The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Is Radical Resistance Possible?

Is the Sermon on the Mount practicable or is it an impossibility that turns us to the grace of God?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:38-48

For Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011: Year A – Epiphany 7

In the context of the Roman Empire, the Sermon on the Mount is a radical proposal for resistance. Written just years after Titus (who succeeds his father as Emperor during this period) destroys Jerusalem along with the temple, it is a call not to arms but an invitation to a nonviolent reorientation of civilization. There is only one problem; it might depend on our ability to be perfect.

It is Practicable

The Sermon on the Mount has a long and complex history of interpretation, which basically breaks two ways (forgive the obvious and simplistic). One major thread says the Sermon on the Mount is the Gospel. Its content is the message that Jesus came to proclaim. It is three chapters of how we should live our lives. It is Practicable.

One can actually live according to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, even go beyond the Law of Moses. I will not only refrain from murdering someone, I can come to point where I don’t even feel hatred, think hateful thoughts. I can turn the other check and love my attacker.

It is Not Practicable

The other thread says it is not possible to live out these − that, in fact, is the point. It becomes The Law, revealing God’s grace to us. It is a set of impossible teachings, which convicts us of inability to do any damn good, so we must depend solely and completely on the Grace of God, given through Jesus the Christ.

Pelagius, a British monk and certified, excommunicated heretic, responded strongly to the Not Practicable position, saying, God has indeed given commandments that can be fulfilled, other wise God is the originator of Sin. So even though putting the tree of the knowledge in the Garden and telling Adam and Eve, what ever you do, don’t eat its fruit, was kind of a jerky thing for God to do − Adam and Eve, could have resisted. They could have stayed free and sinless in the Garden.

Practice Makes Crazy?

That certainly is a popular view of sin and the law, although it isn’t a very astute understanding of humanity. Whether or not the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount can be practiced, there are not a lot of examples of success. People have tried of course. Most famously Leo Tolstoy − and it drove him crazy.

Tolstoy was tortured by his inability, or what he thought of as his unwillingness, to practice what was preached. At the end of his life he finally, found the strength, as he thought of it, to leave his wife and family and dedicate him self to living out the Sermon on the Mount, packed his stuff went to the train station, collapsed and died shortly after.

The Hardest Question

I like a gospel that says the meek, the weak, the nonviolent will inherit the earth, I just don’t, see it a lot. That doesn’t mean I am giving myself over to the system of Empire. I am throwing my lot in with Jesus and his gospel, of peace, love and weakness. Maybe if we all just tried harder…

Is the Sermon on the Mount practicable or is it an impossibility that turns us to the grace of God?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. I addressed this question on the 5th Sunday after Epiphany when dealing with the “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees” bit. I’m anabaptist which means I have an optimistic anthropology. So, I fall squarely into the practicable category. It also seems to me like Matthew presents Jesus’ teachings as concrete, ethical mandates for kingdom living. Within the context of the beatitudes and Jesus’ teaching about being salt and light, it makes no sense to me that Jesus would just be saying all this stuff so that we would know that we are sinners who are unable to do any of it. The “not practicable” take would mean that Jesus is playing games with his teaching – saying one thing but really being about something else. If Jesus wanted to say, “You guys are worthless sinners who can never do what God expects so just rely on the grace of God” he could have said that. He seems to say, “God is going to use you guys to change the world and this is how you are going to do it.”

  2. Laura Westby says:

    While it’s true that we all need to try harder, I keep getting stuck on the “be perfect” part. I have made myself sick trying to make myself perfect, especially since perfection seemed to be what was required to be worthy of love. I can’t help but hear the message that I’ll never be quite okay until I become perfect, which I’ll never be- if the last 51 years are any indication :)

    David Lose comments on Working Preacher this week, that a better translation of “telos” would lead to something like “Live as what you were created to be.” In others, be wholly who you are, beloved children of God. And because you are whole, you can turn the other cheek, give away your coat, etc. God in Christ has made us whole, now our call is to live out our identity fully.

