Wednesday, June 4

Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Gospel: Matthew 7:21-29 (The Two Builders)
Readings: Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-38 (29-31)
Genesis 6:9-22, Psalm 46
Date: Sunday, June 1, 2008
Preacher: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell


Today’s gospel contains evocative imagery about building a house on rock vs. sand. It comes at the tail end of the sermon on the mount. Jesus has just given the crowd his sermon. He concludes by saying that those who hear his words but don’t apply them are like people who build on sand. They will find themselves on very shaky ground when the winds and the rains come. Those who live out his message, on the other hand, will be safe when the elements threaten, because their house is built on rock.

Jesus seems to be talking about buildings, but he’s really talking about souls. How do we build up our souls, so they are sturdy, and not liable to crumble under duress? How do you build a soul that can stand up to the judgement of God? How do I live as a wise rather than a foolish person?

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the sermon on the mount. But it may be a while since you’ve checked it out in depth. It starts with the Beatitudes, the blessings: “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake...” Nothing too challenging in this for me – it’s lovely and counter-cultural but it’s not really the hard part. That comes next:

Referencing the 10 commandments, Jesus says not only will people be judged by God if they commit murder but also if they are simply angry at a brother or sister. And not only are you guilty of adultery if you sleep with someone else’s spouse, but if you merely lust after another person’s spouse. Jesus says if your eye or your hand causes you to sin – why just cut it off.
It doesn’t get any easier from there. Here are some of the other hard parts:

If a man divorces his wife, he causes her to commit adultery. And if someone marries a divorced woman he commits adultery.
Jesus says if someone strikes your cheek, turn the other one. If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak too. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies and pray for them. Don’t store up treasures on earth. You can’t serve God and wealth. Don’t worry about what you will eat, drink or wear. Don’t make a public show of your prayer or fasting—don’t seek to look pious. Don’t swear any kind of oath. Don’t judge, so you won’t be judged.

The crowd listening to this is astounded, or more accurately, shocked. And they are shocking words. What to do with these teachings? We might be able to pull of some of them, but all of them? How are they practical or even possible? How can we live like this – so perfectly, so radically – in a flawed universe where we are trying to survive? And do we even agree with all of it?

Its not only my question, or yours, it’s a question Christian communities and scholars have struggled with for a very long time. There are different theories about how to interpret the Sermon of the Mount. Different ideas about how literally to take it, and to whom Jesus was aiming his message.

I’ll talk about a few of them, because they provide helpful windows into Jesus’ sermon. I’ll summarize briefly, otherwise we’d be here a long time today.

There is the absolutist view. In this view, all teachings in the sermon on the mount should be taken literally. St. Francis, Bonhoeffer, and, in his later life, Tolstoy, held this view. The oriental Orthodox church takes this view, and the Anabaptists have come close to fully embracing it.

One of the most common views is the hyperbole view, which understands much of Jesus’s sermon as hyperbole, exaggeration. If we’re going to apply his words to real life, they need to be toned down. Most interpreters agree there is at least some hyperbole in the sermon, especially the part about cutting off your hand or eye if they cause you to sin. Whew.

Closely related to the hyperbole view is the general principles view, which argues that Jesus was giving us general principles about how to behave, rather than specific instructions.

There is the double standard view, the official position of the Roman Catholic church. This view divides the sermon on the mount into general precepts and specific counsels. Most people need only follow the general precepts in order to be saved; but people who wish to be perfect (for example, nuns, monks and priests) need to follow the specific counsels also. This view goes back to Augustine and was further developed by Aquinas.

Luther rejected the Catholic position and developed the two realms theory. Luther argued there are two realms, spiritual and temporal. The sermon on the mount can only be taken literally in the spiritual realm, but in the temporal world our obligations to family, employers and country make it necessary for Christians to compromise.

Albert Schweitzer popularized the “interim ethic” view. This is the idea that Jesus believed the world as he knew it was about to end, so he offered precepts about how to behave in the end times, where worldly survival is irrelevant.

Martin Dibelius developed the Unconditional Divine Will View. Dibelius believed Jesus's sermon expresses a mandatory code of ethics, but the world as we know makes it impossible to follow it. This will change when the Kingdom of God comes on earth. Until then, we must try to live up to these ethics, even while knowing we cannot succeed. This view is expressed in Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov.

The repentance view argues that Jesus knew the sermon on the mount would be too high for any human being to grasp, and that in failing, we would be driven to repent or to faith in the gospel.

There are other views but these are some of the main ones to consider. (source for information on views in the preceding paragraphs: New interpreter's Bible, Wikipedia).

And consider them we must. As Christians, you and I need to think about how the sermon on the mount applies to us. How literally can we, must we take it? I know some things in it are easier for me to do, and understand, than others. For example, I give to most, if not all, people who beg from me. But I don’t believe anger is the same as murder. I think anger is a natural human emotion that can sometimes protect us. There is such a thing as a just anger. Even Jesus got angry. Yes, anger has a flip side – it can be destructive and even addictive. But I would not say counsel someone by saying: “You must repent of your anger. Or: “You must repent of your lust.” Instead, I would counsel them to recognize and handle these feelings in ways that don’t harm themselves or others. So when Jesus says anger is tantamount to murder, I don’t think he’s judging our human emotions as inherently wrong, but saying – to a crowd that’s very focused on outward behavior– hey, pay as much attention to your attitudes as to your actions.

