Jesus was a pragmatist. By that I mean the things He taught deal with things as they are, not as we (or He, for that matter) wish they were. He boldly waded into the reality show soap operas our lives frequently resemble and didn’t waste any time spouting lofty philosophic or psychological theories. He schooled us on how to “be good.” He knows that in our heart of hearts we want to live exemplary lives but the world keeps getting in our way. We sincerely don’t want to “be bad” yet sometimes we feel in certain situations it’s necessary. An old story goes that when asked about lying a clever little girl in Sunday school responded with “A lie is both a sin against God and a very present help in time of trouble.” Christ challenged us to set our moral sights as high as we can. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He [Jesus] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command.” In Matthew 5:20 through 44 Jesus spelled out precisely how we’re to go about becoming and remaining good, wholesome people. Then, in the verses 45 through 48 He identifies love as being the all-important component. He informs us that we’re to love everyone indiscriminately, including those who’d like to see us take a running jump off a steep cliff. He also preached that our love shouldn’t be limited to performing acts of kindness but rather it should run much deeper than that. It needs to be a pervasive mindset that defines our character.
Christians should never let themselves fall into the secular trap of labeling Jesus as just another of history’s heralded motivational speakers. Jesus was and is the genuine Son of God who instigated the greatest, most powerful movement civilization has ever witnessed – one that continues to drastically change and improve lives on a daily basis. Historian Michael Grant commented, “The most potent figure, not only in the history of religion, but in world history as a whole, is Jesus Christ: the maker of one of the few revolutions which have lasted.” Even atheists and agnostics admit that even if He wasn’t who He claimed to be Jesus’ impact on society is nonetheless unrivaled. Nobody else’s influence comes close. Therefore there’s no legitimate or rational reason to discount or ignore the teachings that are attributed to Him in the pages of the New Testament. And there’s no passage that contains more of Christ’s priceless instructions than the one found in Matthew chapters 5-7 wherein His highly respected, revered and timeless “Sermon on the Mount” is presented. Thus it warrants our strict attention.
It’s vital His famous discourse not be broken up into cherry-picked snippets. It’s to be read solely for what it is – a totally unified sermon. Church-goers don’t get up and leave after the first five minutes of their minister’s oratory, thinking they’ve comprehended the whole message. Therefore we should pay our precious Savior’s words comparable respect. In doing so the reader will quickly realize it’s quite unlike the average sermon congregations are apt to hear today. One notable difference is that it’s not preachy. It’s not a condemning, finger-pointing lecture about how evil we can be. In fact, it stands apart from anything else we’ve ever encountered because it’s a reliable transcript of the good news gospel Jesus conveyed to a casual gathering of folks hailing from various backgrounds and environments. Everyone who heard His comforting message was convinced He was speaking directly to them. The same personalized effect holds true 2,000 years later. I have yet to meet anyone who reads it from beginning to end and complains, “I don’t know who He was talking to but it ain’t me.”
This isn’t to say the sermon is in any way patronizing or overly simplistic. The esteemed scholar Clarence Bauman once conducted an intense study of 19 radically different and opposed interpretations of it and concluded it’s “an enigma to the modern conscience” while still undeniably “the most important and most controversial biblical text.” But I consider Bauman’s two arresting opinions to be more indicative of the state the 21st century Church than of the sermon itself. It’s only an “enigma” because we’ve taken out and separated bits and pieces of it here and there and applied them where and when we see fit. In doing that it ceases to function as the concise guide to a human being’s living a godly life on this planet its author intended it to be. Jesus never meant for it to become etched in stone as a new and improved set of literal “do this and don’t do that” laws but many have done that very thing. As if our gentle Savior advocated slicing off our hands or gouging our eyes out to keep from sinning! No way. That’s what inevitably happens, though, when we foolishly segregate particular aspects of the sermon out of their proper context. It’s crucial we not randomly pick it apart but rather that we consciously absorb it as the complete sermon it is. Dallas Willard said, “It’s important because, unless we understand it as one discourse, purposely organized by its highly competent speaker, its parts – the particular statements made – will be left at the mercy of whatever whims may strike readers as they contemplate each pearl of wisdom. Their meaning cannot then be governed by the unity of the discourse as a whole. And this is, for the most part, exactly what happens today.”
Jesus wasn’t delivering a fresh roster of more impossible-to-obey, God-mandated laws. On the contrary, He was offering realistic hope to individuals who felt they no longer had any. He was inviting them to take advantage of an option heretofore unavailable before He arrived – the opportunity to enter into the glorious kingdom of God. Every section of the sermon is to be viewed in the spirit-lifting light of this stupendously liberating, chain-breaking announcement. As the Scriptures tell us, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The Bible confirms that the grace and truth our Lord was generously dispensing on that hillside weren’t laws at all. They were functional, doable guidelines on how anyone who so wills can “be good.” Some took it too far and mistakenly thought Jesus had rendered God’s Ten Commandments invalid. Yet it wasn’t God’s laws He felt it imperative to overcome but what He sarcastically referred to as “…the goodness of scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20).
