The Sermon on the Mount is often considered to be a high point in Christian ethics. It has been thought to embody the highest possible ethical standards and has thus been given a pride of place in Christian thought. We believe that in it we see the moral vision at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, and that in it we come closest to seeing true goodness in its most perfect form. But is this perspective on the Sermon on the Mount justified?
The Sermon rails against hypocrisy, duplicity, and judgmentalism. Its highlight could be considered to be Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” This pertains not merely to friends and allies, but especially to enemies (Matthew 5:44). These are wonderful ideals, but does the sermon itself adhere to them?
If Matthew 7:12 is the highpoint of the Sermon, then Matthew 5:20 is the Sermon’s organizing centre. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This statement provides a concluding remark for the introductory section (5:17-20) and explains what comes after it. This means the Sermon on the Mount is, in large part, constructed upon a negative “othering,” or stereotyping of rivals – namely, the Scribes and the Pharisees. The “righteousness” of the Scribes and Pharisees provides a foil for the higher righteousness of the Sermon.
Throughout the so-called antitheses (Matthew 5:21-48) true righteousness is compared with a counterfeit righteousness. The positive ethical affirmations are underscored by means of a contrast with their negative counterparts. For example, the higher righteousness that refuses to look at a woman with lust is compared with the deficient righteousness that presumably thinks it is okay to look at someone with lust as long as one does not have physical sex with that person (Matthew 5:27-28). Matthew 5:20 makes it clear that the Pharisees and the Scribes are the ones who possess this counterfeit righteousness. It is they who allegedly teach that lusting in one’s heart is just fine.
Later in the Sermon Matthew’s Jesus warns his followers against “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Matthew’s Jesus continues: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets” (Matthew 6:2). Who are the ones who do this? Again, Matthew 5:20 points our collective finger squarely at the Scribes and Pharisees.
The Pharisees’ hypocritical and counterfeit righteousness contrasts a higher and superior righteousness. “Higher” and “superior” are comparative terms. In order for the Sermon to have its desired effect upon the reader, this comparative contrast is essential. If we were to take away that which is “lower and inferior” we could no longer call the other “higher and superior.” Higher needs the lower just like up needs down. The Pharisees are a negative foil required by the Sermon in order to apprehend its ethical affirmation. This means that if one rehabilitates the representation of the Pharisees, the Sermon’s effectiveness is lessoned. The Sermon requires that we think badly about the Scribes and Pharisees.
One reading strategy that attempts to neutralize the effects of this negative othering of the Pharisees sees in the character of the Pharisee the hypocrite that is in us all. Käsemann, writing of Paul, is an example of this approach: “…in and with Israel he strikes at the hidden Jew in all of us, at the man who validates rights and demands over against God on the basis of God’s past dealings with him and to this extent is serving not God but an illusion” (Ernst Käsemann, “Paul and Israel” in New Testament Questions of Today, London: S.C.M. Press, 1969, p. 186). This does not neutralize the problem in Matthew (or elsewhere in the New Testament), but rather exacerbates it by symbolizing Jewishness (or Pharisaism) as that which is evil in everyone. In the words of Daniel Boyarin, it is to “… allegorize EveryJew as a contemnable part of Everyman” (Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, p. 210). This is no solution: is the problem itself!
Several passages in Matthew are problematic from the perspective of Jewish-Christian relations. Highlights include chapter 23 (The “Woes” against the Pharisees) and 27:25 (“And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”). Calling these texts “anti-Jewish” is perhaps not accurate as Matthew would have identified himself as Jewish. Hence Matthew, while not being anti-Jewish is explicitly anti-Pharisaic (and it was not too long after the composition of his Gospel that this distinction was lost). Moreover, there is a connection between the animus that Matthew displayed towards his Pharisaic opponents and the later hostility that has often existed between Church and Synagogue. In any event, these problematic texts have obvious anti-Jewish implications for modern readers, and it is the obviousness of the problem that is some ways makes them less of an issue (at least inasmuch as they are easy to identity). The Sermon on the Mount, on the other hand, is not usually seen as an “anti-Jewish” text, and to argue that such implications are present might come as a surprise inasmuch as this passage has long been celebrated as the apex of Christian ethics. It is perhaps the lack of obviousness that makes it dangerous, as that which comes as beautiful and is harmful is more threatening than that which is ugly and also harmful.
In summary, the Sermon on the Mount is ethically flawed, because it makes its argument through the negative othering of the Pharisees. As a negative foil, its stereotype of the Pharisee sets a boundary for Christian identity, and despite its demand to love enemies (5:44), it is built upon a vilification of the other that can hardly be called love. If Christians wish to use this text for “spiritual” or “ethical” application, can they do so without adopting the terms of the text? Specifically, can the “hypocritical Pharisee” be somehow eliminated without sacrificing the Sermon’s “meaning-effect?” If the hypocritical Pharisee is not eliminated, then inevitably the dark shadow of spite born of an ancient rivalry will follow. More to the point, is it even possible to read this Sermon without the hypocritical Pharisee?
What are we to make of a Sermon that denounces judgment against rivals (Matthew 7:1-5), and yet judges its rivals harshly; that preaches love of enemy (Matthew 5:44), and yet demonstrates an attitude towards its rivals that can hardly be called love? The only word that seem appropriate is “hypocritical,” which is bitter irony given how much space this Sermon devotes to condemning hypocrisy! (See Matthew 6:1-4, 5-6, 16-18, 24.)