“Repent, and Believe in the Gospel” – Mark 1

The Gospel of Mark starts off at a frenetic pace, matching the boundless and exuberant energy of John and Jesus as they announce the gospel message: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus called disciples to “Follow” and they did, immediately. This is a gospel, good news, whose power and import we can still sense today.

With this episode I’d like to do another close reading of a New Testament chapter like I did with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. I had a tough time choosing what chapter to do next because there are so many I would like to do. But I finally chose the first chapter of Mark because of a line that’s been repeating in my mind. And that line is, “Repent and believe the Gospel”. This is from verse 15. Why has this been repeating in my mind? That’s something I’ve had to think about. And here’s one reflection I’ve had on it: 2000 years ago something happened, something really important, and it makes demands of us, life-changing demands that will not leave a person the same, but rather completely transforms you into a new creature. That event was the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think about the Gospel writer and what he intended to do with this account. It was important to him to spread this message. It had been spread for decades by word of mouth but writing it down preserved it and increased its reach. It was important to know what had happened, who Jesus was, and what he had done. And I believe it’s important. I can appreciate the need and urgency of the Gospel writer to talk about it and give witness to it.

One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is his sense of urgency. The pace of the Gospel is exhilarating. I characterize Mark with one Greek word and that is εὐθὺς (euthus), immediately! Everything is εὐθὺς. There’s no relaxing, no taking a moment to catch your breath in Mark. Jesus is constantly on the move and we are on the move with him. This word is used 11 times in chapter 1. I don’t know what the reasons were behind this but the effect it has on me is animating, a feeling of being driven. This is something that the Spirit does. It even does it to Jesus in this chapter: Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ Πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει; And immediately the Spirit drives him out. I feel driven along in the story of Jesus and driven to think about it constantly and to talk about it. I can’t really explain the mechanisms behind that and it makes sense not to be able to. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born of the Spirit is like the wind blowing where it wants to, you hear the sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8). It’s not really explicable but the experience is palpable.

Mark chapter 1 really grabs me and speaks to me in this way. So it’s a text I want to read and talk about.

Mark 1

Verse 1

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I read this as the opening of a great announcement. Something is coming. Someone is coming and we need to get ready. It’s not only an announcement but a good announcement. The gospel, the εὐαγγέλιον  (euangelion), is good news and it is good news about the person Jesus Christ, Χριστός (Christos), the Anointed, the One who is anointed king and Lord. It was practice in Israel to anoint, מָשַׁח (mashach), a king and as such the king was the Anointed, in Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (meshiach), or Messiah, Χριστός (Christos) in Greek. The king was also a son of God, a title given here to Jesus. But in the case of Jesus we can understand it to have a deeper, more literal meaning, that Jesus is actually divine.

Verses 2 – 3

As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’”

The beginning of the chapter is immediately interrupted by quotations from scripture. But these interruptions also move the story forward. They bolster the importance of what is coming. This has been anticipated for centuries. The quotes are from Malachi, Exodus, and Isaiah. Specifically these are quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the scriptures.

Malachi 3:1

“Behold, I send My messenger (ἄγγελος, angelos), And he will prepare the way before Me.”

Exodus 23:20

“Behold, I send an Angel (ἄγγελος, angelos) before you to keep you in the way.”

Isaiah 40:3

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert

A highway for our God.’”

In the Septuagint translations of Malachi and Exodus the word used is ἄγγελος (angelos). This is also the word Mark uses in quotation. It means messenger and the cognate “angel” is essentially a divine messenger. Also related to the word gospel, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). In Hebrew, מֲלְאָךְ (malach), also has this same double meaning, as either an earthly messenger or a divine messenger. An important message is coming.

And actually, I’d like to quote that Isaiah passage in a fuller context because it’s quite beautiful and, I think, appropriate to the kind of important message that the Gospel brings.

Isaiah 40:1-3

“’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.’ The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.”

This is a passage of the LORD turning back in kindness toward the people of Israel. The book of Isaiah has two sections of noticeably different tone. Noticeable at least after it’s pointed out. Some people think the second section was even written by a different person. And that may be the case. But regardless the arc of the book is toward reconciliation. A great summary of this whole theme is in Isaiah 54:7-10.

“’For a mere moment I have forsaken you, But with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ Says the Lord, your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’ Says the Lord, who has mercy on you.”

This is an important transition and I don’t think it’s a stretch to see a similar transition on the horizon here at the beginning of Mark.

Verses 4 – 5

John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Here we meet the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The messenger, the ἄγγελος of the εὐαγγελίου. This is John the Baptist. And what is his message? A baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Four major parts I see to this, one problem with three responses.

The problem is sin. This is a problem throughout scripture. Sin is what caused the LORD to hide his face in an outburst of wrath with Israel (Isaiah 54:8). And there are three responses to this problem in John’s message: baptism, repentance, and remission of sins.

This reminds me a little of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that dukkha (suffering, pain, what cannot be satisfied) is an innate characteristic of existence in the realm of samsara. The Second Noble Truth is that nirodha (cessation, ending) of this dukkha can be attained. In Buddhism this cessation of suffering is attained through renouncement of taṇhā (“craving, desire or attachment”).

There’s a similar pattern in what John preached. In John’s message the fundamental problem is sin. But the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), the good news is that it is possible to overcome sin. A remission of sins is possible. And this comes about through a dramatic transformation that we see in baptism and repentance, or βάπτισμα μετανοίας (baptisma metanoias), baptism of repentance. Scriptures speak of baptism as a new birth, being born again as a new creature. For example, Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Paul said:

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς, en kainoteti zoes). For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” (Romans 6:3-6)

I quote this passage from the Epistle to the Romans quite frequently and it’s because I think it’s a core principle and one of the most important passages in the Bible. I think it’s instructive of the degree of transformation that occurs in the process of being born again. I also think one of the most important words in the New Testament is καινός (kainos), new. Christ makes all things new. Whatever is stale and bereft of energy that is what Christ is able to enliven and make new. Paul said to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Verses 6

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John’s clothing and diet were quite severe. And it seems from what we read that John and his followers were quite a bit more strenuous and ascetic in their practices than Jesus and his followers. For one thing John and his followers seemed to have fasted more, to the point that it was a noticeable difference. “And they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples fast not?” (Mark 2:18) Jesus also, somewhat humorously and sardonically, comments on the different ways people criticized him and John: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.” (Matthew 11:18-19)

I find these differences between John and Jesus quite interesting and it’s notable that both are esteemed. There is more than one way to live and act in the service of the Kingdom of God. Paul said as much to the Corinthians:

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

John’s strenuous practices are not necessary to emulate. But it is one way live.

Verses 7 – 8

And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is fascinating to me because I already find the baptism with water and the transformation of one’s nature that comes with it to be extremely powerful and inspiring. But there is more. John says this is just the beginning. Jesus comes and will bring a second baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus made a point of this before his crucifixion that he was going to send the Paraclete, παράκλητος (parakletos), the comforter, helper, or advocate. This is the Holy Spirit.

John’s words are even more evocative in the Gospel of Matthew where he says:

“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

I find this evocative because I think many of us can relate to the experience of the Holy Spirit in this way. It feels like a fire lit from within that energizes and enlivens. I think of the words of the people who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

The most dramatic account of the Holy Spirit is on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection:

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them dividing tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3-4)

It’s notable I think how the Spirit is emphatically active and driving events and speech. The Spirit was giving them utterance, it enabled them and empowered them to speak.

Verses 9 – 11

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Here we actually meet Jesus for the first time and things move very quickly. The author doesn’t dwell or rest for a moment. Everything happens immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus). Baptism is a moment of transition for everyone and it is for Jesus as well. Everything gets moving after this and Jesus’s ministry hits the ground running. The Holy Spirit descends on him and God the Father announces his divine sonship and favored status.

Verses 12 – 13

Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.

So things move very quickly here. Jesus is baptized and he’s off, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Note again the Spirit’s very active role in things. Jesus is not John. He’s not an ascetic in the same way. But it’s interesting that he does pass through a strenuous period. We don’t hear much about this in Mark. Matthew gives more detail about the kinds of temptations Jesus faced.

Of note here is the fact that Jesus was subjected to temptation. This is not incidental, but rather central to Christ’s saving mission. We read in the Book of Hebrews:

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

One of the supernal Christian doctrines is that Christ was both fully God and fully human. Both are crucial. Christ experienced all the weakness and trials we experience as humans.

