EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Jonathan T. Pennington, assistant professor of New Testament interpretation, talks with Towers editor Andrew J.W. Smith about his new book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing.
AJWS: This book is part commentary, part instructional for reading the Sermon on the Mount. How does that affect the structure?
JP: The first half of the book is how to read the Sermon. The second half, 150 pages, looks at distinct sections of the Sermon. At the end of each section, I have a short explanation of how the section talks about human flourishing. The final chapter is where I try to pull together the ideas and form six theses on the Sermon, including showing from the whole Bible how human flourishing is a theological category. There were moments during the writing process — more than one — where I panicked, like the book can’t decide what it is. Is it a monograph about the historical and literary background of the Sermon or is it a commentary? At the end of the day, we pressed forward, and I talked to my editors over the years and they said, “Let’s just go for it.” I’m really happy with how it came out — that it is a combination and mixing of genres.
AJWS: In the book, you talk about how the Beatitudes are often misunderstood. How does that affect your reading of the Beatitudes as a whole?
JP: Protestants reject the view that sees the Beatitudes as entrance requirements, but end up doing the same exegetical gymnastics in Matthew 5 that they do in Psalm 1. We don’t want to say so baldly — “If you do this God will bless you,” because we recognize that this can confuse the notion of grace. So according to the common interpretation, there’s grace first, then you obey Jesus’ command, then God blesses you — but he actually started the whole thing so it’s okay! I think that misses the point. Macarisms, or statements of blessing like Jesus’ in Matthew 5, are very common in the ancient world and they are ways of describing what true flourishing and true happiness looks like. That’s why some translations even render the Beatitudes as “happy,” which is good. I think that communicates more clearly than “blessed” because blessed sounds like divine stamp of approval. But “happiness” is too weak in English today, probably, as well.
AJWS: What is involved in translating makarios, the Greek word for “blessed,” into English?
JP: Interestingly, when I’ve asked international students to look at their own translations of Matthew 5, every language I’ve found so far — Persian, Chinese, Spanish, French, German — every one has a clear distinction between “divine favor” and a description of “happiness,” except English. We use “blessed” for both of them, and it has perpetrated this huge confusion where in other languages it’s very clear: divine favor is one word, and someone describing a state of happiness is a totally different word. The word in the Beatitudes describes a state of happiness. Latin’s an example: beatus, where we get the word for “Beatitudes,” means happy or flourishing. It’s not benedictus. Greek is the same way — it has makarios, which means happy or flourishing, while eulogeomai is blessed in Greek. It’s the same thing in Hebrew: baruch versus ashre.
This distinction is absolutely essential to read the Beatitudes well. It frees us from reading them as either blessings, curses, or entrance requirements. Instead, we recognize they’re pointing to Jesus the sage, the philosopher showing what true happiness is. That’s where it gets interesting, because what he defines true happiness as is shocking. It’s totally unexpected. He doesn’t say, “Flourishing is when you have lots of kids,” “Flourishing are those who have tons of money,” “Flourishing are the prestigious ones in society,” “Flourishing are the virtuous ones in society.” Instead, it’s flourishing when you have a poverty of spirit, a hungering or thirsting — not positive things. When you are humble, that means not getting your rights. When you’re merciful, you are giving up your rights and forgiving someone who has wronged you. All these things he describes as flourishing are totally unexpected.
That’s why the second part of each macarism is essential. Why in the world is that craziness true? Why is it flourishing to have poverty of spirit? Because you’ll be comforted. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. You are actually the sons of the kingdom.
For me, that was one of the many crucial parts in my study of the Sermon — recognizing that we have completely misunderstood the Beatitudes, right out of the chute. Then one of the bigger implications of that is that it’s one of the smoking guns that this is wisdom literature. This is what sages do — they offer macarisms or explanations of what true human flourishing looks like. And then, at the end, how does Jesus describe this whole Sermon on the Mount? Are you going to be wise or are you going to be a fool? The wise one builds their life on these words, the foolish one doesn’t and the result is either flourishing or destruction. It’s all throughout the Sermon, and studying the Beatitudes was one of the real turning points when I came to understand that.
AJWS: How do you connect your reading of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount to the passion in Matthew’s narrative — the climax of his plot?
JP: I would not say that Matthew’s whole point is the passion of Jesus. I’d say that Matthew wants to communicate a lot of key information about how to be a disciple and that the people of God are defined differently now. That includes and is inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but those events are part of something bigger.
One crucial thing to recognize is that the message of the Gospels isn’t just that Jesus died for your sins. It’s that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice and rose from the dead to inaugurate a new covenant, which is the means by which the reign of God is to be restored from heaven to earth. Once you define the gospel that way (which is a more biblical way of defining it), then things like the Sermon on the Mount and the other four discourses in Matthew that present Jesus as the sage-king, the philosopher-king, make sense. What a king means in the ancient world is the one who rules wisely, the one who takes care and shepherds his people with wisdom.
Once you see that and connect it with the bigger message of what the gospel is in the Gospels, we recognize this is not in conflict at all: Jesus is being presented as the king, the one who is inaugurating the reign of God on earth, so of course he is going to be giving teachings of wisdom for what it means to be a citizen of his kingdom.
AJWS: How did you get so interested in the Sermon on the Mount in the first place?
JP: It’s hard to remember exactly. Honestly, it was probably just from teaching Matthew, and then one year I decided to offer a course just on the Sermon. I saw it in the course catalogue, no one had taught it forever, and I thought, “I can probably say something about the Sermon on the Mount.” But when I started teaching I realized, “Holy cow, I have a lot to learn!” As a result, it’s helped me understand Matthew better — even writing this book helped me understand so many things about Matthew I’ve never seen before.
The origins are not very glamorous — in that sense it was just a class to teach. The things that struck me immediately were that I didn’t know anything about ethics and that I generally don’t agree with how most Christians approach them. So I quickly began to educate myself on ethics, and from that, Greek philosophy. The second thing I realized was that the history of the interpretation of the Sermon itself is just a tour de force and a fascinating revealer of all kinds of things — it has a Lutheran reading, a two kingdoms reading, a virtue ethics reading, a monastic reading. It quickly started to consume my thinking, and I’m very glad that it did.