Monday, February 23, 2009

Jesus' Scandalous Gospel: The Sermon on the Mount

I find myself often drawn to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29). I am not so much drawn to it because of some esoteric understanding of it, but rather the opposite reason, because of my constant inability to live up to it. I continue to find myself there because it scandalizes me.

Through the use of the tools with which my seminary education has equipped me, I am able to peel back the Sermon's layers, identify its figures of speech, and instruct people according to its meaning - this is what you should do in light of this instruction, yet I find that my own sinful heart fights against the words of my Savior.

Here are some words that rankle my sensibilities and cause me to stand dumbfounded before the wisdom of our God:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (5:5). When was the last time you received a job promotion for being meek? When you crafted your last resume, did you put down, "I humbly make a point of being meek, especially in the face of opposition"? Of course not, and for good reason, the world does not value meekness. It chews meekness up and spits it out, which is exactly the point. Jesus is telling us to be chewed up and spat out for the Gospel.

For those "New Testament Only" Christians, what do you do with 5:17-18? Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Often people try to explain away this passage, suggesting that the "accomplished" refers to Jesus' death on the cross where he said, "It is finished" (also rendered, "It is accomplished") (John 19:30). The word "everything" in Matt. 5:18, then, means Christ's suffering and death. Yet in the context of the Sermon, Jesus is speaking of the coming Kingdom. His instructions are for living for the Kingdom as if it had already arrived in its fullness. "Everything," then, should better be understood as all that will come to pass until the Kingdom arrives. This would mean, then, that the OT Law is still in effect today! What does that mean for us Christians?

You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . (5:38-44) I have heard it preached before (gladly not by our current pastor) that attackers are allowed two punches before you are allowed to hit back. This concept certainly does not do justice to the passage! The context, again, is key. 5:38 paraphrases the Law of Moses, in which it is written, If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured (Exodus 24:20, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21). Jesus tells his followers that when their teeth are knocked out on the one side of their face, rather than seeking their attacker's teeth, they should present the other side of their face so that the rest of their teeth may be knocked out! Spitting Chiclets for the glory of God!

How's about when someone sues you? When they take a large portion of your income the tendency is to begrudge them for taking what you earned, but Jesus says give them more than they asked for! Think of writing that check to the awarded party and making it out for twice the amount!

I would suggest that even the most radical Christians do not live as radically as Jesus. We are wimps who like our comfort, or at least I am. We avoid the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, except where it is comfortable or when we are instructing others of the right thing to do. When we are forced to deal with these passages ourselves, we try to minimize them or read into them some alternative meaning. Surely, Jesus would not want a batch of limbless, toothless, eyeless people hobbling about! Why not? If we are really living not for this present world but for the "Kingdom come," our limbs, teeth, and eyes profit us nothing. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:19-21)

If we really lived this way, if we presented this Gospel in our own actions, what would the world look like? Only the most depraved attacker would want to continue to harm a victim that not only does not fight back but genuinely asks for more. Paul says in Romans 12:17a, 20-21, Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Paul wore himself out for the Gospel. He endured all kinds of hardships and grief (2 Corinthians 11:24-32; 12:7-10), eventually even losing his head. Surely Jesus wouldn't want us to be headless for the Gospel, would he? Why not? To borrow a phrase from some of the KJV Only crowd, if it was good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me.

Are you wearing yourself out for the Gospel? Are you following in Paul's footsteps, seeing Christ's power made perfect in your weakness? Is your focus fixed on the Kingdom of Heaven or on your own kingdom? Where is your heart? I am going to keep coming back to Jesus' scandalous Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, praying that the Holy Spirit will continue to discipline me so that I may accept these things for myself. May I be willing to lose name and title, money and position, blood and family, limb and organ, food and clothing, all for the glory of God.

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