Verses 14

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God

We must note the detail that John was put in prison. Here we see briefly something that Jesus will also face. Both John and Jesus were controversial and destabilizing preachers. And it’s important to remember that. David Bentley Hart has called Christianity “irrepressibly fissile” and I like that description. This shouldn’t be surprising because Jesus told his disciples that the gospel would invite contestation.

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)

The gospel goes against the grain of much that is taken for granted in the world. It’s hardly conformist, so resistance shouldn’t be surprising. Nevertheless we should be careful not to justify antisocial behaviors and misanthropic attitudes for their own sake, as if these are essential to gospel faithfulness. Sort of the “You offend everyone so you must be doing something right” attitude. That’s just immature. Christian discipleship is not marked by misanthropy but by love. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It’s precisely this kind of Christian love that makes demands of us in a way that we resist. For example, John taught:

“He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
“Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”
“Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
(Luke 3:11-14)

Those aren’t things we always want to hear. John also spoke out against sexual excess, particularly of the local ruler Herod. And this also goes against the grain of culture, both Greco-Roman culture and our modern culture. These aren’t things people really want to hear.

Verse 15

And saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Here is the main passage that has inspired my interest in this chapter, the summary of Jesus’s preaching.

Now let’s look at Mark’s summary of Jesus’s preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The kingdom of God, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basilea tou theou), is an important theme in the gospel accounts and was clearly central to Jesus’s preaching. It was the subject of many of his most famous parables. For example, in Matthew 13 most of his parables begin with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like”:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind”

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of the world, for many reasons (Mark 10:42-43). And the preaching of this coming kingdom makes demands on us. Jesus preached two things in these verses that people must do: (1) repent and (2) believe in the gospel. What is the gospel? Verse 14 says that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God”. The subject of the gospel is this kingdom of God. We are supposed to repent and to believe in this announcement of the kingdom of God.

“Repent”, Jesus says, in greek, μετανοεῖτε (metanoiete). Etymology is not always indicative of meaning or use, something to be careful of in Biblical interpretation, but in this case it actually is. Μετάνοια (metanoia) means after-thought or beyond-thought and is commonly understood as “a transformative change of heart” and “a fundamental change in thinking and living”. Like I brought up previously with the idea of being reborn and becoming a new creature in Christ through baptism, transformation is fundamental to the gospel message. Things don’t just stay as they are. They must become new.

Verses 16 – 19

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.

It’s possible that Mark’s characteristically brisk account abbreviates events here. Or, as I’m inclined to think, the immediacy may serve a narrative purpose. They immediately left their nets and followed him. Immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus), Mark’s favorite word.

We see here something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship”. And we also see in this one of the apparent paradoxes of Christ’s gospel. Jesus said that his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) but it would also seem that the corresponding action of taking on his yoke is total. The demand is total but the reward is also total; all for all. We see this in a gospel account, in Luke, of would-be disciples who were not so totally committed in their discipleship:

“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.’ And another also said, ‘Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:57-62)

This is undeniably astounding. God’s grace, the gift of salvation is glorious and infinite. But still, from the perspective of our immediate circumstances the cost required is jarring. Yet Simon, Andrew, James, and John meet that demand. They immediately leave their nets and follow.

Verses 21 – 22

Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus taught as one having authority, ἐξουσία (exousia). And, being God, he certainly did have authority. I don’t think it’s a fault on the scribes’s part that they didn’t teach in this way. That wouldn’t have been proper. They could only refer to the authority of the scriptures. Jesus certainly quoted scripture as well but he also went beyond the things that scripture said. And this would be quite striking to hear. Imagine:

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21-22)

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” (Matthew 5:27-28)

Jesus would quote scripture and then add to it. As he said, he wasn’t destroying the law but fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17). Still, that’s not something that can be done without authority. And Jesus didn’t have to say, “This is according to so and so or to such and such a verse”. He just taught in virtue of his own authority. And it was noticeable, astonishing to those listening to him.

Verses 23 – 26

Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 

A lot of things going on in these verses. For one thing, the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. He is called “the Holy One of God”, ὁ Ἅγιος τοῦ Θεοῦ (ho Hagios tou Theou). This is a testimony of a sort, albeit from an unholy source. It’s interesting that Jesus not only commands the spirit to come out of the man but also tells it to be quiet. One theme in the gospel of Mark is that Jesus is often telling people not to reveal who he is. He even does this when Peter makes his confession:

“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.” (Mark 8:29-30) In Biblical criticism this is sometimes called the “Messianic secret”.

Also of note here is that Jesus is an authoritative and successful exorcist. And this was something that caught people’s attention, as we’ll see in the next couple verses.

Verses 27-28

Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.

Jesus’s exorcisms and his miracles in general were definitely evidence of his identity and authority. Much as he was able to teach with his own authority, the fact that he was bold enough to (1) command the unclean spirits and (2) that the unclean spirits actually obeyed him got people’s attention. It marked him out as someone different doing something new. So that they would ask, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” What new teaching, διδαχὴ καινή (didache kaine)?

The word “new”, καινός (kainos), is one that I try to pay attention to whenever it shows up.

In Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. “New covenant” being διαθήκην καινήν (diatheken kainen) in the Septuagint Greek. (Jeremiah 31:31)

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” ἀσκοὺς καινούς (askous kainous). (Mark 2:22)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Christ’s gospel isn’t just novelty for the sake of novelty.

One example of newness in the New Testament that is ambiguous, whether it’s good or bad, is in the account of the Athenians.

“And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine [ἡ καινὴ (he kaine)] is of which you speak?’ …For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” τι καινότερον (ti kainoteron). (Acts 17:19,21)

It’s not obvious here but seems to be implied that this perpetual search for novelty among the Athenians was not an unqualified positive attribute. Still, Paul does play into it, in a way that cleverly combines the old and the new. The new teaching that he proclaims is of the God they have been worshipping from ancient times, without understanding.

“I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD [ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ (AGNOSTO THEO)]. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” (Acts 17:23-28)

Paul indeed gives them a new teaching. But he grounds this in ancient practice and ancient truth. The Unknown God is the God who has always been there in the background, sustaining all things. This is consistent with Jesus’s new teachings, which do not destroy old teaching but fulfill. The new covenant fulfills and furthers the old covenant. As a point of speculation, this might be a way of taking advantage of the freshness of new teachings while staying grounded in the old. This aspect of newness does seem to be one of the Gospel’s central attributes. And this seems thematically consistent with the gospel as a whole. In Christ, the stale and deteriorating are not the order of things. Things do not end in death. Resurrection brings renewed life and energy to all things.

Verses 29 – 39

Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them. At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him. Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.” And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.

Jesus healed, cast out demons, and preached the good news of the coming kingdom of God. His ministry was intrinsically itinerant, moving from one town to the next. “Because for this purpose I have come forth”. I quoted earlier where Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58) In addition to being a comment on the cost of discipleship it also highlights the itinerant nature of his ministry.

We see here again the Messianic secret: “and [he] cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him”. It’s also worth noting the importance of the immediate, physical aspect of Jesus’s service. I think it’s certainly true that the universal blessings of Christ’s atonement, our redemption from sin and death, are most important. Still, Jesus was exceptionally compassionate toward those in his immediate presence. And I think this also teaches us something about the nature of God.

Verses 40 – 45

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.

I think this is a wonderful account in which we are able to see something of the nature of God in Jesus. The leper says, “If You are willing.” Is Jesus willing to heal? Jesus says Θέλω (Thelo), I will it, I want it. Of course Jesus wants the man to be healed. Furthermore, Jesus is “moved with compassion”, σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis). σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is one of my favorite greek words, both for the way it sounds and for what it means. It means to have compassion. The roots of this verb, σπλάγχνα (splagchna), are literally the internal organs, and figuratively the visceral seat of emotions. σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is a kind of full-bodied experience of compassion and I strongly associate it with Jesus in the New Testament writings. Jesus wants to heal and wants to do it because of his overwhelming love for people.

Jesus said that the attributes we see in him are indicative of the attributes of God.

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Also in the gospel of John:

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)

We can look to Jesus to understand the character of God. And what we see is love that surpasses all expectations. God is like the father of the Prodigal Son. All that the prodigal son imagines and hopes to expect is: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” But the Father rejoices and invites everyone to rejoice at his homecoming.

