Chris asks a straightforward and pertinent question in response to my general argument that a narrative-historical hermeneutic, which necessarily brings into the foreground of our reading the contextual factors that restrict the New Testament’s frame of reference, may still be formative for the belief and practice of the church today:
I am part of the Mennonite movement and you know we stress the Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies. Are we reading Jesus out of context to say we should be doing that today? How would we know?
The first point I would make is that if we thought historically, we would probably know instinctively how to deal with this issue. We do not for the most part, as evangelicals, think historically, we think theologically. We do not think prophetically, we think rationally. So we have to resolve the problem in a rather cumbersome intentional manner. One day things may be different….
My main concern is that we should grasp the story that is being told, as it is told, because I think that we have been led to misrepresent who Jesus was, what Israel’s God was up to, what the church was, etc., out of a concern to promote theological and ethical traditions that actually developed, perhaps for very good reasons, under later conditions. Every time we treat these texts uncritically, unthinkingly, as timeless injunctions—for example, “love your enemies”—we let the story slip away from us, it slips back beneath the surface like a drowning man.
In this particular case I think it is misleading to read the Sermon on the Mount as a body of general Christian teaching. It is a thoroughly Jewish text with a strong eschatological orientation. The Beatitudes, with which it opens, define an eschatological community, a community of renewed Israel. The parable of the two houses, with which it closes, like Ezekiel’s parable of the wall (Ezek. 13:8-16), speaks not of an existential dilemma faced by the whole of humanity but of coming judgment on Jerusalem and the survival of that community which trusts in Jesus’ words.
But does this mean that we are not also taught to love our enemies? Today? Let me suggest one way in which that question might be constructively addressed.
The command to love enemies presumably has in view the Roman occupying force, beloved of the tax collectors (Matt. 5:44-46). Jesus alludes to Leviticus 19:17 which enjoins love for fellow Jews:
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
There is no mention of hating the enemies of Israel here, and elsewhere it is always the enemies which hate Israel (cf. Lk. 1:71). So presumably Jesus is quoting a popular saying: love the Jews, hate the Romans.
The reason that Jesus gives is that by loving their Gentile enemies they will be “sons of your Father who is in heaven”, and “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45, 48). How does this work? Because their God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. In other words, their God is impartial or in some way transcends the distinction between Jew and Gentile.
This is very much like Paul’s argument in Romans. God is not of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles, and this needs to be reflected in, embodied in, the make up and character of the people of God (eg. Rom. 3:27-30). The inclusion of Gentiles is a sign, on the one hand, that God now judges self-righteous, exclusivist ethnic Israel and, on the other, that he will sooner or later annex the Greek-Roman world for himself.
So one line of argument would be that Jesus urges Jews to love their enemies in order to bear witness to the transcendent impartiality of YHWH, in order to demonstrate to the world that their God is not trapped in the ethnic-religious conflict between Jews and Gentiles.
So the question we would need to ask now is a similarly prophetic one, perhaps something like: How do we need to behave in order to demonstrate to the world who God is or that he is not trapped in some cultural or intellectual box of our devising? For example, given the amount of hatred that exists between Christians, it would make sense to call believers to love those across the various sectarian divides as a way of concretely and prophetically demonstrating that our God is bigger than our pettiness might otherwise lead people to believe. Or we might argue that by loving Muslims we demonstrate in the most powerful way possible that our God is God of the whole earth and not of Christians only.
But there may actually be more pressing misconceptions to straighten out. For example, we perhaps need to find concrete, practical ways—which will no doubt be painful and controversial ways—of demonstrating prophetically that our God is not mammon. You have heard it said, “Progress and prosperity are inalienable rights,” but I say to you….