Friday, September 04, 2009

So, How Good Are You? Really?

The Sermon on the Mount is a challenging section of scripture.  I've been mulling some things over recently, and renewed a line of thinking that struck me years ago.  I'd like to share a little of it with you.

The Sermon on the Mount may be one of the most familiar and best loved passages in all the Bible.  It's also more difficult than it first appears.  If you read scholars, you'll discover that there are numerous assumptions and attempts to give this sermon a theme, or to otherwise categorize it or give it a framework designed to explain what Jesus was teaching.  Some of it is good, and some of it is confusing.  For me, personally, the jury is still out on some overall view that gives meaning to all Jesus said.

Christians look at the sermon in various ways.  Some relegate it to the Old Testament period, and in doing so they end up giving the sermon little meaning for today's church.  Some lift it out of its "Law of Moses" context and turn it into a Christian Constitution.  Some think Jesus was laying down principles to be followed by his disciples forever.  There are other views.  I'll let you go sort them out.

The line of thought I've been wrestling with relates more to Jesus, the people to whom the sermon was delivered, the time frame in which it appears, and the immediate meaning and application of what he said.  That's a tall order, and I'm not going to try to deal with all of that here either.

I do think it's worth thinking about, however, because any application to us must take into consideration what Jesus said to them.  If you think this is a sermon in which Jesus just lays out thing we ought to do, I'd suggest you might have missed one of the major purposes of his teachings.  Does Jesus lay out things that would please God if they were to be found in us and practiced by us?  You bet!  But I think it misses something important.

In the section we know as the beatitudes, most commentators will state in one way or another, something to the effect that particular qualities encouraged by Jesus are simply not those commonly practiced by anybody.  That was true then, it remains true today.  Surely, those who are spiritually minded, regardless of the age in which they live, will pursue the kind of things Jesus taught.  But the truth is we don't do a very good job.  Even the best among us won't practice those things perfectly.  Yes, I think we can commend having these as a goal, and we can commend people who manage to practice them to whatever extent they do.  But why do we think anything less than perfect observance pleases God?

In Mt. 5:21-47, there is an entire section that follows a pattern of thought.  Each sub-section begins something like this:  "You've heard it said. . . but I say to you."  It's an interesting section.  Was Jesus quoting what the Law said, then giving his own interpretation of it?  It seems so in some places, but not altogether in others.  Was he quoting what the Rabbis taught, and then giving his own take on things?  I think that may come closer.  Regardless, he was certainly taking what the people of Israel had become accustomed to hearing (and practicing), and ripped it to shreds.  Take murder, for example.  The common thinking was that unless you've taken some weapon and gone out and murdered someone, then you haven't broken God's law.  Jesus said that a person is in trouble if you get angry and shoot off your mouth carelessly.  Nobody could be guilty of adultery unless they've actually committed sexual sin outside marriage.  But Jesus said that to look on a woman with lust in one's heart is to have already committed adultery.  Each sub-section follows suit.  Sin is violation of a standard human beings rarely apply to themselves.  It was true then, and it's still true today.  The arguments against the thinking of Jesus appeal to everything from common sense to consequences.  I understand the effort.  But try arguing that with Jesus, and you'll flat out miss his point.

In fact, Jesus made a statement following this section that we usually try to minimize a bit.  Matthew 5:48 says, "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." NASB95  We usually point out that the word really means "mature" and not "without flaw."  I understand that.  However, there is an obvious comparison made here that we can't ignore.  It's God on one hand, you and me on the other.  You can make "perfect" mean whatever you want to, and the result is still the same.  God will manifest that quality perfectly, without flaw.  Neither you or I will come close.  The ideal is that you do it just like God.  The reality is you haven't to this point, and won't later on either.

