John Stott opens his book The Message of the Sermon on the Mount by observing, “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.” Countless people have found themselves inexorably drawn to this profound teaching, even as they find themselves confounded by its lofty ideals. Indeed, one might say that the history of the church is a history of Christians struggling to understand the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon as they walk the perilous line between interpretation and domestication.
In this episode of the Tentative Apologist Podcast, we invite Wes Olmstead to serve as our guide through the Sermon. And he is well equipped for the task. Academic Vice President and Associate Professor of New Testament at Briercrest College in Caronport, Saskatchewan, Wes completed his PhD in New Testament at King’s College, London with a focus on the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Currently he is writing a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew and as such, he has long wrestled with the teaching both as an academic and a disciple. On a personal note, my first academic post was a year long sabbatical replacement position at Briercrest in 2002-2003, during which time I got to know Wes as an outstanding administrator and colleague and as a friend.
In our discussion Wes begins by briefly considering some interpretations of the Sermon, including the Reformers’ view of it as a call to repentance and the later interpretation of the Gospel as simply a call to love. Ultimately Wes takes a different view, sometimes called the “absolutist” interpretation, according to which the gospel really is a radical call to Christian ethical action. In short, Jesus meant what he said. But lest one sink in the despondency of unobtainable goals, Wes adds that this text is not a demand of sinless perfection, but rather a call toward imitation for people on the way. As he says, the Gospel brings us both a profound gift of salvation and a bracing ethical demand.
So listen carefully with a pen, paper, and an open Bible, as we wrestle anew with the Sermon on the Mount.