06 May 2012

Jesus: A Sunna of Peace (2)

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Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey http://www.aslanscountry.com/2011/04/honoring-the-king-a-narnian-look-at-palm-sunday/

Before I get to the third and last installment of this series on Jesus as the sunna (“way,” or “example”) of peace, here is some research on the Sermon on the Mount I’ve found very helpful. I write this with both trepidation and excitement, as events continue to unfold in places like Syria and Yemen, where students and ordinary people continue to risk their lives to fight tyranny in a nonviolent way. This is where we are headed in the third blog – to the now well accepted “Just Peacemaking” theory, which includes the nonviolent direct action that Gandhi and others saw in Jesus’ life and teaching.

In Gandhi’s own words, “The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount…. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me…. The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West…. Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount” (Pinchas Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action? p. 3).

Let me emphasize once more that … Jesus isn’t just for Christians, or Muslims who hold him in the highest regard, for that matter! I teach comparative religion and I have found much to learn from and emulate in the lives of religious exemplars like Muhammad, Sidharta Gautama (the Buddha), Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Ramakhrishna. But when it comes to laying out practical strategy for building peace in a world of conflict, Jesus’ example and teaching (especially the Sermon on the Mount) is indispensable.

In particular, as Muslims and Christians discuss these issues, it really helps that Jesus saw himself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Here is how New Testament scholar N. T. Wright makes this point:

“Jesus was proclaiming a message from the covenant God, and living it out with symbolic actions. He was confronting the people with the folly of their ways, summoning them to a different way, and expecting to take the consequences of doing so. Elijah had stood alone against the prophets of Baal, and against the wickedness of King Ahab. Jeremiah had announced the doom of the Temple and the nation, in the face of royalty, priests and official prophets … all were accused of troubling the status quo. When people ‘saw’ Jesus as a prophet, this was the kind of model they had in mind” (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 167-8).

First we’ll dig a bit deeper into the central message Jesus proclaimed and embodied – the Kingdom of God – and in particular its interweaving of peace, justice and nonviolence. Then we’ll look again at the Sermon on the Mount.


A Kingdom of Peace and Restorative Justice

To begin, let’s revisit the prophetic actions on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, while the crowds jubilantly proclaimed him Messiah. Intentionally fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9), Jesus directly confronted the ideology of the zealots who claimed violence was the only way to deal with the Roman occupation. Yes, he was the promised King; no, he was not mounted on a war horse, but rather on a donkey that had never been ridden.

Another clue pointing to Jesus as a king of peace and nonviolence is found in Zechariah’s original prophecy, when he wrote, “Look, your king is coming to you … humble, riding on a donkey.” The word for “humble” either in Hebrew or Greek is used, and especially by Matthew, to mean “nonviolent” – as in this Beatitude: “God blesses those who are humble [or meek], for they will inherit the whole earth.”

Clarence Jordan in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount notes that this word is used of two men in the Bible who were anything but doormats. Moses, the great prophet who confronted the power and wrath of Pharaoh, was also described as “more humble than any person on earth” (Numbers 12:3). Then Jesus himself once said to the crowd,


“Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat. 11:29).


Jordan concludes that the word “tamed” is more appropriate than “meek” or “humble.” He goes on, “Both of them [Moses and Jesus] seemed absolutely fearless, … and completely surrendered to the will of God” (quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 40).

Back to Jesus’ riding on a donkey as he approached Jerusalem, and the last blog … At one point Jesus begins to weep, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” Foremost on his mind, Israel’s king is thinking about peace. Yet this only deepens his sorrow, for he knows that his people’s inclination toward rebellion and violence will only lead to the city’s destruction. It’s just a matter of time.

Then he enters the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and chasing out the merchants of animals for the sacrifices. Recent scholarship has confirmed that this is no “cleansing” of the Temple, as was often put in the past. This is no reform movement. Rather, as someone who has already predicted on six occasions that the Temple was going to be razed, Jesus symbolically declares the Temple’s function null and void. Tragically, it now awaits destruction.

