18 August 2016

The Sermon on the Mount.

The ways people interpret—and weasel out of—Christ Jesus’s teachings.

Matthew 7.24-27 • Luke 6.47-49

When people read the New Testament, even though evangelists tell ’em to read John first, they usually go to Matthew, the first book. So their first real introduction to the teachings of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount.

As, I would argue, it should be. John is great for talking about our salvation and God’s character. But now that we’re saved, how are we to live? What are the good works God has in mind for us? Ep 2.10 Duh; Sermon on the Mount.

Three chapters of solid Jesus. If you’ve got a copy of the bible which puts his letters in red, that’s three solid-red chapters. Entirely consisting of instructions on how he expects his followers to interact, treat others, and follow him. Pretty challenging instructions, too.

A little too challenging for a lot of Christians. For some new believers, it’s like a punch in the face. This is what Jesus expects of us? Righteous behavior? Self-control? Radical forgiveness? Integrity? Total faith in God? No double standards? In fact higher standards than the most religious people we know? Christ Almighty!

Some of us figure, “Okay,” and give it a shot. But historically, most Christians have looked at the Sermon on the Mount, balked, and tried to find loopholes just like Pharisees. The result has been the five most common ways Christians choose to interpret the Sermon on the Mount. Four of ’em, obviously, are attempts to weasel out of it.

1. Take none of it literally.

The most common way Christians nullify the Sermon on the Mount, is treat it as allegory, a big fat metaphor for what Jesus really meant. We’ll debate over what that “real meaning” is, but in the meanwhile: Take none of it literally. Even the parts where Jesus clearly stated he did so mean it literally.

How do people justify allegorizing the whole thing? Simple: In some bits of the Sermon, Jesus spoke in hyperbole, exaggerated statements meant to grab our attention, but never meant to be literally followed. Like plucking out our eyes and cutting off our hands lest we sin. Mt 5.29-30 Like beams in our eyes, Mt 7.3-5 throwing pearls to pigs, Mt 7.6 giving kids rocks instead of bread or serpents instead of fish. Mt 7.9-10 Since he used hyperbole here, these Christians assume the whole is hyperbole. Nothing’s to be taken literally.

Fr’instance when Jesus instructs us to not resist an evildoer. Let him slap you around; do for him whatever he wrongly demands. Mt 5.39-41 That’s a really hard instruction to follow. Protesters during the 1950s Civil Rights movement tried it—and by golly it worked—but the rest of us assume it’s entirely impractical. Jesus had to have been exaggerating. More hyperbole.

But why don’t we follow it? Duh; we don’t wanna. It’s humiliating. People will take advantage, and abuse us, and Jesus can’t want his followers to be doormats. Besides, what if the evildoer plans to rape or murder us, or harm our loved ones? Screw that: We’re gonna fight back. In Esther, the Jews didn’t stand for that; they were permitted by the government to get some weapons and kill ’em back. Es 8.11-13 And that’s what we Christians in the United States have done with our government: If a man smacks our right cheek, we have every right to kick him in the balls. If a man sues for our shirt, we’re gonna try to kick him in the balls. If a man demands we carry his gear for a mile?—right you are, right in the balls. And we’ll feel mighty righteous in doing so. The Sermon’s just hyperbole anyway.

Extend this “it’s all hyperbole” interpretation to the rest of the bible, and you’ll magically find you don’t have to follow a word of it. Or believe it, for that matter. It’s all mythology.

But what about the bit where Jesus says those who dismiss him are like a fool who builds a house on sand? Mt 7.26-27 Oh, they insist, they’re not that fool. They don’t really dismiss Jesus; they read the Sermon and know what he taught. But they’re not dummies. They know Jesus didn’t really mean it. Instead they dig around for the “principles” behind his lessons, and follow those principles—once they’ve deduced them, and tweaked them to their satisfaction. And don’t take the parable of the house on sand literally either.

You see the problem. Treating the Sermon as if it’s all hyperbole means we can repurpose it to mean whatever we wish. Jesus’s intentions and purposes? Irrelevant. God’s will? Don’t care. Evildoers? Kick ’em in the balls.

2. Push it into the past.

A dispensation is a plan of salvation, like God’s plan to save us by his grace, by making those of us who were dead meat thanks to sin, alive in Christ Jesus. Ep 2.5 And dispensationalism is the belief God has multiple dispensations: Currently he saves by grace, but in the past he saved other ways.

