Mahatma Gandhi, the famous non-violent activist-leader of India’s independence movement, was once asked about his thoughts regarding Jesus. He answered: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Whether this story and quote actually happened, the point remains true for many people: they are turned away from the path of Jesus because of Jesus’ followers–or at least people who say they follow him, yet act so little like Him. When we think about what it would mean to follow Jesus, the Sermon on The Mount is often the first thing that comes to mind, and rightfully so. Let’s dive into it by way of an overview and some background info, but we’ll dive into some of the hardest parts of his teaching and consider what it means for us today.
Matthew 5-7 is mostly one large discourse, the first of the five core discourses Matthew carefully placed throughout his gospel. Matthew alternates between Jesus’ actions and discourse: Jesus will perform healings, teachings, and manifest the power and reign of God to the people of Israel through such actions–and then Matthew will offer a larger chunk of teaching or discourse by Jesus. For reference, the five discourses are: ch. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25.
WHAT’S THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT? First, CONTEXT.
This discourse gets its name from the fact that Jesus is teaching here from a hillside to a large group of people, some of whom are his disciples, many of whom are sort of beginning to follow Jesus around, probably at varying levels of acceptance, probably including some who were curious or even skeptical. That last part, skepticism, brings in another important aspect of Jesus’ audience, or least people about whom Jesus speaks: the religious elite of the Jewish people, the Pharisees, Saducees, teachers of the law, elders, and so forth. During the Second Temple period, between the Old and New Testaments, a lot of important changes in Judaism took place due to political and social pressures of the day. For one thing, beginning with exile, Jews were scattered outside of the Holy Land in which is known as the diaspora; as a result they did not have access to the temple, their center of their religious practice.
What happened? Well, they focused on what they could have access to: the Torah and the synagogue. Even after the rebuilding of the temple (hence the name “Second Temple Period” a.k.a. the intertestamental period), the interpretation and application of the Law, as well as the synagogue, remained a crucial part of their religious life. No wonder, then, that the experts in the law (scribes, Pharisees, etc.) were so influential, as well as the Saducees, another Jewish religious party that oversaw the temple and was more involved and influential in the aristocratic level of society. One of the problems of the Pharisee’s rigorous pursuit and concern for holiness, though, was the elevation of their interpretations and applications of the law as being equal with scripture itself, in a way. They created “hedges” or protective boundaries (extra laws!) meant to keep Jews from getting too close to sin. Sounds good in a way (again, their concern was holiness), but certainly their opinions and laws had been taken to an extreme, creating a burden on the people and an unmerited elevation of their own self-perceived righteousness and importance. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus critiques self-righteous or showy religion, this is a core component he had in mind, which he mentions explicitly (cf. 5:20).
JESUS’ KINGDOM MANIFESTO
Being Jesus’ first major discourse and block of teaching, the Sermon on The Mount essentially functions as Jesus’ inaugural address as the king who will soon be crowned. Jesus’ kingdom manifesto sets forth the values and ways of the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign; this is how followers of Jesus would be expected to live. In fact Jesus finishes the sermon (7:24-28) by sharing a parable that portrays the difference between the wise man who builds his house upon the rock (of Jesus’ words!), and the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand. The point of that story is that when the storms come, the only ones who will withstand it are those who had done what Jesus had said. It is a call to action, as well as inward transformation, and we will see how the two are connected in a bit.
First, in the Beatitudes Jesus pronounces the blessedness of the members of the kingdom of heaven, those who trust in YHWH despite their current poverty and suffering (which was a reality for most of his Jewish audience). Jesus begins:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Mat. 5:3-6)
This pronouncement of blessedness continues and flows into Jesus’ teaching about the influence of those who would be His disciples (5:13-16): disciples of Jesus are like lights in the world and the salt of the earth. They are to bringing hope, purpose, joy, and even sustenance to the world (salt was used to preserve food as well as to give it flavor!). They are to make a positive impact on the world, not just be a self-righteous holy club in and of themselves.
