Sermon or no Sermon on the Mount, does it matter?

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon On The Mount with the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli

During my theology class, we studied the sermon on the mount. The essay we were reading on the topic asserted that the sermon on the mount had not occurred, and that most likely Matthew just compiled a collection of saying from Jesus and organized them into what is Chapter 5 of his account. Some of the students were a bit saddened by this revelation by this author, Fr. Daniel Harrington S.J., so I gave them another side to the debate–Pope Benedict XVI.

One thing that has been frustrating to me about the course is the selection of readings that appear to indicate a finality on topics, which have none. As one who has a degree in history, studied oral history, studied written history, etc; I would certainly assert that there is a great possibility that there was certainly a sermon on a mount.

The class that I was out of my mind to be so bold. How could I challenge the opinion of an essay written by a priest?

I said to them, “Well, don’t take my word for it, take Pope Benedict the XVI’s word.” Father Benedict explains,  “The Evangelist does not tell us which of the hills of Galilee it was. But the very fact that it is the scene of Jesus’ preaching makes it simply “the mountain”–the new Sinai. The “mountain” is the place where Jesus prays–where he is face-to-face with the Father. And that is exactly why it is also the place of his teaching, since his teaching comes forth from this most intimate exchange with the Father. The “mountain” then,is by the very nature of the case established as the new and definitive Sinai. “And yet how different this “mountain” is from that imposing rocky mass in the desert! Tradition has identified a hill north of Lake Genesareth as the Mount of the Beatitudes. Anyone who has been there and gazed with the eyes of his soul on the wide prospect of the waters of the lake, the sky and the sun, the trees and the meadows, the flowers and the sound of birdsong can never forget the wonderful atmosphere of peace and the beauty of creation encountered there–in a land unfortunately so lacking in peace. “Wherever the Mount of the Beatitudes actually was, something of this peace and beauty must have characterized it.” (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 66-67.)

There is a particular point I’d like to highlight from Father Benedict, He indicates that it was most likely a hill and that we may not know the exact location, but from the reading, Father Benedict does indicate that there was truly a hill where Jesus sat and did preach the Beatitudes.

The teacher then replied, “So does it really matter if there was sermon as opposed to a collection of sayings.” As a student of history, I was a bit appalled by the question. I explained that it is a complex answer rather than a simple one. In regards to what Father Benedict is speaking about withChrist giving the Beatitudes on a mount and defining his authority in regards to the Kingdom as the living Torah. It certainly is important to a degree. Of course, from a historical perspective, did Christ give the exact words of Matthew Chapter 5? He most likely did not; however, it is very likely from a historical perspective if Matthew took different teachings and a sermon from a mount and simply paraphrased them from memory.

So why did I object so much to these proposed ideas? It’s simple, Jesus is a historical figure, which is one of the motives of Benedict for writing his three volume set on Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that only values evidence, it does matter for some events to be historical. There is certainly a danger from this half-hazard theology, and the danger is Christological heresy.

Christological heresy! What does he mean! After folks in the class became comfortable with the idea that the only thing that mattered was Christ’s teaching, I asked them how far are you willing to go with that idea? If the message is the only concern when it comes to Jesus and Catholicism, and not the actual actions of Christ, the incarnate Lord. How is this belief different than the Christological Heresies that claimed Christ only to only appear, for example, Docetism? Is this now a concern in the modern church?

Regardless, Christ had to be physically here. He had to be an actor on the historical stage. If it doesn’t matter that the Sacred (God) became Man, (Profane) that God ate on the earth or felt pain and joy on the earth like man, then Christ would be nothing more than a great human philosopher. However, he was the divine that became flesh for our salvation, the savior of the world.

There is a great danger for the souls of the charity of Christ in ‘critiquing’ away historical events by theologians using Biblical criticisms. The danger is allowing the belief that the living and breathing actors actions do not matter within the frameworks of the history of salvation—a sentiment that Pope Benedict XVI would agree with being a danger from his Jesus of Nazareth series, as he explained that its the reason why he wrote his book. (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2007), xii.) Father Benedict writes, ““The first point is that the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith—is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events…Et incarnates est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history…“If we push this history aside Christian faith such disappears and is recast as some other religion…then faith must expose itself to the historical method—indeed, faith itself demands this.(Ibid, xv.)

