The Sermon on the Mount as a modest proposal

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February 16, 2014 by jmar198013

Stanley Hauerwas has written about this poster’s place on his office door:

A Modest Proposal for Peace

According to Hauerwas:

Occasionally I have notes slipped under my door door that say, “How dare you–why should Christians only refrain from killing other Christians? This is just another example of Christian self-centeredness.” Sometimes someone will even knock and challenge me with the same sort of statements. My response is always the same: “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere.” (Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993, p. 63)

I think we should understand the Sermon on the Mount along the same lines: as a modest proposal that there be a people who can live peacefully together. Our problem as Christians is that we suppose the Sermon provides us with a set of rules, or at least principles. But what if it was not meant to give us something as narrow as a set of rules, or as broad as a set of principles? What if, instead, we heard it as God giving the world a peaceful people, who will live together in the world without killing each other (Matt. 5.13-16)? What a gift!

Likewise, once we receive the Sermon as a modest proposal that there be a people who live together peacefully in the world, it lets us off the hook of having to experience Jesus’ words as a judgment on our performance. Rather, the Sermon becomes a gift capable of transforming us into a gift–for each other and for the world. We can experience the Sermon as a gift rather than a burden. So when we hear it as a modest proposal, we don’t have to begin with performance anxiety. We can simply say, “We have to start somewhere.” The place where we can start is not, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5.48). The place to start is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.3). And here’s the thing: you don’t have to start by trying to figure out what it means to be poor in spirit, and then go out and try and be that. You can begin by simply affirming that God welcomes the poor, the ┬ámourning, the meek, and the hungry; and then extending God’s welcome. When we walk in solidarity with God’s poor, God’s response just might involve transforming our hearts so that we too are counted among the poor in spirit. Perhaps the message of the Beatitudes is that our relationship with God depends on how we welcome those God favors. That’s a modest proposal if there ever was one.

We need not encounter the Sermon as a set of impossible ideals. Rather, it comes to us as God’s grace. God’s grace for the world, and God’s grace for our lives. God’s grace for those named in the Beatitudes. God’s grace embodied in a people who extend mercy in a world without mercy (Matt. 5.7).

And we will need a lot of grace. If the church is God’s gift for the world–a peaceful gesture in a mean world–it is not only possible but probable that the world will reject that gift (Matt. 5.10-11). The world will often not know how to accept a gesture of peace from God, because a world that seems hell-bent on its own destruction will often perceive our gift as a threat to their way of life. This is why we are called to repay not evil for evil, but to love our enemies (Matt. 5.38-48); and to wholly rely on God’s reign and justice (Matt. 6.24-34). The grace God imparts to us is to allow the world to experience the church as a gift in the same way that we have experienced God’s care for us in Christ as a gift. The church lives in the world to embody God’s reconciliation through cross and reconciliation.

By now, it must all seem like something much more than a modest proposal. We are simply not up to all that. Perhaps not. But we have to start somewhere–and that beginning is becoming a people living peacefully together.


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