compassionate humanity. These childhood portrayals of Jesus did not clash very much with my personal experience of family and community.

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The Canaanite woman: Recognizing kinship

Samaritans

In 2015, writing about “Christian Universalisms,” I explained that Jesus

was from Galilee in northern Palestine, child of Aramaic-speaking peasants, not of the “proper” Hebrew-speaking Jews from Judea in the south. His [initial] concern was that his own Galilean people not feel excluded from God’s blessing because of their not being part of the Jerusalem-centered Temple cult.

As we find in teaching stories like “the woman at the well” (

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Seeing beyond Identities

Originally published on 10/4/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations

In “Seeing beyond the Projections” (9/7/2015), I voiced my concern that modern Friends across the spectrum tend to perceive liberal or universalist Quakerism as representing anything but Christianity. As Wendy Geiger has put it so gracefully in her comment, I wanted to suggest an alternative view, a way “to keep one’s heart-mind supple and expandable and inclusive.”1

To give the

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Seeing beyond the Projections

Originally published on 9/7/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations

Some recent conversations with Friends revealed that they considered Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity. This is not surprising either psychologically or historically, yet it misses the core premise of universalism: inclusion.

Psychologically, our pattern-seeking brains prefer boundaries and distinctions, and their cognitive shortcut is to divide things into either/or categories. Historically, if I came to Quakerism from outside of the Christian community,

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