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Michael and Laura, I knew when I was writing the post that particular Theological/Denominational traditions have already answered this question for their particular communities, but I have been affected by several different Theological/Denominational influence at various time in my life. I wanted to see if I could explore this question in a way that help both the Practicable and the not-Practicable in tension. I didn’t get at the much in my post, but wonder if others have this impulse.

    I love, “God is going to use you guys to change the world and this is how you are going to do it.” I also, realize that a lot of times it doesn’t work.

  4. Gerald Shenk says:

    Greetings, Russell. I believe that tormented and crazy would be anyone’s fate if we were trying to practice this ethic alone. There is something terribly important about the company of the faithful who share the commitments and provide accountability and extend the grace of God when we fail. Many of the best examples in real life simply fall under the radar, and the rest of us don’t go around bragging much about them. But the lived reality is there alright, and “the meek are getting ready” (as I think it was Joan Baez put it). How did I get here? A friend in East Timor whispered the link.

  5. Drew Downs+ says:

    @Laura: It seems to me that our Platonic logic messes with our understanding of “perfect”. We hear in it, this abstract, objective truth: that we must be impossibly God-like perfect. And yet, that is so not Scriptural. David Lose’s interpretation is a lot like the way I hear it, but I do keep the word perfect–because it isn’t us that needs to change to become perfect, but our outsized understanding of perfect that needs to change. If we are living as GOD invites us to live, is that not the true definition of perfect? Isn’t GOD’s (or Jesus’s) understanding of perfection greater than any human-conceived “objective” standards?

  6. Drew Downs+ says:

    Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew argues strongly against seeing the Sermon on the Mount (SotM) as some objective ethical standard for behavior. He also argues that its contents cannot be isolated from its preacher (Jesus). For me, it seems that the question of practicable and not practicable is dependent on our transforming the contents into some legal code. This is our natural tendency, but I’m not convinced that’s even the point. I see the entire SotM, but most especially the Beatitudes, as an illustration of the Kingdom of GOD. It therefore MUST be practicable. And yet, the Kingdom is approaching and not yet here, so it is much more likely that we cannot practice it AS WE ARE. For me the hardest question is: Who am I supposed to be–and how do I get there?

  7. Rebekah Eckert says:

    I don’t see these words as coming from Jesus, and so for me the Sermon on the Mount is a record of Matthew’s community trying to come up with practical ways (and having mixed results!) to live out some words and actions of Jesus in their own time and place.

    And so the challenge is on…to look at our own practical ways of living this out: our mission, should we choose to accept it. Do we know basic practical peace-making skills – all the stuff we’ve learned in academic and applied environments about promoting reconciliation? Do we take the best of what we know about making marriages work and offer them to our congregations?

    Of course, this also means we run head-on into deciding what elements of this sermon are actually relevant to us today – we get to decide the mission – but I prefer we do this with straight-forward honesty rather than subterfuge. Either God is gracious or not even worth talking about (I don’t give jerks power over me, even if they’re deities). I’m not going to play games speculating about God’s motives! Been there, done that – yeah, crazy-making. Life’s too lovely to waste!

  8. Laura C says:

    In response to your final question, I think the answer is yes. It’s not a cop-out from a definite answer, but rather that in trying to live out the Sermon on the Mount, including all of our faults and failures, we may also come to a more radical experience of God’s grace. (Perhaps my Calvinism is showing.)

  9. Cindy S says:

    I have been toying with the idea that the teachings in 5:38 are really very cleaver ways that Jesus teaches an oppressed community to have a response that neutralizes the oppressor ….and in an active, not passive way, in a way that defuses conflict and preserves relationship. I like Walter Winks commentary['93?]…I wonder….is the kingdom called to be more creative in the ways it solves it’s problem’s….conflicts? Is it achievable? I think we live by grace alone but that doesn’t mean we are to sit back and chose to practice or not the teachings of Jesus. We are called to relationship and that is messy….and not perfect yet….

