Required Reading: The Sermon on the Mount

(The Following is published without the editor’s review, so beware of typos)

Country Parson readers are likely to be well informed, and may feel this column is too basic, but I’m often reminded by my very well informed wife that some things need to be repeated frequently. With that in mind, I hope the following will be helpful or useful.

Liturgical churches, from now until Advent, will be reading from Matthew’s gospel, and it discourages me that the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is not a consolidated lectionary reading. It’s divided into parts distributed in odd ways throughout the year. It seems to me it is core to more deeply understanding everything else in Matthew’s gospel. I encourage that it be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested, because we’re going to be in Matthew for the next six months.

It’s not a sermon in the usual sense; it’s a collection of short teachings that beg for more to be said. No doubt more was said in the hours Jesus spent with his disciples wandering about Galilee. The Sermon on the Mount is more like lecture notes the writer of Matthew grouped together because they are the heart and soul of God’s word, for God’s people, as delivered by God’s Word made flesh. I fear it’s too often read in ways that separate it from 21st century conditions, and the ordinary ways we lead our lives. In like manner, I wonder if it isn’t too easy to project its teachings onto others rather than recognizing them as godly instructions for us.

The familiar Beatitudes are a case in point. Consider that they are double edged. One proclaims God’s particular favor on the poor and oppressed. The other calls his followers to become agents of blessing among those whom God would bless, as also in need of them. I have to recognize myself among the poor in spirit and accept the blessing offered, if I am to be an agent of blessing for others. Jesus called his followers to be humble, merciful, peacemakers, etc. That’s what it means to follow him. The Church has a lot to say about the importance of the way of love. The Beatitudes are instructions for how to walk in it.

In the Sermon, Jesus told his followers not to hide their faith, but let it shine in a way that others are invited to give thanks to God. Thank God by all means, but don’t we also want a big share of thanks for ourselves? It’s not easy. Displaying faith without being an obnoxious bible thumper is complicated. It’s uncomfortable for some to even admit they are Christian, given the bad press it’s been given. Someone said to me recently that she was not a Christian, by which she meant she was not a judgmental, narrow minded bigot who believes in superstitious magic. That’s what a Christian is to her. It’s a perception that doesn’t make it easy to let the light of Christ shine through what we do and say. Jesus never promised it would be easy, he just said to do it.

Jesus dared to change the meaning of the law. Who has the authority to do that? Jesus does, and Jesus did, so we had better pay attention to it, working out what it means for each of us, and for the communities in which we live. It forces us to painfully exam whether the meaning of the law has been dictated by the social standards in which we were raised, or is God’s Word challenging the veracity of our assumptions.

How can we know if we’re not in conversation with God? Jesus invited us to pray not with dedicated church words used only on Sunday, or practiced phrases we’ve been told God likes. We’re to pray in the ordinary words we use in every day conversation with those we respect and trust. God asks for conversation, and we we submit grocery lists hedged with flattering adjectives. And let’s be honest, we hardly ever listen.

Of course we need the things of daily life, and we want a reasonable helping of success and security. God knows that. It’s not wrong to need and want them, but Jesus said we should first work on following him on the way of love, and not worry so much about the rest. That’s hard to do. You and I know that from personal experience. But God is persistent. Follow Jesus, it’s the way, not to riches, but to abundance of life. Hard to believe, but if Jesus said it, it’s so.

Judging others is a favorite human pastime, and Jesus said we’re not very good at it so knock it off. Judging puts people into pigeon holes, it endorses prejudice, and justifies class differences. It would be better to be brutally honest about judging ourselves. We judge others anyway. Can’t seem to help it. Besides, judging is sometime necessary. At least we can be gentle about it, admit we could be wrong, and try not to make things worse.

There are people who mislead others by using Jesus’ name. Be careful. Measure everything by the laws of love. Does it show love for God? Does it show love for others, especially for those not like us? Does it show love for self? Does it reflect the way that Jesus loves us? Jesus was clear that those who misuse his name will be held accountable.

Following Jesus won’t make life easy. There will still be storms and floods, but a life built on faith in God will endure. The way of the cross is not an easy way, but it is the way of life and peace.

When Jesus had finished these words, the rest of Matthew’s gospel went on to explore how they got worked out as he taught the disciples about the way of love. That’s why reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Sermon on the Mount is important.

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