We’re making our way through the first part of The Sermon on the Mount right now, a little piece each Sunday. That’s the big chunk of Matthew’s gospel that recounts some of Jesus’ significant teachings early in his ministry. There was a crowd, Jesus sat down on the hillside where everyone could see and hear, and he preached. For quite some time, I would guess, because there’s some big stuff in there and it goes on a bit. And since I doubt the author of Matthew was writing it all down in the moment, it could just be the highlights anyway, everything they could remember later or that was shared orally before it was written down. It’s the gist of it, basically.
At least, that’s how the author of Matthew framed it. It could be that the one sermon package is just a literary device, a way of presenting a bunch of teachings over a period of time in different places all in one block.
Either way, a debate on the construction of what we call The Sermon on the Mount isn’t my point. It’s just that I can’t help but think that it was formatted this way for a reason. Hard to tell if you’re a church goer, because, like everything else, in a church setting, we hear a bit each week so we can dissect it, analyze it, expound on it and, yes, interpret it. Each little fragment.
That’s important and has its place, but I wonder if that doesn’t lead us to miss “the forest for the trees” a bit. And it’s a big forest, huge even. It seems to me that all the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount connect to the theme that Jesus brings new life to a world that’s lost sight of what real life is about: a love that empowers, nurtures and grows both the individual and the world to which they’re inextricably connected. Seeking - and finding - wholeness and fulfilment, with ourselves, each other and God, are part of this real life.
So let’s take that forest-like idea and focus on a tree for a minute. Dropped into a spot right between the teaching on how we’re like salt to season the world and a light to enlighten it, and the teaching that we should love our enemy, are a few words about The Law.
Don’t think that I’m teaching something other than the law, says Jesus. “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). That fulfillment, I think, is to bring people back to the understanding that it’s not about legality or the letter of the law, it’s about what’s at the heart of the law: living right with ourselves and others. And he has some examples: you know it’s wrong to murder, but it’s also wrong to be angry or hateful to another person because you can kill a relationship, too; there are laws about adultery and divorce, but behaviour and legality aren’t the end of it, it’s about being in right relationship, both with yourself and others; and don’t be dishonest about what you’re saying with oaths or promises, say yes or no and mean it because honesty is at the heart of a relationship. And that’s just the point. It’s what’s at the heart of the law, not the words, that brings us to loving God, loving ourselves and loving our neighbours.
Let’s jump back out to the big picture again. Here’s how I see it. There was a time when the Hebrew people were lost and had no sense of direction, no sense of community or how to live with each other. They’d been slaves in Egypt for so long, they only knew how to be slaves. And here they were in a wilderness, not only geographically, but as a people. So Moses asked God for some direction and I think the conversation went something like this. God said okay, Moses, here’s a Top Ten List of important rules that will help people live right, for themselves and with each other. Great, said Moses, Ten Commandments. Well, said God, they’re not really commands so much as Foundational Principals for Nurturing Wholeness in People and Building Community. Hmm, said Moses, I’m just going to go with commandments. So the people welcomed the commandments and began to live by them. And then there were more laws and more laws. And legality became more important than justice and behaviour more important than relationships and power over others more desirable than sharing with them. And we’re lost again.
Jesus brings us back. Or, at least, tries to. We have this free will thing: we can choose. So Jesus hopes that we’ll choose life, the life that’s at the heart of living right with ourselves and each other. And that should be the point, whether it’s framed in the words of the 1st century or the 21st century.