In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers you a life that an stand up to anything.
But how can we choose when just trying to figure out what is real is so hard and divide even in basic questions of life today?
While it is emotionally satisfying and comfortable to live surrounded by people who see the world just like you do it can be a dangerous situation. Because we crave comfort and affirmation we tend to associate with people of like mind. “Birds of a feather flock together.” This is true in politics and religion.
Figuring out what is true and what is good are two of the central challenges for all of human existence. A lot rides on this. If there is actually an objective reality out there being out of line with it may be emotionally comfortable but in the end truth eventually prevails. It can be no other way.
If, as Christianity has always maintained, the universe is the creation of an all good, all powerful God, then to know what is good is also foundational because just like truth, goodness must eventually prevail and it is in one’s best interest to also align with that.
In his introduction to his course on Plato’s Republic Professor David Roochnik of Boston University notes this.
In this course, we will explore Plato’s Republic (written in approximately 380 B.C.E.), which is the first, and arguably the most influential, work in the history of Western political philosophy. In it, Socrates, the hero of Plato’s dialogue, addresses such fundamental questions as: What is justice? What is the role of education in politics? Is censorship of music and literature ever justifiable? What sort of person should rule the state? Is it ever permissible for a ruler to lie to the citizens? Should citizens be allowed full freedom when it comes to sexual relationships and private property? Are all citizens equal before the law? Should women be given the same political opportunities as men? Should everyone have equal access to health care? Socrates’s answers to these and other questions will occasionally be shocking to modern ears, but they will always be thought-provoking.
As I noted in an earlier sermon most English translations render the question as “what is justice” but in Greek the question would be “what is righteousness”? If you read through the Republic you’d see that the debate that Socrates is engaging in revolves around what it means to be a righteous person or who is a righteous person.
The Republic is a dialog where Socrates, who is a pain in the neck, basically leads a group of friends and rivals in an exploration of the question “what is righteousness?”. It’s important to note that Plato wrote the Republic after a period where Athens lost its democracy to a group of tyrants but then democracy was restored so the questions about what is good and what is right were very much on the minds of the people of Athens.
Early on in the book Socrates asks his question about righteousness to a sophist. The sophists were a political/philosophical faction in Athens that majored in rhetoric which in today’s language would be called “weaponized”. This means that they were “spin-doctors” designed to craft language that would achieve their desired political outcome. The person Socrates is engaging is named Thrasymachus.
The answer to the question “what is righteousness” given by Thrasymachus is “whatever is advantageous to the ruler”.
Now initially we might say that sounds like a terrible answer. You’re saying that there’s no such thing as right or wrong and that the person with the power gets to decide what is right and wrong, true and false.
Let me push back on that and note that this isn’t far from our contemporary atmosphere of skepticism. Perhaps we don’t like the idea of the ruler deciding this not so much because of some high minded philosophical or religious reason but because we aren’t the ruler or we disagree with the ruler. The truth is that people actually live this way quite often when they can get away with it. You pursue this line of thinking far enough and you can understand why democracy develops. It is because we don’t trust other people and so we force others to agree to standards and procedures that have communal agreement, not simply individual assent. Democracy doesn’t really establish truth. It really says that “truth is whatever the mass of people decide it is.” Most of us have seen, however that throughout history masses of people have believed all sorts of things that today you’d say are not true, so do you still believe in democracy?
Politics or Self-Autonomy?
Now you might wonder why we are swerving off into political philosophy in a sermon. What does this have to do with church?
I’d say it has everything to do with church, not because of what we call politics today but because of how we live our lives. If I shift the focus from government and into “getting what you want out of life” or “following your passions” you’ll quickly see that the conversations are deeply connected.
People get what they want out of life usually from two main sources: reputation and money. Reputation or influence affords people the power to get other people to see the world as they do. Reputation in our culture is distilled into numbers like credit score, grades and diplomas from high status schools, fame, Twitter followers, social networks, moral capital. Money can be a bit more base but its raw power and potential very much connect one to these same or comparable networks.
