Sermon on the Mount, Thirteenth

Someday, I want to revisit the difference between lesser of two evils decisions and indistinguishable evils decisions. But, I also want people to read my blog and not think of me as a jerk. So, let’s get back to Jesus.

*The counter-numerologist in me, I think it is cool that we should wrap things up with the thirteenth reflection.

The Sermon on the Mount concludes with three points: living in accordance with the Way is restrictive, living in accordance with the Way it will be obvious from results, and living in accordance with the Way will help you survive troubling times.

First, the narrow way.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

This could easily relate only to conduct. Take food & drink in moderation. Just have normal sexual relations. Work hard, but not to the exclusion of having family. Worship God. But we know from the rest of the sermon that this also refers to our hearts. It is easy to hateful, but we are not to be so. It is easy to be lustful, but we are not to be so. I submit that we can learn to be hateful or forgiving. While at any one minute, we cannot control our mood, in evolving as human beings we can. Agree?

Next, judged by our fruits.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

I take this as duel purpose advice. We should check ourselves. Are we getting what we seek? Is our faith bearing fruits, such as happiness and fulfillment? If not, we should change. Likewise, it tells us how to evaluate others. It says that the work of the faithful should be verifiable. It is not enough to say, we’re doing this because God says so. We have to be able to say, we’re doing this for X and look, here’s X.

Finally, our faith is a foundation.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

This is something I have found to be true. In times of trouble, my faith has given me comfort. My church family has done so. Though my faith cannot stop the rain from coming or the stream from rising or the winds from blowing, it can brace me against the storm. I certainly do not think Christianity is the only faith that allows this. Indeed, I suspect that it is not even limited to spirituality. But I know, that my Christianity helps me.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

So the speaker had good command of his subject matter and was able to hold their attention. I wonder if he made good use of visual aids? 😉


Sermon on the Mount, Twelfth

The next passage from the Sermon contains some more very familiar verses.

Ask, Seek, Knock
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:7-12 First off, the last sentence, which I included because of the section breaks in NIV translation, doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the section. I mean, I accept that the Golden Rule may sum up the Law and the Prophets, but that is not what the other sentences are talking about.

Second, I don’t think the passage means you can ask god for bread or fish. In other words, I don’t think the passage means that if you pray for physical things they’ll be granted you. I say that because the first part talks about seeking, and knocking and opening doors. I think the passage means that those who pursue faith will find it, just like an earthly father would give his kids a fish, so your heavenly father will grant you faith.

But that doesn’t necessarily save the relevance of this passage. Aren’t there people who search for faith and don’t find it? Aren’t there people who wished that they believed but just cannot? I would love to hear from folks who find comfort or meaning in this passage.

P.S. The opposite advice, “God helps those who help themselves” comes from Benjamin Franklin.

UPDATE: I’ve emailed this post to members of the clergy in my address book. I would be delighted if they would share their wisdom, or if that’s too intimidating, their shared befuddlement.


Sermon on the Mount, Eleventh

Our investigation into the sermon on the mount brings us to the discussion of judging others. Here is the next section as broken out by the New Internation Version:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

Matthew 7:1-6. This passage is yet another portion of the Sermon that is frequently mentioned, particularly by liberal Christians and non-Christians. This weekend we watched the movie Jesus Camp, a movie that explores the world of very judmental Christians, and the methods they employ to, depending on your prespective, teach/indoctrinate/train/brainwash their children.

So, it seems that teaching your children that other churches are dead, and that God only likes churches like yours, and proposing that anyone who disagrees with you about theology or politics is evil, runs afoul of Jesus’ commandment here. But, what about more subtle judgments? Are we really not allowed to even consider whether the behavior of others is good or bad?

What about the last bit? It seems pretty, well, judgmental.


Sermon on the Mount, Tenth

I did not finish the Sermon on the Mount before Christmas time arrived. I’ve added the tag Sm.Mt. that you can click on to read the rest of my reflections on the topic. I left off just before Jesus’ riff that is either existentialist or an answer to existentialism. I’m talking about Matthew 6:19-34. Here are some excerpts:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
. . . .
do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

According to Wikipedia (because I’m too lazy to go read Kierkegaard), In Repetition, Kierkegaard’s literary character Young Man laments:

How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?

I think Jesus’ answer is don’t worry so much. You like the birds are here to experience life. And to the planners and rationale thinkers, Jesus seems to be saying you’re missing the boat too. It is all about the now.

This may be a selective reading of the passage. I understand the kingdom of heaven to mean participation in the eternal kingdom that was present in Jesus’ day and is present still, that is living in the Way. So, when the passage for today’s consideration says,

“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.

I take that to mean worrying about how much money is a waste of time, you should worry about the present joy you have in living the good life. One could read this as a promise for future reward for the faithful.

