23 April 2012

Jesus: A Sunna of Peace

Written by 
Painting by by James Jacques Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902). Nearly all of Tissot’s paintings of the Life of Christ (1884-1896) are rendered in opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper and are owned by the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Painting by by James Jacques Tissot (French painter and illustrator, 1836-1902). Nearly all of Tissot’s paintings of the Life of Christ (1884-1896) are rendered in opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper and are owned by the Brooklyn Museum, New York. http://www.joyfulheart.com/holy-week/merchants_chased_from_the_temple.mwo4m

In the earliest documents of the Islamic community, we find that the word sunna (the path, or the example of a tribal leader in seventh-century Arabia) was applied to the new religious leaders – Muhammad, of course, but also the first caliphs (or successors) like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and even governors of far-flung provinces. Within a century or so, sunna was used almost exclusively of the Prophet himself; and still later, “the Sunna” referred to the growing collection of hadiths (oral reports about what he had said or done), which by the third century were being weeded out in order to find the most reliable accounts, which were then included in the most authoritative written collections. Hence arose the “tradition” of the Prophet Muhammad, or simply, the Sunna, the second most authoritative text for Muslims after the Qur’an.

Here, in the spirit of religious dialog, I am proposing Muslims join Christians in a new reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the longest single teaching of the gospels in Matthew 5-7. The path of Jesus that I highlight here is peacemaking.

Isa bnu Maryam, or “Jesus, son of Mary” is mentioned in 93 qur’anic verses, where we read the following facts, among others:

- A whole sura is named after Mary (Sura 19) and the Qur’an says much more about her than does the New Testament

- Mary gave birth to Jesus a virgin (3:47; 19:20-21)

- He was given “clear signs” and God “strengthened him with the Holy Spirit” (2:87)

- By God’s leave he cured the lepers, opened the eyes of the blind and raised the dead (5:110)

- Isa is a “word” God “cast upon Mary, and a spirit from him” (4:171)

- Eleven times he is given the title “Messiah”

- He is a prophet of God, the one directly preceding Muhammad (33:7; 57:26, and elsewhere)


These statements and others are also found the gospels. And though Jesus does not call himself a prophet (others do), he certainly stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, both in his message and in his deeds. On the mount of transfiguration (see Matthew 17 and Mark 9), both Moses and Elijah appear, while Jesus is transformed into a dazzling white figure before the eyes of Peter, James and John. Hence, the title of this blog, “Jesus: A Sunna of Peace.”

A quick parenthesis: the English translation I’ll be using is the New Living Translation (2nd edition, 2004), which I consider to be the state-of-the-art translation, both because of the team of scholars who worked on it and because of its philosophy of translation (“dynamic equivalence”) drawn from the fields of linguistics and anthropology. The result is a text, which in the words of the editors, seeks to “communicate as clearly and powerfully to today’s readers as the original texts did to readers and listeners in the ancient biblical world.”

Now to he Sermon on the Mount, which begins with a series of blessings Jesus pronounces, the Beatitudes (Mat. 5:3-10):


3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

4 God blesses those who mourn,

   for they will be comforted.

5 God blesses those who are humble,

   for they will inherit the whole earth.

6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,

   for they will be satisfied.

7 God blesses those who are merciful,

   for they will be shown mercy.

8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure,

   for they will see God.

9 God blesses those who work for peace,

   for they will be called the children of God.

10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,

   for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”


Note that the first and last blessing are about receiving or belonging to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which in Mark and Luke is rendered “Kingdom of God.” Mark tells us that Jesus’ first preaching was on this theme:


“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15)


Notice too those who are singled out for God’s blessing: the poor and spiritually hungry, those who mourn, who are humble, who “hunger and thirst for justice” (or “righteousness”); the merciful, the pure in heart, the “persecuted for doing right” and the peacemakers. It’s the last category I am highlighting here.

Coming into Jerusalem for what he knows is his last week on earth, Jesus rode on a donkey, no doubt reenacting the prophetic words of Zechariah, “Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey – riding on a donkey’s colt” (Zech. 9:9).

Spontaneously, the crowds threw their cloaks on the donkey’s path and waved olive branches, crying out, “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)

As it turns out, the prophet that Jesus quotes the most is Isaiah, and for Isaiah peace is one of the five characteristics of the coming reign of God (which will be inaugurated through the coming of his “Servant,” or Messiah): 1) deliverance or salvation (17 times); 2) righteousness/justice (16 times); 3) peace (14 times); 4) joy (12 times); 5) God’s presence as Spirit or Light (9 times).

Then Luke, just after depicting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, describes the following scene:


41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 … Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.”


Jesus weeps over the city that has killed so many prophets in the past, and which is now missing its greatest opportunity – in fact, its very salvation. If only it “would understand the way to peace,” Jesus mourns. But it’s too late, as “peace is hidden” from their eyes. Had they recognized and embraced him as their Messiah, this tragedy would have been averted.

