We are looking at some unique teaching by Jesus. It is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is really quite different from most of Jesus’ teaching because it is not a parable and it is not a dialogue.
This is three chapters of concentrated revelation direct from the mouth of God, no wonder we come back to it again and again. Many people who are unable to believe that Jesus is the son of God, nevertheless deeply appreciate the wisdom in these lessons delivered on a Palestinian hillside two thousand years ago. These are words to live by.
This is not a key to how you can get into heaven when you die, but instructions for how you are to live your life right now.
As Paul points out in 2 Timothy 1, ‘God has saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did not do this because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time.’
Near the start of his speech Jesus spells out why the Messiah has come, and it isn’t to kick the Roman occupiers out of Israel. He says he has come to accomplish the purpose of the law. So, the law clearly has a purpose. God gave the law for a reason, and blindly obeying the law without knowing what that reason is, without knowing God’s purpose for the law, is to miss the point.
Jesus doesn’t say the law is wrong, but that those who are trying to obey it don’t understand it and so they are making all sorts of mistakes. He warns the teachers of the law and the supreme religious figures that they are missing the key point, and they are headed for hell. And the rest of us have to do a lot better than them.
Do you know how insulting this was to the leading religious people of his day. To their faces he was telling them that they’d got it wrong. Do you really admire Francis Chan or Billy Graham or Yong Hee Cho or John Ortberg or Tom Wright? You’ve got to do better than them if you want to get into heaven, Jesus says. In fact, you have to be perfect.
There is no other way, no alternative lifestyle, only perfection is good enough.
The Sermon on the Mount is really a sermon about being perfect.
How are we to live as perfect people? Well one of the examples that Jesus gives is to do with our morality. We must live morally pure lives. No immorality. Are you pure?
Jesus is very strong about this. It isn’t an option, but a central part of the heavenly lifestyle. And he gives a very graphic illustration of cutting off parts of your body if they tempt you to immoral behaviour.
You men, when you see a person of the other gender do you have thoughts that are not honourable? Then gouge out your eye. You all have two eyes so I guess you don’t have this particular temptation. Jesus appears to be recommending a form of grotesque self-mutilation so you don’t even see things that might tempt you. But almost everywhere else he is actually saying that it isn’t the deed that is really wrong, it is the thought.
Did you think about committing adultery? Then that’s the same as doing it. Did you think about taking a girl who isn’t your wife, a boy who isn’t your husband, out of town for the weekend for immoral purposes. Did you go so far as to try to convince yourself it is OK, and only stuffy old people could possibly find fault with it. Then you have already sinned and need to repent.
The goal is not to cut off our body parts until we are unable to do the bad thing. The goal is to not desire to do these things, to realise they are wrong, to repent and to ask God to help you not want to do them. You young people, do you do this? And how about you old people? Do you even feel guilty when these thoughts come to you, or are you so steeped in sin that you encourage these disgusting thoughts.
Jesus teaches us to forgo revenge, to not desire to get even with people who deceive us or oppress us. If you are struck on the right cheek, offer the left also.
A slap on the right cheek is a backhander. It is the insulting blow of a haughty superior, a person of power, to a despised inferior. The normal response is to either return the blow much harder, or to accept it and skulk away defeated. Jesus is not teaching us about justice here. Instead of justice he is calling us to reconciliation. If you strike back you become like your oppressor. If you skulk the oppressor wins.
The kingdom way is the third way. Jesus says, offer your other cheek. This means the other guy now has to strike you with his fist, as an equal. You have shown yourself to be neither weak nor aggressive, but courageous and dignified. In this way you can transcend oppression without violence.
It was common for rich landowners to take poor peasants to court to settle debts. If they take the shirt off your back, give them your coat as well. You will be defenceless and exposed, but in fact that will only serve to expose their greed and corruption. This is not an instruction to strip naked every time you get into debt, because then the judge would simply make a law against stripping in court. This is an instruction to find kingdom ways to respond to evil. It is a call to be creative and loving and transforming.
If you are forced to do menial labour, such as carrying a soldier’s pack for a mile, do it for twice as long. Then you do it freely, and you have transcended your oppressor and his oppressive system through free will and generosity.
These are not rules to replace the rules of the Old Testament. Jesus has just said he did not come to replace them with new rules.
They are examples of a way of life that fulfils the rules.
What did the religious leaders think Jesus meant when he said we must be perfect. What do you think he meant. What does it mean for us today?
For so many people it means to achieve external technical perfection. It means always doing the right thing, and never making a mistake.
But so far Jesus has not been talking about external measures. Are we to suppose he has changed suddenly with this one item, this attribute that he suggests is the most important thing in his whole sermon?
No, it is abundantly clear he has something else in mind.
The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, calls us to a higher way of living.
It isn’t just about loving friends. It’s about loving enemies too. God is good to all people. He is good to good people, and he is good to evil people. God’s perfection, which is the perfection we are told we must have, is a compassionate perfection. It is a perfection of love. It’s a perfection of the heart.
People of the new kingdom are people who have hearts of love that transcends the old divisions of north and south, rich and poor, us and them, brother and enemy. Jesus is saying that we can never reach true reconciliation with God and live completely in his kingdom until we move beyond traditional morality and put this radical new way of life into action.
When you are called to believe in Jesus you are called to believe him when he says this new way of life is possible, and it is necessary, and to be his follower you must live by his standards. We can do it because he did it, and his spirit lives in us and enables us.