Plato knew this and as Thrasymachus and Socrates debate “righteousness” as “whatever it is that is advantageous to the ruler”, or in our own terms “whatever it is that is advantageous to myself” the question of reputation comes up.
They note that the “righteous” lose regularly. They lose in business, they lose because they pay all their taxes. They lose because they are generous to the poor, to their children, to their friends, and they relent to their adversaries. This is why it is advantageous to be unrighteous. The unrighteous get out of paying for things they receive. They cheat on their taxes. They cheat in business. They cheat on their spouses. They cheat on their friends. But those who excel in unrighteousness are never caught. They LOOK righteous because they need to look righteous otherwise their adversaries and even friends would tear them down. The perfectly unrighteous man then while committing the greatest wrongs to his own advantage secures for himself the greatest reputation for righteousness. This is how the game is played.
The opposite then is also true. The most righteous person will not have a reputation that he or she can capitalize on but will be thought to be unrighteous while they are actually disadvantaging themselves for the sake of others and no one will know it.
The Sermon on the Mount
The setting for the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus in the Galilee being beset by throngs of people drawn to him for healing. This isn’t hard for us to imagine today because faith healing conferences come around and you will find throngs of desperate people lined up looking for any chance at a better life. These are not the people with great health insurance or the best doctors. These are people who cannot find healing or comfort or health and they are desperate enough to swallow their pride and risk subjecting themself to a con man if only for a chance to get out of pain or disability.
Matthew 4:23–25 (NIV)
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Everyone in Jesus’ day imagined that it was the wealthy, the moral, the religious athletes who had God’s ear and having God’s ear received the good things they enjoyed in life. Jesus reverses that assumption with his Beatitudes.
Jesus then addresses an assumed system of moral performance that would they imagine qualify one for standing with God. Jesus notes that the invasion of God’s righteousness yields and demands within us a character that exceeds what that system, or any other system of moral performance imagines.
Fasting, Praying, Giving, Money
Jesus then turns in Matthew 6 to address the main practices that within the culture he was addressing before him were used to achieve “the good life”. Jesus touches on the three main expressions of piety in the Jewish world: fasting, prayer and giving to the poor. Jesus works the same three points through each which is that if you use these external expressions of piety as a means of establishing a relationship to be used to gain influence among people then you admit that you care more about what other people think rather than what God thinks. God sees the game and considers it in that light. “Then you have already received the reward.”
Jesus then proceeds to address the stuff of the world, money, power, things, position and makes the same point he made about reputation. If this is the sphere you have dedicated yourself to then you have chosen what is important to you and you should be prepared to receive exactly what that game intends to deliver.
Seekers of the kingdom of this world play in that game. Jesus invites us to seek rather the invasion of God’s righteousness and he suggests that because God owns all then you won’t need to worry about what is already under God’s control.
Jesus wraps up the section on influence and stuff in chapter 7 verses 1-12. The game of power, position and security in this world through reputation is usually waged through affirmation or condemnation. The game is played by talking down your enemies and condemning them. Instead he invites his disciples to rely on God by asking God to meet their needs and encouraging them to imagine God as their heavenly father who knows what they need and will give it.
He wraps this up with the golden rule and ties up the section by repeating what began the section regarding the law by mentioning the law and the prophets.
The Invitation to a life than can face anything
The conclusion of the sermon which takes up the rest of chapter 7 is an exhortation that his way alone can actually give security in the age of decay. This runs against the assumptions of everyone else including the interlocutors of Plato’s Republic. Jesus gives a series of two things: wide and narrow gate, true and false prophets, good and bad fruit, true and false disciples and then finally two ways to prepare for the coming storm. House-building on his view of the world and hearing his words and ignoring them. Jesus says that those who follow him and do what he says will live secure. Those who hear him and go on their own way will face disaster.
Two Movies, at least
We listen to Jesus, not unlike listening to Trump, and we try to figure out the truth.
