For the past several weeks we’ve been reading along in what has come to be known as “the Sermon on the Mount,” that collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus that Matthew arranges together and sets it in the context of Jesus’ teaching his disciples “on the top of the mountain.” Luke, as I mentioned last week, gathers up these teachings with his own twist, and sets Jesus’ teaching on a plain; thus, the “sermon on the plain.” Matthew, writing to a mostly Jewish audience, puts Jesus on “the mountain” to remind his community of that other great prophet and lawgiver, Moses, who went up “the mountain” to receive the law from God.
We talk about “the sermon on the mount” rather casually, referring to it as the core of Jesus’ teachings and maybe even claiming to try to live according to it, but as we’ve discovered, one might not be so casual about it if one had actually read it. Who was it that said that “it’s not that Christianity has been tried and failed, but rather that Christianity has never been tried”?
Indeed, the more we read this “sermon,” the more impossible it seems for anyone but Jesus to live that way–not only must we not murder, but we mustn’t get angry…not only must we not commit adultery, we must not experience lust… we must never divorce or swear anything more than yes, yes, or no, no; and here today, we read that we must turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, give even our undergarment to someone who sues us for our coat, walk a second mile with someone who forces us to walk a mile with them, and we are to love and pray for our enemies. Oh yes, and we are to be perfect, as God is perfect. It all sounds perfectly lovely and I’m sure the world would be a better place if we all lived this way, but get real, Jesus! Who can really live that way? Are these just the rules for the kingdom of heaven which we’ll experience “in the sweet by and by” because in our world, it would seem that living this way will get you beat up or killed, which, by the way, Jesus, happened to you.
On the left and on the right, the sermon on the mount is dismissed as an impossible, naive way to live. Ayn Rand, the philosopher and author and darling of the Tea Party, writes, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” (Cited by David Lose, WorkingPreacher.org, 2/18/14) Karl Marx, the father of socialism, wrote, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness, and humbleness.” (Lose, op cit.) So it would seem, and so according to the rules of “the world,” Jesus’ Way of living is foolishness. Which is why we need to take these teachings seriously enough to wrestle with them, dig deep into them, argue with them and, yes, even try them out, if we are to discover any treasure they might hold for us mere mortals.
“Jesus is ‘at his ornery best here,’” writes one commentator [Jason Byassee, cited by Mark Suriano in Samuel, ucc.org for 2/23/14], “offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one giving it.” Jesus is speaking to people who, for generations, have experienced the Law as being associated with the powerful and elite, who are guardians of the precise way to follow it, so that it has become little more than a burden and an obligation. Seen this way, the Law will not lead to any kind of transformational relationship with God, which is what Jesus is about.
I have spoken before about Walter Wink’s brilliant insights into this passage, where he discovered the Biblical roots of non-violence. It’s a review for some of you, but worth repeating, if only because the alternative–an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth–is rapidly turning ours into an eyeless, toothless world.
Walter wondered why Jesus would have made a point of saying, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek…” Did it matter which cheek? So, after having done some research about hand to hand conflict in that time, he had his students act out the scene. The only way that you could be struck on the right cheek by someone standing opposite you would have been with the back of the right hand, since the left hand was used only for matters of hygiene and there were even penalties for using it otherwise. So this was a slap of humiliation or domination, something Jesus’ audience would have been quite familiar with. To turn the other cheek would have required the hitter to use his right fist, which in turn would have implied a fistfight between peers.
And it clicked [Walter wrote]: Because the action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying: ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me. [Walter Wink, Just Jesus, pp. 66-7]
Similarly, indebtedness was probably the singlemost social issue in first century Palestine. So, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,” you were most likely a peasant, with little more than the clothes on your back. The outer garment or coat would have been the only thing you could put up for collateral, but the law said it had to be returned by nightfall, since it was a poor person’s only protection against the cold. “Give your cloak as well,” Jesus said, which at first seems ridiculous. The “cloak” was actually the undergarment, the only other piece of clothing a poor person had, and so following Jesus’ advice would leave them naked.
