Journey Post 41, Missing the Relevance of Jesus: “You have heard it said … but I tell you …”
The Donkey Understanding of Christianity, Part 3a, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 5) REVISED
NOTE: I have eliminated the short paragraphs at the end that referenced content from Matthew 6. The paragraphs appearing after the picture that says, “Things I wish Jesus never said” have been substantially rewritten.
“If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, do you know what he actually taught?”
I remember hearing that question for the first time. It was posed by Dallas Willard. I struggled for an answer. It didn’t come. And I’d been a Christian for some thirty-five years….
I was familiar with Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, but right then I would have been hard pressed to produce any coherent summary (the main points) of what Jesus taught. Willard also mentioned that Christians in different denominations “wore out their Bibles in different places,” i.e., they tended to focus on certain sections of Scripture to the neglect of others. I knew this to be true, to my regret.
Michelle and I were year-old believers when we started Bible school. We studied the life of Jesus, but we were taught that the important Christian doctrines were based on what Paul and others wrote to the early churches. Those letters were most essential for Christian life. No one said so, but my donkey brain takeaway was that the Gospels weren’t relevant today. So, Jesus did not get worn out in my Bible. Paul did.
The result was that, whenever I did read Jesus, some of his teaching seemed confusing or impossibly hard. But, if it wasn’t relevant, then, so what?
I’m telling you this because, I’ve discovered over the years, I’m not the only donkey in the church. My skewed view of God (which left me running on a performance treadmill), my non-understanding of my status as a son, my ignorance regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (taking him on his terms) are, unfortunately, all quite common. I missed the very things that could have corrected that thinking.
Willard didn’t stop with that question. He also gave hope for an answer: take time to read the Gospels seriously, over and over. Don’t rely on study helps, just read, keeping your eyes on Jesus and your heart asking God for understanding by his Spirit. I was eager to take up his challenge. It was 2008-09, and I was beginning to understand my adoption and to see God’s father heart. At last confident of his love, I was ready for another step, this time to know what Jesus was about. I’ll never regret taking it up.
It was like becoming a disciple (or apprentice) all over again. After a couple times reading through each Gospel, my historical imagination plopped me down next to the others, listening, seeking wisdom, asking, “What is it you want us to understand?” And it began to come….
One of the chief insights I gained was that, while Jesus came foremost to die for our sins, what he said and did was not simply preliminary to the cross. He had an agenda that was all about what it meant to really live, what “abundant life” was about. As I read, I realized he was confirming my renewed understanding of the father heart of God.
I was seeing what had been there all the time: Jesus demonstrating the kindness and love of the Father and his desire to spend eternity with us … with me. Jesus put his Father on display as no one had ever done, supremely on the cross of course, but also in everything he taught, said, and did. His teaching was not platitudes of propositional truth designed to fill space until the betrayal. Jesus’s teaching was an apprenticeship on how to live life in the way God had intended from the beginning.
Another insight: It was dawning on me just how cognitive and academic had been my understanding of Christianity and Christian life. In my case, it was a defense against the very thing that Jesus spent much of his time teaching and showing: what love means in real life. Whenever I had seen it, Jesus’s underlying theme of genuine, self-giving love had been so threatening, so not safe.
This, after all, is the nature of discipleship/apprenticeship. An apprenticeship brings people along so that they think and act like the master. Jesus’s discipleship was no different. The point of it was to get God’s perspective: on life, on relationship, knowing and living the other-centered and self-sacrificial love of the Father shown in the life of the Son. It was this love that fired my own desire to see as he sees.
Jesus’s teaching was in many ways corrective. It had to be. The religious teachers, the Pharisees and priests and others, were not doing the job God gave them as stewards of the Scriptures and shepherds to his people. They seemed to have no clue who God really is. They did not know him or his love, mercy, or grace. So they could only fall back on their ability to keep the letter of the Law, an external obedience making them proud and self-righteous. They were false teachers giving a false view of God and laying heavy burdens on people’s heads. Jesus’s most excoriating language was reserved for them.
Israel’s whole history had demonstrated God’s faithful love and kindness to his people. Those who saw that love responded with love, love that issues in freely devoted obedience. No Pharisee could have taught the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon is Jesus’s first recorded extended public teaching and reflects much of his core message. He had already begun proclaiming the Kingdom as “at hand,” telling people to prepare their hearts (repent). As an itinerant teacher, he would say many of these same things in different ways.
