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Sermon on the Mount
Jesus Discipleship Training of the Apostles
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7 is Jesus' first discipleship training of his new followers. The usual approach we take to a teaching passage such as the Sermon on the Mount is with the expectation of building up our spirituality. However, Jesus' agenda is rarely in line with our expectations.
This discipleship training of Jesus' followers was not designed to build up His new disciples. Rather, it was a sermon designed to deconstruct what spirituality they had already erected. True spiritually for fallen creatures can never involve building up, but must always be focused on diminishing.
The greatest man who was ever born of a woman, according to Jesus, was John the Baptist. (Mt. 11:11) At the pinnacle of his ministry, John the Baptist spoke six words that summarized the whole of his ministry and the focus of his spiritual life. Speaking of Jesus, John said, "He must increase, but I must decrease."
In my meditations on the Sermon I began to realize that the further I stepped back the more clearly I could see the intent of the Sermon. This included examining the superstructure of the Sermon as well as looking at its place within the whole of the Gospel of Matthew. The second thing I tried to undercover is the historical setting of the Sermon. These two pieces, which will be examined in reverse order, offer us two lenses through which to view the subversive nature of the Sermon.
The Sermon on the Mount is spoken to people who were steeped in the Jewish mindset. With the exile and the end of the Davidic throne the Jewish people could no longer stake their religious claim on being God's people based on the Temple and the continuation of the line of David. Rather, they were forced to look back to where they had gone wrong. The words of the prophets resonated in their ears and they realized that their downfall was in their failure to follow the Torah. So for the next five hundred years leading up the time of Jesus, the focus of much of Judaism was placed on obedience to the Torah. It permeated all facets of religious and secular life. It was so pervasive and persuasive that obedience to Torah became blurred with worship of Torah. However, the worship of Torah that seemed to dominate the Pharisaical mindset was not one of adoration, but rather as one worships a pagan God--it was a relationship of manipulation and control. They twisted the law to serve their need to feel righteous and holy.
I grew up in a denomination whose focus was exactly the same. Our lives were also heavily influenced by obedience to Torah and the festivals that went along with it. It became such a part of the member's identities that when the denominational leaders attempted to reform the denomination it took the local pastors well over a decade to change the mindsets of those who were willing to listen to the Gospel message.
According to the redactive work of the Matthean Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is the first direct teaching of Jesus to his newly called disciples. Therefore, I believe the focus of the sermon is two-fold. 1) To deconstruct the Judaic worldview and teachings that had so shaped and formed them and 2) to begin to construct a worldview from a Christian perspective.
The validity of this hypothesis of deconstruction and reconstruction is found in the very structure and progression of themes within the Sermon:
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
PART I - DECONSTRUCTION
The first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew Chapter Five) can be divided into two sections. The first section addresses what the Jews believe the problem is in their society and in their Spiritual lives. In the second half of this section Jesus addresses the real issue in a very subversive manner.
I.A. - THE DISTRACTION OF THE PERSECUTION (Matthew 5:1-16)
The Jewish people believed deeply in the Torah, especially the themes of retributive theology. The problem their society faced most prominently was persecution from foreign, pagan rulers. According to retributive theology, this was unjust and thus had to be corrected. Jesus comes along and tells them that what they viewed as the problem was in actuality the natural outpouring of a holy life and was a blessing to them. Consider, for example, His statement of: blessed are the poor in spirit. Many have read this to mean blessed are those who are spiritually humble. However, poor in spirit was a phrase referred to in their age as one who was persecuted (or literally poor - see Luke 6:20) for having followed the way of righteousness.
The entirety of the beatitudes is Jesus telling them that persecutions result in blessing and if you are persecuted, it is not a problem, but rather a sign that they were on the right track. Jesus even compares those who are persecuted for righteousness sake to the Holy Prophets! In this, Jesus first deconstructs their political and societal worldview.