He made His intentions crystal clear to His listeners when He declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place” (Matthew 5:17-18). Because God’s law is the epitome of goodness a person can’t “be good” if they don’t at least honestly attempt to obey them to the best of their ability. God’s laws are firmly established and are still inviolate. Society’s statutes may change; God’s don’t. What Christ was emphasizing was taking the next step of getting one’s heart in alignment with the kingdom of God. That’s why our Lord spent the last minutes of His sermon encouraging us to actually do what He’s told us is necessary to live a life that’s righteous and pleasing to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The only proper response to this word which Jesus brings with Him from eternity is simply to do it.” Everyone knows the Golden Rule by heart but it’s a meaningless phrase unless we actually “do to others as we would have them do to us” (Luke 6:31).
Here’s another reason to approach the sermon as a consummate entity: the order in which the various components are presented is essential to generating the correct overall impression it makes on the hearer/reader. Jesus, being the unequaled master of communication He is, knew exactly what He was doing. The middle section doesn’t make much sense without first mulling over the front section. And the wrap-up is confusing if one doesn’t take into account what the Lord stated earlier on. For example, Jesus’ admonitions about letting anger and contempt get our goat doesn’t make sense unless they’re prefaced by His teachings concerning well-being and blessedness. They go together. Therefore it’s crucial we read the words of the sermon in sequence. Otherwise the idea of turning the other cheek or volunteering to go the extra mile will sound idiotic without the true motive behind doing those things being understood first. Jesus was delivering His message in stages so it would lead the listener to more easily comprehend what a Godly life actually looks like. He wanted us to savvy that, by identifying and setting aside our selfish pride and its obsessive desires, we can more readily grow into people who are naturally loving, charitable and forgiving.
The central goal of Christ’s landmark sermon was to get us to focus on the pesky, elusive inner source of our sin that makes it so hard for each of us to consistently “be good.” Willard wrote, “Wrong action, He [Jesus] well knew, is not the problem in human existence, though it is constantly taken to be so. It is only a symptom, which from time to time produces vast evils in its own right.” The involved Celebrate Recovery step study course is designed to make an individual do some serious soul-searching so they can uncover the covert, hidden root of their particular hurt, hang-up or habit in order to drag it out of the shadows and expose it to God’s healing light. In a way, that’s what the Sermon on the Mount encourages everybody to do. Face it; we break God’s edicts like nobody’s business. And being the habitual lawbreakers we are has resulted in our world deteriorating into the sorry shape it’s in today. Mankind in general has been aware of what the Son of God taught for two millennia but we’ve conceitedly opted not to do what He said just so we can pretend we’re “in control.”
It’s no secret that Jesus repeatedly told us to mind God’s commandments. He also knew it’s difficult to do. But often it’s the Church that only exacerbates the dilemma by reminding Christians over and over that we’re not saved by keeping the law, thereby implying it’s futile to even try. How easily such half-truth statements can be misconstrued! The law is definitely not the source of goodness but it will always be the surefire pathway to becoming “good.” How those who aspire to be our Savior’s loyal disciples are to effectively and wisely combine faith with obedience is one of the major challenges facing the body of Christ in the post-modern era. And, as Jesus was emphasizing in His most famous sermon, it’s not just about modifying one’s dubious behavior patterns. What’s required is a thorough transformation of one’s mind, heart and soul. The apostle Paul said believers are “…to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23-24). Wow. Like God? Talk about raising the bar!
It comes down to this: Jesus pointed out in His Sermon there’s a substantial difference between “doing the right thing” and being what the Heavenly Father considers “a good person.” He gave concrete examples of what He was driving at. Everyone knew murdering somebody was a big no-no. But Jesus said that to walk around harboring anger towards another in your heart is equally as bad. Everyone agreed engaging in sexual relations outside of holy matrimony between a man and a woman was sinful. But our Lord said that merely looking upon someone other than your spouse in a lustful manner is no less offensive to God than committing adultery. (So much for pornography being a harmless distraction.) In those days it was okay for a man to divorce his wife simply by signing a document with or without her consent. Jesus said that that unfair practice was bogus and a despicable corruption of one of God’s most sacred institutions. Folks were fond of making oaths right and left in order to manipulate others. (People still are. Think about how frequently you hear someone exclaim, “I swear to God!”) Our Savior said it’s wrong to even take an oath at all. That a simple yes or no is sufficient.
No doubt everyone in the crowd was on board with getting even and settling scores in accordance with the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” stuff expressed in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24 they conveniently took out of context. Jesus straightened them out in dramatic fashion by telling them it was wrong to retaliate at all. Furthermore, they were to drench their foes with kindness! It was also a common assumption that hating one’s enemies was kosher. The Messiah pulled the rug out from under that tradition-soaked notion in one fell swoop by saying that the most divine thing to do is to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” He then sprinkled in some plain common sense logic to seal the deal. He added, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?” (Matthew 5:44-47). It’s not reported that anyone had a rebuttal for that.
Philip Yancey, in his excellent book The Jesus I Never Knew, had this to say: “The worst tragedy would be to turn the Sermon on the Mount into another form of legalism; it should rather put an end to all legalism. Legalism like the Pharisees’ will always fail, not because it’s too strict but because it’s not strict enough. Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.” Hard to disagree with his assessment.