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After Teaching on the Sermon on the Mount

My Sunday School class just finished a several-week study on the Sermon on the Mount. We did not use any study guides as a class, though I consulted three books I publish, One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective, The Jesus Manifesto: A Participatory Study Guide to the Sermon on the Mount, and Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer. Some class members did make use of those references, and I also provided links to and some printed copies of John Wesley’s sermons on this topic. Class members also used a variety of Bible translations and other reference works.

At the end of the class, one of the members commented that he was very glad to have studied the entire sermon, because he could see how it fit together and how the various parts built on others. He commented that we often read the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, while not continuing to cover the rest of the three chapters.

Over the years I have read and studied this sermon many times, and I never fail to find something new with each adventure in it. There are three (well, maybe four) general approaches to it.

First, let me dismiss my “maybe four.” I had one young man come to my house to try to get me saved. That I already professed Christianity was not important to him. I needed to understand it the way he did. One of the things he wanted me to understand was salvation by faith, which in his view eliminated anything having to do with works. He specifically told me that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to Christians. I found it interesting that the longest collection of the teachings of Jesus we have was regarded as not applicable.

Dismissing dismissal, I have found three general approaches, with the first two covering most and the third as a sort of supplement based on sermons I’ve heard.

  1. The sermon is a description of righteousness, designed to let us know we can’t attain it, and drive us to the cross.
  2. The sermon contains the central ethical teachings of Jesus which we are expected to follow.
  3. The sermon is descriptive of ways in which our behavior impacts others and our own social environment, and provides a guide to more effective functioning of society.

I’ve intentionally made these as distinctive as possible. One of the things that struck me as I studied this time was that the sermon truly can function in all three ways. You might expect a Reformed theologian to embrace something like #1. Wesleyans might tend more toward #2. I’ve only heard a few people who go purely one way or another, though they often sound like they do! The third option is more often exhibited in preaching broadly based on the sermon when the speaker is trying to make applications in the social gospel.

It struck me this time through that all three elements are present. There are repeated indications that the expectations expressed are well beyond our ordinary capabilities. Loving your enemies is well beyond most of us, though I’ve heard people cut the command down to size to make it possible. Consider, however, that Jesus’ own demonstration of this command involved requesting that the Father forgive those who were in the process of crucifying him.

In the class we all commented on how potentially frightening it was to sincerely pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do you really want to be forgiven as you forgive? Perhaps you are a paragon on virtue in the matter of forgiveness, but I suspect not many of us are.

Then there is the simple matter of most of chapter five, which sees all these things as expressions of what’s in the heart. I shocked some in the class by explaining that I had been a murderer during the prior week. I had been on the phone with a customer “service” rep who whose ignorance was exceeded only by his arrogance. (Can you perceive me despising him even now?) I told them that if I’d been physically with him, I’d likely have strangled him. Jesus isn’t giving me points for not being able to carry this out.

Thus I think that the Sermon on the Mount very much calls us to realize that we are quite imperfect, and also directs us to an unattainable standard. That’s where grace comes in, and grace is reflected in some of those very passages on forgiveness. God is more forgiving than we are.

At the same time, there is a great deal of value in the second way of looking at this. However unattainable the standard is, it is a good one. That is, it tells us about things that are good to do. The problem with perfection is that you fail to attain it, and end up apathetic. I can’t do what I’m supposed to, so why do anything? Perfectionism has created a large number of failures.

The problem is that each time you lower the standard, you end up aiming lower. If you’re headed north following the north star you know you’re unlikely to get to that north star, or even the north pole. But if you decide that unattainability makes it unimportant, you’re likely to get nowhere. That’s where keeping a high standard and incredible grace together does well.

I can’t resist quoting one of my favorite scriptures: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We often hear that preached by halves. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” from someone who was only vaguely aware of the next verse, if at all. Similarly, we can say, “It’s God, so don’t bother to do anything.” Neither of these is effective.

And that leads to the third point. I wouldn’t use the third option alone, but in many cases this sermon shows us how society works. “Forgive and you will be forgiven,” speaks of God’s forgiveness, but also points to a way of life. The one who is unforgiving builds an atmosphere of unforgiveness. “Judge not, lest you be judged,” is also a very good principle in society. The verse, Matthew 7:1, is one of the more abused passages in scripture with some destroying it by overapplication and others essentially dismissing it by referencing exceptions.

Jesus himself provides some clarification in Matthew 7:15-20. Thus we wind up with those who avoid 7:1 by calling every judgment “fruit inspection” and those who eliminate fruit inspection by calling it all judgment. Both passages are right there and both apply. There’s some wisdom needed, and doubtless we will not attain perfection!

I enjoyed reading these passages and looking for the variety of applications. I’m grateful for grace in all circumstances. I’m grateful for a standard, which tells me that God’s glorious purpose is greater than I can imagine. Finally, I’m grateful for wisdom in looking at how we can better live with one another.

It’s an error to treat everything as an answer to the question of whether one is going to heaven. Some things are about a better life here as well.

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