“Follow Me”

In conclusion I’d like to revisit a couple passages in this chapter. A couple weeks ago I was reading in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks about the mission of the Holy Spirit. He said: “But the Parclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26) This is one significant way I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit: by being made to remember the words of Jesus. And one of these things impressed on my mind is this call: “Repent and believe the Gospel”.

It’s remarkable to me how Simon and Andrew, James and John just drop everything from their previous life and follow Jesus at his sudden command: “Follow me”. I wonder what they felt. Were they excited? Afraid? Likely both and more?

The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor often portrayed Gospel ideas through violence. That’s certainly strange and admittedly idiosyncratic. And even though that kind of literary illustration is an exaggeration and a distortion I think there’s wisdom in it. In a way the Gospel is simultaneously destructive and constructive. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24) We are meant to both die with Christ and rise again with Christ. Even if O’Connor’s use of violence to portray this is literary exaggeration it correctly conveys the idea that Christian conversion comes with an impact and great power.

Now that may or may not sound appealing. Certainly the call of the Spirit has not always been completely welcome. Jeremiah resisted it:

“O Lord, You induced me, and I was persuaded;
You are stronger than I, and have prevailed.
I am in derision daily;
Everyone mocks me.
For when I spoke, I cried out;
I shouted, ‘Violence and plunder!’
Because the word of the Lord was made to me
A reproach and a derision daily.
Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him,
Nor speak anymore in His name.’
But His word was in my heart like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
I was weary of holding it back,
And I could not.”
(Jeremiah 20:7-9)

So that’s both awesome and frightening. But not all so moved resist in this way.

Paul called himself a slave to Christ, δοῦλος Χριστοῦ (doulos Christou) (Romans 1:1). That may not sound so appealing. Especially as a modern, freedom-loving American it certainly makes me do a double-take. But Paul delighted in this. Paradoxically, he considered this slavery to Christ a kind of liberation and taught that there was liberty ἐλευθερίᾳ (eleutheria) in Christ.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1)

And what are we freed from? We are freed from sin by submitting to new mastery under Christ.

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free [ἐλευθερωθέντες (eleutherothentes)] from sin, you became slaves [ἐδουλώθητε (edoulothete)] of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:15-23)

We can be slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. But the wages of each diverge sharply. The wages of sin is death. But submission to Christ, even though it is all-demanding, is also fully liberating. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. And the gift of God is eternal life.

When I hear, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” I hear it as Paul, Simon and Andrew, James and John. It’s all-demanding, awesome, frightening, and glorious. It is the ultimate “good news”, εὐαγγέλιον  (euangelion), that must be announced.

The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor

Rachel and Todd talk about Flannery O’Connor. We discuss the unusual way that O’Connor developed Christian themes in her stories making use of violence and the grotesque. We look closely at four of her stories in particular, at her Southern regional style and humor as well as common themes like intergenerational conflict, urban and rural culture clashes, and racial tension as well as religious themes like depravity, redemption, grace, revelation, and the Holy Spirit.

The Origins of Human Rights

In two competing accounts the origin of human rights has been framed as a product of Christian moral teachings or as a process of rejecting and overcoming oppressive religious superstitions. Where do human rights come from? The Christian origins are significant but a more complete account should also address additional historical factors that helped to activate and further shape our conception of human rights in modern times.

In a previous episode on the Nature of Divine Law I talked about Christine Hayes’s historical study of the biblical tradition and Greek thought and her comparison of their conceptions of the nature of divine law, along with some comments on my own perspective in response to both of these conceptions. As a recap, the difference as she framed it, was that in Greek thought “divine law is divine ‘because it expresses the profound structures of a permanent natural order’… Divine law is an element operating within the physical world and our natures, rather than something imposed upon the world by a god from without.” Whereas in the biblical tradition “the law is divine ‘because it emanates from a god who is master of history’… It is the expression of a personal divine being’s will, which can take the form of detailed written instruction and legislation.” Another way of saying this is that in the Greek conception divine law is internally justified. It is self-contained and right in virtue of itself, much like a logical or mathematical proof. Whereas in the biblical tradition divine law is justified because it is declared from the mouth of God. It is right because God says it is right. Personally I’ve found a synthesis of these two positions most tenable, as I talked about in that earlier episode. But I’d like to pick up on these ideas and look at them with another set of questions.

One of the issues I’ve been considering a lot recently is the problem of fitting together two highly contestable ideas that both seem right to me but that don’t fit very well with each other. The first idea is that the biblical tradition forms the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights. The second idea is that the our modern ideas of human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history. So what took so long? That’s the big question for me. If Christianity is foundational to human rights why didn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerge in the first century rather than in the twentieth century?

I mentioned that both of these ideas are highly contestable. So it’s worth addressing the matter of whether they’re even true in the first place. First then, does the biblical tradition actually form the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights?

There was a debate over this question between Tom Holland and A.C. Grayling in 2019, with Holland arguing that Christianity historically gave us our human values and Grayling arguing that it did not. Tom Holland actually wrote a book on the subject called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, in which he made a detailed case for this. Steven Pinker by contrast, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is very dismissive of religion as a force for peace and human rights. In his view the decline in violence and rise of respect for human rights has occurred apart from and even in spite of religion and in spite of Christianity in particular. In fact he argues that it’s often been a process of overcoming and rejecting Christianity’s illiberal tendencies. I’ve read both Holland’s and Pinker’s books and recently watched the Holland-Grayling debate. I actually think both sides make some good points. Neither side is completely wrong. But neither side is completely right either. So I think the fuller picture is more complex.

What about the second idea, that the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history? This idea is also contested by defenders of Christianity. And much of this may be as a reaction to the excesses of anti-religious and anti-Christian polemics that have distorted the historical narrative, particularly in popular consciousness. The historical distortion is not new. Even going back to Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, Renaissance figures tried to contrast what they considered their enlightened and open perspective to what they portrayed as the medieval “Dark Ages”. And this narrative has persisted and been repurposed through the Enlightenment and into the present day. And a counter-reaction has been warranted. The negative portrayal of the middle ages isn’t fair. They weren’t the bleak dystopian nightmares they’ve been made out to be. Many of the purported anti-intellectual offenses of Christianity, destroying libraries and burning classical texts, are either distortions or fictions. Tom Holland as well as David Bentley Hart, in his contentiously titled book Atheist Delusions, address many of these popular misunderstandings.

Something both Holland and Hart address as well is that it’s really just not the case that no change in values took place in the first century. One of the important features of the preceding classical moral outlook is the different value it placed on the lives of different classes of people, ranging from nobles to slaves. It wasn’t the case that all human lives were of the same value or equal dignity. The highest value was for “the best”, the ἄριστος (áristos) in Greek, from which we get the word “aristocracy”. That was just natural. But then Jesus came along and taught, in quite a revolution of values, that what matters is how we treat “the least”, the ἐλάχιστος (eláchistos). A complete reversal and a conceptual revolution. So that was a big change that indeed started in the first century. So it’s not like nothing happened for the first seventeen hundred years.

Still, I think the biggest changes have come about in the last two or three hundred years. What’s interesting to me as a Christian is that I think we’re closer now to living consistently with the teachings of Jesus than at any other time in history. We still have a long way to go. But we’re closer. Closer than at any other time in the centuries leading up to modern times, at least at the scale of large states. I think modern critics of Christianity like Grayling and Pinker have a point when they say that Christianity has indeed coexisted with and even encouraged a lot of cultural values and practices that have been illiberal and offensive to our modern ideas of human rights. But when I look at the ideas of Jesus, at just a conceptual level, as in the Sermon on the Mount, they seem not only consistent with human rights but even surpass our modern notions of human rights. So what might that imply?

In general, what are a few ways we could say that one thing has caused another, like Christianity leading to human rights? Say A causes B. Just as abstract variables for a moment. Say we have B. B occurs. Consider three ways of looking at the relationship of A to B, given that B occurs:

1. B would not have occurred if A had not occurred.
2. B would not have occurred if either A or C had not occurred.
3. B would not have occurred if both A and D had not occurred.

Those are abstract so let’s apply it to the issue at hand. What does it mean to say that Christianity led to the development of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights?

