Is the Sermon on the Mount humanly possible?

Is the Sermon on the Mount humanly possible? In the Russian winter of 1910, one of the greatest novelists the world has ever known, Count Leo Tolstoy, wandered out into the cold night, contracted pneumonia, and died at a railway station, at the age of 82. His death came only a few days after he had determined to give up his aristocratic lifestyle, including vast estates, and live a life he thought was consistent with Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. After writing his great works Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Tolstoy decided that he was going to follow what he thought were the true teachings of Jesus as contained in the Sermon on the Mount. For Tolstoy, the Gospels were the heart of the Bible and the Sermon on the Mount was at the heart of the Gospels. As one writer said: “Tolstoy boiled down the essence of what he thought Christianity was to obeying the five commands of Christ in Matthew 5:21-48. If people would genuinely fulfill these commandments, then the kingdom of God would be activated on earth.”

Now, there were communities set up to implement Tolstoy’s teachings, but not of them succeeded. One of his disciples late reflected that Tolstoy’s views – which were supposed to build God’s kingdom on earth “alienated him from many friends, brought discord into his family life, strained his relations with his wife, and left him spiritually alone.” That was why Tolstoy died alone at the train station: the truth was, his ideals were not very real, even in his own life: he was fleeing from his wife and family. And here’s the thing: Here was a man who sincerely tried to live according to Jesus’ teachings in these verses, and it destroyed him. It proved to be an impossible idealism. And that ought to make us pause: are Jesus’ teachings simply impossible? Are they completely inhuman and unrealistic? People do retort by saying ‘well, Tolstoy was mad’, and indeed this is so; but why does it take a madman to think that keeping Jesus’ teachings quite literally was in fact a good idea?

The alternative way of approaching the Sermon on the Mount is to see it as a ‘goad to the gospel’. That is, you see it as Jesus exposing how sinful we are by driving home the real meaning of the law. We’ll despair so much, that we’ll be driven to justification by faith alone. Whew! The Christian life, then, proceeds by forgetting the Sermon on the Mount and just as well. I’ve heard this preached from evangelical pulpits a couple of times, in fact. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many other interpreters have found this way of reading the teachings of the Lord deeply unsatisfactory, and it is hard not agree with them.

The problem here is that we then don’t take Jesus’ words seriously as a way of living. Jesus seems to be offering quite direct and practical wisdom: turn the other cheek, for example. Surely we are supposed to do as he commands, right? But if we are to do what he commands… won’t we be cutting off our hands? Won’t we be removing logs from our own eyes? Won’t we be trying for a perfection that is impossible? Not if we follow two observations which I think are essential to understanding the sermon.

First: Jesus speaks in language that is hyperbolic, in order to make us think again. Jesus is exaggerating for a very important effect – he wants us to ‘seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness’. He uses language like explosive shells – to blow apart our preconceived notions of what true worship is, and make us think again. Being a disciple of Jesus is unlike anything else. It demands a completely new cast of life.

Second, Jesus recognises that those who are his disciples are not those who are sinless, but those who long for mercy. They are those who long for the kingdom of God and know that that includes them too. They are those who pray for the forgiveness of their sins, and who count themselves poor in spirit. They mourn for their sins, in repentance. It is they who are open to Jesus’ teaching, and ready to receive it.