God is a gardener? No way! Genesis 2:4-5, “When the LORD God made earth and heaven— when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no earthling to till the earth.” So much for God the Gardener. God had to invent that job and then create humanity to do it. Enough levity, on the text.
I cannot read this parable of the builders without thinking that Jesus is retelling the teaching found in the prophet Ezekiel (13:10-16 NRSV):
“Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the LORD. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord GOD.”
The “whitewash” is a coating that gives the illusion of strength, like the houses of those who build on sand.
Jesus rabbinic contemporaries made the same point. In Avot de Rabbi Nathan Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah says, “A man who does good deeds and diligently studies Torah is like a man building a house with a stone foundation and a shingled roof… When a flood comes the house does not move. But a man who studies and yet does evil, is like one who builds a house with shingles for a foundation and rock for a roof. Even a slight rain causes the house to collapse” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 24).
What interests me is that Jesus is, like the rabbis before and after him, preaching the gospel of the deed rather than the gospel of faith. It isn’t enough to hear the words of Jesus or even to believe them, one must live them, do them, for it is our action that is the rock while mere faith is sand. Luke makes the point even more clearly when his Jesus says anyone who hears his words and lives them is like the builder whose foundation is rock, but anyone who hears his words and does not live them is building a house on sand (Luke 6:47-49).
Most of us build on sand.
The closing part of the Sermon is challenging to me personally: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:24-28, NRSV)
The first thing I notice here is that Matthew seems to have forgotten that Jesus withdrew from the crowd and spoke the Sermon to his inner circle: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them,” i.e. the disciples, not the crowd (Matthew 5:1-2).
If this is true, the crowd never heard the Sermon on the Mount, and this closing line is a later editorial gloss added to the text to highlight the idea (false in my opinion) that Jesus taught something drastically new. While Jesus puts his own unique spin on his teachings, he is still teaching Torah whether or not Jews and Christians want to admit it.
As to his manner of teaching, Jesus does violate a major tenet of Judaism: cite your source. While rabbis can be very innovative in their interpretations of scripture and law, we consider it an act of respect to honor those teachers who came before us by citing their teachings in their name. This continues today. We delight in showing the evolution of our thinking by quoting our teachers even when we know we are going to put a spin on the teaching that these teachers never imagined and with which they might not even agree.
So, yes, Jesus’ seeming lack of respect for his rabbis would shock people. It still bothers me today, which is why I spent much of our conversation citing sources that may have been in Jesus’ mind when he taught. I say his “seeming” lack of respect because it is hard for me to imagine him not citing sources. It was and is such a central part of rabbinic culture that I cannot help but believe that Jesus did honor his rabbis and that the Gospel writers simply chose not to include those references.
The reason why the Gospel writers would make this choice is not hard to fathom. To them Jesus was not speaking for an ancient tradition but for God, perhaps as God. God is the source of these teachings, and since God is speaking them there is no reason to cite sources. If they were to include the early teachings from which Jesus shaped his own message this would tie Jesus too strongly to Judaism and make the emergence of a largely non-Jewish church all the more difficult. Once again, politics shapes religion.
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I like way you sum up your take on the Sermon, Mike. You seem to suggest it is, in today’s world no less than the world of Jesus’ time, counter-cultural. I heartily agree. What would it be like if people built their homes on rock and actually lived the Sermon, rather than build on the sands of power, politics, and the theological veneer that seeks to pass these off as religion?
Prophetic religion should always be counter-cultural when the culture is rooted in exploitation, greed, ignorance, anger, and violence. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all started out as counter-cultural revolutions and each ended up as the bearers of culture and excusers of the violence to which their respective cultures fell prey.
I may have mentioned this earlier, but I once watched Larry King interview a panel of Evangelical Pastors on the eve of the second Iraq War. He asked them how they reconciled Jesus’ “Blessed are the peacemakers” with President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war. One of the women on the panel answered him saying, “Our soldiers are the peacemakers. As soon as they kill all our enemies there will be peace.” Couple this with the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll that found that 60% of Evangelical Christians supported torture of terror suspects while only 40% of the unchurched did so, and we have to wonder if Christianity is still counter-cultural.
As always, Mike, you are clear and insightful: it does take a leap of faith to embrace and live the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The leap is not so much the belief in the divinity of Jesus, but in the possibility of mere humans being capable of living the life he prescribed for us. With the rise of fundamentalism in all three Abrahamic religions I am doubtful that any of us have this faith.
On the contrary, our faith is in the very things Jesus rejected, the very things that are bringing us and our civilization to the brink of disaster. We need to do more than hear the Sermon. We need to live it.