The sermon, as recorded in Matthew 5-7, contains some of the best-known and oft-quoted sayings in the Bible, and has traditionally held an important spot in American popular understanding of Christianity. Jesus begins the sermon with the “Beatitudes” and concludes with an analogy about applying what he taught, captured in the song I learned so long ago, “the wise man builds his house upon the rock.…”
The people he spoke to were wondering if he might be the promised Messiah (or, Christ) whom they expected would deliver them from Roman oppression and establish his kingdom. What he actually taught surprised and disappointed many (including Judas). If you read through the sermon, thinking how practical love is the underlying theme, you’ll begin to understand what Jesus was about.
I suggest reading Matthew, chapter 5 before continuing to read the rest of this essay. As a teacher, I’m a great fan of asking “What’s the main idea?” Keep context in mind: many read the trees in the Bible and miss the forest. It’s the forest that makes sense of the trees. God intends to communicate, not hide. Jesus said: “listen if you have ears….”
The Beatitudes, with their repeated phrase “Blessed are the …,“ speak of internal character qualities that God favors, the kind of person God says will inherit his kingdom. (The kingdom is wherever God reigns in the hearts of his people, both now and when God is eternally present with his children.) His listeners found Jesus’s statements amazing—and refreshing: he wasn’t shoveling legalism. The listeners were mostly poor and generally quick to acknowledge their need for God to get through life.
What was this kind of person? Being “poor in spirit” contrasts them with the rich—typically proud—in spirit. One who “mourns” does so because of death and all the pain that evil and sin have brought about—in their own life and in our world. The “meek” is the gentle person who doesn’t insist on their own way, their own agenda. One who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” is conscious of their own need for personal righteousness and of the great need for justice in the world. The “pure in heart” contrasts with one who is satisfied with external purity (as Pharisees seemed to be). A peacemaker works for “shalom”: i.e., that everything be as it should be. Such a person will inherit the kingdom, see God, be counted among his children. It would be clear later that this description did not fit the religious leaders.
Jesus taught his disciples they were the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” They were not to hide the light, so their lives would bring credit to God and draw people to him, not drive them away.
Jesus’s take on the commandments: “You’ve hear it said, but I tell you….”
Many thought that Messiah would do away with the Law, (perhaps the externals), but Jesus said he came to fulfill its purpose and show what God truly intended by it. What he said seemed to raise the Law’s demands: “If your righteousness isn’t better than the teachers, you won’t enter the Kingdom.”
The diligent legalist could point with pride to keeping its externals: they never murdered, or slept with a neighbor’s wife. “…But I tell you”: rage or contempt made one as guilty as those who took a life; intentional lust would be judged the same as adultery. The Law and the Prophets (i.e., all Scripture) called for love for all—since all people were made in the image of God. Jesus’s remedy for lust sounds exteme: to “gouge out” an eye would leave most men blind. Men lust in their minds, anyway. Jesus liked hyperbole: his point was that sin (“disordered love,” one calls it) needs radical solution.
Jesus concludes this portion of the Sermon with some astounding statements, things that seem impossible to keep.
Our society allows for divorce much more freely than did the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day. Jesus’s statement about divorce seems incredibly harsh. He indicates that, unless a woman had already committed immorality, a husband divorcing his wife makes her into an adulteress. A divorced woman in that age could not remain unattached: she would have to remarry. Marriage was one of the first things God mentioned in Scripture (Genesis 2:23) where it speaks of the man leaving his parents and the woman leaving her home and the two of them being united into one, a union much greater than sex, a union of all that they are.
A common way to ensure that statements are true, such as in court, would be to have the person take an oath. But Jesus told them not to take vows, since no one can guarantee the outcome of anything (except God).
His final statements, also based on the command to love, must have left his listeners thinking he might have a screw loose: Don’t insist on taking an eye for an eye; turn the other cheek to an insult; and don’t turn away from those who ask you for things. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. In this way, you’ll be “sons” of your Father (i.e., like him) who gives rain and sun to all.
“Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Perfect” means “complete” or “mature;” i.e., like God. But any way you put it, to love like God loves has to be impossible, right?
Was Jesus a radical, a revolutionary? He could be considered that in some ways, especially if people actually lived in the way he was talking about here. But keep in mind that much of his teaching was more about getting back to God’s original intent for all people. Realistically, how can anyone hope to pull that off? We’ll look at that in future posts.