Dispensationalism isn’t taught in the bible. At all. You gotta really bend the meaning of certain verses in order to get ’em to back the idea. Dispensationalists will bend John 1.17 and claim God used to save by the Law of Moses, but now grace and Jesus. But the Law is a form of grace; Jn 1.16 the LORD gave the Law to his people after he already saved them from Egypt. Ex 20.2 Exactly like the Sermon on the Mount, the Law doesn’t save and never did. Ga 2.16 It’s how God wanted his people, now that they’re saved, to do good works.

So why do so many Christians teach dispensationalism? ’Cause one of the dirty little secrets of dispensationalism, is it permits Christians to nullify scriptures.

Don’t wanna obey the Law? No problem: Claim it’s part of a previous plan of salvation. One which God isn’t using anymore. So we can read it as a history lesson, but it doesn’t apply to our lives anymore, and we can ignore it. Skip it. Even break it.

Don’t wanna follow the Sermon on the Mount? Again, no problem: It’s Jesus’s interpretation of the Law, which he taught before he died on the cross for our sins. But once he died, the Grace Dispensation kicked in—so no commands, anywhere, apply any longer. The Sermon on the Mount is no longer how people in God’s kingdom are expected to behave, ’cause God’ll accept anyone. Even people who live their lives in utter rebellion against him and his wishes.

Forget the red letters; get out the red pen. ’Cause look what Jesus taught in the Sermon! Not even Jesus’s statements about how it all still counts, still counts!

Matthew 5.17-20 KWL
17 “Don’t assume I came to dissolve the Law or the Prophets.
I didn’t come to dissolve but complete:
18 Amen! I promise you, the heavens and earth may pass away,
but one yodh, one penstroke of the Law, will never pass away; not till everything’s done.
19 So whoever relaxes one of these commands—the smallest—and thus teaches people,
they’ll be called smallest in the heavenly kingdom.
Whoever does and teaches them,
they’ll be called great in the heavenly kingdom:
20 I tell you, unless morality abounds in you, more than in scribes and Pharisees,
you may never enter the heavenly kingdom.”

So yeah, that’s dispensationalism: A big giant loophole which makes it so we don’t have to obey Jesus at all. All sins are dissolved, we can take God’s grace for granted, and we can get into the kingdom anyway.

Of course it makes no logical sense. Why would Jesus teach this Sermon, only to invalidate it a few years later by his death? Why would the apostles remember it, write it down, and teach it to Jesus’s future followers? Why even have it in the bible? Doesn’t the idea of Jesus nullifying his own teaching, strike you as the behavior of a flip-flopping politician instead of the infallible Son of Man?

3. Push it into the future.

The Sermon on the Mount is entirely about God’s kingdom (or as Jesus tends to call it in Matthew, “the heavenly kingdom”) and how it works. Pretty much all Jesus’s teachings are about the kingdom.

But where’s the kingdom?

Ah, that’s the thing, many a Christian will point out: It’s not of this world. Jn 18.36 It’s in heaven. These rules apply to heaven. Not earth. So when we die, this is how thing’ll be. On earth… not so much, although in the Lord’s Prayer we can ask for God’s will, which is supposedly what heaven runs on, be done here on earth. Mt 6.10

Meanwhile people are gonna be awful. Life’s gonna suck. ’Cause the Sermon isn’t about earth, but heaven. Doesn’t apply to us in the here and now. Never will.

Well, that’s the way Christians tend to interpret the End of Days view of the End. They figure life on earth is gonna suck, but then we die, go to heaven, and experience the kingdom there.

What about those Christians who figure Jesus is returning to set up his kingdom on earth? Oh, most of us act the very same way. The kingdom’s not here yet, and won’t be till Jesus invades. Then the Sermon on the Mount goes into effect. It’s Jesus’s goal for the future. It’s how his future kingdom’s gonna look, once he’s finally in charge. Not so much the present.

Either way, the Sermon doesn’t apply here. It applies somewhere else: Heaven, or Jesus’s future earthly kingdom. But not here. Here, it’s Jesus’s ideal, and should be our ideal. We look at the Sermon for how things oughta be, and apply it where we can. Well, where practical. But since the kingdom isn’t here, it’s not practical to apply these guidelines across the board.

Let’s use the example of evildoers. In the future kingdom, once Jesus reigns and all us Christians are resurrected and indestructible, we needn’t resist evildoers, because we needn’t worry about evildoers. Their slaps won’t hurt. Their demands won’t harm us. We’ll be beyond the worries and indignities of people being awful to us. But in the present day, where we’re still mortal and fragile, where their demands can even ruin or kill us, it makes no sense to capitulate to their demands. Stick to kicking ’em in the balls.

