Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount Commentary, Reviewed
My mild obsession with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be traced back to a question I asked myself and the congregation with whom I worship in early March: How can Ukraine love its Russian occupiers? And what would Bonhoeffer suggest?
The questions came from my wrestling through Matthew 5:38-48, which I find the be the most difficult passage in the Sermon on the Mount. I concluded, in part,
What seems a fairly straightforward statement, “Love your enemy,” is difficult. What does it mean to love enemies? In what spheres must that take place, and how should it happen, especially in the presence of an inordinately powerful evil? How categorical is Jesus in his forbidding of force? Was he speaking to disciples, or to disciples and states?
You can see how I landed (at least in a sense) at the end of this post.
Enter Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 2013) helped me wrestle through the difficult question of just what it means to “turn the other cheek.” While some interpreters (such as Luther) have sought to distinguish between private (interpersonal) and public (political) applications of this text, McKnight responds: “Utter nonsense.” Instead:
One of the main thrusts of the ethic of Jesus is the radicalization of an ethic so that we live consistently, from the so-called “private” to the “public” spheres. There is for Jesus no distinction between a secular life and spiritual life: we are always to follow him. His ethic is an Ethic from Beyond. But others, in words not so wrongheaded as Luther’s, have continued Luther’s personal vs. public or spiritual vs. secular distinction when it comes to ethics.
Jesus, McKnight persuasively argues, was not distinguishing between how the disciples should live in their private lives (whatever that would have meant) as opposed to in public. “The question every reader of the Sermon must ask,” McKnight goes on, is:
Does that world begin now, or does it begin now in private but not in public, or does it begin now for his followers in both private and to the degree possible in the public realm as well?
A New Commentary Series: SGBC
The Story of God Bible Commentary is a new series, with McKnight’s volume and Lynn Cohick’s Philippians volume being the first two published. As the name implies, the series is concerned to interpret and apply Scripture with an eye to how each passage relates to the larger biblical story:
We want to explain each passage of the Bible in light of the Bible’s grand Story. The Bible’s grand Story, of course, connects this series to the classic expression regula fidei, the “rule of faith,” which was the Bible’s story coming to fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Savior of all.
There are three primary sections in each passage:
1. Listen to the Story. With the assumption that “the most important posture of the Christian before the Bible is to listen,” the SGBC series begins with the full text of the passage under consideration (using the 2011 New International Version). The section also includes an introduction to the passage.
2. Explain the Story. From historical background to cultural context, from theological explanation to individual word studies, here is where SGBC unpacks “a sound and living reading of the text in light of the Story of God in the Bible.”
3. Live the Story. This is the “digging deeper” into “our world” section. The commentary series is not geared for an academic audience, which allows authors to spend more time imagining 21st century applications of a passage to life. This is especially helpful for preachers and anyone wanting to know how to live out a passage they are studying.
“Better People” or “Better Liars”?
McKnight wastes no time in convicting the reader, much as the Sermon on the Mount itself does. Just before the introduction he quotes Bonhoeffer, who says of the Sermon:
Its validity depends on its being obeyed.
And here’s Dean Smith, via McKnight:
The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars.
(Ouch! But so true.)
McKnight agrees that the incongruence “between Jesus’ vision and our life bothers many of us.” Various interpretive attempts, he suggest, have made Jesus say what he did not really say. By contrast:
There is something vital—and this is a central theme in this commentary—in letting the demand of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness.
Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount as “the claim of Jesus upon our whole being.”
So you can’t just read this commentary in a detached way or use it for dry or “objective” research (as if there were such a thing!). Throughout the commentary McKnight helps the reader hear Jesus’ demanding (yet life-giving) message in resounding terms.
McKnight on Jesus and Ethics
The commentary’s introduction has a substantive (and surprisingly helpful) section called, “The Sermon and Moral Theory,” where McKnight compares “Jesus’ moral vision” to other moral theories, whether Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative (deontology), or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism.
McKnight presents Jesus’ ethics through the conjoining lenses of:
- “Ethics from Above”—Jesus speaks as God
- “Ethics from Beyond”—”kingdom ethics” that seek to bring “God’s future to bear on the present”
- “Ethics from Below”—based on human “inductive observation”
- An ethical theory that is “messianic, ecclesial, pneumatic”—in Jesus’ “messianic vocation,” he believes that “an ethic can only be lived out in community (the kingdom manifestation in the church) and through the power of the Spirit now at work.”
The introduction offers no structural outline of the Sermon on the Mount. There is just a paragraph about its structure, saying that the matter is “incapable of any kind of firm resolution.” So the omission of an outline seems deliberate, but at least something preliminary would have helped–even a Table of Contents that shows the pericope divisions/commentary chapters at a glance, which this volume lacks.
The Commentary Proper
McKnight breaks the Sermon into 23 chapters in his commentary proper (chapter 1 treats both the very first and very last verses of the Sermon on the Mount together). Each chapter prints the full biblical text (it’s nice to have everything in one place), then proceeds with the sections noted above: Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, Live the Story. His experience in teaching and ministry is obvious throughout the book, which is a refreshing balance of deep exegesis, lucid prose, and convicting application.
To look briefly at just one passage, Matthew 7:12 says:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Of the many ways to describe or articulate the Torah, two are pertinent in our text: one can either multiply laws so as to cover all possible situations, or one can reduce the law to its essence.
The verse, which he sets in biblical and rabbinical context, “summarizes the essence of the Sermon” (emphasis in original). And it has much to say to how we ought to live now:
But the Golden Rule is of direct value in relationships in churches. It takes but a moment’s thought to think it through: How do I want to treat others? How would I want to be treated?
This is a fantastic commentary. It’s smart, well-researched, deep, engaging, challenging, and–perhaps best of all–like the Sermon it addresses, issues a clear call to righteous living according to God’s will.