Sermon for Fourth Sunday before Lent
Sunday 13 February 2011
The Sermon on the Mount
During the very elongated run up to Lent we have this year because of the lateness of Easter, we are reading large portions of the Sermon on the Mount. This is not, as has been suggested a pep talk given by the trainer just as Lester Piggot or some other famous jockey gets onto his horse before the Grand National. Rather it is that section of St Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus gives a large amount of moral teaching. It extends from chapter 5 to chapter 7 of the gospel and begins with the Beatitudes – blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit etc., famously caricatured in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. You may remember the scene. The Pythons are standing at the back of the crowd and are trying their best to hear what Jesus is saying. But it’s no good. The best they can make out is “Blessed are the cheesemakers” – for those who don’t recall, Jesus actually said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” – an understandable misunderstanding!
But what’s this Sermon all about? Well to start with most scholars agree that Jesus didn’t preach one enormous sermon all about morality all at one time. Matthew or somebody before him collected together a large amount of his ethical teaching given at various times and places and made it into one continuous piece. Matthew put it in his gospel at this point because he wanted it to parallel or reflect the giving of the law to Moses. Moses is given God’s moral law on a mountain and likewise Jesus gives the new law on a mountain. So what is in the Sermon on the Mount? The simple answer is, a lot! It starts with an introduction (Matthew 5:1-2). A large crowd is attracted by Jesus’ healing of the sick. He climbs a mountain to address the crowd. First come the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) which really describe the character of the people of the kingdom. After that we hear the Metaphors of Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus then expounds the Law (Matthew 5:17-48). Part of this section was read in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus presents himself as fulfilling the Law, but he also reinterprets it, using the contrast “you have heard … But I say to you”. After this comes what has been called the ‘Discourse on Ostentation’ (Matthew 6). Jesus condemns “good works” when they are only done for show, and not from the heart. He goes on to condemn materialism and calls the disciples not to worry about material needs, but to seek God’s kingdom first. Matthew places the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer within this discourse. The ‘Discourse on Judgmentalism’ (Matthew 7:1-6) follows in which Jesus condemns those who judge others before first judging themselves. Finally there is the ‘Discourse on holiness’ (Matthew 7:7-29) in which Jesus warns against false prophets, and emphasises that we are unable to do what is right (“bear fruit”) apart from God. Our foundation must be the Rock of his teaching.
One of the most striking things about the Sermon on the Mount is the intensity of its moral demands. This morning’s gospel contains some of these: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away”. (5:29) “If your right hand sin, cut it off and throw it away”. (5.30) He also says, in effect, that anger is equivalent to murder. He tells us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. How are we to understand this teaching? How can we live up to these astonishingly high standards? It is a problem which has puzzled Christians down the generations. Some, of course, have simply said that we must. Here is Jesus’ moral teaching and we must abide by it. But most have not taken this view. Some have modified its teaching to fit it to their views. Similarly some interpreters have said that much of it is sheer hyperbole, exaggeration, to make a point. There clearly is exaggeration in the Sermon – tear out your eye, cut off your hand – but the problem is that it is difficult to distinguish between what is and what isn’t hyperbole. Another approach divides the teachings of the sermon into general precepts and specific counsels. Obedience to the general precepts is essential for salvation, but obedience to the counsels is only necessary for perfection. The majority of Christians need only concern themselves with the precepts; the counsels must be followed by only a pious few such as the clergy and monks. This is the traditional Roman Catholic approach to the Sermon. It was rejected by Martin Luther who divided the world into the religious and the secular and argued that the Sermon only applied to the spiritual. In the secular world, obligations to family, employers, and country force believers to compromise. Thus a judge should follow his civic obligation to sentence a criminal, but inwardly, he should mourn for the person’s fate. One Lutheran approach says that the Sermon is intended to make us aware of our need for God’s grace. We try to live by its teachings, discover that it is impossible, and realise that we must fall back on the grace and forgiveness of God. One of the great Christians of the last century, Albert Schweitzer, described the sermon as an ‘interim ethic’. In his view Jesus believed the world would end imminently and the ethics taught by him are for the very short period of time before the end.
Many modern Christian writers take very seriously the fact that the Sermon as Matthew presents it to us isolates Jesus’ moral teaching from his other teaching. Above all it leaves out the centrepiece of his message that in and through Jesus God’s Kingdom comes into the lives of his followers. It is because and only because this is happening that we can live virtuous lives. The ethical teaching of Sermon on the Mount sounds harsh, even negative. But that is because it is not preceded by the glorious good news of the coming of God’s Kingdom. Because God’s Kingdom has come we are enabled to live lives along the lines of Jesus’ teaching here and now to the degree that the Kingdom has penetrated our lives. The Sermon on the Mount was never intended to completely regulate the lives of Christians. Rather it shows us examples of how we might live out our lives in the light of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is giving us some ideas as to how the entry of the Kingdom many affect our moral experience. Through them he is calling us to apply his law of love to every aspect of our lives. The Sermon is not to be slavishly followed, but nor should it be subly sidelined. Rather it should inspire us as Kingdom people to live lives worthy of the great love and forgiveness we have received from God our Father in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Fourth Sunday before Lent | Sunday 13 February 2011