The Sermon on the Mount has been called the most important sermon ever preached.
It’s also been called the most ignored sermon of all time.
What if both statements are true?
Recently, I’ve been teaching a class at church on the Sermon on the Mount. I thought I’d begin a series of posts on my thoughts on the SOM. I have a feeling this sort of series will be fairly episodic in nature, spread out over several months. There’s just so much to be said here. (Case in point, I’ve been teaching for about 4 weeks now, and we’re up to the 3rd Beatitude!)
I want to begin by laying out some of my presuppositions that shape the way I approach the SOM:
Jesus meant what He said.
There is a common approach to reading a text like the SOM in which we want to “spiritualize” what Jesus has to say. I think we do this in particular with the SOM because we find Jesus’ words to be too challenging or too difficult to live out. That is, we write off what Jesus has to say as “spiritual guidance” or “matters that apply in the spiritual world”, but we ignore them as being very relevant to day-to-day life in the “real world”. Others can argue this in more compelling ways, but I believe this sacred / secular dichotomy is rooted more in Greek thought (specifically, Neo-Platonism) than Scripture. In fact, the Jewish worldview seems to be summed up quite nicely in a text like Psalm 24.1, The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it. In Jewish thought, there wasn’t as much room for this division of sacred & secular; from the Psalmist’s perspective, there is only one world and since that realm belongs to YHWH, it is necessarily a “spiritual” world. But when we operate with this firm sacred / secular division in our minds, it encourages an overly-spiritualized reading of the text. It allows me to read the SOM and say, “Yeah, Jesus says to love your enemy, but what He really means is that you should love him in your heart.” And this loving in your heart has very little to do with how you go about treating said enemy in the “real world”.
When I was in kindergarten, I had a problem with fighting. My mother would tell me things like, “When you hit somebody else, that makes God very sad, Jason. Jesus told us that we were to turn the other cheek and not fight.” But what she didn’t know was that my Dad would pull me aside and tell me that “in the real world”, I needed to be ready to stand up for myself. He didn’t give me permission to start a fight, but he made it clear that if anybody ever picked a fight with me, I had his permission to finish it. So when Blake King picked a fight with me in kindergarten, I bloodied his nose in front of the whole class. My Mom lectured me when I got home. When she was done, my Dad patted me on the back.
The way of Jesus is always at odds with the way of the world. But to assume that the way of Jesus is impractical and irrelevant to the “real world” is an affront to Christ’s lordship. When we reduce the Sermon on the Mount as applicable only to the interior (loving our enemies “in our hearts”) or, even worse, when we write it off as impractical for living in the “real world”, we ignore the true call of discipleship. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts forth an ethic of Kingdom living that shaped His life, even leading to His death. Perhaps we would do well to heed His teaching about “No servant is greater than his master. (John 13.16)” By ignoring the words of the Sermon on the Mount, do we, His followers, assume that we are somehow greater than our master? This is not to say that Jesus is not using hyperbole in certain places in the Sermon on the Mount; what I am saying is that I find it incredibly dangerous to “spiritualize” away the sections of the SOM that I find bothersome or difficult (which has been our default interpretation for far too long).
I believe that the categories of sacred / secular are false categories. I believe that disciples of Christ can’t have one way of living on Sunday and another way of living when it comes to the “real world” of Monday through Saturday. Simply put, I believe Jesus meant what He said in the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the Kingdom of God is the “real world”. With that presupposition in place, I can be about the business of trying to squeeze my life into this understanding of His words and His life.