The Sermon on the Mount [and Barth]: Living the Obedient Life, Now or Later?

The Sermon on the Mount, so called, is one of the most recognizable pieces of scripture ever to be written; even pagans (well some) have heard of it. There are many ways into this sermon, many interpretations and frames of it; but since I am reading on how Karl Barth interpreted this section of scripture, we will focus on his ‘way in’. Indeed, Barth’s resonance with this area of holy writ is resonate with my own understanding of this passage; Barth, of course, offers a Christ-centric reading of the sermon, and he does so biblically theologically. In other words, Barth sees Jesus as the fulfillment, the New Moses, who went up Mount Sinai and received the Decalouge; and yet in the case of Christ, for Barth, Jesus is the subject and fulfillment of the Law, he is the embodiment and particular point of the Law. Christ is the only ‘human’ who had a chance to fulfill the dictates of the Law, for us; and now we are invited to echo Christ’s life as we have been united to his mediating gracious humanity by the Holy Spirit’s recreative and ‘unioning’ work in our lives (this is my gloss). Here is the account of Barth’s reading that A. Katherine Grieb provides:

Barth insists that the Sermon on the Mount, like any other biblical text, must be read in light of its context, that is, in a special connection with the theme of God’s reign as it has come in the person of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This is as true of the Sermon on the Mount as it is of the other great discourses in Matthew. Now it is Jesus himself who defines the sphere in which he is present with those whom he calls. The order that constitutes the life of the people of God, for that is what the Sermon on the Mount is, as it repeats and confirms the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law, is now fulfilled by God in Christ for human salvation (II/2, 687). So even if the Sermon seems to be concerned with problems of human life (marriage, swearing, enemies, almsgiving, praying, and fasting), this is incidental and by way of illustration — which is why it has always proved impossible to construct a picture of the Christian life from these directions. The picture they offer is the picture of the One who gives these directions and of the one who receives them. The picture shows God’s reign, Jesus Christ, and the new human creature. They point, as the Ten Commandments point, to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ (II/2, 688).

So Barth can say: “If the Ten Commandments state where [humanity] may and should stand before and with God, the Sermon on the Mount declares that [it] really has been placed there by God’s own deed. If the Ten Commandments are a preface, the Sermon on the Mount is in a sense a postscript (II/2, 688). The only question now is whether the church will live or not live in the fullness of life already granted to it. The Sermon on the Mount declares: “God has irrevocably and indissolubly set up the kingdom of [God’s] grace … which as such is superior to all other powers, to which, in spite of their resistance, they belong, and which they cannot help but serve” (688). [Katherine A Grieb, Chapter 6: “Living in Righteousness: Karl Barth and the Sermon on the Mount,102 in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture, edited by George Hunsinger.]

So in contrast to something like my lullabies, those that I was weaned on as a dispensationalist exegete, Barth does not see the Sermon on the Mount as an annex only to be realized by the Jewish people in the coming millennial kingdom (a theme which Grieb also highlights in this, her chapter I have just quoted from); no, Barth sees the ethos and Logos (two loci that Grieb also highlights as she appropriates Aristotle’s ‘pathos, ethos, and Logos’ from Jarisov Pelikan’s application of these to Augustine’s, Chrysostom’s, and Luther’s interpretation of this ‘Sermon’) of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus himself. So we can see the difference between something like the dispensational approach (or even the ‘Liberal’ approach), and Barth’s. Barth offers a highly realized notion and application of this sermon; because he sees the ideals of the Sermon already fulfilled, already completed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Sermon, then, isn’t something we are waiting for; the Sermon has already come, and it is preached everyday, afresh and anew as we live from and through the Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. We have been called to an Spirit inspired obedience that is truly counter cultural (and I mean counter church cultural in many ways). We (if we follow Barth on this) understand that this world has already been crucified to us, and us to the world (to borrow a Paulinism from Gal. 6); and so we don’t do what might be considered expedient, instead we stand on and in the obedience of Jesus Christ. This obedience is an eschatological obedience that breaks in on us every morning when we wake up; it is an obedience that is waiting for us with Spirit formed breath and life; it is obedience, like poetry, that has already been written, just waiting for us to read, act, and respond from. It is an obedience, the obedience of Christ, that has contradicted this world system and everything this world system believes is real (which is an illusion in light of the reality of Christ!).

We ought, then to live from the obedience of Jesus Christ, from his humanity for us — which is still for us, just read Hebrews 7:25 — we aren’t waiting for the Sermon to be fulfilled; the Sermon’s reality is in the New Humanity of which Jesus Christ is its first fruits.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. ~Colossians 2:6-8 (NIV)

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