  10. Amigo Cowboy says:

    God gives me such a large playing field. It is almost impossible not to want to stand up and take a long run in God’s field. There are so many beautiful examples of God’s flowers blooming on the world’s crap heaps. Nothing makes my heart burn more warmly than to experience that first hand. To see someone discover hope is priceless. To experience it firsthand is equally so. So, there is much to be said about living out these verses–giving it our very best faith-filled response.

    Yet, this week, I am terribly jaded. I heard news that was like a death in the family. A dear friend had lost his job, his family and his health in the span of a month. He was and is the epitome of being a transformative influence in the lives of others. He made serious mistakes that cost him everything. I am thinking perhaps too much about him as I attempt to muddle my way through this passage.

    My feeble conclusion: it’s a muddy, imperfect, convoluted, difficult tension we live in. These verses are both practicable and not practicable at the same time. We have days where we see our biggest and brightest God-inspired dreams realized. We also have days where we are climbing even to reach the status of “abject failure.”

    I am not Jesus, nor do I fit the standard of being anything close to Christian on some days. I rely heavily on Gods grace and sometimes find myself using it more as a crutch than as a promise. But grace is what I have to work with. It’s all I have to work with. If I fail, then grace abounds. If I “succeed” (whatever that means), grace abounds. I therefore conclude that these verses are only understood through the lens of grace. But there will always be that messy tension. And I think a primary lesson on our journey with Jesus is to be comfortable with the sometimes agonizing feelings that accompany the tension.

  11. Jim Keenan says:

    Most spiritual paths I can think of such as Ignatian or Carmelite spiritualities, for example, guide the seeker of holiness through 4 movements: deflation of the false self, submission to God, construction of a life in accordance with that submission and maintenance of this state. Could making sense out of these tough sayings of Jesus be found as one enters into and moves through these four movements?

  12. Jim Keenan says:

    Most spiritual paths I can think of such as Ignatian or Carmelite spiritualities guide the seeker of holiness through 4 movements: deflation of the false self, submission to God, construction of a life in accordance with that submission and maintenance of this state. Could making sense out of these tough sayings of Jesus be found as one enters into these four movements?

  13. Trying to live out the SotM as if 1) it were possible for you do it perfectly or 2) living it out was necessary to earn God’s love would drive a person crazy (i.e. it would be terribly unhealthy and unhelpful). To me, that’s the exact opposite of Jesus’ point about being perfect like God. Being perfect because God is perfect is not a generalized statement that can be pulled out of context and used to support the notion that God requires perfection from his people. The word perfect can be translated as “whole or complete” but more to the point, in context, Jesus is saying, “God doesn’t play favorites. The things that lead to life are available to all people, equally. So that’s how you should be.” The statement relates to the notion of excluding vs. embracing others no matter who they are. Like the story of the good samaritan, when we are beaten and stripped naked we are all the same. People in need of a little help and care and companionship and love – friends and enemies alike.

    It’s possible to believe the SotM is practicable without falling into the trap of legalistic perfection. The beauty of grace is that God loves us just as we are – beaten, broken and naked. That reality creates space for us to do the same.

  14. Jerry Cappel says:

    How about this: that the perfect and exceeding that Jesus sets before us not one of degree, but of kind, and that the way this is practicable is not in seeking “perfection” as something more and better than others or than yesterday, but in valuing differently than “what we hear said” about what is redemptive in moments of exploitation, insults and violence.

    This means that this is an understanding that the path forward (no matter the odds of reaching the destination), lies not in redemptive violence, but in redemptive suffering; not in matters of the law, but in matters of the heart; and so on. It does not really matter whether we can or cannot expect to reach a destination, it matters only that the path we are on is true and real.

    So, practicable? Yes. Obtainable? Irrelevant. And then there is always the, “Unless our reach exceed our grasp. . .”

  15. Jerry Cappel says:

    And I just love this discussion, so let me share this quote from Martin Luther King’s Christmas sermon:

    “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, . . . and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. . . . and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

How do you read?