Throughout church history, the Sermon on the Mount has rightly held a prominent place among Christians. Jonathan Pennington continues in the tradition of valuing this great sermon by returning to the Jewish wisdom and Greco-Roman cultural encyclopedia that explains the words and concepts that Jesus uses. He concludes that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, sagely teaches his audience how to flourish by wholly giving one’s life to God.
You should buy this book because it will not only challenge common (mis)conceptions about the sermon but also draw you into a closer understanding of what it means to flourish in life.
A Clear and Congenial Argument
While the book does not have an obvious vice, I would like to discuss the kind of argument that Pennington makes to help potential buyers think through whether or not they would benefit from this volume’s style of argument. While the author writes clearly and simply, his argument sometimes feels blunted due to his (perhaps overly) congenial academic engagement.
For example, Pennington argues strongly against the idea that the Sermon on the Mount shows us our inability to obey God perfectly and so press our need for an imputed righteousness (e.g., 6). He never denies our need for imputed righteousness (206) but argues that this is not Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the significance of his argument, Pennington avoids polemics and opts for a congenial reading.
Some may greatly appreciate this style of argument. Others might feel somewhat disappointed because Pennington does not consistently demonstrate how his view contrasts others to clarify and to show why his reading is, in fact, better.
Depending on how a person learns, this may prevent someone from grasping Pennington’s argument. For my part, I find myself learning the most when I see clear contrasts.
All of this is a matter of preference. One person may find this accords with their learning style while another may find that it does not. No matter what, any interested reader can still profit from this volume.
What exactly is Pennington’s thesis? He argues that the Sermon on the Mount shows at least in part what Jesus meant when he preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17; p. 101, 169). The sermon itself is for all people (Matt 5:1). And in it, Jesus teaches humanity how to flourish (i.e., to live the good life) by following God wholeheartedly.
He attempts to correct misconceptions concerning the words “blessed” (macarios) and “perfect” (teleios). By studying the ancient contexts (Jewish and Greek) of Jesus’ world, Pennington concludes that macarios conveys the idea of the human flourishing—of living a good and happy life on the basis of virtue and not, say, the lack of pain. He also shows how teleios means something like “wholeness” or “completeness” (80).
Here is one example where this helps us read the sermon. Matthew 5:48 should be understood as “You shall be whole as your heavenly Father is whole.” The point here is that we should imitate the wholeness or completeness of God by being wholly committed to God (205–206). We should imitate him. Insightfully, he points to this lack of “wholeness” as the reason why the rich young man’s obedience was not “perfect” or “whole” (Matt 19:21; p. 273).
Buy this book if you are preaching or teaching through the Sermon on Mount. Know that Pennington writes in an academic register. Enjoy the challenging arguments. And decide if he is persuasive or not. For my part, I think Pennington’s thesis is persuasive because he clearly shows what Jesus meant by the words he said through sound historical and theological reasoning.
Pennington, Jonathan. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.
Disclosure: Parasource Marketing & Distribution kindly provided me a review copy of this book.