John Bennison Words and Ways

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Jesus: The Ethical Teachings of a Social Deviant

Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage:

The Sermon on the Mount, PART II

: “Sermon on the Mount” – Hungarian artist Kalroly Ferenczy depiction of a pastoral scene, Budapest, 1896
: “Sermon on the Mount” – Hungarian artist Kalroly Ferenczy depiction of a pastoral scene, Budapest, 1896

Previously, in this Series … 

Preface & Summary of Part I

[Skip directly to the commentary below, if you prefer. Or a pdf versions to read and/or print is here.]

In Part I, we began this current series on the ethical teachings of the historical Jesus, as recorded in three chapters of Matthew’s gospel, commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7, and Luke’s corollary being Luke 6). The passages are certainly familiar. Many of us have passed this way many times before. But now we do so again for several reasons. And it may provide us a new perspective to see again with new eyes.

First, many of these passages are considered by a predominant number of modern biblical scholars to be the closest thing we have to what the historical Jesus may actually have said; before the various gospel traditions extrapolated whatever original source material they had with their own interpretations, imaginations and application to their own particular set of circumstances.

This allows us the additional progressive thinkers of the Christian faith tradition opportunity to then examine the core teachings, wisdom sayings, parables and aphorisms of this Galilean sage; while bringing our own interpretations and imaginations to bear on these passages; unfettered or unencumbered to some degree by what so quickly became the more familiar and well-trod path of orthodoxy.

Instead of according the historical Jesus with a messianic title, and the establishment of yet another institutional and hierarchical religion – two things in which Jesus himself seemed to have little interest —  we can instead reconsider to what extent Jesus’ core teachings deviated radically from both the conventional thinking of his time (and ours); as well as the “salvation” business that regarded his deviant message as a meddlesome nuisance at best, and heresy at worst.

In the first commentary in this series we considered the so-called “beatitudes.” We can reasonably guess these welcome words of comfort and reassurance were originally addressed to those who would have been personally familiar with the short end of the stick when it comes to gross economic disparity.

The commentary took us on a little art history tour with contemporary artist David Hockney’s reinterpretation of Claude’s depiction of the Sermon on the Mount; where Jesus and his inner circle were pictured perched high above the milling crowd below. Then we took a look at Los Angeles artist, Romero Gomez’ reinterpretation of some of Hockney’s famous works; where Gomez places the otherwise-invisible domestic workers in his renditions of those affluent California lifestyle settings Hockney loves to paint.

The beatitudes introduce us to a ‘Jesus Ethic,’ and a particular vision of equitable justice simply understood as each person having enough.  Such divine governance as Jesus envisioned would certainly appear to be contemporaneously worthy of consideration by virtue of its absence today. While the economic gap may now be a chasm – as Gomez’ “Domestic Scenes” would suggest – it would also seem evident we cannot afford to ignore each other’s presence and interdependence.

In this series we skip the passages about being “salt of the earth,” and “light to the world;” as well as those instructions on anger, resolving disputes, lust, adultery, divorce and the swearing of oaths. Many of these instructions are reiterations of what would have been familiar religious legalisms, only with exaggeration. Jesus employed the use of parody to repeatedly make his point; e.g. “pluck out your eye” or “chop off an arm” if you might be tempted to ogle or touch whatever or whomever you shouldn’t!

Instead, we turn to something far more difficult and challenging: non-violent passive resistance.  While it would seem completely against our human nature, a Jesus Ethic is based on the notion it is fully within our human capacity to turn the other cheek and love your enemy. And furthermore, that it is actually a self-distortion of our human nature to accept endless, reciprocal violence as the “default” in human nature.

In a Jesus Ethic, it is not a matter of overcoming our “natural instincts” by the gift or blessing of some external, divine intervention or redemption. Both the answer and the capacity lie within.  Embracing a Jesus Ethic is always an inward journey. And these teachings we explore are the pathways.


Jesus: The Ethical Teaching of a Social Deviant


“Don’t react violently.”  

“Turn the other cheek.” And, 

“Love your enemies.” - Matthew 5:39,44


Recently, crowds took to the streets from Kiev, to Bangkok and Caracas. Then again, the social world order seems to erupt in chaos and violence on a regular basis.  Regimes hold on to political power at all costs, while those who are more often than not economically oppressed – as opposed to just ideologically of a different mindset — demonstrate and confront government forces with little more than their willingness to stand in opposition; and, in hopes outside forces might be willing to join their struggle, and match entrenched power with equal force by those others who have their own national interests at stake.

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