What do you think? Is Jesus telling the listeners to follow him for future benefit? Doesn’t that seem inconsistent with the passage about today & tomorrow?


Sermon on the Mount, Nineth

The next piece of advice Jesus offer those listening to the sermon on the mount is this, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He breaks the advice down into three parts. First, give to the needy secretly. Second, pray modestly and simply. Finally, when you fast, don’t make it obvious that you are fasting. Matthew 6:1-18.

I think it is interesting how thoroughly this section of the sermon has been adopted into modern religious practice in America. We are definitely modest about talking about giving and embarrassed if someone makes to big of a deal about his or her faith.

Why has this advice so taken hold? Is it because it can in fact give cover for not giving very much money to charity, not helping the needy, and not practicing our religious disciplines?


Sermon on the Mount, Eighth

Alternative Title: Thou Shalt Be Push Overs

From Matthew 5:38-48,

An Eye for an Eye
“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.
Love for Enemies
“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, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Finally! Some favorites of the lefties. We can use this to oppose war and capital punishment and vigilantism and, well, and just about our entire penal code and certainly our tort system. I think these sections of the Sermon on the Mount get thrown around pretty flippantly.

Let’s not even try to extrapolate these personal admonitions to national policy. Does this passage prohibit Christians from being plaintiffs in law suits? Does it require a Christian who is told to walk a mile to the “Black” restrooms to tolerate the indignity? What does it mean when Jesus commands us to be perfect, just like God?


Sermon on the Mount, Seventh

I want to press on with the next requirement in the sermon because it gives us the next example of biblical requirements:

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:33-37

That next example is requirements that seem silly. Don’t swear? One of the judges did swear to offer as a burnt offering the first thing that came up to him upon his return from a battle if God would let him win. The first thing to come up was his daughter. See Judges 11. Also weird.

So, Jesus tells us 1) Do Not Hate 2) Do Not Lust 3) Do Not Get Divorced & 4)Do Not Take Oaths.

One way to handle these dictates is to consider some more serious than others. The less serious ones are easier to disregard, particularly because they are so tied to cultural context. Another way to do it is to say that there is an essence in these teachings, more fundamental truths if you will, that is what we really need to follow. In some sense, isn’t that what Jesus is saying with the entire sermon?

Of course, Jesus is providing an interpretation of the essence of the Torah, and now I’m suggesting we look for the essence of Jesus’ teachings. But, we have to do something, right? Or as Christians, should we not take oaths?


Sermon on the Mount, Sixth

The next two versus of the Sermon give me a ton of heartburn. Here they are:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:31-32.

Re-reading this passage today, I was first struck by some of the cultural ugliness. I would have preferred, “Don’t get divorced except in the case of marital unfaithfulness.” Instead, the passage makes clear that men are the ones who do the divorcing, and apparently, women are the ones who commit adultery. Notice that if the man wrongfully divorces his wife, he is not guilty of adultery but the women he remarries is. Ug.

Fine, notions of marriage and divorce are so tied up in the cultural context, it would be very difficult to discuss them without incorporating the social biases of the time. The real problem for me is the meat of the passage. Many of the people I care about are divorced. I don’t know if infidelity was always involved, but I can think of other reasons for divorce. Abusiveness, overpowering and unaddressed addiction for two.

What to do?


Sermon on the Mount, Fourth

Now we begin the fulfillment of the law. Here is what Jesus says about murder:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,[FN1]’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

[FN1] An Aramaic term of contempt. Matthew 5: 21-26.

So, you are not only prohibited from killing, but from being angry. Is this purely aspirational? Does Jesus really expect his followers to not be angry? I don’t know, but I know that it matters whether you make an effort to find solutions during a conflict rather than just prove you are right. In other words, you live a better life by doing more than not murdering.

Here’s another question: Is some separation of church and state inherent in this passage?

Does Jesus acknowledge one set of laws that are to be compulsory and a second, fulfilled perhaps, set of laws that require willing compliance? There are a whole slew of things I believe in that I don’t want mandated by law but that I think are important. Is that dichotomy, a Christian distinction as well as a Western distinction?


Sermon on the Mount, Third

So far, the sermon has given hope for those in distress and challenged the rest of us to have a faith that has impact on our world. The next part is what we in the law would call guidance on statutory construction. Jesus tells us the relationship between his ministry and the Hebrew law:

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. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20. We are about to hear a bunch of specifics about how Jesus is fulfilling the law. Basically, changing the mandates from requiring on certain behavior to require behavior with a state of mind. Good. I think there is profound truth in that. We are good when we refrain from killing, we are better we love those who hate us.

But, before Matt can point it out to me, the Law and the Prophets also say things about stoning people to death for this that and the other. For that matter, the Law talks about what to eat.

Question: How do most Christians rectify this specific statement from Jesus that he is not abolishing the old law, with our disregard for the dietary laws and other customs of the Judaism?