Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lutherans (especially) and the Sermon on the Mount

I don't mean this to be a question just for Lutherans; I think the discussion will benefit from its not being an intramural contest. But my question arises from my Lutheran perspective: It is rendered acute by the Lutheran emphasis on "justification by grace through faith." And so I guess it is as a Lutheran that I raise the issue. But at the same time, I have benefited in thinking about this question from the on-going conversation at Mount Olive Lutheran Church of the Gospel of Matthew. We continue to meet (and will through the summer) and hope to finish the book -- probably late next year!

As any quick read of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel will reveal (and I'm not going into parallels and other practices of textual criticism), Jesus speaks repeatedly in terms that don't sound very Lutheran. In addition to the entire Sermon's reaffirmation of the Law and the Prophets (5:17), there are numerous threatening logia such as these:

  • "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (5:20)
  • "I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; ... and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire." (5:21f)
  • "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (6:1)
  • "[B]ut if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (6:15)
  • "For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (7:2)

So here's my question: How do all y'all understand these sayings of Our Lord? (That implicates the general question of judgment at the end times, of course, too.) If you are a Lutheran (and also if you're not, but nonetheless don't subscribe an outright works-righteousness theology), how do you square these straightforward logia with the Lutheran "sola gratia" -- i.e., we are saved by grace, not anything we do? What is the reward that the Father will withhold unless we are discrete in our charity? Is there really room for a tit-for-tat in the Gospel?

I rather assume that no one will suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is simply idealistic language that Jesus knows no one can obey: That seems, even from the mouth of Reinhold Niebuhr (who I'm told held to that view) too facile and too unbiblical. But if that's your position, prove me wrong.

We've had some good times in the Matthew class with this, and I'd like to see what happens here.
Happy posting.


Mystical Seeker said...

For that matter, there is the parable in Matthew 25:31-46, which talks about people being saved based on their works. It says nothing about their faith.

I'm not a Lutheran, so I can't really answer your question.

Chris said...

I don't have the citations, but I have read plenty of Luther quotes that talk of the importance of works - particularly as signs of one's faith. This ain't Luther, but from the Augsburg Confession VI (Concerning the New Obedience):
"It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God."

I personally have no problem discussing the importance of works, particularly as flowing from the gift of faith. I never want to confuse "salvation" or "relationship with God" with a discussion of works, but I am more than glad to remind Christians that we are called to act and live and love in certain ways. The so-called "Third Use of the Law" is fine with me . . .

Luther was concerned about the trust people put into their works. In his commentary on Matt 5:20, for example, Luther criticizes the Pharisees for the trust they put in their works. However, Luther also recognizes the righteousness of the Pharisees, and in explaining Jesus' words says that not even the most righteous (the Pharisees) are righteous enough. Thus for Luther Matt 5:20 is an impossible declaration - how can we possibly be more righteous than the most righteous believers? (This, then, is akin to Jesus' call for us to be perfect - a call we cannot adequately answer). This command to be more righteous than the Pharisees is an example of the Law that shows us our inadequacy (we cannot be righteous enough), drives us to our knees, and shows us our need for God's mercy. Matt 5:20 is not a call to works as much as it is a reminder of just how imperfect, impious, unrighteous we are.

Anonymous said...

But, Mystical Seeker, I specifically do NOT want only Lutheran perspectives. You're right about the parable: I didn't raise it because our Matthew discussion is far from that chapter yet. But what does it say to you about the judgment that seems related to the way we carry on as God's people?
- Dwight (sorry to sign on as "Anonymous," but my "SmartPhone" can't seem to log me in as myself)

Mystical Seeker said...

Dwight, I am probably too much of a heretic for my opinion to count. :)

Dwight P. said...

Certainly, Chris, what you say is true. But do you read Luther to say that the "judgment" (et. al.) of which Jesus speaks is simply the realization that we can't do what he says and so be driven to our knees? One of the tempations of dealing with Matthew is to read him through some pretty myopic eyes as not meaning what he said -- thus requiring us to search for the inner-hidden-deeper-secret meaning of the text aside from what it says.

Why would Jesus try to muddy the waters by calling us to something we can't do? (The Greek for "perfect" roots in "telos" which carries the meaning of "whole" or "working as it was designed to do." With the Holy Spirit in the picture (which is often is not for us Lutherans), why are we not able to live the way God intended -- toward our "end"/purpose?

Was Jesus truly human? If so, was he unable to be perfect, too?

Note that in none of this do I presume to suggest that it is within our own power to be so. I think much of the sermon makes precisely the point that we cannot "by our reason or effort" do so. But the point is not to be looking at the end results we try to do and just look to Jesus -- as model, enabler, support, Savior. (Thanks to Bonhoeffer for teaching me that -- along with David Scaer.)

What say you?
- Dwight

Anonymous said...

Dwight, I wonder if it might be helpful to consider two points. The first is fairly obvious, namely the Proper Use of the Law. That is to say, the demands in Matthew are clearly so high that we all are unable to fulfill them, however, what is impossible for us is possible for God as in a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Therefore we are driven to our knees and pointed towards Christ, our only hope.
Second, it might be well to keep in mind the proper grammar of the Gospel. The Law is always conditional, i.e. "if...then" If we fulfill the demands then we harvest the benefits. This is the point at which I believe many get hung up when dealing with these verses from Matthew. Since we cannot fullfil the demand of the "if" in the clause, there is no possibility of harvesting the "then" of the clause. Paul suggests that the Law actually kills in this sense because we are driven to despair.
The grammar of the Gospel is framed in an unconditional clause. "Because..therefore" This puts a whole new and radically different context upon Matthew. Rahter than driving us to despair at our inability to fulfill the demands, we are made free to trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Justified by faith, we are free to trust Jesus promise of freedom from bondange of each and every kind. Because God so loved the world...therefore He sent His only Son would be but one way of talking about the unconditionality of God's redemptive actions in love on our behalf. Hearing this, we are free to trust in Christ all the more and to live our lives in thankful and humble service to those whom Christ first loved; sinners, tax collectors, elected political figures, whores, church council members, clergy, the poor, hungry, etc....
This approach doesn't seem to do violence to the text while preserving the joy that comes from hearing the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and the freedom to repent and trust in Christ all the more. waj