Monday, June 28, 2010

Matthew: On the Pastoral Tone of the Sermon on the Mount

This was for me the most valuable/enjoyable of the readings of the class so far, though at first I wandered where Lischer was going with it. Yet the second half really shone. “The Sermon seems strangely bereft of a pastor; yet what it offers can best be characterized as radical pastoral care...its chief actor is not a chosen professional but the people themselves.”

Amen! In my brief time (as a non-Lutheran) here, I’ve been amused whenever people talk about clergy being “pastoral” in their care for people; my thought has always been “But they’re just being human.” Which is not to go on some kind of personal rant, but it is to say that if people took the Sermon on the Mount seriously we might move toward a Christian version of the Jewish understanding that rabbis are professional Jews. Pastors are professional Christians. They do what we’re all supposed to be doing anyway.

Perhaps that is what people meant, and I just haven’t been hearing it?

Beyond that, it’s interesting how empowering the Sermon on the Mount can be if taken in the manner Lischer suggests. “Pastoral care in this sense can no longer be separated from ‘administration’ but now, instead of training Christians to be committees, the church will train them to be pastors, those who care for their brothers and sisters in the stress and conflict of daily life.”

The Sermon on the Mount isn’t a sermon at all. It’s not a moral purity code to whose lofty aspirations we cannot possibly rise. It’s a guide for how to live, as humans and as Christians and as Christians in community, much the same as the Decalogue was for the Hebrews, and without all the legalistic consequences.

Perhaps that’s what all sermons are meant to be, and I just haven’t been hearing them?

The eschatological nature of the Sermon is less easy to discern; the language certainly isn’t eschatological. But “an indicative with the force of a promise” doesn’t require stars falling from heaven to address the already/ not yet of God’s coming and present kingdom. All it has to do is direct and exhort communities of people into God’s vision for humanity – and there is the Sermon on the Mount. It’s promises, made by God, are so certain that we already have their benefits. “What we do now is a downpayment on the perfect peace, harmony, love, purity and worship that will characterize the End.”

Indeed. What all sounds so impractical – and the Sermon certainly sounds that way to us – is at bottom eminently pragmatic, and that’s the wisdom of taking the Sermon pastorally, and, I would add, the value of taking Scripture seriously to start with. To interpret Scripture is to apply it. To apply it is to live with its considerations foremost in one’s heart and mind, to be ‘shocked’ into a transformed way of life. The Sermon on the Mount addresses itself specifically to this purpose.

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