“The historical-critical method—let me repeat—is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith…but it does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.” (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), xvi.)

A better articulation of this concern is to give an example. So if there are those convinced by the explanation there was no actual sermon of the mount. So What other events can the next theologian claim are not historic? Perhaps, Theologians will “evolve” into claiming the resurrection of the incarnate Lord didn’t really happen– at least, not in the way the Gospel is written. Instead of Christ appearing in the flesh to the Apostles as they walked to Emmaus, they simply “felt” that he was there as if he was resurrected. We’d hope the Church Magisterium would correct this error, but it seems they allow a lot of freedom.

Of course, without the physical crucifixion and resurrection of the body, there would be no salvation.

 

9 Comments

  1. I am playing devil’s advocate because I do believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection and his divinity, but how can you explain away the creation story as an allegory and not the Sermon on the Mount or even the Resurrection? How would you answer someone who points to stories in the Bible that are not historical but are still inspiring and insightful (still the Word of God if not literally true?) While I believe in everything stated in the Creed I’ve never been able to answer this question to myself. Thankfully, we are not scripture alone and believe that the Church’s collective witness inspired the Canon. That makes it easier, but I’m still interested in knowing what you think.

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    1. I would say precisely because we’re not scripture alone. For me, I look at it historically. The Pentateuch was written by no primary sources, and in fact, wasn’t written down for generations until Babylonian exile. In this accord, it would have been passed down by word of mouth, which is a comfort as we’re not Sola Scriptura. However, The Gospel of Matthew is a primary source being that he was one of the twelve and lived during the period of Jesus. Although it wasn’t written until later in his life, it would be likely that Christ gave a sermon on a mount and Matthew added fluff here and there. Pope Benedict more or less follows along these lines and so do I.

      Furthermore, in accordance with St. Paul with the Resurrection being a potential allegory it’s simply not possible. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” ( 1 Cor. 15:14) Christ’s message indicates the coming of the Kingdom of God in its full Glory, but as the text indicates “the Resurrection above all constitutes the confirmation of Christ’s works and teachings.” If there’s no resurrection, there’s no purpose for Christ’s message as his central theme is the Kingdom of God.

      Christ made claim to be the anointed one. He indicated that he was the son of God but without the resurrection, he would be nothing more than a philosopher in the history of man. However, his resurrection is “the definitive proof of his divine authority.” Christ’s words would indicate the truth when he said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” (Jn 8:28) Christ brings forth to all of humanity the history of Salvation.

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      1. The Resurrection of Jesus.

        What inspired them to go out into the world is one of great pieces of evidence that points to Christ’s resurrection. Pope Benedict XVI writes in part two of his Jesus of Nazareth series that “we have to say that empty tomb as such, while it cannot prove the Resurrection, is nevertheless a necessary condition for Resurrection faith.” (p. 254)

        We have to remember when Christ is arrested and put to death the Apostles scattered. However, later, they mostly all become martyrs for spreading the Gospel. So what changed them? I believe it indicates that they witnessed the resurrected Christ, which is why Apostolic tradition is so key to survival of Christianity.

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      2. Btw, Rowan Williams came to mind because he is an Augustinian like Ratzinger. I really like the Augustian perspective (balanced with a Franciscan incarnationalism).

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      3. Yes, I am partial to Augustinian’s myself from admiring St. Augustine. I will definitely read this some point today when I have a break from teaching.

        Oh and on another note, Fariba, I sent you an invite to be an author on this blog, did you receive it all right?

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      4. Philip, I feel more comfortable posting on my own blog. There is a certain atmosphere/philosophy that I promote and would like to maintain. I started my blog precisely because I found so much negatively online written by Catholics. Feel free though to share questions on your own blog as long as you link back to mine. I will do the same for any of your posts. Thanks.

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      5. I can understand, I am attempting to build this community on the face of Catholic disunity and negativity. In a way to turn the negativity into positive force, which is why I’ve asked a variety of different Catholics to participate.

        A new writer posted on the blog yesterday. You should take a look of you haven’t and comment. Servus is very knowledgable on most topics and is a good resource.

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