Jesus then spends verses 13-16 telling them that they are the salt and light of the world. They were not meant to hide away in a safe kingdom, but by their very nature of being God's righteous people they were supposed to stand out and be targets for the unscrupulous. Therefore, what Jesus is doing in this first section of the Sermon is taking their focus off of the persecutions, so that he may help them focus in on the real problem.
I.B. - THE BLESSING MADE A CURSE (Matthew 5:17-48)
Jesus is very careful in this next section, in which He addresses the Law. He is both supportive of the law and subversive towards their view of it. Here is where he deconstructs their religious worldview.
He begins this section by encouraging them towards Torah obedience in verses 17-20. It sounds as a pre-game speech or the battle cry of a king about to lead his troops into war. He supports the law, heralds it, and bids them towards what their religious worldview told them to believe about the law: you must keep the totality of it.
Jesus takes them through six aspects of the law. The six examples He uses are penetrating and convicting to anyone who bases his or her righteousness on obedience to Torah.
In lifting up the law to the heights He does in this section of the Sermon, He also lifts it out of their reach:
THE BASIC LAW: Do not murder
THE FULFILLMENT: Do not even be angry
THE BASIC LAW: Do not commit adultery
THE FULFILLMENT: Do not even look with lust
THE BASIC LAW: Do not make vows
THE FULFILLMENT: Be of such reputation that vows are unnecessary
THE BASIC LAW: Eye for an eye
THE FULFILLMENT: Turn the other cheek
THE BASIC LAW: Hate enemies
THE FULFILLMENT: Love enemies
No one is capable of achieving "fulfillment of the law." This realization had to be hitting them at this point. On the height of the Mount Jesus brings them low. To add to this, Jesus says that their righteousness had to even surpass those who best kept the law--the Pharisees. But that was not even enough, they also had to be perfect, as God is perfect. In other words, to make it in to heaven by their own works, they better be able to resurrect themselves. I can just imagine the pale faced stares of the disciples at this point.
All of this is an attempt by Jesus to deconstruct their view of righteousness and what it is to be God's people. Does that mean that Jesus doesn't really mean what he said? Was He only being sarcastic and in reality was trying to get them to stop being obedient to the Word of God? Absolutely not. He meant every word of it. What He is demonstrating here is that the law is a guide to point towards righteousness, but fallen humanity is trying to surmount an impossible pass to attain righteousness by the perfect fulfillment of the law. Jesus plainly tells them, "I came to fulfill the law." He then follows that statement with six examples that prove no one else is able to do so.
As one can see by the intentions of Jesus in this first major section of the Sermon on the Mount, trying to figure out how to walk these traits is to ask the entirely wrong questions.
PART II - RECONSTRUCTION
Once Jesus has removed the old wineskin of legalism, He begins to construct what righteousness looks like for a disciple of Jesus. He does this in two sections. First, in Matthew 6:1-7:7, he shows them seven aspects of what correct righteousness looks like (note the numerological significance of six aspects of not being able to follow Torah versus the perfect number of seven aspect of true righteousness). The second thing He does is to give them three pieces of advice on how to succeed in this task, in Matthew 7:8ff.
II.A. CORRECT RIGHTEOUSNESS (Matthew 6:1-7:7)
Jesus begins with what could be called a thesis statement for this section in 6:1. He tells them, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men." He lays out seven principles of correct righteous and in each of them there is a sense that they are to be done without notice to them. In the same way you brush your teeth each morning and make no notice of it to yourself or to others, so these aspects should flow so naturally from you that no notice should be given to them. In many ways, these seven disciplines represent the seven fundamental spiritual disciplines, from the mouth of Jesus.
GIVING TO THE POOR - DIMINISHING THE SELF
This is a fundamental teaching in all of Scripture and a fantastic practice to employ in each of our lives. When one is about the practice of giving they are acting out the command to take up our cross and let go of our lives. Giving places the giver in a position where the focus of life (for that moment) is to prefer the needs of others above your own needs.
PRAYER - OPEN COMMUNICATION
Jesus does not just command His people to pray, but rather He gives them an example by which they may model their prayer life. It is prayer not of force or repetition for the sake of manipulation, but rather of honest, open conversation. God is not a force to battle in prayer, but a kind of friend who desires to listen to your thoughts and will supply your needs.
