For many annual vacations now, I’ve chosen to spend my devotional time in the Sermon on the Mount. I read Matthew 5-7 in its entirety every morning, and, over the course of a week, I work my way through a commentary on the sermon. For centuries, this portion of Scripture has been seen as pivotally important for its description of the citizens in God’s kingdom. It is fitting to know it by heart and return to it regularly.
This year, I received an advance copy of Jonathan Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary, to be released by Baker this week. I took Pennington’s class on the Sermon on the Mount nearly ten years ago when I was working on my MDiv at Southern Seminary. It was one of my five favorite courses during seminary. For years, I’ve been waiting for all of those classroom insights and the best of Pennington’s subsequent study of the sermon to make their way into a book. Finally, it’s here. And it doesn’t disappoint.
The Sermon and Human Flourishing
Pennington’s work draws upon a wide range of scholars from different generations and theological streams. He situates Jesus’s most famous sermon in the context of both Jewish wisdom literature and also the Greco-Roman virtue tradition. He shows that both traditions asked and answered the question of what constitutes the “good life” or what defines “human flourishing.”
The question you bring to the Sermon on the Mount will affect the answer you find there. According to Pennington:
“The Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced—How can we experience true human flourishing? What is happiness, blessedness, shalom, and how does one obtain and sustain it?” (14)
The answer the sermon gives (within the fuller context of how the Gospel of Matthew portrays the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) goes like this:
“True human flourishing is only available through communion with the Father God through his revealed Son, Jesus, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This flourishing is only experienced through faithful, heart-deep, whole-person discipleship, following Jesus’ teachings and life, which situate the disciple into God’s community or kingdom. This flourishing will only be experienced fully in the eschaton, when God finally establishes his reign upon the earth. As followers of Jesus journey through their lives, they will experience suffering in this world, which in God’s providence is in fact a means to true flourishing even now.” (14-15)
If you’re familiar with scholarship on the Sermon on the Mount, you will see that Pennington has brought together several strands in this one definition:
- the priority of grace, where the indicative precedes the imperative;
- the Jewish tradition of wisdom literature;
- the Greek pursuit of wholeness and flourishing;
- and the eschatological reading that emphasizes God’s in-breaking kingdom.
Pennington sums up all of these strands in Jesus, who fulfills and incarnates both virtue and kingship.
“He is the complete and virtuous human and the true king.” (15)
“As prophet and sage, Jesus is offering and inviting his hearers into the way of being in the world that will result in their true and full flourishing now and in the age to come.” (144)
Throughout the book, Pennington portrays the Sermon on the Mount as “flourishing-oriented, eschatological wisdom exhortation (now with a radically Christocentric orientation” (150).
What Are the Beatitudes?
According to this reading, what happens to the beloved Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount? How should we read them? Are they blessings offered to those who display these virtues? Are they signs of salvation? Are they actions that bring reward?
Misunderstanding the Beatitudes comes naturally to many of us, because we draw the wrong conclusions from the English word “blessed.”
“Blessings (and the corresponding negative, curses) are divine, effectual speech,” Pennington writes. They indicate an action that God is performing. But the Greek word most often translated in English as “blessed” or “happy” is makarios. The meaning differs from what we traditionally think of “being blessed,” and that difference matters.
“Macarisms (and the corresponding negative, woes) are human, descriptive speech. . . . Macarisms and woes are invitations to living based on sapiential reflections, not divine speech of reward and cursing.” (53)
Here’s Pennington’s definition:
“A macarism is a makarios statement that ascribes happiness or flourishing to a particular person or state. A macarism is a pronouncement, based on observation, that a certain way of being in the world produces human flourishing and felicity.” (42) “Macarisms don’t generally describe actions but rather people who are in a certain state . . . ” (49)
The opposite of a macarism is not a “curse” (which would be the opposite of “blessing”), but a “woe,” and not surprisingly, in the final major discourse of Jesus we find in Matthew’s Gospel, woes are pronounced (Matthew 23).
“A woe is the opposite of a macarism in that it describes the result of a way of being in the world that does not result in flourishing but in loss, grief, and destruction.” (55)
To illustrate this wisdom-centered reading of the Beatitudes, Pennington takes us back to Psalm 1, which he describes as “an inspirational vision for the wise way of being in the world that will result in what all humans desire—human flourishing. It is a poetically crafted form of implicit invitation to consider what the best way of being in the world is and to pursue it.” (51)
The more you read the Old Testament wisdom literature (not to mention much of Jesus’s teaching as well as the New Testament letter from James), the more you see the general principles and illustrations of godly wisdom in the world, the setting out of two paths, and the implicit invitation to follow God’s way.
“Jesus begins his public ministry by painting a picture of what the state of true God-centered human flourishing looks like. He is making an appeal and casting an inspiring vision, even as the Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah do, for what true well-being looks like in God’s coming kingdom.” (47)
Then, adding the Greco-Roman virtue tradition into the mix, Pennington points us to the concept of telios—pursuing single-mindedness, or wholehearted devotion, or whole-person virtues. Flourishing are the pure in heart, because they will see God.
In the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, then, Pennington says “the Beatitudes are an invitation to the way of being that will result in the [disciples’] flourishing, while the salt and light statements are the spreading of this flourishing to the world through witness, deed, and invitation to the same” (119).
What do we do with the other readings of the Sermon on the Mount—those that emphasize the eschatological urgency or prioritize the grace over law distinctions? Pennington believes his readings maintains the others’ crucial insights, while avoiding their common pitfalls.
On eschatology, the Beatitudes surprise us because of the paradox included in each one, how “Jesus is authoritatively yet perplexingly commending states of being in the world that are the opposite of flourishing, despite introducing them with the standard makarios” (155). The paradox only makes sense according to Jesus’s eschatological vision.
On grace, Pennington warns us not to pit grace and virtue against each other; otherwise, we create a “self-inflicted dilemma that cannot make sense of the entirety of Scripture’s witness” (159). Grace is foundational to everything about Jesus’s ministry, including his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. And grace is demonstrated through the invitation to the full and human flourishing way of life, the kind of life that displays the wisdom of God to the world.
“Jesus’ macarisms are grace-based, wisdom invitations to human flourishing in God’s coming kingdom.” (161)
I highly recommend you spend some time with this new commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. It is well-written, well-researched, and it aims at our hearts.
The sermon’s demands are strenuous and challenging, and yet the way Pennington helps me to see Christ’s gracious provision alongside his gracious invitation makes me yearn even more for righteousness, for God’s kingdom, and for single-minded devotion and wholeness.