The Sermon on the Mount: Indicative or Imperative?

One of those oft discussed books which has enough weight about it to remain important twenty years after publication is Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. Even if you have read it I encourage you to read it again. It is that kind of book. I do not share the neo-Anabaptist vision of the authors yet a great deal of their appeal still rings true with much of what I have come to understand about culture and the church.

1591_1_ftc_dp The authors root Christians ethics in the Christian church, not in moral commands for the culture. They argue that ethically speaking when Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the beatitudes something very significant is happening that we all too easily miss. Jesus does not ask us to do anything, rather he gives us a vision of what we are before we are given any instruction about what we should do. This means the indicative comes before the imperative, a common New Testament appeal to us. We are told what God has done for us in the beatitudes before we are told how we should live in the kingdom in what follows.

Hauerwas and Willimon write:

Imagine a sermon that begins: “Blessed are you poor. Blessed are those of you who are hungry. Blessed are those of you who are unemployed. Blessed are those going through martial separation. Blessed are those who are terminally ill.”

The congregation does a double take. What is this? In the kingdom of the world, if you are unemployed, people treat you as if you have some sort of social disease. In the world’s kingdom, terminally ill people become an embarrassment to our health-care system, people to be put away, out of sight. How can they be blessed?

The preacher responds, “I’m sorry. I should have been more clear. I am not talking about the way of the world’s kingdom. I am talking about God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, the poor are royalty, the sick are blesses. I was trying to get you to see something other than that to which you have become accustomed.”

The Sermon on the Mount rests on the theological assumption that if the preacher can first enable us to see whom God blesses we will be on the road to God’s blessing. The point here is essential: “Vision is the necessary prerequisite for ethics. So the Beatitudes are not a strategy for achieving a better society, they are an indication, a picture” (84).

When we privatize the beatitudes to personal maxims about positive thinking or to new rules for how to experience the deeper life we miss the point. I have heard, like many of you, one moralistic sermon after another based on these beatitudes. They have been fertile ground for such preaching.

Homiletics professor Richard Lischer asks, “But why should the Teacher be crucified for reinforcing what everyone already knows” (85)?

What if this is really a picture of the way God is rather than a list of stringent rules? What if most of the Bible’s message is about who God is, not about what we are supposed to do. The basis for the Sermon on the Mount is not “what works” but rather “the way God is” (85). To use but one illustration, we turn the other cheek because God is merciful to his enemies thus we should be merciful to our enemies because we know God. We seek reconciliation because our God is a reconciling God. On and on you can go with this line of thinking if you follow my point. In fact, reconciliation is what God is doing in Christ in the world right now. Let us grasp the picture and we shall then be transformed into kingdom children, brothers and sisters of Jesus who walk in his steps. We’ll never get there through moralizing rules but rather by seeing a new vision of God, the vision revealed to us in and by Jesus alone.

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