Man it's so nice to have Gary Gutting's gentle meditations in the Stone.
Gutting's piece on the Sermon on the Mount today is HERE (reset your cookies by hitting "Clear Recent History" if the paywall blocks you). Gutting concludes:
Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it. To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity. This does not require membership in any particular church, but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world. In this sense, to forget the church is to forget Jesus.
While I agree with Gutting, not just with respect to the Sermon on the Mount (about which he has many interesting particular things to say) but to approaching scripture as a whole, as a liberal Protestant I do feel the need to protest just a little bit. For us, Matthew 25 is absolutely canonical.
The normal inclination here would be to say that vigilance means show up to church, making all the correct affirmations, no "backsliding" (as we said in the churches of my youth) etc. etc. etc. But then in Matthew 25 Jesus explicitly says what it means to wait for him (and it's pretty clear that the Matthew community was dealing with the fact that Jesus' promised return hadn't happened), and what Jesus says here is one of the weirdest things in world literature. Jesus says:
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
For liberal Christians, though we love the beatitudes (and the rest of the sermon too), the assurances about anxiety, etc. Matthew 25 remains the key passage.
Being faithful has absoletely nothing to do with whatever metaphysics you accept, or whether you badger other people to change their's. Moreover, by taking the unambiguous commands here as central to the religion, we are pretty constrained in how to read much of the rest of scripture (at the far left, even to the point of rejecting some of it; if parts of the Bible cause you to sin, by all means cut them out).
This being said, Gutting's admonitions are important. The Bible doesn't tell you how to read it, and even if it did, it wouldn't tell you how to read that instruction manuel (cf. Lance on rule following). All manner of extra textual wisdom is needed to sort the textual sheep from goats. How much of any of this is true? What is the significance of the true bits, e.g are the claims supposed to be universal, ceremonial, or relative to the society in which they were written? If you see the Bible as even the least bit authoritative you have to do a lot of ethical (and historical, psychological, economic, etc.) thinking independent of what's in the Bible itself. The great thinkers Gutting cites both in an outside of the Roman Catholic Magisterium are immensely helpful here, and thus I think his (constructive) criticism of Andrew Sullivan's wonderful recent piece on this point is just about perfect.