Let’s take case 1, where B would not have occurred if A had not occured. The application here would be that without Christianity human rights would not have developed; we wouldn’t believe in human rights and there would be no such thing. I think we really need to entertain that possibility. One of the things Tom Holland said a few times in his debate with A.C. Grayling is that it’s important to recognize that our values of human rights are contingent. We could easily not believe in human rights in the way we do. And I think that’s true. We might imagine that we would just inevitably deduce human rights naturally through reason, but I find that highly unlikely. Moral philosophy through the Enlightenment has basically been a process of trying to back-calculate and rationally justify the values that we had already inherited through tradition. And even having a cheat sheet, knowing the “right answer” that we were supposed to arrive at, none of these efforts has been especially convincing. Some of them have been internally consistent and viable by their own standards. But they fail to conclusively ground the human rights we want them to ground. In other words, these rational systems don’t exclude the kinds of actions we would want to consider unjustifiable, to be violations of human rights. Utilitarianism, for example, can rationally justify many violations of human rights of individuals for the benefit of a larger number of people. Which is fine if you don’t care about human rights. But it’s a problem if you do. Alasdair MacIntyre gives an extensive overview of this in his book After Virtue in his chapters on “The Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality” and “Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail”. This is one reason I think we wouldn’t just rationally deduce our notions of human rights if we didn’t already have them.

Another reason I think we would not, out of necessity, just arrive at human rights without some kind of traditional basis for them is that many cultures in the past and even today just don’t believe in human rights in the way we do. So it’s definitely a human possibility. Not only a possibility but a human reality. It might be hard for us to imagine our own culture not believing in human rights because we are so embedded in it as a culture that it just seems normal. Everything that shapes our imagination, including our ability to imagine our culture being other than it is, is also influenced by the culture itself. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to think outside our cultural horizon. But it’s a challenge. So I think Holland is right to say that human rights are contingent. And maybe without the historical heritage of Christianity we wouldn’t believe in them.

Let’s take case 2, where B would not have occurred if either A or C had not occurred. In other words, if A does not occur B might still occur, but for some other reason, such as if C occurs. The application here would be that even without Christianity, something else might have inspired our belief in human rights. Maybe some other tradition. A.C. Grayling noted that Christian ideas like the Golden Rule have been expressed in other traditions and that many religions of the Axial Age (8th to 3rd century B.C.) had ideas that could lead to human rights. I think that’s a fair point. I’m a Christian but I know that many of the same insights of Christianity are found in other traditions. And I think that’s a good thing. And I certainly think it’s possible for human rights to be grounded in other cultures through these traditions. That’s actually important to think about as we try to generalize human rights worldwide. Still, I think it is the case that in the West it was Christianity that was the traditional vehicle for these ideas, even if it might have been otherwise.

And now, let’s take case 3, where B would not have occurred if both A and D had not occurred. The application here would be that Christianity is one factor that leads to the development of human rights, but it’s not the only one and it’s not enough by itself. Other factors are needed to contribute to this development. I want to focus on this case from here on out because it’s the one I find most convincing. Recall my two ideas that are in tension with each other: that Christianity forms the basis for human rights in the West and that human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history. Why? This third case gives a possible explanation. Christianity was one vital component, but the human rights revolution, in which societies made dramatic shifts toward actually putting the ideals of Jesus’s teachings into practice, required additional circumstances that did not come about before the eighteenth century.

This is basically the position of German sociologist Hans Joas in his book The Sacredness of Persons: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Joas gives a historical account and philosophical explanation of the “genealogy” or historical origin of human rights by way of a process he calls the “sacralization of the person”, a process in which every human being comes to be viewed as sacred. In his book Joas sets up the same problem I’ve proposed for understanding the Christian foundations of human rights:

“Traditions do not perpetuate themselves but are sustained through the actions of individuals. Even if we concede, at least retrospectively, that human rights may to some extent be considered a modern rearticulation of the Christian ethos, we must be able to explain why it took seventeen hundred years for the Gospel to be translated into legally codified form in this regard.”

For Joas a proper historical explanation must refer to changes in values, institutions, and practices, as well as their historical precursors such as demographic changes, movements of populations, economic and political developments, etc. It’s not that human rights aren’t a modern rearticulation of the Christian ethos. He believes they are. But it’s a question of what caused this modern rearticulation when it happened.

Joas sets up a contrast between two perspectives on human rights that I find similar to the two perspectives on divine law that Christine Hayes identifies in the biblical tradition and in Greek thought. For Joas the two perspectives on human rights are those typified by two great German philosophers: Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. For the Greeks, according to Hayes, divine law is rational and beyond historical contingencies. Whereas in the biblical tradition divine law is given by God acting in history, to particular groups of people, at particular times and places. Joas similarly contrasts rational and historical bases for human rights in the Kantian and Nietzschean schools of thought. By pursuing a “new genealogy” Joas is following the Nietzschean school of thought. But unlike Nietzsche his genealogical project is affirmative rather than destructive. He doesn’t wish to undermine human rights, but rather to show how they have emerged historically, so that we can better understand them.

In contrast to the Kantian position Joas says he does “not believe in the possibility of a purely rational justification for ultimate values.” But he also says that “unlike Nietzsche, [he does] not assume that discovering the genesis of values removes the scales from our eyes to reveal the false gods and idols we have believed in.” That’s why his genealogy of human rights is affirmative. He says: “As a narrative, such an account makes us aware that our commitment to values and our notion of what is valuable emerge from experiences and our processing of them; this shows them to be contingent rather than necessary. Values no longer appear as something pregiven that we merely have to discover or perhaps reestablish.”

This kind of contingency of morality and rights, that they might have been otherwise or might not have been at all, is another thing I’ve thought a lot about recently both in philosophy and in theology. Philosophically my primary resource on the subject of contingency is Richard Rorty. And theologically my resource on contingency is James K.A. Smith. Smith is quite interesting because he also gives insightful commentary on Rorty. And I think both have ideas that cohere well with Joas’s points about the contingent, but still valid nature of human rights.

Rorty addresses contingency and its implications for liberalism quite directly in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In spite of the contingent, non-essential nature of human rights we are not prevented from standing in solidarity with each other and affirming those ideas anyway. We can still make that choice. James K.A. Smith, in his book Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood takes this idea of contingency, appropriating many ideas from Rorty directly, and applies them to Christian ideas of creaturehood and community. Smith affirms the theological notion of our contingent existence, as opposed to God’s necessity. God exists of necessity. He cannot not be, by his very nature as the one who is: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). We however, do not exist necessarily. We are created. And so we are contingent. We could not exist. But we do exist because God created us. Much like human rights, I think. Human rights could not exist. They don’t exist out of necessity. Even morality, or “The Law”, as in certain expressions of the biblical tradition, is created. But from this we don’t need to despair that morality and human rights are merely arbitrary. In the biblical tradition The Law is covenantal, but it is not lesser for that fact. From a certain perspective that gives us the benefit of being invested in it by taking the direct action to enter into that covenant. Whether by covenant, in the biblical view, or by solidarity, in Rorty’s secular view, the contingency of morality and human rights can be just as compelling as ever.

So if human rights are contingent and have historical origins what are those historical factors that have contributed to their development into the form we hold them today? I’m more convinced of the idea that there are such historical factors than I am about any particular set of factors. But I have some ideas. And I’ll share the ones put forward by Hans Joas in his book that I find most convincing. I’ll mention four: the Protestant Reformation, the American Revolution, American slavery, and the two World Wars.

I’ll start with the American Revolution and work my way back chronologically to the Reformation because the two are closely connected in Joas’s account. And actually Joas is basing his ideas off the work of another German scholar, Georg Jellinek (1851-1911). In his book The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History, Jellinek had argued that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, was significantly influenced by and modeled on the American Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence and American Bill of Rights. This is interesting, not just as a matter of patriotism (yeah, I’m a proud American but Joas and Jellinek are German), but it’s interesting as it relates to the question of why certain ideas of human rights took off as they did in Europe after the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century rather than, say, five hundred years earlier, or one thousand years earlier. France and the Ancien Régime, the “Old Regime”, had, as the name implies, been around for a long time. But the situation in America was comparatively novel. Obviously the continent itself wasn’t new. It had very ancient peoples and civilizations. But there was a radically different and new demographic situation on the ground in which large populations from Europe were colonizing the continent, bringing ideas and beliefs from Europe into these regions that were geographically separated from Europe. There were just a lot of new factors at play.