In Matthew 5:17-7:12, Jesus contrasts Kingdom Life with that of the religious authorities of the day. Certainly the Pharisees and other teachers of the law had taken things too far and needed challenging or even to be overthrown, yet Jesus makes it clear that He is actually fulfilling, not overthrowing the instructions God had given Israel. That is not the same thing as the teaching of the Pharisees, though, and the distinction matters. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (5:17-18) Jesus sees himself not as a departure from, but precisely in line with and the fulfillment of the story of the people of Israel. Matthew 5:20 then may be the purpose clauseof the sermon; Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What follows in this passage are six antitheses (5:21-48), where Jesus contrasts the teaching of scribes and Pharisees with His own. These antitheses follow a formula, each beginning with “You have heard that it was said…” followed by, “but I say to you…” Perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, though, Jesus’ teaching is actually harder (not easier!) to obey than that of the Pharisees! You read that right: Jesus’ teaching actually is stricter, not looser: “You have heard that it was said…’You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement…” (5:21-22)
Jesus’ next example too condemns not only acts of sexual immorality but even lusting for such behavior, which of course precedes the actual physical act. So not only are the outward manifestations of obvious sins like murder and adultery wrong, but even allowing those desires to find a place to live inside oneself is condemned.What’s going on here? Jesus is correcting the current religious teaching of the day that focused on “technically” getting the outward signs of obedience checked off the list, while ignoring the “heart” of God’s laws! Jesus goes much deeper than the Pharisees, teaching us to obey God not just outwardly, but inwardly as well (not one or the other!).
MODERN APPLICATION: Christian Pharisees vs. “Well, God Knows My Heart”
This actually brings us to the main point from our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount at our meeting last Wednesday. (We could focus on any number of things in the sermon for longer periods of time, but in our case, it is this.) This is where application to our own lives gets tricky and context means everything.
I will pose here the same question as at the beginning of our group this week: which one is currently the greater problem in our own culture: overly strict religious rules, or loosey-goosey morality? Another way to ask it is: does our current context/culture focus too much on merely outward signs of devotion, or is it possible that we are actually now overemphasizing the inward?
The answer will most likely depend on one’s own religious context and upbringing. For those who grew up in borderline Pharisaical churches that condemned to hell anyone with a single doctrinal difference, such a reader will certainly, quickly, and rightly find the original context of this passage easy to apply. And indeed, that type of Christian Pharisaism, for lack of a better term, does still exist, and where it does, it should be challenged by these core teachings of our Lord! Mere outward observances (e.g. going to church, getting baptized, singing a cappella, etc.) are not all God wants: He is after the very heart of a person, wanting to seem them hunger and thirst for not just proper rituals, but proper affections (and behavior) toward God and neighbor as well.
For others, you may sense that the broader cultural problem in America is actually not being too stringent on obedience, but rather, the lack of seriousness actually given to it.In many circles, there has been a pendulum swing out of dogmatism and ritualism and its outward emphases–over now into relativistic, overly-inward focused religion that bears no real, external fruit. A common refrain in our often lustful, violent, greedy, and selfish culture is: “Well, God knows my heart!” For such a time as this, then, let us point readers to the seriousness with which Jesus speaks in this sermon. Be forewarned: Jesus is not always as tender as we portray him.
First, note the multiple references to helland hyperbolic rhetoric Jesus uses to drive home his point: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (5:29) Toward the end of his sermon as well, Jesus calls his audience, then and now, to decision and action, inside and out, warning them of the dangers of not taking seriously this radical call to holiness and love:
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!” (Matt. 7:13-27)
The crowds were astonished at the things Jesus said and the authority with which Jesus said them. Jesus’ call is difficult–so difficult in fact, that many interpreters think it impossible and not something to even be sought after in real life. Jesus’ closing words above, though, would obviously rule out that option. This teaching of Jesus meant to be lived out radically. It is call for commitment to righteousness and love modeled by God himself, hence Jesus’ closing words in his famous command even to love even our enemies. He closes that call with a powerful reformulation of Leviticus 19:2 in Matthew 5:38 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Wow. If the narrative of Matthew stopped here, we would probably simply be left discouraged. Thank God, He sent Jesus to die on the cross on our behalf, taking the punishment for sin in our place and to set us free from our own bondage to sin–precisely because God loves us! Check out Colossians 1:9-14 which captures so well this combination of: a) a call to good works, and b) God’s grace for us in Jesus:
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
GRACE + GOOD FRUIT
The Sermon on the Mount is a call to inward transformation of the heart, a transformation to genuine love of God and neighbor; it is such a high calling indeed, that none of us can perfectly attain it, pointing us to the need for God’s forgiveness (but not getting us off the hook of trying!). As shown above, that is exactly what God gives us in Christ Jesus. That is exactly why He came to die on the cross. When we realize how much God loves us–and indeed, how much he loves even our enemies–we should be so overwhelmed with his mercy that we have no choice but to live in absolute, radical obedience to His will for our lives.It starts in the heart–out of which all words and actions flow. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus said, so let’s get our hearts right and go bear good fruit in our communities, so that they may see our good works (as Jesus says in Matt. 5:16) and give glory to our Father in heaven.