Book Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Jonathan Pennington)

Jonathan Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation and the Director of Research Doctoral Studies at SBTS, author of Reading the Gospels Wisely and Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, has written “a historical, literary, and theological exposition of the Sermon on the Mount” (1). He situates the Sermon “in the dual context of Jewish wisdom literature and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition, both of which are concerned with the great theological and existential question of human flourishing” (1). It is laid out in three parts with his own translation and an introduction providing an overall reading strategy for the Sermon.

No section of Scripture has been written about more than the Sermon, and in the introduction Pennington summarizes how the Sermon has been interpreted throughout the patristic, medieval, reformational, modern periods, and he helpfully includes non-western and non-caucasian readings. Although not everyone would be interested in reading the history of interpretation, Pennington says, “We cannot simply identify one of these readings as right and others as all wrong. Each has a contribution to make to our understanding” (13).

Jesus, the true king and embodiment of God’s Law, “is the epitome of wisdom and virtue” (15). Pennington defines what he means by flourishing:

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)

Summary

It isn’t enough to translate the sermon and think that words mean to us what it means to Jesus’ audience. What does it mean to be “blessed”? In chapter one Pennington provides and “encyclopedic context of the sermon” by examines Israel’s story, the setting of Second Temple Judaism wisdom literature, and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition and how their worldviews around certain terms Jesus uses. Peace (shalom) was established in God’s original creation. Wisdom and, later, apocalyptic literature came about because the fear of the Lord, faithfully living under the kingship of Yahweh, brought true life, and Israel looked to the end when sin would be vanquished. For the Greco-Romans, true flourishing came with virtuous living. Jesus’ Sermon brings these two ideas together, which can be seen in his use of specific words like “blessing/flourishing,” “perfect/whole,” “wise,” “fool,” “righteous,” and “reward.”

In chapters two and three, Pennington performs a word study on the words makarios (“blessed”) and teleios (perfect)two major concepts within the Sermon. When Jesus says, “Blessed is the one…” he means that in this certain state of being, this one is flourishing. The one who is meek, humble, and looked down upon in society, but who is in covenant with the Lord, is experiencing true flourishing. The idea of teleios (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” 5.48) is one of wholeness“the teleios person in the Old Testament… is the one in total submission to God, who has an unimpeded relationship with Yahweh” (75). To be whole is to follow the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and mind—to follow him with one’s whole self—and not to be a double-minded hypocrit.

In chapter four Pennington concisely examines seven more key terms that recur throughout the Sermon:

  • righteousness
  • hypocrisy
  • heart
  • Gentile//pagans
  • the Father in heaven
  • the kingdom of God/heaven
  • Reward/recompense/treasure

In chapter five Pennington lays out the structure of the Sermon and it’s setting in Matthew, noting that “Matthew’s literary skill is all about structure” (106). He “appears to be less concerned with the individual narratives per se than with how these stories fit together in conjunction with major teaching blocks to tell a larger story” (106). Pennington lays out the broad structure og Matthew and of the Sermon and says that the Lord’s Prayer is located at the center of the Sermon (132-33).

Part two consists of six chapters of commentary on the Sermon—Matthew 5.1–16; 5.17–48; 6.1–21; 6.19–34; 7.1–12; and 7.13–8.1. Part two is filled in with the information from part one, as the structures and word studies give shape and fill the commentary portion.

It is under persecution and slander (5.10–11) that God’s people paradoxically flourish (5.1–9). “Jesus’ macarisms [5.1–11] are grace-based, wisdom invitations to human flourishing in God’s coming kingdom” (161).

For Pennington, the Sermon’s theme is that of “greater righteousness.” Unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who do the right things but have selfish hearts not seeking to honor God, Jesus’ followers are to be fully devoted to God. Rather than following the external instructions of the Torah, they are to follow it with the heart by watching their teacher live it out. In this they will be “whole” like their heavenly Father.

The false prophets of 7.15–23 are not necessarily devious false teachers, but hypocrites (i.e., the Pharisees) who have evil hearts. Pennington sees many parallels with the rest of Matthew (healthy or decaying trees: 3.10 and 12.33–37; lawlessness: 23.28 and 24.12; 7.21–23, cf. 18.6 and 24.4–11).

Part three gives a theology of the Sermon and human flourishing in six theses. The Bible is about (1) human flourishing with (2) God in the center where his disciples live under (3) divinely revealed (4) virtue (5) under his grace. (6) God saves us to know him and to serve and love one another in his creation.

Recommended?

No section of Scripture has been written about more than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “The Sermon, standing as it does as the first teaching of the new-covenant documents, likewise reveals much about how one understands several issues of theology and Christian practice” (3). Jesus teaches his new-covenant members—then and now—how to flourish and live virtuously in a covenantal relationship with their Father, the God of the universe.

Anyone studying the Sermon on the Mount would be at a loss without Pennington’s book. This isn’t the end-all-be-all of comments on the Sermon, but Pennington has spent fifteen years in Matthew, and one sees the depth of his research in his insights, explanations, and footnotes. Pennington has an eye for Matthew’s literary techniques such as structuring, inclusios, and word plays. If you’re going to study or teach on the Sermon, or if you simply want to know more about the Sermon, Pennington’s book is a must.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Jonathan T. Pennington
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (January 17, 2018)

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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One response to “Book Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Jonathan Pennington)

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