Jellinek’s thesis was that one important feature that characterized the American colonies was how highly they valued being able to practice their own religious denominations. Some communities had been organized specifically for that purpose. And this related to an idea that carried over from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was many things. It involved several issues of doctrine that are very interesting and important. But for the purposes of the issue at hand the most significant is the issue of authority. All these denominations continued to have ideas of ecclesiology, the theological study of a church organization. But the critical move was separating the authority of God from the authority of Rome. It wasn’t the eradication of authority. But by separating from Rome the Reformation passed over earthly authorities and looked to transcendent authority in God. And once you have that you’re moving toward something that looks like human rights. 

For example, Martin Luther is reported to have said at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Note his appeal to reason. That almost sounds like the Enlightenment. Luther is claiming a freedom of conscience above and beyond anything codified by earthly authorities. And that is a challenge not only to the proper exercise of authority but also to the legitimate extent of authority itself, at least apart from God. That’s starting to look a lot like human rights that neither illegal nor legal authority can violate.

Here’s a passage from Joas on this point: “[Jellinek] was also correct to point out that there is a difference between theories of natural law and the legal codification of specific individual rights intended to hold for all people and removed from legislative authority. ‘The assertion of objective moral and legal limits to all worldly powers,’ writes Hasso Hofmann, agreeing with Jellinek, does not itself equate with ‘a theory of subjective rights. The idea of constitutional freedom and security against illegal tyranny is not equivalent to the human rights idea of basic, individual freedoms and protection against legal tyranny.’”

Once you bypass that earthly seat of authority, as in Rome, you place your source of authority above earthly powers, not only in theory, as it always had been, but also in practice. After the Reformation we’re in an era where people can actually disobey the papacy and its authority, get away with it, and truly believe that they’re authorized in doing so. That’s a new experience. And of course that all started and happened in Europe but in America it gets intensified. People are not only living under cuius regio, eius religio, the system in which you could have different religions in different kingdoms, depending on the religion of the ruler: “whose realm, their religion”. In America we get smaller, purposefully created communities with localized religious authority.

On this point Joas also refers to the work of German theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) who “recognized the transformative effects that Enlightenment thought exerted on Protestant Christianity in North America.” This unique situation in the American colonies also produced a curious synergy with religious thought and Enlightenment thought. I can see from Luther’s appeal to reason how this would come about. In the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the doctrine that Christian scriptures are the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the new necessity was for individual Christians to read the Bible and to understand it for themselves. And it is in this reading and interpretation of the Bible that we find the ultimate source of authority, rather than in Popes and priests. That is substantial breakthrough for independent thinking. And this is how the American colonists learn to think, as independent readers and thinkers. “In a well-known phrase, Americans in the eighteenth century learned their Enlightenment from the pulpit.”

So we could point out two things here. One, and this was more the point that Jellinek was making, is that the Enlightenment in America was highly religious in nature. But another point that I think addresses my question, is that religion in America was also highly Enlightened, it had a strong Enlightenment flavor that was new in Christian history. Christianity in America was wrapped up in supporting notions of independence from earthly authorities and independent, rational verification of the meaning of Christian doctrines through the actual reading and study of scripture. Something that literacy and the availability of printed Bibles no doubt also enabled. So you’ve got a whole set of new historical developments: technological developments, movements of large populations, major shifts in the balance of political powers. And these things are producing novel situations that influence the way Christianity is practiced and thought about. And that feeds back into the way Christianity influences the culture, so that Christian ideas that had been dormant before will start to exercise more live influence.

So we have the Reformation and the American Revolution, which influences the French Revolution, which shakes up all of Europe. Another factor Joas touches on is American slavery. He talks about this in a chapter titled “Violence and Human Dignity: How Experiences Become Rights”. This is the same chapter in which he address the two World Wars and the Shoah (or Holocaust), which we’ll get to next. The idea he proposes in the chapter is that our conception of human rights is also contingent on particular historical experiences of atrocity, or trauma. We respond to these atrocities in the way we develop our ideas about human rights. And the implication of this contingency is that if certain atrocities that happened in history and that appalled people in certain ways had not occurred or if different atrocities had occurred, that our conceptions of human rights would be different than they are. So what are some of the great atrocities that had these significant effects? American slavery is an important one.

Joas lists three components for his explanation as to why conceptions of human rights moved decisively against the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century. It might seem obvious that any notion of human rights should oppose slavery. But this was clearly not the case since, significantly, slavery was countenanced and even defended in America, in many cases by the same people who so forcefully defended what they understood to be the rights of men. The French Revolutionaries went a little further, at least in theory, in their pronouncements against slavery. But when it came to actually ceasing to think of human beings as property, as in the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue, today Haiti, they fell far short. So what set this particular advance of the “sacralization of the person” in motion? The three components Joas lists are:

1. “Intensification of the motivation to put into practice a universalist morality that already exists in principle.”
2. “A sociostructurally induced expansion in the cognitive attribution of moral responsibility.”
3. “The practical transnational organization of moral universalism.”

As in the case with the Reformation, trans-Atlantic colonization, etc., we’re looking for factors that make something happen that didn’t happen before. In this case an expansion of conceptions of human rights against slavery. And these three factors are the ones Joas identifies as the novel circumstances that produced that new development.

Joas acknowledges that a universalist morality already existed in principle in Christianity. For example, we see a universalist message in Acts 10 with Peter’s vision of a sheet with unclean animals on it, descending from heaven. Peter is told to eat the unclean animals and he resists because it goes against his traditional dietary laws. But he is told: “What God has cleansed, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). There is no longer to be that kind of separation. Peter was instructed to open the ministry to all people, regardless of ethnicity, to Jew and Gentile alike. We also see a strong universalism in Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. For Paul the Gospel was for παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι (pantí to pisteúonti), “everyone who believes”, he says to the Jew and to the Greek, i.e. everyone (Romans 1:16). In the Epistle to the Ephesians it is said: “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, [ξένοι καὶ πάροικοι (ksénoi kai pároikoi)] but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Such distinctions are being broken down. So the universalist ideas are there. That morality already exists in principle. But Joas claims there’s an intensification of the motivation to put this into practice.

He attributes this intensification in the nineteenth century United States to the particular revivalist form of religious practice taking place there:

“Slavery was declared a sin, while resistance to it signaled that individuals meant to live a life that truly reflected Christ’s moral demands. They tended to be particularly outraged when slaveholders and their supporters opposed the evangelization of the slaves and thus Christ’s Great Commission. The antislavery movement became part of the intermittent revivalist movements. These movements cannot be described simply in terms of their religious content; above all we must consider their specific dynamics. Here prophetic speakers castigated misdeeds as sinful and interpreted them as an occasion for repentance. Such discourse may set in motion major collective processes of moral reorientation that we cannot trace back to the interests of those involved. Indeed, through such processes they learn to completely redefine their interests. Here the adoption of religiously practiced forms of the public confession of sins and assurances of a moral rebirth helped politicize moral objectives.”

Joas sees this revivalist form of religious practice working hand in hand along with the second factor, the sociostructurally induced expansion in the cognitive attribution of moral responsibility, i.e. awareness of increased global interconnectedness. With slavery being part of the domestic and global economy it was impossible not to be a participant in it.

“Our conception of our own moral responsibility depends on cognitive preconditions. If we are to feel responsible, we must make empirical assumptions about the connection between our actions and misdeeds elsewhere. Does what we consume really come from a country in which slaves or forced laborers are involved in production? Also lying on the cognitive level is how we assess our possible intervention… All of our moral positions are embedded in a context of empirical and thus fallible assumptions about the conditions, means, and consequences of our action and that of others and about causal connections between our action and that of others. On the basis of these insights, American historian Thomas Haskell has ingeniously connected the rise of industrial capitalism and the concurrent advance of a ‘humanitarian sensibility’… From this perspective, increasing global interlinkage of social relations, on economic grounds, is a precondition for a movement such as abolitionism. The same process that, for example, allows businesspeople to expand their utility-oriented action across the world, in the slave trade itself but also other activities, enables others to relate a formerly consequence-free moral repudiation of abuses in other places causally to their own conduct. They thus experience a sense of responsibility for putting a stop to these abuses–as a realistic option for action and de facto moral obligation. So with the expansion of market relations, the space for moral responsibility becomes larger, and this is relevant to our actions.”

