The Gospel According to Gutting – Is Confusing

April 20, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

Sermon Mount

By Marie Burns:

Philosopher Gary Gutting, who often writes “The Stone” blog for the New York Times, argues today against the central premise of Newsweek cover essay by Andrew Sullivan. According to Gutting, Sullivan writes that what is “really important about Christianity is the moral code of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.” Actually, Sullivan doesn’t even mention the Sermon on the Mount, an extended teaching which appears only in the Gospel of Matthew. (Luke’s Sermon on the Plain [Luke 6:17-49] repeats some of the Sermon on the Mount.) Gutting’s claim is curious. Gutting is a professor at Notre Dame University, so you might think that as a philosopher teaching at a leading Roman Catholic university, Gutting would be familiar with the New Testament. Evidently, he is not. I’m not going to critique Sullivan’s essay except to say that Sullivan’s credulous treatment of the Jesus biographies in the Gospels is naïve and inaccurate. A news magazine should never publish such drivel. It’s embarrassing.

Gutting writes that, “In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the new commandment of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us.’” This passage in the catechism comes not from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount but from John 15:12. Gutting complains that Jesus doesn’t define love. Citing Aquinas citing Aristotle, Gutting takes the position that a life of love is exemplified by doing “what we can to see that a person has a good life” but “the Sermon on the Mount … does not offer a clear view of what makes for a good life.”

Because Gutting confuses the Sermon on the Mount with other teachings of Jesus described by the Gospel writers and highlighted by Sullivan, it is difficult to critique Gutting’s critique of the law of love. The law of love appears in the Sermon on the Mount in the section known as “The Antitheses.” Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:43-48] This is a riff on Leviticus 19:16-18. There is nothing about hating your enemies in Leviticus. On the contrary, Leviticus 19:33-34 commands, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” In practice, however, and even in some of the Law, Jews had different obligations to “neighbors” (Jews) and “enemies” (Gentiles). Loving one’s enemies is tricky, because if you love someone, he can be an enemy only in his own mind. Jesus’ (or Matthew’s) admonition to love your enemies was part of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount to help oppressed Jews deal with their oppressors:

The law of love appears in Matthew directly following other “trick” teachings on how to get the best of Roman occupiers and oppressive creditors. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says, “I say to you, do not resist an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” It’s easy for a right-handed person to slap you on your left cheek; turning your right cheek to him, however, means he must give you a backhanded slap or twist his arm 180 degrees. It’s awkward. And it’s a way of making the aggressor look foolish. Jesus next advises, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” If a first-century Jew followed this advice, he would be naked. In Jewish law, the person who is naked is not the sinner; the sinner is the person who views the naked person. When Noah gets drunk “and uncovered himself inside his tent,” his son Ham sees him naked. Noah’s other sons walk backwards into the tent (so they cannot see their father) and cover Noah. Noah punishes Ham and his progeny forever. [Genesis 9:20-25] Thus, when Jesus advises peasants to undress to “satisfy” a wealthy creditor who would “take the shirt off his back,” he is giving the peasants an opportunity to get the best of their cruel creditors – most of whom were Jewish. The peasant would render his creditor a sinner, perhaps to be punished for eternity!

Gutting misses all of this. He writes, “Almost all Christians ignore many of the things Jesus said on the Mount…. Who never resists evil? Who gives to anyone who asks? Who says ‘Hit me again’ to an unjust attack?” The answers are simple: Who does not resist an evil person? Someone who has no choice. An oppressed person, like, say, a first-century C.E. Jew. (Or you, when your boss is a jerk but quitting your job would work a greater hardship than putting up with a nasty employer.) Who gives to anyone who asks? Again, an oppressed first-century Jew who has mortgaged his shirt and has nothing more to give. Who turns the right cheek? A Jew who has been slapped by a Roman soldier.

Gutting also asks, “Who literally takes no thought for their lives or for tomorrow?” This is a reference to Matthew 6:34: “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” This, again, is advice to Jesus’ poverty-stricken audience. Many were day-laborers who barely survived day-to-day and had no control over what would happen to them. They were victims of a political-economic system that allowed elites to exploit them. Once a person became a day laborer, he had only months to live. Day laborers earned only enough in a day to feed themselves for that day. On days they did not find work, they had to beg and/or go hungry. Indeed, each day did have enough trouble of its own, and worrying about the next day would not be productive.

What Gutting (and Sullivan) fails to realize is that Mark, Matthew and Luke are as much political tracts as they are religious writings. The verses Gutting disparages address the political and economic realities which the poor faced. The Gospels were written by Diaspora Jews, probably in the late first century, and they contain advice for how to survive the dire circumstances in which many Jews lived, especially after the failure of the Jewish Revolt of 67-70 C.E. Even Jews who had been relatively secure before the revolt found themselves suddenly impoverished, either in their war-torn homeland or in the Diaspora after Rome forced many of them into exile. The Gospels are aspirational novels, but the aspiration, of necessity, is often other-worldly. Where the Gospels aim to help their hearers navigate the real world, they teach how to survive in a society that was much different than is a modern society in which people do have choices.

