What is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount? Some dispensationalists see it as millenial ethics (but why would we need what Jesus teaches here in a millenium?) Non-resistant believers see an ethic of non-violence and peaceful subversion.
Closer to the mark I think is what Dallas Willard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw in it: this is Jesus telling us how to live here and now. It is a radical, subversive way. It is radical because it goes to the radix, the root, the heart and who we are before the face of God.
Glen Stassen, retired from Fuller Theological Seminary, shared his insights on the Sermon at a meeting of ABC General Board members in the context of Roy Medley's emphasis on radical discipleship. So far, so good. But I would suggest that Drs. Stassen and Medley don't go far enough in understanding the radical nature of Jesus' teaching. He overturned the status quo much like an Old Testament prophet--by calling people back to God. He also overturns the status quo by calling people forward toward the Kingdom, the Kingdom which is "at hand."
Today, wfn.org reports:
Speaking to leaders of a denomination that has had to deal recently with divisive issues, Stassen said people on both sides of controversies often have a clear solution to them-those on the other side should repent. But, he said, "We've got to repent, all of us. We've all got to learn to be a little more humble."
Stassen suggested there is a three-part plan behind the Sermon on the Mount, rather than simply an antithesis of two positions-evil and perfection. Using anger as an example, he observed that Jesus states an evil, diagnoses the vicious circle involved, and only then gives orders about what to do.
"Jesus never commands us not to be angry-it's about when you're angry, what do you do about it," he said.
With all due respect, I have to separte myself from Dr. Stassen's remarks. His approach seems to semi-Hegelian: to reject a thesis/antithesis approach in favor of a thesis/antithesis/synthesis approach, which undercuts the very to-the-heart radicalism of Jesus.
Far more helpful is the assertion that Jesus is here giving his guide to the true "good life" in the tradition of the great philosophers and religious teachers. That the interpretive hook used by USC professor of philosophy Dallas Willard.
The real Sermon on the Mount is truly uncompromisingly radical. To illustrate: a fellow-blogger and I were talking about the definition of racism. The "standard defintion" of racism is that of a plan policy and attitude of racial superiority buttressed by power. Under that definition, a black American may be a bigot, but could not be a racist.
I told him that I rejected that definition. By basing all things on who holds power as opposed to the condition of the heart, the definition is shaped more by Marxism than by Jesus' ethic as heard in the words of the Sermon on the Mount. (Believe me, I am very well-informed on the origins, philosophy and failure of Marxism. Documentation available upon demand.) Eventually my fellow occupant of Blogistan came around to my perspective.
In his discussion of discipleship in The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolgung, "following after" is the German title) for Bonhoeffer was not limited to what we can comprehend--it must transcend all comprehension. The Sermon blows up Hegel and Marx as well as the dead Pharisaism of Jesus' time, the equally dead religious legalism of our own as well as all idolatries of left and right--all without becoming what Nietzsche call the "frozen dialetic" of Christianity. It is not frozen: it is "at hand."