The Power of Point of View

“The Sermon on the Mount” from the Perspective of “First-Century Culture”

by GARY YAMASAKI   At the recent Society of Biblical Literature meetings in Boston, I was invited to participate on a panel addressing the topic of “Preaching The Sermon on the Mount as Resistance Literature.” My contribution explored how the Sermon on the Mount ends up being “resistance literature” when viewed from the “perspective” of 1st-century Mediterranean culture:

I would like to begin by setting out elements of my social location that have influenced the approach I take to the topic of “The Sermon on the Mount as Resistance Literature.” First, I am an exegete at heart, passionate about working with biblical texts at the most minute level of detail, perhaps owing to the fact that I was trained as a lawyer in what now seems to have been a previous life. Second, I am a narrative critic, and so, I analyze how textual details impact the crafting of the story worlds created by biblical narrative texts; therefore, my comments will focus on the theme of “resistance” as it existed in the 30s C.E. (the time frame of the story world presented in Matthew’s Gospel), and not as it existed post-70s in the world of Matthew’s audience. Third, I am a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, and though I received a thoroughly Western upbringing, in hindsight, I realize that I am much more sensitive to issues of honor than anyone I know. A recent discovery that I am of a Samurai bloodline has caused me to wonder if my being different is somehow related to a Samurai gene sequence in my DNA. Finally, I am an Anabaptist, and as such, hold the Sermon on the Mount as “a canon within the canon”; therefore, I consider these teachings of Jesus as realistic, albeit radical, guidelines for living as disciples of Jesus today.

So, what would an Anabaptist-Samurai narrative-critical exegete have to say on the topic of preaching the Sermon on the Mount as Resistance Literature? The narrative-critical component of the mix, with its focus on the story world of the 30s CE, immediately excludes resistance against post-70s Jewish groups and Roman imperialism from consideration.

The Samurai component may be responsible for a growing interest I have had in the work of Social-Scientific critics who use an interpretive paradigm that takes into account the anthropological traits that peoples of biblical times would have exhibited, traits–I might add–possessed to a large degree also by the Samurai of ancient Japan. Approaching the Sermon on the Mount from this perspective functions to preclude Walter Wink’s popular suggestion that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon advocate replacing violent resistance with the non-violent resistance he sees in “turning the other cheek,” “giving your cloak as well,” and “going the second mile”, for the dynamics Wink envisions do not account for the honor dynamics that existed back in biblical times.

The most extensive work on reading the Sermon through first-century eyes is the research of Jerome Neyrey on the topic of honor, which finds in Jesus’ teachings a call to reject the honor code that dominated society of that time. Neyrey does not conceptualize the content of the Sermon on the Mount as resistance literature; he is not operating within the context of postcolonial criticism. However, since he understands Jesus to be exhorting his followers to turn their backs on what was the single most powerful force of their society, Neyrey certainly treats the Sermon as resistance literature.

Before getting to Neyrey’s thesis, I will provide a brief outline of the honour dynamics that existed in New Testament times. Honor back then was considered a commodity, in fact, the most valuable commodity in society, and families were pegged on what could be called an “honor scale” based upon the amount of honor each possessed, with every new member born into a family being ascribed the amount of honor possessed by the family as a whole. While it was possible for a family to be ascribed more honor by someone higher on the scale, like royalty, that was rare.

The more common way of gaining honor was to win it from another family through what might be called an “honor game.” This competition for honor would consist of a male member of one family publicly issuing a “challenge” against a male member of another family; given the patriarchy of the time, these challenges only occurred between males. The challenge would then need to be countered with what is called a “riposte,” with the gathered community declaring the winner. If the member of the challenged family refused to counter the challenge, or countered it inadequately in the eyes of the community, his whole family would be shamed, thus losing honor to the challenging family.

Neyrey asserts that consideration of honor dynamics is crucial to a proper understanding of three particular sections of the Sermon on the Mount: the “Beatitudes” (5:3-12), the “Antitheses” (5:21-48), and Jesus’ teaching on “Acts of Piety” (6:1-18). On the formula “Blessed are. . .” of the Beatitudes, Neyrey notes that in the ancient world, “[e]ncoded in declarations of ‘blessedness’ is the public honoring of someone for a behavior or status which the group values” (166). This leads him to conclude that each of the Beatitudes actually represents an ascribing of honor by Jesus, whom Neyrey sees as an agent of God, the being recognized to be right at the top of the honor scale.