The law of love is expressed in the Gospel of Luke as a lead-in to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer (a Torah scholar) asks Jesus, “Teachers, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks the lawyer “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer, in turn, asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tells the parable in which a priest and a Levite – highly-respected Jews but antagonists of Jesus’ – pass by a Jewish man beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road. A passing Samaritan – an ethnic group the Jews despised – stops and tends to the injured Jew. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” [Luke 25-37] Contrary to the common interpretation of the parable, the subject of the story is not the Samaritan (the names of the parables do not appear in the Gospels; theologians styled them later). The main character – the one the hearer is supposed to identify with – is actually the Jewish man left by the roadside. After the lawyer correctly answers that the man who showed mercy – the Samaritan – was a better neighbor than the Jewish priest and Levite, Jesus says, “Go and do the same.” That is, love your enemies. (Gutting should appreciate the Socratic nature of the dialog framing the parable, though it is ultimately mishnaic, with Jesus the rabbi guiding the pupil to the “best answer.”)

The law of love is another way of expressing the Golden Rule, a proverbial saying. The pre-Christian-era Rabbi Hillel is credited with saying, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” [Talmud, Shabbat 31a] In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has Jesus restate Hillel’s teaching: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” [Matthew 7:12]

So I don’t know what Gutting’s problem is. I find it pretty easy to form an entire moral code around the Love Commandment or Golden Rule: Love everyone and treat them as you would want them to treat you.

Gutting further complains that “Another problem is that Jesus does not explicitly or decisively endorse central contemporary values like democratic government, the abolition of slavery and the equality of women. Proponents of these values have found inspiration and support from his morality of love, but Jesus’ words alone do not push us in their direction.” Gutting is only partly right here. We would not expect, of course, treatises deriving from a first-century patriarchal society that regarded women as chattel to reflect feminist values. Largely because the Gospel writers were greatly influenced by Greek culture (they wrote the Gospels in koine Greek), they are more feminist than one would expect. The feminism of the Gospels may also be attributed the writers’ audience. The early Jesus movement, which adhered to Jewish Law, attracted more women than men: Gentile men would not subject themselves to circumcision, which they considered barbaric. (As the Jesus movement separated from Judaism – either by choice or by force – it liberalized the circumcision law. The authors of the Book of Acts and of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians specifically address the issue. The writer of Acts has a Council of Jerusalem decide that Gentile men need not be circumcised, [Acts 15:19-23] and in the letter to the Galatians, Paul repeatedly stands up to the leaders of the Jerusalem church who demean the Galatians for not following Torah Law.)

The Jesus character in John is such a feminist, he is feminine! Much of his character and some of his speeches come directly from stories about the Jewish Wisdom goddess and some gnostic goddesses. In several Gospel stories, The Gospels treat women as much wiser than men. While Jesus’ twelve disciples are depicted as buffoons (or in the case of Judas, a traitor) who constantly misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, the only person in the Gospels who teaches Jesus a lesson – and the lesson is racial tolerance – is Mark’s Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile. [Mark 7:24-30] In the Gospel of John, Jesus has a long discussion with a common Samaritan woman who proves to be a better disciple than Jesus’ twelve male disciples. [John 4] The very fact that Jesus would speak to a woman, much less a Samaritan, is a lesson in equality. Gutting claims that “Proponents of [contemporary] values have found inspiration and support from his morality of love, but Jesus’ words alone do not push us in their direction.” In fact, the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t just teach equality of the sexes and of the races; he practices it.

It is true that Jesus accepts the practice of slavery. He heals the centurion’s love slave without decrying the owner/slave relationship. [Luke 7:1-10] But the only extended prayer in the Gospels – the Lord’s Prayer – is specifically anti-slavery. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” refers not just to the Torah requirement to forgive the debts of fellow-Jews every seven years but to the Jewish requirement to forgive the debts of Jewish slaves indentured to pay off their debts. It is also true that neither the Old Testament nor the New ever contemplates democracy. The Gospel writers contemplated a theocracy, led by God-anointed Jewish judge-priests. Democratic ideals arise out of Greek and Roman examples. (Some contemporaneous writers described the early Jesus movement congregations as communistic, and there are indications throughout the Book of Acts and some of the Pauline Epistles that the church leaders deliberated doctrinal and other decisions. So it’s complicated.)

Gutting concludes, “This is not to say that the Sermon on the Mount is not a source of profound moral truth. But this truth is accessible only by reading the sermon in the light of 2,000 years of interpretation and development.” Actually, the opposite is more the case. Since we modern readers of the Sermon and the Gospels are unfamiliar with the socioeconomic conditions and political realities of the day, we miss the real meaning and the radical nature of the Gospel teachings. These truths are less, not more, accessible today because of 2,000 years of (mis)interpretation and development. Gutting writes that “churches have … been central in sustaining the traditions of thought and practice that transformed Jesus’ passionate but enigmatic teachings into coherent and fruitful moral visions.” Yes, the teachings of the Gospels are enigmatic today, but to the common person of the first and second centuries, they were – generally – quite understandable and enlightening. They were “good news.” They made a good story. And they supplied words to live by.

Marie Burns blogs at 


Readers Comments (1)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    Great analysis, even to this Christian. But really I don’t know why you are surprised that a Catholic theologian is not better acquainted with the New Testament. To study the scriptures in light of conditions on the ground at the time of writing has been popular among scholars for years, but Catholics seldom take that approach, having to filter everything through Church teachings.



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