Jesus offers his Sermon as an addition to – and correction to -- the Ten Commandments. His sermon is his interpretation of the law and prophets. Jesus says he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Some people in Jesus’s time– including chief priests and elders –were abusing the law by advocating a strict outward adherence to it. As if simply avoiding murder, adultery, or oaths was enough to make one a righteous person. As if one could be saved by going rhough all the right motions, rather than developing a right spirit within. Jesus’s message in the sermon is that we must integrate "actions and attitudes, behavior and belief." (The Complete Bible Handbook, John Bowker, DK Publishing Inc., London, 1998). We need to be pure in heart, not just obedient to the law.

Paul says in today’s passage from Romans that we are saved by faith. Being a righteous person – getting right with God – no longer depends on obeying the law, but on having faith in Christ. Now neither Paul nor Jesus is saying “throw out or ignore the law.” They’re saying the law is no longer the source of our salvation. We are saved by faith in Christ who fulfills the law. This avoids a works righteousness – the idea that right actions alone will save us.

Matthew, author of today’s gospel, believed the teachings of Jesus couldn’t be separated from the person of Jesus. The sermon on the mount is not just a nice collection of sayings, and if you follow them, you will lead a good life and be OK. No. For Matthew, we also have to believe in Jesus, accept him as our savior, and approach the sermon on the mount in that context. We have to accept Jesus as Lord, not just as a good teacher. For Matthew Christology – who Christ is – cannot be separated from ethics – what Christ teaches (New Interpreter's Bible).

The sermon on the mount makes more sense to me, when I understand where Matthew was coming from on this. The idea of faith being the context in which to understand Jesus’s teachings. When I made an adult decision to follow Christ—when I accepted Christ as savior – not just his teachings – but Him, I feel I built on solid rock, and escaped some sinking sand.
When we look at the sermon on the mount, and how it does or doesn’t apply to our lives, we need to do so in the context of having faith in Christ. It’s faith that’s paramount.

We can’t prove ourselves by madly trying to adhere to everyone of these precepts. This alone will not save us. Rather, we are saved by our commitment to make Christ the rock we build on. It is our faith in Christ that give us the strength to try to follow his very difficult, even impossible, teachings.

So we need to approach the sermon on the mount with both humility and patience. Paul says all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. How true. We don’t go around saying “I’m built on the rock and you’re not.” “I’m following Jesus’s teaching and you’re not.” “Nanana boo boo.” Building a sturdy soul that can stand up to life’s vicissitudes and to ultimate judgement is an ongoing process. We get there when we get there, if we ever get there. None of us is in a position to be judgmental and didn’t Jesus say “judge not? Paul says “Don’t boast.”

Part of what Jesus is taking to task in his sermon is arrogance. The arrogance that was a prevailing wisdom in his time – and still in ours – that suggested if you were materially comfortable or otherwise living a pretty easy life you must be blessed by God. Jesus offers the sermon on the mount in part to address this kind of arrogant judgement against the poor and unfortunate. So humility is necessary, lest we make judgements against those who are victims of natural disasters, violence, poverty, or illness, and conclude that perhaps...they have built on sinking sink.

Building a soul is a process, so as well as being humble, we must be patient with ourselves and each other. If we stumble in the process of living out Christ’s sermon -- and who doesn’t? --we know that we are ultimately on solid footing, because through faith we have built our house on the solid rock that is Christ.

One last word, because this is tricky stuff. It’s still easy to get caught between a rock and a hard place on this – no pun intended. Because on the one hand if we say "don’t worry too much about taking everything in Jesus’s sermon on the mount literally," we can be in danger of offering ourselves and others cheap grace. But on the other hand, if we insist on taking it literally, we may miss the reality of grace, being so focused on works righteousness.

I think the Flood Story in today's readings from Genesis gives us a window into this, in that it shows a progression in how God approaches humanity. First, via the Flood, God wipes us out in an attempt to correct us. The God makes a covenant with Noah that God will never again destroy the earth. Later God gives us the Law, to correct our tendencies toward violence and general depravity. Then God gives us the prophets to return our hearts to justice. Finally, God gives us Jesus, God’s own son, who through his life and sacrifical death, shows us an alternative to violence and selfishness. Now it is faith in that Christ, and the grace of God, that save us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents his own interpretation of the Law and the prophets, expressing their true meaning through his words and his own being. Perhaps what all our readings taken togehter show us is that God gives us ever more effective ways of combatting our human weaknesses, even if none of them are easy.

I’m in danger of not being able to wrap up everything. But my thinking on sermons has changed a bit. Instead of having to tie up all the loose ends into a neat, tidy bow, I like to think we can do that work together in discussion, and through our shared life in faith.