This said, as the John’s gospel emphasizes so clearly, Jesus is the new Temple. In fact, Jesus chases the merchants right at the beginning of his ministry, and in response to the Jewish leaders’ ire, he responds, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John then explains that by “temple” Jesus meant his own body. Thus for Christians, Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, rendering the Jerusalem Temple and its animal sacrifices obsolete. Judaism too was moving on – and especially after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

While carrying out this action, Jesus quotes from two prophets. The first is Isaiah, from a passage in chapter 56, in which God says, “… my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (v. 7). God mourns the exclusion of so many people, like the eunuchs, the foreigners and the outcasts. David Garland in his NIV Application Commentary (p. 438), connects this passage to Jesus’ action in the Temple:

“During his entire ministry Jesus has been gathering in the impure outcasts and the physically maimed, and has even reached out to Gentiles. He expects the temple to embody this inclusive love…. In Jesus’ day the temple had become a nationalistic symbol that served only to divide Israel from the nations.”


The Temple system was not only excluding those God longed to reconcile to himself. Even on its own terms, it was patently unjust. As Oxford scholar Markus Bockmuehl shows, the Temple operations were overseen by a wealthy religious and political elite who only recently had brought traders into the outer courtyard (“the Court of the Gentiles”). The picture painted by historians demonstrates how courageous and radical Jesus was on that day – and why he was killed:


“The Mishnah [Jewish oral tradition that was gradually being written down at the time] gives evidence of hugely inflated price fixing for sacrificial doves, which were the offering of the poor…. During those two decades (of Jesus’ teenage years and adulthood) Annas and Caiaphas together enjoyed unrivalled power as a result of successful collaboration with the occupation forces of Rome…. mwo4mephus and the rabbinic writings also concur in offering some most remarkable descriptions of the utter luxury and extravagance of the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem” (This Jesus: Martyr, Lord, Messiah, p. 70-1).

This brings me to highlight the astounding match between Jesus’ deliberate confrontation of the powers and authorities of his day on the issue of justice (Stassen and Gushee count 40 such occasions in the Synoptic Gospels) and the sixteen passages in Isaiah announcing God’s coming reign in terms of justice. Specifically in Isaiah, God’s justice is seen as “deliverance of the outcasts, the poor and the oppressed from the domination of greed and concentrated power, and the restoration of community with peace. It called for repentance for injustice” (Stassen and Gushee, p. 355). Stassen and Gushee catalog in great detail the many instances in the gospels where Jesus confronts injustice in the four areas that Isaiah was also concerned about:


  • injustice of greed (aggravating the poverty and hunger of the masses)
  • injustice of domination (e.g., the Pharisees’ exclusionary interpretation of the law, or Caesar’s divine claim on a coin)
  • injustice of violence (the killing of the prophets before him, including his cousin, John the Baptist, and the violent tactics of the zealots; when the war comes to you, said Jesus, don’t participate in the fighting, but rather “flee to the mountains,” Mark 13:14)
  • injustice of exclusion from community (Jesus reached out to women, lepers, tax collectors, Roman officers, etc.)

As just one example, here is a key Isaiah passage Jesus draws from in his ministry – a passage that intimately connects peace, justice and nonviolence:


“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.

He is my chosen one, who pleases me.

I have put my Spirit upon him.

He will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or raise his voice in public.

He will not crush the weakest reed

            or put out the a flickering candle.

He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.

He will not falter or lose heart

            until justice prevails throughout the earth.

I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.

I will take you by the hand and guard you,

            and I will give you to my people, Israel,

            as a symbol of my covenant with them.

And you will a light to guide the nations.

You will open the eyes of the blind.