So here’s another novel situation. The economies of the world are becoming more complex and interconnected. That’s a new material situation on the ground that has implications for the ways that people live and think about their actions. So you can take the same Christian preconditions that were always there and by putting them in this new situation certain issues become much more salient and live issues.

Joas’s third factor for why conceptions of human rights moved against slavery is the practical transnational organization of moral universalism. This is related to the economic factor but there’s also feedback. Once these antislavery ideas start to intensify other nations start looking at each other. Britain ends its slave trade but still depends on it economically through U.S. cotton imports. Then during the Civil War Britain has to decide if it will give military aid to the Confederacy. Well, the whole world is watching now. So they end up rejecting that idea. Slavery is becoming more internationally unacceptable and that accelerates the development of public opinion in other individual nations.

When I think about the historical contingency of slavery and the abolitionist movement one of the things that stands out to me is the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1868, shortly after the Civil War and the end of American slavery. The Equal Protection Clause of this Amendment has been one of the most significant Constitutional passages in the history of U.S. Supreme Court cases and the American history of civil rights:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This text is part of our identity as a people now and it’s been a model around the world. And it was created in response to the atrocity of American slavery and subsequent, often successful efforts to curtail the rights of former slaves. Certainly it would have been better for slavery never to have happened. But just as a way of looking at the history of the way human rights developed, it’s noteworthy that it had a major impact on the kinds of things we consider central to the nature of human rights today.

This kind of historical memory embedded into our morality reminds me of the refrain in the Torah, כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם (ki gerim hayitem be-aretz mitzraim), “for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”.

“You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

“The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

“Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

The memory of Egypt and their slavery in it is ever present in the Torah. The Lord repeatedly reminds the people of it. Far from something ahistorical, the Law given by the Lord is given explicit rationale in the events of history. Certain commandments are given in the form that they are, explicitly and self-consciously because of certain events in the past, even great catastrophes, like intergenerational slavery. In this respect I think many of the forms our modern values of human rights take are not so different.

The last events and atrocities of historical significance that I’ll mention in the development of our modern notions of human rights are the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Memory of these events was also explicitly mentioned in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another canonical text today in our modern understanding of human rights and what we consider to be rights. The Shoah, also known as the Holocaust, certainly stands out as especially significant in our memory and conscience. And that’s definitely a major influence. But there were also many other atrocities even prior to that during these decades that got people thinking about what kinds of rights human beings should have, extending all the way from the rude awakening of World War I to the horrendous events of the Shoah. The influence is mentioned explicitly in the preamble of the Declaration:

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…”

The articles of the declaration are clear responses to these outrages. Here’s an overview of antecedents to various articles in the declaration from Joas:

“The emphasis on the unity of the human race in Article 1 is consciously intended to counter the destruction of universalism in racial theories. The emphasis on the ‘right to life’ in Article 3 was just as consciously inspired by the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ of the disabled. Article 4 opposes slavery and ‘servitude’ in part as a means of denouncing the forced labor among citizens of conquered countries of the kind that occurred during the Second World War in Germany. Article 5 not only declares a ban on torture, but also ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment’ in order to preclude crimes such as the medical experiments carried out by National Socialist doctors on death-camp inmates and disabled people. The declaration of the right to asylum in Article 14 (‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’) can be traced back directly to the mass expatriations of the Third Reich… Article 21 declares the right to political participation. This was aimed directly at the fascist doctrine that the true will of the people should be embodied in a leader with unchecked power… Article 30 provides the beginnings of an ‘internationalist’ interpretation of human rights that makes the international community collectively responsible for policies and envisages a legal system consonant with human rights in individual states. This is bound up with the fact that the struggle against National Socialism in Germany before the war was by no means regarded as the responsibility of other states.”

Again we might ask, how would we think about human rights today if history had been different? If the World Wars and the mass scale of carnage had not taken place? Certainly it would have been better if these things had never happened. But it’s another case where we can consider the way particular historical events have shaped our values and how they might have been otherwise. It’s interesting how the ideas of racial sciences and eugenics, which had been very intellectually fashionable in the early decades of the twentieth century, dramatically fell out of fashion to become not only unfashionable but even reprehensible. And we have these strong, visceral reactions to euthanasia of the disabled, medical experiments, and any kind of compulsory “camp” because of the experience and memory of seeing these things being done. For instance, I imagine the internment camps of Japanese and Japanese-American persons during World War II, look a lot different after Auschwitz than before Auschwitz. And we probably react more strongly to the re-education camps of the Uyghurs currently operating in China because of association with the camps of Nazi Germany, though I’d say our reaction is still not strong enough in that particular and ongoing case. We can’t really know these kinds of counterfactuals. But it’s instructive and useful to understand these historical antecedents to our modern ideas of human rights.

So getting back to the issues at the beginning of all this – that the biblical tradition forms the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights and that these ideas of human rights only really took off in their present form after seventeen hundred years of Christian history – I still think both are true and that there are historical reasons for the delay and eventual emergence. Like I said, I’m more convinced that there are historical reasons for the delay and eventual realization of human rights from their latent form in Christianity than I am about the particular historical accounts I’ve shared here, borrowing from Hans Joas. But I do find his ideas plausible. I still think Christianity is conceptually foundational to the emergence of human rights, even if a number of features were dormant for a very long time. So I don’t think the accounts of human rights that attribute their origin to exclusively Christian or secular ideas are going to be accurate. I find a more complex story more convincing. And as a Christian I appreciate the genius of Christianity in both its realized and its potential forms. And I believe many aspects of Christianity have yet to be realized still. In fact that’s pretty much an assumption of eschatology, the theological study of future and end times. I also appreciate, as a Christian, that God acts in history. Christian morality doesn’t have to be ahistorical. Much as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to particular “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” I can appreciate how the Torah hearkens back to when “you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”. That’s the nature of all this. And I believe thinking about the history of our values can enrich our commitment to them.

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7

This is the last in a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7 Jesus taught: “Judge not”, “Ask, and it will be given to you”, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them”, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life”, “You will know them by their fruits”, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”. As Jesus teaches about the narrow gate and difficult way consider what it means to live according to “The Way” as a disciple of Christ.

This will be the third and last episode of this trilogy on the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve decided to give the Sermon on the Mount special attention for personal study. Preparing and presenting my thoughts on these passages has been a good way for me to organize and record my thoughts. I hope it’s also of some value to readers and listeners. I see the New Testament as the central text of Christian life and the Sermon on the Mount is among the most important sections of the New Testament. Definitely in the top tier. This is where we really get to see who Jesus is and what he is about. And also who God is and what God is about. As Jesus said: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). By studying the Sermon on the Mount we’re learning about Jesus and we’re learning about God. We’re learning about “The Way”, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), which is also Jesus Christ (John 14:6), “I am the way” – Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos). The Sermon on the Mount shows The Way we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. And as we will see in Matthew 7, The Way is strict and narrow, so it’s important to pay close attention to it’s exposition in scripture.

Part of what got me into a close reading of this sermon in particular is what I perceive to be something of a Christian identity crisis. “Who are we?” and “What are we about?” 

I’m thinking especially of Christianity in the United States but I’m sure similar challenges occur in other countries. It’s by no means a settled conclusion that just by calling ourselves Christians or followers of Christ, by making a declaration to the world and to ourselves that we are his followers that that makes it so. As we’ll see in this chapter, that is often not the case. How to find our way? In the Bible certainly. And I think the Sermon on the Mount especially is a great place to look for the fundamentals.

So let’s dive in.

Matthew 7:1-5

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This is a tough one. How do you not judge? And what does it mean to judge? This is one of those verses like Matthew 19:24, that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” where we always want to say, “hmm, it must really mean that.” And soften it somewhat to make it more practical. It’s probably apparent that I’m skeptical of that method of interpretation. But that’s not to say it’s not at all legitimate or can’t be justified. Jesus was, afterall, a very nonliteral, metaphorical and parabolic teacher. So sometimes his teachings shouldn’t be taken literally. But this passage doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for that kind of interpretation. The message seems pretty clear: do not judge – Μὴ κρίνετε (Me krínete). So how does that work in practice?

