One of my greatest joys as a philosophy professor is that I get to be bad on a regular basis. There were a number of people about whom I was told little growing up, other than that they are dangerous and to be avoided like the plague. I work out my rebellion against these restrictions now by ensuring that these thinkers make as many appearances on my syllabi as professional integrity will allow. So I teach Darwin, for instance, with gusto in the interdisciplinary program I direct and participate in, and took great delight a few years ago in hearing an older Benedictine monk—a biologist by training—say that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all the theologians put together.” I take a perverse pleasure in making sure that my mostly parochial school educated students know that Marx is more than a four letter word and, more importantly, is not an irrelevancy simply because the Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago.
And then there is the the biggest and the baddest of all the dangerous thinkers I was taught to fear in my youth—Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s the philosopher who infamously proclaimed that “God is Dead,” after all. But humor me for a bit, because a few moments with Friedrich will help illuminate just how radical and subversive today’s gospel—the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount—actually is. And yet it this very text, hopelessly beyond the highest standards we can imagine for ourselves, that completes the road map for the life of faith that we all profess.
Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist, despite the fact that his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers. Yet throughout his life he focused his philosophical and creative energies on ethics, on the ways in which human beings make moral choices and use them to shape their lives, to create their character, and to influence others. It was this intense interest in morality that caused him to be one of the most eloquent and influential critics of Christianity who has ever lived. He developed his critique in response to texts such as the final paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount.
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Nietzsche complained that this is a moral framework for the weak, for those who are incapable of asserting their own excellence or even protecting themselves. Jesus is telling those lacking the power or will to be independent that it is okay to be mediocre or weak. In so doing, Nietzsche complains, Jesus is turning the natural moral order of things upside down. Nietzsche’s critique is borne out in the very next paragraph from today’s gospel.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Our natural wiring inclines us to love our friends and hate our enemies, but Jesus is asking us to embrace and love those who we should hate, as He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. As do many moral philosophers, Nietzsche insists that moral requirements should be fitted to what human beings actually are, not to what someone might wish them to be—hence his charge that Jesus’ challenge is inhuman and unnatural. We expect that good people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished, but Jesus reminds us, just as Job found out, that it rains on both the good and the evil, that the sun shines on everyone regardless of whether they have earned or deserve it. Eventually, in one of his most important works on ethics—Beyond Good and Evil—Nietzsche summarizes his critique of today’s gospel and of the moral standards that arise from it.
What is it I protest against? That people should regard this paltry and peaceful mediocrity, this spiritual equilibrium which knows nothing of the fine impulses of great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.
Jesus is describing a moral framework for losers, one that enables the weak and exalts those who cannot make it on their own. This is a powerful critique, one that over the century and a half since it was written has for many been the basis for an outright dismissal of Christianity as a workable moral system. For persons who take a faith commitment to Christ seriously, these should be fighting words. But how should we respond?
We might start with a certain amount of defensiveness, by noting that if Friedrich thinks that what is described in the Sermon on the Mount is for sissies or for the weak, he ought to stop pontificating about it and actually try living it for a day. Anyone who has ever turned the other cheek, who has been harmed or betrayed and has actually tried to love that person in response, knows what extraordinary strength doing this even once requires. This is not a morality for wimps, Friedrich; this requires strength of character of which most persons only dream.
Recall, though, that the heart of Nietzsche’s critique is that the blueprint for a human life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is unnatural—it does not square with what we actually are. And the gospels confirm, in no uncertain terms, that Nietzsche is exactly right. Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Really? Are you serious, Jesus? Iris Murdoch once responded to this command by asking “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say ‘be ye therefore slightly improved?’’ The standard of divine perfection is so out of the reach of human effort that it blows our first response to Nietzsche out of the water. We might be able to turn the other cheek once in a while or even convince ourselves that we forgive and love those who have hurt us and who wish us harm, but who but an insane person would claim to have attained perfection? Nietzsche is right—Jesus is asking us to do what no one could possibly do, except by watering it down so far as to be unrecognizable. The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are humanly impossible and entirely ill-fitted to what human beings are capable of achieving.
Each of us , in a moment of honesty, should tell God “I can’t do this. This is impossible. I quit.” In the spirit of Elijah hiding in a cave from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, we might as well say “I can’t do what you are requiring of me.” And in the same still, small voice that Elijah heard, we hear “you’re right. You can’t do this. And that’s the whole point.” Nietzsche’s mistake is not in his judgment that the demands of the Sermon on the Mount are ill-fitted to human nature. His mistake is not realizing that this is the whole point—Jesus is describing a transformed human nature, a transformation made possible by the Incarnation. The bar has been raised to a level that cannot be reached by the greatest of human effort, but is the hallmark of a human life infused with divine energy and love. Those who follow Jesus can expect to see every expectation that is natural to human beings turned on its head. As Paul wrote, every person who is in Christ “is a new creature. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation, not to endless frustration and falling short of the mark, but to the discovery of divine life within, a life that Jesus promises will “overcome the world.”