You will free the captives from prison,

            releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (Is. 42:1-4; 6-7)



God’s reign of peace in the Sermon on the Mount

Once more, it truly pays to know the immediate backdrop of Jesus’ teaching, so as to be able to understand it in context. Recall that out of the seventeen passages in Isaiah that describe God’s future reign of deliverance, sixteen of them mention justice (like the one above) and fourteen mention peace.

Jewish indignation and anger at Rome’s domination was at an all-time high in Jesus’ day. His message of peace and reconciliation was sorely needed – and angrily resisted in some quarters. Here is how Stassen and Gushee put it:


“Scholars confirm that in Jesus’ time Jewish hatred of Rome was based on the religious drive for purity from corruption by foreign influences and power, on the political drive for independence and on economic resentment of the injustice of Roman taxes. Hatred and resentment often boiled up into guerilla movements and insurrections against Roman rule. Violent resistance was supported not only by the insurrectionists, who were later called ‘Zealots’, but by most groups in Israel, including most Pharisees” (Kingdom Ethics, p. 152).

In fact, the Jewish followers of Jesus did flee Jerusalem in 70 CE and until Constantine’s rise to power in the fourth century, the church, both Jewish and Gentile, did obey Jesus’ mandate of nonviolence and love of enemy. The last book written in the New Testament, John’s Revelation, draws a sharp contrast between the wanton violence of the Beasts and the faithful martyrdom of the Lamb’s disciples. Rome can never win by brute force.

What about the Sermon on the Mount? Recall that it is actually fourteen triads of traditional righteousness, followed by a vicious circle, and then a transforming initiative meant to deliver a person from that bondage (for more details, click on "14 Triads of the Sermon on the Mount" on Glen Stassen's faculty page).  So for example …


“You shall not kill” leads to the trap of escalating anger; the only escape is to “go and be reconciled” (Mat. 5:24).

“You shall not commit adultery” gets one stuck with a lustful eye and adultery of the heart; the only way out is to remove the cause of temptation – Jesus’ graphic hyperbole of gouging out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand (5:29-30). He might have said today, “destroy your laptop so as to starve your addiction to pornography.”

“Do not judge, lest you be judged” will mean you will be judged by the same measure – a scary thought! The solution is to “first take the log out of your own eye” (7:5).


In the last blog, we saw the four transforming initiatives that lead us out of the vicious cycle of revenge and violence. I want to end here with the follow-up to that paragraph.

Jesus says, “you have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy” (5:44). In this case he follows up with three transforming initiatives and then showcases the vicious circle this leads to – here, ending up like the pagans who only love those who love them, or the tax collectors who are only kind to their friends. That’s a deplorable situation to be in, Jesus implies!

This traditional teaching (actually coming from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Qumran Community) leads to the climax of the six teachings in chapter five. The three transforming initiatives are: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (5:44-45).

“Love you enemies” is not about some drippy sentimentality. It’s about doing good to one’s enemy, returning good for evil, and breaking a dangerous cycle. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Never pay back evil with more evil.” He then quotes Proverbs 25:21-22:


“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.

If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads” (Rom. 12:17, 20).


What is also clear, as is throughout Jesus’ teaching, is that God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace floods into human experience as pure grace and mercy. Then on that basis we are given the privilege to participate in that gracious reign. Here, we are called to become like our Father who gives rain and sunshine to all by offering love and prayers to our enemies.

After the vicious cycle, Jesus offers a summary verse (as he does in 7:12, the famous “Golden Rule”): “But you are to be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But, this is not moral perfection – Greek style – Stassen and Gushee hasten to add. The Hebrew and Aramaic meaning behind the Greek word means “complete” or “all-inclusive.” Love should encompass everyone, enemies included, Jesus is saying. So the transforming initiative here – and with it the apprenticeship of a whole new lifestyle and worldview – is to show love and kindness to all, with no exceptions.

Much more could be said, naturally. But hopefully this background will open the way for the next piece – how Jesus’ way can help guide us Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths and no faith, to make this a more peaceful world.