FASTING - CONTROL OF THE WILL
Fasting is the most enigmatic spiritual discipline. It seeks to chain the belly and with it the entire will of the person. It is a humbling practice of war against the flesh. It is also interesting that in our society with the most abundance of food, fasting is one of the least practiced spiritual disciplines in many lives.
MONEY - VOLUNTARY POVERTY
Here is where the true risk begins. He tells them to store up wealth in heaven and not on earth. The risk here is two-fold. First, it requires one to place themselves in a vulnerable position on earth. Second, it requires them to go "all in" on a bet that their belief system is indeed reality.
The blessing he gives them is that in this risk they will be purified of the temptation towards corruption. It will keep their focus fixed on the coming kingdom.
WORRY - LETTING GO
One of the most important disciplines people seem to need to apply in their lives is to actively let go of control and the worry over their future. We are trained in our society to stake our claim before the next guy takes it. I am not sure there is a practice such as this one in the popular culture of spiritual formation. However, the spiritual discipline of letting go of worries and scheming to get ahead needs to be prevalent in these writings geared towards our cannibalistic culture.
It is again the discipline of risk, in the same way that letting go of money is a risk, but this discipline takes the last one even further. For here you are not only required to get rid of money, but also the worry that naturally flows from not having money. Instead, Jesus redirects those energies by imploring them to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of that kingdom.
NOT JUDGING - CONTEMPLATING ONE'S STATE
There are numerous stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers that encapsulate this discipline. For example:
They used to say of Abba Poeman that before he went out to divine office, he would first sit for an hour in self-contemplation.
Jesus does not simply tell his disciples to stop doing something. Instead, He redirects those energies. He does not merely tell them not to judge. Judging is very much a part of who we are and Jesus knows this. He instead tells them to redirect those energies by judging the self.
DISCERNMENT - CONTROL OF THE TONGUE
This discipline goes hand in hand with the previous discipline. We are not wise to judge others; however, it is equally wise not to "cast pearls before swine." The discipline being hinted at here is one of control of the tongue. How do these relate? If a person makes it a practice of holding his words, then the natural outgrowth of that will be that one listens more. With this listening, discernment will begin to take root.
II.B. ATTAINING THE WISDOM OF THE WALK (Matthew 7:8-20)
In the concluding section, Jesus gives them three pointers of how to attain this kind of righteousness. First, in vv.7-11 he tells them to ask God for the discernment. Secondly, in vv.12-14, he tells people that the best safeguard that will bring the most grace to a person as they stumble along in this task is to simply treat people good. He says that if they do this, they are fulfilling ALL of the Law AND the Prophets! Thirdly, in vv. 15-20, he implores them to choose their leaders carefully. The way a leader goes is often times the way the people go.
PART III - EPILOGUE (MATTHEW 7:21-28)
After these teachings, Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by giving them encouragement to stay the course. What is fascinating about this section is the specific subjects of the three parts.
This concluding section can be naturally divided up into three parts: v.21; vv.22-23; and vv.24-27. In each of these their is a distinct focus.
In the first section Jesus tells them that not everyone will enter the kingdom, but those who do the will of the Father. The focus is on obedience to the Father.
In the next section He restates how to gain salvation by saying that only those who know Him will enter the kingdom. Note here that the focus is on knowing Jesus Christ.
In the last section Jesus gives the example of the two builders. Of note here is that their works are tested through the storms testing the works of the builders. The focus here is on the testing of work by the 'winds'. This is not an explicit reference to the person of the Holy Spirit. But at this point in their understanding, the ruach of God was not the third person of the Trinity. So it may very well be a reference to the Holy Spirit in terms they could understand. The work of the Holy Spirit is always to test the works of man--consider the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness.
Therefore, it stands to reason that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus first removes their focus from the law, and then gives them new disciplines to refocus their attention towards the Triune God.