Chapter six begins with admonitions against practicing righteousness just for the sake of being noticed by other people.  Righteousness isn't some kind of game where we try to out-point one another.  It's a heart matter.  Jesus pointed to common practices of his day like giving, praying and fasting and roundly condemned the very people who used these things as measures of personal righteousness.  Does anyone come out looking good when Jesus gets through?  If so, I don't know who they are.  It's not people who didn't pray or fast at all, and it's not people to prayed and fasted as a means of getting noticed by others.  In the text of Jesus' sermon, I can't find anyone being congratulated.  I do find where people are being shown that righteousness is something different than they had thought.

If you don't think the attitudes Jesus attacked still exist today, I'd suggest you've been asleep under a rock.  Hyper-judgmentalism is alive and well today; in our churches; among people who claim to be Christians.  If we don't realize this, I don't think we can understand Jesus, much less make an current application.

Near the end of chapter six, Jesus said something that ought to shock us, amaze us, and shame us.  In Matthew 6:33 he said, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." NASB95  Jesus put seeking God's kingdom and righteousness in a place of priority above anything and everything else.  Wow.  I'm going to make a statement here that some will no doubt disagree with.  I've never met anyone who did that consistently, including me.  What I have seen is that people will make all sorts of excuses to, at least occasionally, slip something into life above God's kingdom and his righteousness.  I'm not being negative or condescending.  I'm trying to be realistic.  If we don't see how very different are the words of Jesus compared to how we really live, how can we ever appreciate what he taught?  We will forever be "dumbing-down" the real meaning of Jesus' words.

Then take things like judging others.  Basically, Jesus said we ought to get ourselves in order before we take on anyone else.  But we're likely to think, "Yes, but other people's problems are so obvious!"  Or, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as 'so-and-so'."  Really?  Then you're missed the fact that the issue isn't how you stack up against some other person, the issue is how you stack up against God.  How do you feel about things now?

The golden rule, as stated in Mt 7:12, is a fantastic maxim for life.  "Treat people the same way you want them to treat you."  I think I've known at least a handful of people who do a pretty good job at that.  But not every time, not completely consistently, and to be honest, the golden rule isn't practiced nearly as often as we'd like to think.  The real truth?  Human beings are still a pretty self-centered, selfish bunch of people.  If we can't admit to that, we miss just how powerful is the teaching of Jesus.

On and on we could go, but throughout the Sermon on the Mount, we keep bumping into the same things.  The standard Jesus upholds is a standard far different from the one we live.  I think, overall, that's the message he wanted to get across.  He wasn't preaching a sermon where anyone could get to the end and say, "Wow, do I feel great about how well I'm doing pleasing God."  No, I think anyone who really listened to his sermon got to the end and said, "Wow, I'm so far off the mark it's pitiful."  I know this sounds like a downer, but stay with me.

Nobody has ever, legitimately, been able to stand before God on the basis of their own achievements.  If you don't get that point, you will never fully appreciate the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The good news of Jesus will never be good until the bad news about ourselves is really bad.  We still struggle with this, "Well-I'm-not-such-a-bad-person-and-certainly-not-as -bad-as-a-lot" thinking.  It's so pervasive among present day humans it's almost hard to see.  This was what Jesus was fighting in his own day, and it's a common link that stretches across centuries and includes us today.

I think if you "get" the Sermon on the Mount, you'll be left with a great need.  You'll have to admit that in numerous places, Jesus just pointed out your shortcomings, failing, sin.  He put his finger on your attitudes, your mind-set and heart-set, and it's not good.  He showed you where you're on the wrong track, headed to nothing pleasing to God.  You're in deep trouble.  You really need a Savior, because you're just a mess.

So, I'll end by pointing you to one other verse.  It's found in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." NASB95  You and I need a Savior.  If we are to ever be righteous in God's sight, we're going to have to have something working for us that's better than anything we'll ever produce ourselves.

Don't think what Jesus taught is unimportant.  If we really want to try to please God, give the things in the Sermon on the Mount a shot.  But don't get too caught up in how well you do.  It won't be as good as you'd like to think.  But in Jesus, when you fail, you get to get up and try again.  You're wearing his righteousness.  Let it motivate you reach higher than you ever would before.