When Amy-Jill Levine was in first grade at Job S. Gidley Elementary School in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, her teacher led the children in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Our Father prayer. Recalling that ritual in her latest book, Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Levine says, “So after pledging loyalty to ‘liver tea’ and singing about the ‘donzerly’ light, I’m sure I was not the only one in the class who bowed my head and prayed, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name…Lead us not into Penn Station…’…Little children have much to learn.’”
When it comes to the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer, as we Episcopalians call it, Dr. Levine has much to teach us. Sermon on the Mount approaches chapters 5-7 in the Book of Matthew that most of us consider familiar ground and shows us in the most enthusiastic and loving way that our understanding (at least as a lay reader) is not much more accurate than her interpretation of the “dawn’s early light” was back in first grade.
University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jan Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts, and Sciences, Dr. Levine is the first Jew to teach at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, and her list of degrees and accomplishments is long and impressive. She brings all her education and experience to her deconstruction of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which she begins by saying “is not a sermon. It’s a series of discrete teachings, each of which could be the basis of a sermon, a lecture, a community study, or a personal meditation.” She suggests that Matthew needs marketing help, and that what we call the Sermon on the Mount (and he never did) should be called something like “A Sampling of Jesus’s Greatest Teachings.” And then she uses her knowledge of Jewish practices at the time of Jesus, her understanding of the Torah and the New Testament, and the range of translations of the bible to deepen our understanding of every significant phrase in these chapters.
Her book is not long—six chapters cover The Beatitudes, The Extensions, Practicing Piety, Our Father, Finding Your Treasure, and Living into the Kingdom. Each of these chapters is packed with thought-provoking, knowledge-based, exciting ideas. Though her erudition is apparent, her work has a strong sense of joy. She is able to laugh at herself, the religious establishment, and outdated interpretations of what Jesus was teaching, while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. She connects the holy with history, head, and heart: reading her book feels like engaging with a remarkable professor—one so sure of her material that she can explore new ideas even as she teaches, one who is delighted to share her knowledge because she has experienced it as life-changing.
Each chapter is an exploration. Sometimes she detours into her own experience or delves into playing with language, and as she does, she remarks on the richness of the Matthew’s writing. She leaves the reader with the hope that future books will further explore these paths that she glimpses down as she moves through the elements of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Jesus that she presents and his messages that she explains come though so clearly, it’s as if centuries of discolored varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. We still recognize the beloved subject, but now we can see it as it was intended to be seen. It seems so logical—if we are to accurately understand Jesus’s lessons, of course we need to understand who he was as a Jew, who he was teaching, and what language they were speaking.
In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” the crowd hears Jesus say, “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” Some past translations and interpretations of the Book of Matthew have left us with some ideas that are just as inaccurate. After reading Sermon on the Mount, we not only know specifically what Jesus means when he uses terms like “Peacemakers,” we also come away with a practical understanding of how to apply these powerful teachings in our own lives. Blessed are both cheesemakers and peacemakers and blessed is Amy-Jill Levine for so generously and articulately sharing her learning and experience to shed new light on this important section of the New Testament.
To register for the EBA Authors Series discussion with Dr. Levine on February 11, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. Central, click here.
To purchase Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, click here.
To see David Hockney’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount, click here.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.