Wednesday, September 17, 2008

sermon on the mount

Matthew 5-6 comprises most of Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew's gospel, this is where Jesus teaches the Beatitudes, calls his followers the salt and the light of the world, and then begins teaching about his relationship with the Torah.

Jesus begins by saying that he has not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets but to fulfill them. He's pretty firm on this point, going as far as saying that the least stroke of the Torah will not disappear until everything has been accomplished, and he warns not to teach others to disregard the Torah.

What's interesting is that right after this, Jesus begins setting up a contrast between what the Torah says and what he expects of people. In my Bible, Chapter 5 is broken into sections, with titles like “Murder,” “Adultery” and “Divorce.” Six of these in a row begin with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said” or something similar. In each of these cases, Jesus raises the bar from an external behavior proscribed by the Torah to an internal one that meets a higher moral standard, one that usually only the person involved can know.

We all know the drill. It's not enough not to murder someone; now you can't even hate them. It's not enough to keep from adultery; you're not allowed even to desire someone other than your spouse. It's not enough to desire only what the Law allows; you're supposed to forgive the lout who put out your eye and broke your tooth.

This is in sharp contrast with how the rabbis of Jesus' day had come to view the Torah. Over the centuries, rabbis and other teachers had added a second layer to the Torah, much of which is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, an oral law that served as a fence around the sacred Torah.

The idea was that if you followed the oral traditions, you wouldn't inadvertantly break the requirements of the Torah. For instance, the Torah forbids boiling a kid in its mother's milk; thus, it is forbidden to mix meat and dairy, so that there is no risk of accidentally breaking the Torah proscription. The Torah forbids working on the Sabbath, so rabbis imposed a limit on how much walking a person could do – a Sabbath day's walk – so that no one accidentally would walk too far and break the commandment.

Jesus is also setting a fence around the Torah, but in the opposite direction. If someone wrongs you enough that you want to kill him, he says, clearly you must address your anger, rather than simply struggling for the self-control not to kill him. Otherwise the unsettled rage may one day still lead to murder, or to an otherwise cruel act of revenge.

Similarly, while some folks have gone to the extreme route of suppressing women, blaming them for every act of lust a man commits, even for rape or adultery; Jesus says it's the man's responsibility to control his attitudes toward women. (He also undercuts the contemporary practice of men issuing a get to divorce their wives over minor offenses,stipulating that the only reason a man may divorce his wife is if she in unfaithful.)

Thus, while we often erect barriers based on the idea of regulating our external behavior – don't associate with people whose lives are deemed immoral or in rebellion to God – Jesus wants the focus to be on us and how we view other people. That's where the revolution of God begins, not in how we act, but in how we think and feel in our hearts, because those inward attitudes are the well that brings either life or death to those who drink from it.

That's a challenge, because all we can know of other people, unless we know them well, is what they do, and it's on that basis that we usually judge them. Well, that and what's in our hearts and what motivates us. It's so easy to grow angry at another person because of what they do, without ever stopping to wonder why they do it.

I know of a mother, for instance, who this year pulled her son out of the charter school my daughter attends. It's a great school, and it was offering her special-needs son a lot of personal help and resources. He's now in the public school system, where he's less likely to get the individual attention a child in his situation needs. Is she a bad parent? Did she make a wrong choice? I want to say yes, but I really don't know.

That admittedly is a rather simple example, since I don't know the woman or her situation well. To be completely fair and honest, I'd have to look at the times in my own life right now where there are conflicts or grudges against other people, and see what baggage I'm carrying them.

Backing up a minute: Jesus says “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” There have been a lot of politicians over the years who have used this phrase to describe America, inadvertantly or deliberately suggesting that our nation has some special place in the economy of God, or that we have a special contract with the Divine to work his will upon the earth.

That's patent nonsense, as nations are kingdoms of this world, and however much we spiritualize our nation's actions, we attribute them to our inherent godliness at our own peril. But the politicians are right about one thing: This saying of Jesus wasn't about individual believers. It's about the church as a gestalt; i.e., how a community of believers behaves.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

1 comment:

mjndstudios said...

I always find it interesting how jesus juxtaposes such global statements with such personal statements to, say, peter, when he tells them he is his 'rock'. I find this purposely confusing, almost like jesus floats this statement that can clearly be attributed to the church or to a nation, but its open enough for those that are filled with passion and chutzpah to tack it to themselves on a very individual level.

I like your recent posts they are encouraging me to dig into matthew yet again, which in my opinion you could never read too many times.

A lot of what I read here I find similar to expanded thoughts as read in Greg Boyd's myth of a christian nation. You've got some good thought trains going