Who, precisely, are the recipients of these grants of honor? Neyrey sees this most clearly evident in the final beatitude (vv. 11-12), what he considers the climactic one. He starts by examining the Greek words that have been translated “revile,” “persecute,” and “speak all evil against you” in verse 11, and asserts that taken together, they describe “the separation of a man from his basic social group through the control mechanism of banning or expulsion” (169); so, what Neyrey sees here is not expulsion from the synagogue, as is so often suggested, but rather, a shunning by one’s own family. And what is behind this shunning? A son choosing loyalty to Jesus over loyalty to his own father–a grievous honor challenge–and the father shunning his son as a riposte to the challenge, an act that would force the son to leave the family with absolutely nothing, rendering him totally without status, both economically and socially (168-70), causing him to plummet down on the honor scale. To those who have suffered such a fate because they have chosen to follow Jesus, he is here providing them with a grant of honor from God.

Neyrey sees some of the other beatitudes as addressing specific elements of the plight of victims of shunning, such as being “poor” (verse 3)–with the sense of the total destitution resulting from having to leave everything behind–and “mourning” (verse 4)–not only for the loss of family, but more importantly, for the loss of the honor they had as members of their families (170-72). And Neyrey sees other beatitudes addressing specific requirements of Jesus’ new honor code that would result in shame, as opposed to honor, within the purview of the existing honor code. He suggests that it would be consistent with being “meek” (verse 5) not to give a riposte when challenged–an act that would bring shame upon oneself (181). He also notes that one example of being “merciful” (verse 7) would be forswearing vengeance when being attacked, another act that would result in shame (181-83). In the face of losing all that honor, followers of Jesus can rest assured that they are the blessed. . .that they are receiving grants of honor from God.

Neyrey sees in Jesus’ Antitheses–his “you have heard that it was said. . .but I say to you” sayings–a consistent theme of “Do not ever participate in games of challenge and risposte.” For example, on the first antithesis (5:22)–“You have heard that it was said. . .’You shall not murder’. . .but I say to you that everyone who is angry. . . “–Neyrey asserts that the “anger” Jesus is here prohibiting would have been understood as the natural reaction of one facing an honor challenge . . .anger that would fuel a riposte against the challenger in an act of revenge; thus, Jesus is here prohibiting his followers from initiating a riposte when challenged (192). Neyrey also recognizes the “if you insult” and “if you say ‘Raka'” that Jesus prohibits later in the verse as acts that would have been understood as honor challenges; so, Jesus is also prohibiting his followers from ever issuing an honor challenge (192-93).

The fifth antithesis is key to Neyrey’s thesis. The first half of the antithesis reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth'” (v. 38). This is clearly a provision designed to provide limits on a riposte arising in response to an honor challenge consisting of a physical assault. Neyrey argues that in this honor-shame context, Jesus’ words ‘Do not stand against the evil man'” (v. 39a) amount to an instruction prohibiting his followers from riposting when challenged. In other words, they are not to defend their honor (204).

On the sixth antithesis–“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘love your enemies’. . .”–Neyrey suggests that “hating your enemy” would be understood as riposting against someone who has issued an honor challenge (208), and “love your enemy” indicates positively benefitting the challenger, something that would render oneself a “fool” from an honor-shame perspective (209).

Honor-shame dynamics are not as obvious in Jesus’ discourse on “acts of piety” (6:1-18), but they become evident once Neyrey supplies a few details from the honor culture of the time. He begins his discussion of this discourse by pointing out that the ancient world was radically gender-divided such that during the day, women were expected to be secluded in the privacy of the household, while men were expected to be out in public associating with other men (212). Maintaining this divide was considered a matter of honor; Neyrey cites one author of antiquity saying that it would be dishonorable for a man to be found at home among the women.