Making peace is also the focus of Jesus’ teaching later in Matthew five. But just before that, allow me to interject a thought that I will pursue in greater detail in the next blog. Glen Stassen and David Gushee in their book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, argue convincingly (following other New Testament scholars) that the Sermon on the Mount has mostly been misunderstood in the past. Instead of seeing it as a series of dyads (“you have heard it said … but I tell you”), we should rather see it as a series of fourteen triads (traditional righteousness – vicious cycle – transforming initiative).

So the paragraph entitled “teaching about revenge” should be read as a triad (and here I follow their translation):


Traditional Righteousness:

Mat. 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Vicious Cycle:

Mat. 5:39: “But I say to you, do not retaliate revengefully by evil means.”

Transforming Initiative:

Mat. 5:40-42: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse one who would borrow from you.”


The law of the talion (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) is mentioned three times in the Torah (in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy); it also appears in the Qur’an. In the context of the Ancient Near East, it goes back to Babylonian law. But Jesus warns that this seemingly just path of revenge is in fact a dead end. Literally, Jesus says, “do not resist evil.” But that makes no sense, since Jesus often confronted evil, not least when he chased the money changers from the Temple with a whip, while overturning their tables.

Evil here in the Greek can either mean “an evil person” or “by evil means.” Further, Walter Wink showed that the Greek word “resist” or “retaliate” was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Septuagint) and in the literature of the time (mwo4mephus and Philo) and most often meant “armed resistance in military encounters.” Hence, Stassen and Gushee’s translation here.

So if we are not to retaliate, even within the confines of the law of the talion, what are we to do? Is Jesus asking us to passively sit by, absorb the blows and shut up? No, he is calling for action, but one the adversary is not expecting. The action called for is a “transforming initiative” – an act that springs out of a forgiving heart; yet an act too, which forces the other to confront his or her wrongdoing and consider changing directions. It’s an initiative that seeks to change the adversarial dynamics into friendly ones; to disarm haughtiness and aggression and open the way for a human relationship built on respect.

The “transforming initiative” section here contains four imperatives in the Greek text: “turn,” “give,” “go,” and “give.” This is how Stassen and Gushee explain the “turning of the other cheek”:


“Turning the other cheek has been misunderstood in Western culture that thought there were only two alternatives – violence or passivity. But since Gandhi and King, we can appreciate Jesus’ teaching better. In Jesus’ culture, ‘to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, back-handed insult’ with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things. To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, ‘you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.’ Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity.”

Turning the other cheek in this case, then, is to resist evil in a nonviolent way.

What about the coat? According to the Law of Moses (Exodus 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13), a creditor who lends something to a needy person may take his or her coat as a guarantee, but must give it back before sundown in case that person needs it to keep warm at night. Here the rich person sees a loophole: he’ll take the poor guy’s shirt as a guarantee and not have to give it back until he’s repaid – likely with interest. What Jesus says next is both humorous and shocking: “give him your coat too,” means that you, the poor one, will stand naked in court, so as to graphically expose the rich man’s greed, pour ridicule upon him and hopefully lead him to repent of his evil ways. The weak person thus seizes the initiative and confronts the injustice; and in so doing, he displays courage and strength of character.

Going the extra mile with a Roman soldier is to show kindness to one’s enemy. A hated symbol of Rome’s military occupation of “Palestine” (its Roman name at the time), the soldier was in fact just a pawn in a wider system of oppression. While some Jewish men, the so-called “zealots,” chose to kill Roman soldiers when possible, Jesus calls instead to offer blessing. By walking an extra mile, the Jew had the chance to catch the soldier “off guard” and initiate friendship. This initiative too aims toward peace and reconciliation. We know of course the story about the Roman centurion who pleaded with Jesus to heal his young servant – and do so at a distance, because he did not consider himself worthy enough to have Jesus enter his home. Jesus turned to the crowd, saying, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Mat. 8:10)

“Give to the one who begs.” This last transforming initiative must be read in context. Jesus spent his ministry mostly in the Galilee, a depressed area at the time, as many farmers had been driven off their lands by a combination of unfair taxation (both Roman and Jewish) and the practices of rapacious absentee landlords from Jerusalem’s wealthy elite. In fact, giving to beggars, or any kind of charity for that matter, was the only way of doing justice to the most vulnerable in a day when the gap between rich and poor had grown scandalously wide. Almsgiving is the only remedy when there is no other welfare system and injustice grinds the poor into the dust.

As I have written recently, justice was woven into the fabric of the Mosaic Law. Not just the command to harvest fields only once and allowing for the poor to glean, or even the right of the needy to glean the fields left fallow every seventh year; the centerpiece of the divine blueprint for social justice was the Jubilee Year. All debts had to be forgiven and all property acquired in the last forty nine years had to revert to the original owner. Justice meant the poor got a chance to climb out of poverty when the playing field was leveled every fifty years.

These were all meant to be signs – the sunna, if you will – of the coming Messiah: he would bring peace between nations, justice for the most disadvantaged, welcome to foreigners, friendship and reconciliation with enemies. In the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier,


“For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion;

   his word will go out from Jerusalem.

The Lord will mediate between nations

   and will settle international disputes.

They will hammer their swords into plowshares

   and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will no longer fight against nation,

   nor train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:3-4).


What this practice of peace means in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of the next blog.