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Sermon on Mount

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Roland Worth provides a valuable treatment of the Sermon on the Mount by discussing the OT background to Jesus' teaching. His overall argument is that the antitheses of Jesus' sermon do not offer anything especially new but are "firmly rooted in Old Testament teaching." Jesus' "I say" is not a challenge to Moses but to "popular (or clerical distortions of his own day. It was not a case of Jesus versus Moses, but of Jesus versus traditional interpretation, something profoundly different."

Worth's discussion of "turning the cheek" is especially helpful. As far as OT background, he points to Job 16:10; Lamentations 3:28-30; and Isaiah 50:6. But the most useful part of the discussion is Worth's claim that what Jesus has in view is not physical assault but insult. Jesus is not denying a right to self-defense, a right granted by Torah. Thus, "when one takes this text and attempts to make Jesus lay down some ironclad rule of pacifism, one is missing the point entirely. Whether to serve as a soldier is an important ethical decision but not one that this text directly discusses." Worth makes his case (following Walter Wink) from the details of Jesus' description. Assuming that someone is right-handed, a punch would strike his opponent on the left cheek rather than the right. Worth thus assumes that Jesus has in view a back-handed slap across the cheek. As Wink puts it, "A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal." But the offer of the left cheek is not merely a matter of submitting to an unequal balance of power; offering the left cheek shifts the balance of power. Wink again: "This action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheeck is saying in effect, 'Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. . . . You cannot demean me." Jesus doesn't advocate non-resistance, but a non-violent resistance that shifts the shame from the victim to the perpetrator.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, April 05, 2005 at 11:35 PM

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