For many years, Padre Wasson had studied the Sermon on the Mount, going to the roots of the original texts, comparing translations, and writing down his findings. His book, The Sermon on the Mount, was translated into German. Padre Wasson had hoped for a strong reaction from the Church. He found his work revolutionary, declaring that it provided proof why war is never the adequate means. The reaction of the church failed to materialize. His book did not become a bestseller either. But the content is highly topical as Dr. Hartmut Frei shows in the following book review.
Book review by Dr. Hartmut Frei
Padre William Wasson
The Sermon on the Mount – My Message for the 21st Century
If one wants to trace Padre Wasson and his life, one should also deal with the Sermon on the Mount. For Padre Wasson’s philosophy is clearly based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which has been handed down to us in the Gospel of Matthew, perhaps the most famous text in all of Christian literature.
In this book “The Sermon on the Mount” by Padre William Bryce Wasson it is now possible to do both at the same time, to deal with the Sermon on the Mount and to learn something about Father Wasson.
First of all, two weaknesses of the otherwise well comprehensible German translation should be mentioned: First, it is difficult to impossible to translate Padre Wasson’s poetic and mnemonic American translation of the Bible verses into German with the same ambition, and second, the interlinear literal translation of the Greek New Testament used by Padre Wasson has been replaced by the standadized translation, so that much of the original wording and language of the New Testament has been lost in the Bible quotations.
On the one hand, this is a pity, but it does not detract from the overall work. Because Padre Wasson explains the essential words and terms used in the original Greek text, the often old-fashioned words become accessible to today’s readers in a new way and also independent of the Bible translation used in each case.
Right at the beginning, Padre Wasson writes clear words on the topic of “poverty” and thus clearly criticizes our Western way of living in wealth at the expense of the poor in the world. He denounces not only the exorbitant spending on armaments, but also the ever-increasing social disparities, and he names the challenges that threaten the peace and security of our planet: poverty, injustice, illiteracy, disease, social degradation, drugs.
The chapter on poverty ends with a powerful appeal: “We must all become less selfish and less quarrelsome, and develop in our hearts the necessary compassion for the poorest on this planet.”
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That this book, written by Padre Wasson in 1999, wants to reach far beyond its time is already indicated by its subtitle “My message for the 21st century. And the statements and contents prove this claim, because they are as current as they are urgent, even today in 2021.
Interesting also the chapter “Patience”, which does not call to watch quietly and devotedly, but to feel “controlled anger” about the suffering and injustice inflicted on other people, a controlled anger as exemplified for example by Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King.
In the further course of the book it becomes clear how much Padre Wasson has dealt with Gandhi and his deductions of non-violent resistance from the Sermon on the Mount. This certainly includes the realization in the chapter “Peace” that peace is not only the opposite of war, but that a peacemaker – as Wasson writes – accomplishes the greatest feat of which a human being is capable – to create just relationships between people.
Padre Wasson proves, based on writings of very early Doctors of the Church, that in the first centuries Christianity was pacifist and thus closer to the thoughts of Jesus. It was not until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion that the pacifist era ended and Ambrose and Augustine formulated the ethics of “just war,” a war that should serve to restore peace. Unfortunately, this had tragic consequences up to the present day, notes Padre Wasson, who calls the just war theory not only highly questionable in terms of its derivation from the Old Testament, but who simply rejects war as a means and then proves this attitude with statements and deeds of Jesus. As an alternative to the never just war the active non-violence of Jesus and Gandhi is described. By active non-violence Christians can and should set signs on ethical questions, be loud and unmistakable and thus bring about changes. By the way, Padre Wasson rejects the death penalty just as he rejects war, and he would like his church to take an even clearer position here.
Overall, the focus of the book is clearly on the topics of pacifism with the consistent rejection of war and capital punishment: “Thou shalt not kill”. But also for many other terms from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, such as almsgiving, fasting, prayer without many words, stinginess, etc., Padre Wasson provides good practical examples and helps for a better understanding (even if one does not necessarily have to follow his opinion, for example, in the sections on lasciviousness or divorce). Towards the end of the book, one can also somewhat get the impression that the comments become less time-related and less concrete, and after the epilogue, without further explanation for the reason for this, follows a Book II “The Last Judgment”, which comes along without any personal statements by Padre Wasson and therefore somehow does not really want to fit into the previous context.
All in all, the book “The Sermon on the Mount” by Padre Wasson is a highly readable and topical book, which reaches far beyond its time and challenges us as Christians on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount to listen more to Jesus’ words than to all later authorities. Concrete examples – especially from Gandhi – prove that there are alternatives to violent conflicts and that wrong interpretations of Jesus’ teachings in history have led to bad consequences and partly still do today.
After reading this book, one has the impression of having come a little closer to Jesus and his words, thanks to Padre Wasson.