Thus when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., back in the 1950s, tried to convince his protesters to not resist evildoers, there were a large number of Christians who thought he was nuts. Not resist evildoers? You do realize the evildoers are gonna turn the dogs and firehoses on you, right? You can’t practically apply the Sermon on the Mount to the present day; you’ll get killed. The kingdom hasn’t come yet!

King’s upbringing and education hadn’t taught him to interpret the Sermon on the Mount this way. Americans didn’t bother to follow the Sermon on the Mount; that’s why we practiced segregation in the first place. King was instead inspired by a Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, who’d read the Sermon on the Mount, saw similarities between Christ Jesus and Hindu teachings, decided to actually try nonviolence… and won the independence of India from the United Kingdom. Kinda sad when pagans take Jesus more seriously than his own followers. King didn’t repeat that mistake.

Theologians tend to refer to the many attempts to push the Sermon into the future as eschatological (which is theologian-speak for “End Times”) interpretations. They come in a bunch of different variations. The dispensationalists say the Sermon will someday apply in a future dispensation. The utopians teach as society gets more and more Christian, the Sermon will become more and more applicable. Hey, whatever rationale lets us evade Jesus’s teachings for now. (If not forever.)

4. Let it drive you to grace.

In the Middle Ages, the popular view of the Sermon on the Mount was it only applied to bishops, priests, deacons, friars, and monastics. In other words, professional Christians. Clergy.

But Christian commoners couldn’t possibly follow it. The world is too pagan and sinful, so the Sermon is too impractical. The kingdom isn’t of this world, remember? But within the walls of the church, the kingdom was sorta in the world, ’cause the church follows Jesus as our King. So in this shadow kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount works. If you take holy vows, dedicated yourself to full-time ministry, and separate yourself wholly from the secular world, you could follow the Sermon perfectly! Too bad for everyone else.

This was the worldview Martin Luther was introduced to when he became a monk. His leaders expected him to follow the Sermon—plus all the other customs and requirements the church imposed on monks. And if you know Luther’s story, these standards made him nuts. He found himself totally unable to live up to these requirements. He didn’t yet realize God’s grace fills in all the blanks. Once he finally did, it blew his mind.

Problem is, Luther took Paul’s statements about the Law—

Romans 7.7-13 KWL
7 So what am I saying?—“The Law is sin?” Never gonna happen.
But I don’t know how to define sin unless it’s through Law.
I hadn’t known what coveting was till the Law said, “You will not covet.” Ex 20.17
8 Sin, taking advantage of the command, overwhelmed me with all sorts of coveting!
Sin is dead without the Law, 9 and previously I lived without the Law.
When the command came, sin lived again! 10 —and I died.
I found this life-giving command to be death-giving:
11 Sin, taking advantage of the command, tricked me and killed me with it.
12 So yes, the Law is holy;
the command is holy, righteous, and good.
13 So did the good thing become death to me? Never gonna happen.
But sin could produce death in me through a good thing.
Thus it could be revealed as sin;
thus sin, through the Law, could become especially sinful.

—and applied ’em to the Sermon on the Mount. The Law defines sin, and we know what sinners we are because we break the Law. Well, the Sermon also defines sin, ’cause Jesus closed a few of the Pharisees’ loopholes in the Law. Which also exposes what sinners we are. But this made Luther feel particularly sinful. He felt he couldn’t live up to the Sermon—but thanks to grace, he didn’t feel he really had to.

No, Luther was no libertine. Let’s not make that mistake. Luther believed God was serious when he issued his commands; believed Jesus was serious when he preached his Sermon. Good Christians oughta make a serious effort to obey what we can. But the greater purpose of the Law and the Sermon on the Mount, is to ultimately show us we can’t obey God to perfection. We’re never gonna earn our way to salvation. Isn’t possible. Don’t be stupid and try.

Luther concluded Jesus made the Sermon on the Mount deliberately too hard. Who’s gonna successfully go through life without ever being angry with their fellow Christian? Mt 5.22 Without ever experiencing lust? Mt 5.28 Without occasionally being anxious about food, drink, or clothing? Mt 6.25 We’re such sinners, we’re inevitably gonna slip up. It’s an impossible standard. But don’t freak out about it: We have grace.

The only down side to Luther’s idea: We wind up with a lot of Christians who miss Luther’s intent, and figure since the Sermon is impossible to fully implement, give up. Don’t bother. It doesn’t drive them to grace, so much as it drives ’em to despair about ever being good or obeying God. They’re not entirely sure how to deal with a God who piles such impossible burdens on his children.