Just this week I spotted a post on a blog I follow about not obeying the Sermon on the Mount. It noted three common ways of reading it that he finds objectionable
- Some read it as Jesus ramping up the law so that all fall short in their own righteousness and must come to him for forgiveness. He finds this morally problematic.
- There are many parts of the sermon that declare that you MUST do these things or you’ll fail the test. This makes the world into a system of works-righteousness. Therefore the sermon is theologically problematic.
- He notes how people read Jesus as saying things like “do not resist the evil person” and “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek. This is political irresponsibility.
He offers no resolution for this. He was mostly posing the question, but the imagined ability to stay neutral is quite possibly the heart of American secular spirituality. Jesus seems to say if not Jesus, then what?
Yes Donald, No Donald, Avoid Donald
The two movies dynamic leads us to the place where Donald Trump becomes the dividing line or people look for away to simply avoid the whole thing. That path is a way to hope that keeping the TV off, staying of Facebook and Twitter, and retreating into my private space will keep the whole thing from intruding into how I want to view my life. Given the frenzy that the new President has stirred up there is certainly some wisdom go this, but the same can’t be tried for the big questions that Jesus and Plato are wrestling with.
In Jesus’ day of course for someone in Galilee or Judea they might have tried to avoid the Romans by retreating literally into the desert or at least into the smallness of an individual life. In the end, however, it is always only a tactic that delays. There is no shelter from the age of decay and at some point famine, drought or old age will find you and tear down the walls of any shelter you have tried to erect against the bigger world in the hopes of establishing a smaller world that you can be master over.
The Dramatic Audacity of Jesus’ Claims
It is at this point that the dramatic audacity of Jesus’ claims really come to the surface. While Socrates and his debate partners are designing their ideal city complete with censorship and tight controls over education and religion none of them would dare imagine the claims that Jesus is making here. Jesus is claiming to not just be able to point to righteousness but that he is righteousness and that in his person the invasion of God into this world, against which there can finally be no resistance has begun.
Yet with all of this one look at how he actually lived his life reveals a level of security and humility that few things could seem to shake him.
This is the paradox of Jesus. His claims sound like the ravings of a lunatic, but he shows no sign of being a fanatic, a neurotic or, still less, a psychotic. On the contrary, he comes before us in the pages of the Gospels as the most balanced and integrated of human beings.
Consider in particular his humility. His claims for himself are very disturbing, because they are so self-centred; yet in his behaviour he was clothed with humility. His claims sound proud, but he was humble. I see this paradox at its sharpest when he was with his disciples in the upper room before he died. He said he was their lord, their teacher and their judge, but he took a towel, got on his hands and knees, and washed their feet like a common slave. Is this not unique in the history of the world? There have been lots of arrogant people, but they have all behaved like it. There have also been humble people, but they have not made great claims for themselves. It is the combination of egocentricity and humility that is so startling—the egocentricity of his teaching and the humility of his behaviour.
Why am I a Christian? Intellectually speaking, it is because of the paradox of Jesus Christ. It is because he who claimed to be his disciples’ Lord humbled himself to be their servant.
Stott, J. (2003). Why I Am a Christian (pp. 45–46). Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
While Jesus is exception in making this kind of claim he is not unique. What is unique about him is the conjunction between the claims and the total lack of authoritarian controlism we expect coming from someone making these kinds of claims.
Again if you peruse Dallas Willard’s treatment of the sermon Jesus seems to be completely at peace with respecting people and not using any sort of coercion, manipulation, mockery or humiliation to get them to “do the right thing”. He in fact is not stopping the evil person but is comfortable leaving all of this to God the Father.
- He doesn’t manipulate the crowds into believing him. You’d imagine that if he had the power to do the fantastic healing miracles related to him then mind control and brain washing surely couldn’t be beyond him. While he impressed the crowds there is no indication that he in any way ever violated their wills.
- Even with his own disciples he inspired loyalty but that loyalty founds its limits when their lives themselves were on the line. While he was giving up his own freedom and will by being arrested by the temple guard and turned over to Pilate for execution the disciples flee. When it finally came down to it while Jesus was on earth the disciples were not sufficiently convinced by Jesus words to actually lay down their lives for what Jesus had to say.