Part of what makes this passage difficult is that it’s certainly not the case that just anything goes. There is still such a thing as right and wrong and understanding the difference is a form of judgment, if not of individuals, than at least of certain actions, even if abstracted from specific instances and specific individuals. So for example, if someone says that it’s wrong to do something it’s not sufficient to just say, “Oh, don’t judge!” That wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of Christ’s teachings. So, don’t try to use that as a lame excuse for your own bad actions. Jesus taught tons of things to do and not do. Even saying “Judge not” is saying not to do something. In terms of actions it’s making a judgment about judgment. So this isn’t some kind of loophole to get away with whatever you want; it’s not a shield for your own sins. There’s still right and wrong, even as Jesus says, “Judge not.” So how does this all fit together?

Let’s work our way back from the end of the passage where Jesus says: “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” So we’re not supposed to just leave things as they are with everyone. We are supposed to help each other and that includes moral help, helping people to repent of their sins and change for the better. We might say that involves some kind of judgment. But it seems to be a different kind of judgment than the kind Jesus has in mind when he says “do not judge”. What is the difference?

One pitfall is hypocrisy. “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite!” So one problem is not having your own self in order before going out to reform others. I struggle a little with this because even in this case the motivation seems honorable. “Let me remove the speck from your eye”. The person has a speck in their eye. They need help. What’s wrong with trying to help someone else out with their moral problems even though we have our own or maybe even worse moral problems? Can’t we just say we’re all screw ups trying to straighten ourselves out together? I think maybe we can, as long as we’re not pretending. Or, if I can make up a word, as long as we’re not hypocrite-ing, one meaning of the verb ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrínomai) being “to pretend”. The problem here may be less having a plank in your eye than pretending that you don’t have one. But of course, better still is to actually “remove the plank from your own eye” as Jesus says, to be even more effective in helping others to remove the specks from their own eyes. And maybe to be on the safe side, to be in more precise alignment with Jesus’s teachings, one ought just to be complete that process first. It might be like how they say on the airplane that with a loss in cabin pressure you should put on your own mask first and then help others put theirs on.

All of this I think should be understood in reference to that first commandment in the chapter, “Do not judge,” which I see as a kind of center of gravity for all the rest of this. Whatever interpretations we may make of the other parts of the passage, they should conform to that. Not judging is the baseline rather than an afterthought.

There’s a similarity here of the teaching that “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged” to the supplication in the Lord’s Prayer in the previous chapter that God “forgive us our debts, as – Ὡς (Hos) – we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12). There’s a similar consistency in the measure – μέτρον (métron) – used. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) How strictly do you want to be judged? Do you want to be judged harshly or laxly? Do you want your words to be interpreted in the worst possible way or in the most charitable way? If we want to be judged laxly and charitably we should be lax, charitable, and forgiving toward others.

Matthew 7:6

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

On one level the meaning here isn’t too hard to grasp. Some things are special and should be treated as special. Special things should be separated from common things. This is an idea that runs throughout the Bible. On another level though it’s not entirely obvious why this verse is here. What does it have to do with the verses that precede and follow it? Is it to be understood as a separate saying in isolation or does it relate to the other verses?

First on the subject of specialness or separation, looking at the cultural context in the ancient Israelite thought, in Hebrew the word for “holy” is קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh), which also carries the sense of separation. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorized that many cultures have this concept of separation between the “sacred and profane”. By “profane” Eliade just meant not sacred, something common or part of normal daily life, something not special or separate from the usual. The Torah talks a lot about how priests and people would need to be cleansed before coming into sacred spaces like the tabernacle. So this idea here that Jesus is getting at, that you don’t just mix special things with normal or dirty things, has a very rich cultural background.

Does this saying connect to the others? It’s not totally clear. But we can speculate or try to make an (I think) acceptable interpretation, whether or not it was originally intended. The most plausible connection I’ve seen is that pearls represent the “brother” who we might be inclined to judge. And that in judging a brother we are treating them dismissively as not-special, as common and profane things. Reminds me of a little alliterative maxim I have, “people before principles”, which I justify from Jesus’s teaching that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Principles are important but it’s also important to remember that they exist for people. Sabbath violation was one of the things Jesus and his followers were always being judged for and he repeatedly told people to step back and think about the bigger picture, what the Sabbath is and how it serves man. Can be applied to other commandments as well and that’s something to think about when there’s that temptation to judge.

Matthew 7:7-12

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

This saying reminds me of others in the Sermon on the Mount, like in chapter 6 about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field just being taken care of without having to worry. It seems like a similar kind of childlike trust in God providing. “You need something? OK, just ask.” Jesus even compares it to a parent-child relationship. When a child needs something the parents take good care of them and give them what they need.

Now the first thoughts I have reading this are: (1) I’ve asked for things before and haven’t gotten them and (2) kids ask for things all the time that parents either don’t give them because they shouldn’t or don’t give them because they can’t. My daughter has asked me for a “real spaceship or a “real magic wand but those are currently either outside my budget or outside the constraints of reality (as far as I’m aware).

A few thoughts on this. One is that, thinking of this saying in relation to the sayings about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field, those earlier sayings were, in part, about simplicity. We aren’t supposed to even worry about what to eat, drink, or wear. That’s pretty basic stuff. Jesus just says we’ll be taken care of. But you’d think we shouldn’t expect any great extravagance in what we’ll be provided, at least not in terms of worldly expectations. So that might apply as well to the “Ask, and it will be given to you” saying.

Another interesting thing here is that there’s a similarity to the Lord’s prayer from chapter 6, where Jesus says that we should ask to be forgiven our debts, in accordance with the way we forgive our debtors; that there’s a symmetry here between the way we treat others and the way the Father treats us. And we see that here again. The “Golden Rule” verse is often taken in isolation, and I think that’s fine. But it’s worth noting that the verse has a “Therefore” – οὖν (oun). So it’s a kind of conclusion taken from the previous verses. “Therefore, whatever you want men (οἱ ἄνθρωποι) to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” What is this being concluded from? Just before this Jesus had compared the Father to earthly fathers who give good things to their children, like food. Fathers give “good gifts” – δόματα ἀγαθὰ (domata agatha) – to their children. It would seem that this is what we should all be doing to each other. We all desire to receive good gifts, therefore we should also give good gifts to mankind – οἱ ἄνθρωποι (hoi anthropoi).

Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

This is an important saying in relation to the theme I’ve been using to frame the whole sermon, that the Sermon on the Mount shows us The Way, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) that is Christianity and that is also Christ himself. What does Christ here say about ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)? Essentially it’s no cakewalk.

We learn here that  ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) is something that most people do not follow. Instead, most people follow the way of ἀπώλεια (apoleia), destruction. I think here again of the contrast between our animal human nature and the καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), the “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Way taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not really compatible with human nature. That’s why we need to die to sin and rise as new creatures in Christ (Romans 6:1-11).

I think this should be simultaneously and paradoxically both unsettling and reassuring. On another occasion Jesus also spoke of the narrowness of ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) saying it would be easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). Well that’s certainly unsettling. So his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With men this is impossible but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26) That’s why it’s both unsettling and reassuring. It is impossible for our human nature. But we don’t have to rely on our human nature. The human being becomes a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation” in Christ by the power of God, through whom all things are possible.

That it’s through God that we are enabled, rather than through our own strength, might help to understand this in comparison to another of Jesus’s somewhat different sayings:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This saying about things being “easy” and “light” sounds different than the other about things being “narrow” and “difficult”. And that’s why I bring it up, because I want to get the comprehensive view scripturally with all its complexity; to avoid facile proof texting. As a tentative explanation I speculate that the difference has to do with entering the kingdom and on whose strength it can be accomplished rather than with the severity of the path, independent of the destination. If you’re just wanting a good time and not seeking the kingdom of heaven the “wide” and “broad” way is much more agreeable. But if you’re trying to enter the kingdom of heaven the wide and broad way is literally impossibly difficult, i.e. impossible. But to enter the kingdom of heaven the narrow and difficult way is, somewhat surprisingly, infinitely easier by comparison because it’s actually possible and because it is done through the strength of the Lord.