Me, I don’t believe Jesus did make his Sermon too impossible to follow. It’s only gonna be impossibly hard for people who expect to fulfill it under their own power, without the fruit of the Holy Spirit. When God tells us to do the impossible—like when Jesus told Simon Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water Mt 14.28-29 —you do realize he’s offering us the power to achieve it, right? True of miracles; true of righteousness.

5. Do it!

If God tells us to do something, yet doesn’t really mean for us to do it, it makes him a hypocrite.

To quote Paul, mi ghénoito/“Not gonna happen.” God has infinitely more integrity than that. Same with Christ Jesus. When he taught it in the Sermon on the Mount, he meant it. Not always literally; don’t start plucking your eyes out. But he did mean it seriously. Sin should bother us so much, we’d rather pluck out our eyes than sin. Sin should bother us so much, we’d rather saw off limbs. It doesn’t, and that’s the problem. We’d rather risk the fire.

The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to teach us something firm. Something Jesus wants us to live our lives by. He doesn’t want us with a Christianity that’s purely academic, imaginary, or hypothetical. Reality’s gonna come up and kick us in the tuchus. Christians who think our religion is purely philosophical, are always ill-prepared for the pressures and tribulations of life. When problems come, and they always do, these irreligious Christians either quit—or get religious. Hopefully get religious.

To be fair, too many churches wrongly teach us to be irreligious. They don’t teach us to follow the Sermon on the Mount, but to get our theology straight. Don’t read Matthew first; read John. (No, I’m not knocking John; I love John. But you see the problem.) How we build a house on solid rock is not by following Jesus, but by believing all the proper things about God.

So we get our faith straight… but without the works. Which Jesus’s brother James rightly called dead faith. Jm 2.17 We create a construct of the mind, and latch onto happy thoughts. But none of that is concrete! Obeying Jesus is.

So when people quit Christianity, or “lose their faith,” it’s not really because a crisis made ’em waver and leave. It’s because the crisis finally revealed the deadness of their faith. Rather than go to God and ask him to make it real instead of imaginary, make it alive instead of dead, they gave up and went away.

Actions, in comparison, are tangible. They exist in the real world. They’re footprints in the sand which anyone can see. Fruitless Christians object they don’t prove our faith is real; it’s all just Christians being good to salve our consciences. That’s a cop-out, invented by people who don’t love God enough to live like he wants. When we get off our behinds and act in faith, God shows up. Sometimes in little ways; sometimes in huge miracles which nobody, not even skeptics, can explain. But this is why Jesus told us to act. When we follow God, he grants us God-experiences. And that’s solid rock.

Just as Jesus described it.

Matthew 7.24-27 KWL
24 “So everyone who hears these words of mine and does them
will be like a sensible man who builds his house on the bedrock.
25 The rain descended, rivers came, winds blew, and attacked that house.
It didn’t fall, for it had been founded on bedrock.
26 Everyone hearing these words of mine and doesn’t do them
will be like a stupid man who builds his house on the sand.
27 The rains descended, rivers came, winds blew, and attacked that house.
It fell, and its disaster was great.”
Luke 6.47-49 KWL
47 “Everyone coming to me, hearing my words, doing them: I’ll show you what it’s like.
48 It’s like a person building a house, who dug down and put a foundation on bedrock.
When the tide came, the river burst on that house,
and wasn’t strong enough to shake it, because it was well-built.
49 Those who hear, who don’t do:
It’s like a person building a house on land without a foundation.
The river burst on it, and next it collapsed.
The destruction of that house became great.”

Living faith produces fruit. Acts follow it. Obeying Jesus means we do stuff. We actually follow the Sermon on the Mount, instead of applaud it as a nice idealistic treatise. We take Jesus seriously enough to help him construct his kingdom, instead of sitting on the sidelines, watching others work, hoping it’ll all come together, yet doubting—and never really knowing—whether it will. We watch for ourselves as the kingdom happens before our eyes.

Storms come. Always do. But though rain comes down in buckets, the river smashes against us, and a tornado or two tries to rip the roof off, we won’t collapse. We can’t. We’ll have seen too much. We’ll have experienced too much. We won’t be able to explain our lives and achievements any other way than to say, “God was with me.”

You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. God is present when his kids obey him. He lets us see his presence for ourselves.

So look over the Sermon on the Mount. How should we apply it? How should we put it into action, instead of standing by and imagining kingdom come? How could we be salt and light to our world? How can we build on solid rock?