While teaching a class on the Ray Vander Laan series, it occurred to me that the key to the Sermon on the Mount is the Story. It should have been obvious, but it takes a while for these things to sink in, you know.
There are, of course, as many theories of interpretation as there are interpreters. Here are few theories I’ve adopted (wrongly) over the years —
* The law theory. Jesus was legislating. Indeed, Matthew makes a point of Jesus being on a mount to show the parallel with Moses’ receiving the Torah on a mount. This is the new Christian torah. Obedience to this is how we’re saved.
* The “we need grace” theory. Jesus’ teachings are, of course far too difficult to actually obey. His point is not that we’ll go to hell if we fail to obey. Rather, it’s to open our eyes to the very strict level of obedience God requires, showing us why we desperately need grace.
* The “warm and fuzzy” theory. It’s not about obedience and commands and rules, dude. It’s just Jesus, you know? Just Jesus, man. (Well, actually, I’ve never been in this school of thought, as I never saw much thought in it.)
The problem with all three schools of thought is there’s not much in the context to support them. Jesus makes it clear he’s not repealing the Law of Moses.
(Mat 5:17-18) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
It’s a difficult saying, but we can’t just ignore it.
So let’s try the Story out.
God created man to live in perfect, intimate community with other people (especially our spouses) and with God. Sin ended this relationship and brought brokenness and Otherness into the world.
God set about restoring community through Abraham and then through Moses via a covenant. He formed a covenant community to whom he gave commands on how to live together and get along.
Finally, through his Son, he opened the way for the good news to bless all nations and for the Spirit to bring us all into a single community that gives Eden a beachhead back into this world — Oneness and community.
Now … if one of Jesus’ foremost goals was to help his disciples build an Edenic covenant community where people live in God’s family in community, what sort of instructions might he give?
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Now, these are plainly not commands. Jesus certainly wants us to be merciful, pure, and peacemakers. These are the sorts of people who create the community he wants for us. But he doesn’t want us to mourn or be persecuted. But he knows it’ll happen to many of us, and he wants us to know, because of our relationship with God, it’ll work out in the end. We’ll be blessed.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Here’s the mission — not as law but as nature. Our nature as God’s chosen people is to bring reconciliation — God’s love and God’s community — to those who don’t have it. We are to make the world around us tastier and brighter.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
To “fulfill” the Law and Prophets is to cause them to reach their intended goal. If you fulfill my wishes, you accomplish whatever goal I set for you. If the goal is right relationship — not just legal standing, not just forgiveness, but covenant community with God and his children — well, we see what the Law and Prophets have been pointing to all along.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
It’s about relationship. This is how we get along. We recognize that reconciliation with our brother is more important than ritual. God doesn’t need our worship, but God’s plan for us requires us to seek forgiveness of those we’ve sinned against. Hence, reconciliation is a priority.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Adultery is not just about the sex act. It’s about honoring your vows to your spouse so you can enjoy the relationship Adam and Eve enjoyed before sin entered their relationship. Therefore, don’t flirt with or fantasize about other women or men. Don’t give them the special friendship you committed to your spouse.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
If you divorce your wife in order to marry another woman, well, you’ve obviously violated the preceding instructions. You’ve made her break her vows to you despite her innocence, and by remarrying you’ve made reconciliation impossible.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Do you want to get along in your covenant community — your church? Keep your word. Keep your commitments. Tell the truth.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Get over this honor-code system where family honor is defined by vengeance. Do the (nearly) impossible and love those who treat you wrongly. After all, this is life. You’ll be mistreated. If you carry grudges or seek vengeance, you’ll make yourself miserable and destroy your community. No community can survive people who hold grudges and seek revenge.
Okay. That’s just one of three chapters, but I hope I’ve made my point. Jesus’ teachings are about the fulfillment of God’s plan for us, the Story. In that context, it all makes excellent sense. We might disagree on a nuance here or there, but the big picture is surely right.
Or, in other words, it’s about how the church is called to live — not ideally but really. He means it. And he gives us his Spirit to help us actually do it.
If you doubt me, go read 1 Corinthians 13 in light of its primary purpose — to tell us how a congregation should live together. It’s the same lesson taught in different words.
Does it apply to our relationships with non-Christians? Of course, because we want them to see how God calls us to live. They may not reciprocate, but they’ll notice the difference. And evangelism will never be the same.