The astonishingness of Christ

It is obviously valid and even unavoidable to read the Sermon on the Mount as a set of distinctively Christian doctrinal teachings, in the same way that the Four Noble Truths are distinctively Buddhist or the Five Pillars are distinctively Islamic. But to read them in this way predicts a very different response to the one they received:

[W]hen Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

29 For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Mt. 7 : 28-29

The Scribes point to the authority of the Law, but Christ is continually developing the Law by his own authority, i.e. “It was said of old _____ but I say to you _____”. Christ isn’t pointing to some new truth but to himself, and this is in fact a very astonishing thing.

All religious teaching is a witness to some higher truth, and this witness is often given by one who has lived the teaching to which he gives witness. Buddha teaches enlightenment, Moses teaches the law, Socrates-cum-Plato teaches the primacy of self-knowledge and the devotion to beauty and form, Islam teaches the final prophesy or witness to the sovereignty of God, etc. Jesus gives witness too: his life is to do the will of the Father. But what the crowds find so astonishing in Christ is that he goes beyond a witness who practices what he preaches by making himself the object of prophesy. He doesn’t just “come into the world to give testimony to the truth” he also insists that he is the truth. This is all said explicitly at the end, but everyone is picking up on it from the beginning.

How could Christ have gotten away with this? Imagine a pastor who went into an evangelical church and spoke analogously to him, viz. “Your Bible says that ____ but I say to you_____”. Imagine going into a Mosque and saying that he is the fulfillment of Mohammed’s prophesy. It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the personality that would be required for the reaction to this to be astonishment and not ridicule, simple offense, or sheer embarrassment at the self-delusion of the speaker. What was it about Christ that kept the crowds from reacting to him with self-pity and eye-rolls? How could the Pharaisees have seen him as an offense and a diabolical threat and not a deluded narcissist?

Sure, the miracles were there, but this doesn’t seem to be in play in the response to the Sermon on the Mount. His hearers aren’t conflicted, thinking “I dunno, he sounds like a maniacal egoist, but what about the miracles?” Everyone is simply floored by the magnitude of authority on display. No one can get to the point of even feeling illuminated or offended or puzzled by what Christ says since they can’t seem to get past the uncanny fact of his presence which runs through every word of the Gospels. For example, one of the great puzzles of Christ is how decisively his words are taken by even hostile hearers, e.g. when he proves the resurrection of the body to a group of skeptics by appealing to nothing more than the words spoken at the burning bush he isn’t met by any follow-up questions. Why no follow-up to the parable of the unjust steward? His response to paying taxes?

Discipleship to Christ is not just fidelity to what he teaches but having Christ himself. The substantial existence of masters other than Christ does not enter into our discipleship: if someone other than Aristotle said the things that Aristotle said they would be just as true, but if Christ’s words are said by another they are not just as true, and no one takes them as such. In one sense all this is Christianity 101 – who could miss the crucial role played by one’s “personal relationship with Jesus”? What I want to stress is how astonishing this central Christian reality is, and how astonishing it has always been. Great religious personalities are rare but we can at least make sense of them, but Christ goes beyond any claim of a saint or a sage or prophet by insisting that the truth he gives witness to is himself. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we don’t even know what this means to say this about a man.


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