“We were always taught that Jesus said these things to remind us of how utterly depraved we are.”
I am journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with some friends of mine, and we spend last Wednesday going through Jesus’ “re-interpretation” of the Torah in Matthew chapter 5. If you haven’t read it, you can see it here, but essentially Jesus selects a few of the Ten Commandments, and takes them to incredibly high levels:
- He says it’s not enough to “not kill”, but if you’re even angry with someone you’ve broken a commandment.
- It’s not enough to refrain from committing adultery; if you look at a woman (or a man, for that matter) lustfully you have broken the commandment.
- Divorce is prohibited except for pretty extreme circumstances (either sexual unfaithfulness or incest, depending on your interpretation of porneia in 5:32).
- Revenge is ruled out as well, as is swearing allegiance or taking oaths, and an overall rejection of human ideas of honor and humiliation.
It is an incredibly high standard of living; something that seems virtually unattainable.
So the question is, “Did he mean it?”
One school of thought—reflected by my friend’s comment above—is that Jesus never intended for us to be able to live that way. In fact only he could actually do it, and the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is therefore to remind us how awful we are; that we can never live up to this standard, and therefore we just grateful that Jesus would die for us wretched people.
Frankly, I find this image of Jesus cruel, and I just dont’ think that Jesus is in the “cruel” business.
Succinctly, I think:
1. He totally meant it, and furthermore,
2. He thinks we can do it.
Now in no way is it easy; in fact, it IS impossible, but only if we refuse to do the things that he did in order to live the life he lived.
One way that you can interpret Jesus’ kingdom pronouncement—”The Kingdom of God is here/near/among/within you”—is to hear or read it as, “The eternal life that you will live forever, in God’s presence, is available now.”
Ultimately, what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5 is what the “eternal life”, the kingdom looks like. Obviously Jesus lived this life perfectly, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to experience it for ourselves now as well.
I think this is the point he’s trying to get across.
What’s more, I think that he hints at how to start experiencing this kingdom life in the very structure of the Sermon.
Briefly, he begins the sermon with the Beatitudes. It’s easy to see that these are simply a way to say, “Before anything you are blessed. You don’t have to work for your blessing. You are blessed because of God’s love for the outcast, the outsider, the spiritual losers.” (And by the way, aren’t we all these things?)
After the Torah reinterpretation of Matthew 5, he spends over a chapter talking about working out your spiritual life in humility: away from the expectations (and praises) of others.
+ Praying in private
+ Giving in secret
These things, and others, are simply ways to humbly separate ourselves from the reward systems that our culture so readily gives us, but that ALSO go to reinforce the pathological parts of our existence, the parts that make us demand, and strive…
and crave revenge…
(In other words all the things he says we can’t do.)
Ultimately I think the Sermon is a call to live the Kingdom life, and to start doing it now. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that Jesus releases us from it, and ultimately it’s not working to be a person who isn’t angry, or lustful, or vengeful, or who swears allegiance to anything or anybody over God.
It’s about wanting to be that kind of person, and then living our lives as radically blessed as God while we intentionally cultivate humility.
That’s not easy, but I think Jesus believes in us.