A Life That Can Stand Up to Anything
If you read through the entire Sermon on the Mount you will likely figure out that Jesus, like many others, is claiming that your “life” is NOT simply in the material or circumstantial existence that we often imagine it is. Your “life” is actually found in what Jesus calls your “heart”. It is the center of your desires, the center of what is beautiful and good and compelling in the universe. For a human being to locate this simply in terms of their material well-being is a reduction of what it means to be human. Again, Jesus is not unique in seeing this or making this claim. People often out-source their “life” into something else. It might be their career, their reputation, their family, a political or religious cause, their nation or nationality, etc. This is by no means unusual for human beings throughout history.
What Jesus gives us here is instead a picture. The picture that Jesus gives gets vindicated by his resurrection. Without Jesus’ resurrection the sermon on the mount would have been lost or ignored.
Jesus asserts that he is the truth, and that he speaks with authority, and that via the resurrection his way to live is actually THE way to live and invites us to follow. He asserts that nothing in this world can separate us from him and finally deny the fulfillment of his plan. He asserts that his way is the only way to actually find safety and certainty within the age of decay. No other way will yield it. You life is safe with him and not safe in any other place.
These are bold claims. What he offers to back up these claims is himself. Unlike many other masters and leaders he himself goes first.
- He exhibits a righteousness beyond the law at great cost to himself
- He exhibits a righteousness that destroys his reputation to the degree that it lead to his death. He did this by loving those it was politically and religiously disreputable to love.
- He exhibits his righteousness by NOT relying on reputation or money and simply relying on his Father’s gifts, even as that path brought him to the cross where his last few possessions were split up by the Romans who executed him.
- He exhibited his righteousness by rising from the dead, appearing to his friends, and giving them his same Spirit of boldness for them to do in the world exactly what he did.
You can look at all of this and make your choice about your way.
The way of the world is obvious. We use religiosity or morality to construct for ourselves a reputation that would advance our cause among people. We use money and power and politics to try to coerce, manipulate or influence others to agree with our view of the world so that the powers of this world can align with our perspective of it. If we succeed we imagine we will secure for ourselves, our allies and the world the security and prosperity we crave. What speaks against all of this is that in all of human civilization no one has actually managed to succeed at this in such a way to endure, not just beyond their own physical death but even into the future in perpetuity. All human empires rot and fall.
In our own world we suggest to people that “progress” will somehow heal all ills, right all wrongs, meet all needs, satisfy all longings and we suggest that this will all be done scientifically. The truth is that this is nothing more than a religious claim built upon a selective reading of past successes and that no serious observer can assert that this will be achieved within the lifetime of any human live today. It is “pie under the sky by and by” and premised on the condition that one buy into an entire program that supposedly will under the forces of disease, death, war, poverty and environmental destruction that not only kill today but perpetually threaten all tomorrows.
If you take all of these adversaries and face them head on you should consider the offer that Jesus gives. He’s been doing it for two thousand years and many many people have accepted his offer without regret. They testify that what he in fact gives them is a life that can stand up to anything including suffering, death, persecution, hardship, and loss.
What they offer is an ethic that is so loving, so attractive, so self-sacrificial that most in this world while admiring it suggest it is irresponsible yet they themselves have no way to secure the life that this irresponsibility is sacrificing. Time itself will take that life meaning that all Christians are really doing is exchanging loving their neighbor and adversary now at the cost of a tiny bit of time that none of us can secure for ourselves even if we wanted to.
Jesus does all of this not excluding himself from this cost nor realizing gain from it at our own expense. He goes and gives first.
This is the heart of his sermon. He embodies the invasion of God in himself and invites his disciples to follow him in it promising that they will not only bless all those around them in an extraordinary and loving way but will receive in their giving far more than they could ever hope to secure under any other regime imaginable.
Won’t you consider his perspective, his way of seeing the world and his life?