Put yourself in the debtor’s place
[Walter writes] and imagine the guffaws this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand and your underwear in the other. You have suddenly turned the tables on him. You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. But you have refused to be humiliated [there was no shame in nakedness, only looking upon nakedness], and at the same time you have registered a stunning protest against a system that spawns such debt. The creditor is revealed not to be a ‘respectable’ moneylender but to be a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution…This message, far from being a counsel of perfection unattainable in this life, is a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed. [Wink, op cit., p. 79]
Likewise, the saying about going the second mile with the one who has forced you to walk a mile, referred to the practice of Roman soldiers enlisting a local person to carry his heavy pack for one mile. There were actually strict rules about not going any further, to keep the locals from becoming too outraged, so by generously offering to carry the soldier’s pack another mile, you would not only catch the soldier off guard but might even force him to beg you to give his pack back, again, demonstrating your humanity and refusal to be humiliated.
This way of regarding the Law requires more of ourselves and the community supporting us. This is not simply an eye for an eye justice, which does have its own balance and fairness. This way of looking at the Law appeals to more than our primitive, reptilian brains, which lash out and demand revenge. This way goes deeper, to restorative justice, appealing to the higher function of Love which includes Justice and reconciliation, bringing both offender and the one offended into a new relationship and both, ultimately, into a transformative relationship with God. The rules of the world are not interested in that, but Jesus is beginning the revolution here to call those rules into question, proclaiming that we are created not just for so-called “justice”–an eye for an eye–but also for Love and Life. Indeed, that is our only hope.
The word Jesus uses for “perfect” here–”Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is telos – which means complete, mature, what your purpose is, what you are created for. Your true being, your essence, he is saying, is love and life, which is served neither by simply acquiescing to humiliation and injustice or by becoming the evil and violence that has hurt you.
A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine, decided to take on the project of “living Biblically for one year.” He had grown up non-religiously–”I was Jewish the way Olive Garden is Italian,” he said–and he was concerned about rising fundamentalism. He wanted to find out what the appeal was. So he made a list of all the rules in the Bible–more than 700, by his count–and set out to follow as many of them as he could for one year. He found it to be both challenging and life-changing. At the end of the year, he came up with 6 lessons he had learned–
1. Thou shalt not take the Bible literally. It’s impossible he said and talked about the ridiculous measures he had to go to observe of the rules. He spoke with extremely intelligent creationists who had to go through the most amazing mental gymnastics to take everything literally.
2. Thou shalt give thanks. I’ve learned this through positive psychology. It’s amazing the number of the things that go right in a day, Jacobs said, compared to the few things that go wrong. Giving thanks makes a difference in how you experience your life.
3. Thou shalt have reverence. Even though he considered–and still considers–himself an agnostic, there is something beautiful about sacredness, Jacobs says, something beautiful about taking time for sabbath, whether or not there is a God.
4. Thou shalt not stereotype. He spent time with various religious groups, including Mormons, evangelicals, Quakers, all sorts of folks. He said he discovered that evangelicalism is much wider than he had thought, including those who call themselves “red letter Christians” who point out that Jesus had absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality and a whole lot to say about caring for the outcasts. He said he was even able to out-talk the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who after 3 or 4 hours finally said they had to go.
5. Thou shalt not disregard the irrational. Religious rituals may be irrational, he said, but so are many of the things we do non-religiously–like blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Don’t disregard mystery.
And finally, Jacobs concluded after a year of living biblically, Thou shalt pick and choose. Choose the right parts, the parts about compassion and tolerance, rather than the parts about violence and intolerance, all of which are in the bible.
Perhaps most importantly, “My behavior changed my mind,” Jacobs concluded. Living this way changed the way I experienced the world. What if we actually tried living the Sermon on the Mount for a week? For the season of Lent? What if we worked at being mindful of our thoughts and intentions, our anger, our desires, our grudges? What if we engaged those who had wronged us not by “getting even” but by finding ways to appeal to their intrinsic humanity and transforming both their and our actions into a different relationship? What if we prayed for the jihadists and terrorists, not just that they might be struck down, though perhaps thwarted in their attempts at violence, but rather to understand their deepest longings, their love and passion for God and their families? It probably won’t change them–though it might–but it will most probably change us.
“We could pray vehemently [in worship] for the passing of the old order,” one commentator suggests, “and quietly live our lives the rest of the week, or we could pray vehemently for the passing of the old order and plant the seeds of the new by the living of our lives the rest of the week as Jesus preaches in the gospel today.” [Mark Suriano, op cit.] As one who put into practice these teachings of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. concluded, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The Sermon on the Mount is full of that kind of light and love. We are all too familiar with the shadows and hate. Let’s give Light and Love a try. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark