[Taken from the monthly Notes, May 2012]
I am sure that many who read this editorial have heard at least one person say something like this: “I don’t believe all that religious stuff about Jesus, I just live by his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.” Really? If people realised the solemn danger of such a statement they would not be so quick to claim the Sermon on the Mount as their basis for life. To live perfectly according to the pattern given in the Sermon on the Mount is commendable; failure to live up to its demands, even in only one area, is condemnable. And, to date, no-one but Jesus has managed to reach such a high standard, and we can confidently say that before He comes again, no-one else ever will. So why does Jesus set forth such a high, impossible standard?
If we are honest, there’s a little bit of the bush lawyer in all of us that likes to argue like this, “I’m really not a bad person; not when compared with that person over there.” No doubt there were many in Jesus’ day who drew comfort from the fact that they had not murdered anyone, nor run off with another’s spouse. Perhaps they hoped that Jesus would commend them for their high moral integrity. They were well respected members of the community: pillars in fact; regular synagogue attendees who did not swear or dishonour the Lord’s Name. There have always been such people, and there are such in our own day: good citizens, outwardly moral and even church-goers! How shocking Jesus’ words must have been to them as he gave the words of the ancient Law an uncomfortable extension : “… everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty…” and “… whoever looks on a woman to lust …” has already broken the law.
When Matthew records that Jesus sat down to teach on the mountain, [Matt 5:1] he was very deliberately drawing our attention to another time that God had spoken on the Moral Law; Sinai. On that occasion, it thundered, and the people fled in fear. But with 1400 years of familiarity and self-righteous excuses, the law had lost its force. It was something to be applied to others, and then to external matters. It was the “low life” who sinned, not religious people. [For proof of this, see Luke 18:9-14]
A moment’s serious reading makes it unmistakably clear that the Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be an easy alternative to facing the Law of God! [5:17-18] God has not changed His morality or His ethics. Jesus was not going soft! Rather, He was deepening and intensifying the Law’s application in a way that few in His day may have cared to admit. Jesus’ words bring the Law of God to bear upon the inner person, yours included holding up thoughts, motives and affections to the searching standard of God’s holiness. As Jesus said on another occasion, it is what comes out of man, out of the heart, that renders him [or her] unclean. [Mark 7:17-23]
In my experience there is usually only one saying of Jesus in these chapters which people really cling to, and that is His “Judge not that you be not judged …” [Matt 7:1]. I cannot recall how many times those words have been taken out of context and turned around. Either the first two words, “Judge not, ” are read as a command and emphatically turned into a rebuke akin to, “How dare you speak of my sin!” or Jesus’ logic is completely reversed and His words are taken to mean, “If I don’t judge anyone, that must means God won’t judge me either.” Nonsense.
Yes, the Sermon on the Mount does speak of comfort, but it is a comfort appointed only for those who see their sin and who embrace Jesus as the Saviour He is. To them He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”