The Sermon on the Mount as Wisdom Literature and Proverbial Tensions

“The Sermon on the Mount has been rightly categorized as wisdom literature – in fact, it is wisdom literature in the best tradition of the Old Testament. It reads very much like what we might find in various places in the Book of Proverbs.” (Bob Deffinbaugh)

In Proverbs 26:4-5 we have a famous tension requiring discernment:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
    lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. “Proverbs are principles stated in extremes.” (Deffinbaugh) Although not in the direct literary style of Proverbs 26:4-5, the Sermon on the Mount supplies us with truisms with exceptions and proverbial wisdom in tension.

Blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5:4), yet rejoice and be glad (5:12).

Don’t get divorced, but adultery is an exception (5:31-32).

Secretly pray, fast, and give (6:1-4, 5-6, 16-18), yet publicly let your light so shine (5:16).

Love your enemies (5:43-48) and don’t judge (Matthew 7:1-5), yet don’t throw pearls before swine (7:6), and identify false prophets by their fruits (7:15-20).

Blessed are the persecuted (5:10), yet avoid being trampled (7:6).

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9), yet “let your peace return to you” (10:13) and “shake off the dust from your feet” (10:14) in some circumstances, knowing that the town you leave will come under worse judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9), yet preach a message that often brings not “peace, but a sword” and family division and conflict (10:34).

Read in the tradition of wisdom literature, and in the context of the synoptics which support hierarchical ethics (9:13, 12:11), we should take avoidance of oaths (5:33-37), secret giving (6:1-4), secret prayer (6:5-6), secret fasting (6:16-17), and non-retaliation mandates (5:38-42) as subject to discernment. There is a time and a place for public prayer, public giving, public fasting, and self-defense.

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