It’s interesting that Jesus said of the wide and broad way, “there are many who go in by it.” I wonder if since there are so many more that follow that path it starts to seem like the dominant and even natural human tendency. And that anything else could seem anomalous or a deviation. I think we scientifically enlightened moderns might be inclined to look at the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Oh, that’s nice and quaint but really not consistent with a more realistic, honest understanding of human nature from modern psychology and economics, etc.” The nature of human nature is a point of contention on many fronts, scientifically, ethically, and politically. And that’s all useful stuff to consider in terms of stuff like secular public policy or running a business. But it doesn’t really impinge on or detract from the Sermon on the Mount or ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), The Way of Christ, because Christ doesn’t work within the constraints of human nature as it is. He completely transforms it.

I don’t think this is just fideistic or wishful thinking. This is something we can actually observe to have happened both in the lives of individuals and in entire civilizations. The world of classical antiquity, of the Roman Empire, is a vastly different world than the one we know today. And I don’t just mean because of developments of science and technology. Even more significant has been transformation in the way we think about the value of ordinary people. This is a cultural change that scholars like N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart talk a lot about in their books.

It’s worth considering, going back to that secular public policy and running a business, how to live as a Christian in those settings, since we presumably shouldn’t “check our religion at the door” when we enter secular spaces. The Way concerns not only individuals but is ultimately about a βασιλεία (basileia), a kingdom. Jesus’s pronouncement, his Gospel is that the βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (basilea ton ouranon), the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is coming. All of society and its institutions are to be transformed into a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”. The alternative is ruin, a path that leads to ἀπώλεια (apoleia).

Matthew 7:15-20

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

I remember reading this saying in a class in college and some of the students thought it didn’t make much sense. Nowadays that actually seems like an appropriate response to a saying of Jesus. That’s how the people who listened to him back then reacted too. What seemed off was the idea that good couldn’t come from bad and that bad couldn’t come from good. Because that seems contrary to experience. I like that observation because I think it highlights something that we might otherwise pass over, either out of familiarity or respect for the text. If what Jesus said is right something deeper than our surface-level experience must be going on here.

I wonder if this points to a distinctly Christian ethic. What seemed odd to me and my classmates was that actions and agents should be so tightly linked. We usually think about the goodness or badness of actions independent of the goodness or badness of the people doing them. But Jesus seems to be speaking of things differently. Recall that the action of giving alms, thought of independently would seem to be a good action. But for Jesus it’s not so simple. It also depends on why a person is giving alms, which seems more closely related to the moral character of the person. Are they the type of people who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people they serve or the type of people who are just seeking praise? Similar thing with not committing adultery. You might say not committing adultery is a good action, or non-action as it were. But for Jesus, again, it’s more complicated. One can be adulterous in character even without committing adultery in actions.

But that wouldn’t explain everything because Jesus also teaches this as a way to distinguish true prophets from false prophets. How can you discern the character of someone claiming to be a prophet whose outward actions seem good, if their internal character is actually evil and deceitful? The two types would seem to be indistinguishable from the outside. Another scripture that may help with this is in Acts 5, when people are worried about all the people that are following Jesus’s apostles and if they should actively persecute them to try and stifle it. You could say they’re worried about people following a false prophet. But one of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, proposes something different:

“Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.’” (Acts 5:34-39)

What stands out to me here in Gamaliel’s very astute counsel is that he’s taking the long view. It seems that false notions have a way of imploding on themselves, while truths are self-sustaining and endure. There’s a similar idea of an underlying rationality to history in which it works out its own logic, negating or confirming different ideas through large-scale and long term trial and error. This was roughly Hegel’s philosophy of history. Gamaliel pointed out that there were a lot of intense but short-lived religious movements, that sparkled and fizzled. But truth endures. And I think the author of Acts gave an account of this story, basically to say, look, Gamaliel’s prediction was right and Christianity did endure, which is a testament to its truth.

Another aspect to this is that sometimes false prophets can seem convincing in the short term and, on the flip side, true prophets can seem eccentric and erratic in the short term. A lot of people thought Jesus was crazy. Those closest to him said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) A lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible did some pretty weird stuff. But, their teachings endured. So the short term, close-up view can be insufficient. And it doesn’t even mean that everything the prophets did makes sense or was good. Again, a lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible not only did some weird stuff but also did some morally questionable stuff. But the things that they taught endured.

Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

I had a conversation with a friend recently where we were wondering if the reputation of Christianity has been irreparably tarnished by association in popular thought with materialism, militarism, and various forms of prejudice. It’s that Christian identity crisis I mentioned earlier. We both think that Christianity is an important foundation for many of the liberal and tolerant values of Western culture. So what happens if Christiany becomes discredited in the West? Will liberalism and tolerance eventually go with it? How long can liberalism persist only on inertia and habit?

But I’m cautiously optimistic. I do think that Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of many people but that’s also happened many times in history and will probably continue to happen many more times. But I’m optimistic because, even though we Christians have repeatedly not lived up to the teachings of Christ, we haven’t been able to sink it, and Christ’s church repeatedly bounces back in spite of us. Thank God Christianity can withstand the liability of its sinful adherents.

Another reason I am optimistic is because Jesus said that claiming Jesus and devotion to him has little to do with actual discipleship. In this passage Jesus said there would be people who prophesy, cast out demons, and do many wonders in his name, yet he will not know them. So invoking the name of Christ is not sufficient. 

In another chapter, Matthew 25, Jesus told a parable in which he says to the righteous – οἱ δίκαιοι (hoi díkaioi):

“‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

They didn’t even know. The primary meaning of this parable would seem to be that the way to serve and love Christ is to serve and love the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi) – through them. But another meaning, I suspect, may be that many people serve Christ without even being aware of Christ or thinking about Christ, but nevertheless they are serving Christ because they are serving the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi). Is Christ harmed if his name is defamed but many still follow his teachings? I see Christ’s teachings persisting among many good, secular people.

Now, my optimism isn’t boundless. There have been periods where abandoning the “constraints” (as they seemed) of Christ’s teachings predictably coincided with dehumanization and brutality. This is a contestable take but I don’t think it’s incidental that the mechanized, industrialized warfare and systematic genocide of the World Wars were preceded by a zeitgeist, a wave of culturally fashionable ideas that abandoned the notion of all humanity being, equally, made “in the image of God” – בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (betzelem elohim). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality” (Sklavenmoral) because of its respect for the the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi), the kind of people that earlier, more heroic cultures would have dismissed as pathetic. Nietzsche’s characterization very well may have been a contributor to the dehumanizing zeitgeist. Or it was at the very least indicative of the kind of thinking in vogue at the time.To compare with my earlier comments on Gamaliel and the “fruits” of certain ideas, philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, argued that the Enlightenment, with its instrumentalization of rationality, contained the elements that led to the developments of fascism, genocide, and mass technological warfare. It seems that people in the West felt severely chastened for some generations after that. But there’s nothing to say it can’t happen again. So it’s something to be vigilant and watchful for. There need to be valiant Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffers to face the Hitlers of the world.

But getting back to this passage in the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is required, if proclamation alone is not sufficient? “But he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” It is required to actually do his will. And so Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable on this point.

Matthew 7:24-27

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

This is similar and related to the earlier passage, as well as the saying about feeding, giving drink, housing, clothing, caring for, and visiting in prison the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), the least. It’s crucial to actually do these things. It’s not sufficient to just invoke the name of Christ in self-servicing actions. That would be a weak and insufficient foundation that will not endure. A strong foundation in Christ’s teachings consists in living according to ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos),  “The Way”. How we treat the least, the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), is everything. It is absolutely definitive of our discipleship to Christ and imitation of the image of Christ, who is The Way.

Matthew 7:28-29

“And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

People were repeatedly “astonished” at Jesus’s teachings; the words ἐξεπλήσσοντο (eksepléssonto) and ἐθαύμασαν (ethaúmasan), “astonished” and “amazed”, come up again and again, and seem to me like one of the most common reactions to Jesus, anger maybe being a close competitor. Makes you imagine and want to know what it would have been like to be in his presence to hear him teaching.

Even at a distance of two thousand years and through the medium of the testimonies of the scriptures I find myself “astonished” and “amazed” at Jesus’s teachings. They’re life-shaping and life-changing.

The Sermon on the Mount is challenging. It’s the core and the marrow of Christ’s gospel. I think it gives a singular view of Christ, “The Way” that is Christ and that we follow as Christians, as disciples of Christ.

So that’s the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve found this close study very rewarding. And if you’ve listened to it I hope you’ve found it useful and edifying. Thank you much!