Part of the male-with-male association in public would have been participation in activities at the local synagogue, including almsgiving, praying, and fasting, and such participation would result in grants of honor from the other males present. Against this backdrop, Jesus’ instructions to his male disciples to beware of practicing their acts of piety before others in order to be seen by them (6:1), and to perform their acts of almsgiving (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-6), and fasting (vv.16-18) in secret, would have been understood as the exact opposite of the expectations of the times. To obey these instructions would mean their being removed from the arena where their acts of piety would generate honor from other men in the public realm, and their performing these acts in secret would mean in households, the realm of women (219-20). As we have already seen, this would bring upon them shame, as opposed to honor. Again, Jesus is directing his followers to disregard the provisions of the existing honor code.

In Jesus’ words recorded in 6:1, we can see a hint of his end game. Immediately after he tells his followers not to do their acts of piety in public, he lets them know why they should not do so: “then, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Neyrey concedes that the term “honor” is not explicitly used here, but he understands “honor” to be the “reward” referenced here. Therefore, Jesus’ schema involves his disciples’ loss of honor being more than compensated by honor received from God (216).

There, then, is Neyrey on honor-shame in the Sermon on the Mount in a nutshell. He shows Jesus instructing his disciples to reject the honor system that dominated the society of which they were a part. In essence, his instructions in the Sermon on the Mount lead them in resistance against one of the most powerful forces they faced, making the Sermon “resistance literature” indeed.

Neyrey’s interpretive work creates a picture of honor dynamics permeating practically every facet of the New Testament world, a picture that had remained hidden until just the past few decades of biblical research. Actually, this should not be surprising. After all, authors like Matthew had no reason to discuss the honor system, for it was so much a part of the culture that it would have been second-nature to everyone; it would have been just a part of the wallpaper, so to speak. Therefore, when Jesus spoke to his followers about honor issues, he didn’t need to explain to them the dynamics related to honor. In fact, he didn’t even need to use the word “honor”; his followers would have recognized that his language was infused with honor significance. The same goes for Matthew in his writing for his audience. Neyrey has done a great service to those of us today who are oblivious to all of this, by providing us a cipher that allows us to recognize Jesus’ words on honor as “words on honor.”

This cipher has allowed us to see the monolithic system of honor that functioned as a backdrop for so much of life back then, and to see that Jesus considered it incompatible with his Kingdom. His call to reject a dynamic as pervasive and powerful as this would have appeared to his disciples as an attack against the very fabric of society.

In our 21st-century Western culture, traditional honor dynamics are no longer the force they were in Jesus’ time, but honor dynamics still do exist; for example, shaming occurs over sexuality and body image, and honor is often conferred on the basis of wealth and celebrity. Jesus’ challenge to the honor code of his day also presents a challenge to the way honor and shame function today. In contrast to our culture, God bestows honor on those who would be the least likely to be considered “blessed.” Understanding the Sermon on the Mount as resistance literature in this sense is a fruitful avenue for preachers today.

At the same time, those who preach can draw inspiration from the program of resistance we witness in the Sermon on the Mount marshalled against the honor system of the time. Just as the 1st-century honor system was so antithetical to the Kingdom Jesus was inaugurating that it needed to be exposed and rejected, components of our culture’s social wallpaper are just as antithetical to the furtherance of the Kingdom today. Given the contextual nature of preaching, these components will vary from setting to setting, whether that be individualism, or consumerism, or militarism, just to name a few. Preachers will need to exercise discernment as they scan the wallpaper for what dynamic of today most needs to be addressed for their congregation.

[NOTE: All page references are to Jerome H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox, 1998).]

6 Responses »

  1. Gary, thanks for sharing this. It was a very entertaining and enlightening read. Who knew?!

    Jane A.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thank you, Gary, for your enlightening and challenging words. God bless you!

  3. Thank you so much for this and work done behind this. I had a question please – regarding the verse on ‘show the other cheek’ – since the verse is more to do with honour, would it be safe to conclude that this verse is not connected to ‘not defending oneself when being physically attacked’.

    Let me give an example – if I am physically attacked by somebody, this verse does not mean that, I should not try to push him away and run away and seek help from police – am I right?
    The objective in my example is not revenge for honor but correction. Did I get it right?

    • Thank you for your insightful comment. In light of the original first-century context of this teaching of Jesus, it would appear that you would be correct in your assessment of its present-day application. Back in those days, a strike on the cheek would not have been considered a physical attack, but rather an insult. So the parallel would not be to a physical assault today, but to an insult, i.e., if you are insulted, do not insult the person back.

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