The Sermon on the Mount: What Was Jesus Thinking?

The Sermon on the Mount: What Was Jesus Thinking?

Through history, the church and theologians have tried to water down the Sermon on the Mount because what Jesus teaches seems too difficult and impractical to live out.  Nonetheless, as Anabaptists we believe that Jesus meant what he said and expects us to live by his teachings.  He said that our righteousness should go beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees, to get at the root of the Old Testament Law—changing our hearts and not just our outward behavior.  Change from the inside out is not easy– it’s like heart surgery, and we need to show grace to each other and to ourselves.  

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Matthew 5:17-37

Recently there was a survey done on most popular passages in the Bible, based on searches on Bible  Can anyone guess what some of the top scripture passages were?

Psalm 23, Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:38-39, 1 Corinthians 13, John 3:16 were all popular.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7 was nowhere near the top of the list.  It doesn’t comfort us like Psalm 23, it doesn’t inspire us like Jeremiah 29:11 or give us hope like Romans 8:38-9.  Rather, it tends to make us squirm in their seat.

What Jesus seems to be telling his followers about how they are to live seems impractical, and impossible.

Pluck out your eye if you look at someone with lust because you’ve committed adultery in your heart?  No thanks. Turn your other cheek for someone to slap if they’ve already slapped you on the other one?  Are you kidding me?

Love and pray for people who hate you and persecute you? I’d rather hold a grudge or seek revenge.

If this is the kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, as Jesus says, then maybe being a Pharisee is righteous enough, thank you.

I mean, what was Jesus really thinking when he gave the Sermon on the Mount?

This is a million dollar or million shekel question then and throughout history, and theologians and church leaders have tried to figure out and come up with an answer that made sense to them, usually involving watering it down in some way.

Philip Yancey gives a very helpful brief historical survey of how Christians and churches have tried to answer the question “What was Jesus thinking?” in the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s found in chapter 7 of this incredible book  The Jesus I Never Knew.  It was written in 1995, but a book I keep coming back to again and again, as you can see by how beat up it is.

Yancey’s historical survey begins with Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas divides Jesus’ teachings into two categories: Precepts and Counsels.  Precepts are laws like the 10 commandments, which people can do a decent job of obeying.  These are the “you have heard that it was said” statements of Jesus.

In contrast, Counsels to Aquinas are those teachings of Jesus like the “but I say to you”, like do not lust, and turn the other cheek.  To Aquinas, these commands are too idealistic and virtually impossible to follow, so they’re more like suggestions or good ideas.

Aquinas’ distinction between Precepts and Counsels led to the Catholic Church’s categorizing sins into Mortal and Venial sins, serious, and “not so serious”.

Yancey then moves on to talk about Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant reformation:  Luther took a dual citizenship approach to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

He taught that in our roles as citizens in the world, we should obey the authorities and live according to the rules of our nation set by politicians, military leaders, etc.

But as citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, we obey Jesus’ commands in a more “spiritual” way, by a sort of a principle that we believe in our heart.

For example, to Luther, a Christian soldier must carry out orders to fight and even kill even while following Christ’s law of love for enemies in his heart.

This view enabled Lutheran Christians to serve in Hitler’s army in WWII with a clear conscience: They were just “following orders”, doing their duty as earthly citizens, while maintaining good standing as citizens in Christ’s kingdom.”  P. 135

The next view of the Sermon on the Mount that Yancey talks about is a theology called Dispensationalism, which came into being in the 1800s.  It’s a way of interpreting the Bible by dividing it into ages or dispensations, where God acts with humanity in different ways.

People who are dispensationalist believe that Jesus’ teachings of the Sermon on the Mount took place in the age of Law, but that age was replaced by the age of Grace after Jesus’ resurrection. They’re a nice idea, but they’re not valid today.

Next is the view of Albert Schweitzer, who was a European theologian and medical missionary in Africa.  Schweitzer devoted his life to serving others based on his philosophy of the “reverence for life”, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize for all his humanitarian work.

Schweitzer believed that the Sermon on the Mount were instructions given by Jesus as interim demands, with the belief that the world was going to end soon.  They were sort of a “martial law” for how to live in the last days.  But since the world didn’t end as thought, they’re no longer valid.

The last group that Yancey talks about are the Anabaptists.  Hey, that’s us!  I always get excited when I’m reading a book by an author who isn’t Mennonite, and they mention Mennonites or Anabaptists!

Yancey says that Anabaptists believe that we can’t water down Jesus’ words, but must try to follow his commands as literally as possible.  “Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said” is a phrase that Mennonites like to say.

Yancey points out that the Anabaptist “nonviolent response to persecution stands as one of the shining moments in church history”.  The first story that comes to my mind is that of Dirk Willems.  (tell story of Dirk Willems) …

Now Yancey didn’t sugarcoat the Anabaptist’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount.  He acknowledged that Anabaptists knew they couldn’t fulfill every command in the Sermon on the Mount, and that frustrated them.

So recapping these different views that Yancey gave about the Sermon on the Mount:  we’ve got Aquinas, and Luther, and the Dispensationalists, and Albert Schwietzer, and the Anabaptists.

Now let’s look for a bit at the religious people in Jesus’ day, the ones he talks about in his sermon.  Those are the scribes and the Pharisees, devoted followers of the Jewish law, first given to Moses.

Jesus says “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus is throwing some serious shade right there on those religious folks, and I’m sure they didn’t take it kindly.

I mean in a way, the scribes and the Pharisees were like keepers of the gate of orthodox faith, true faith in their eyes.  They lived and breathed their faith, literally wearing it on their sleeves.

Their ancestors had come up with 613 rules in the Jewish law—218 commands and 365 prohibitions.  Concrete things that truly religious people would do to obey God.  They knew them by heart and busted themselves to obey these laws.

For example, in order to avoid sexual temptation, there was a rule that when a man passed by a woman he should lower his head so he wouldn’t be tempted. People who stuck to this law came to be known as “bleeding Pharisees”.

Why?  Because with their heads bent down, they kept running into walls and other obstacles. We have a similar phenomenon today, people are always looking down at their phones and they run into all kinds of things (like other people!).

But lest we think that Jesus came to do away with the Law, he says as clear as day “I’m not here to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

As a Jew and as a Rabbi, Jesus had a deep connection with the Old Testament and the laws given by God to Moses and the prophets.  And he came to fulfill the law, which I take to mean that here in the Sermon on the Mount, and throughout his ministry, that Jesus reveals the true meaning of the law, he’s getting to the core, the essence of what it’s all about.

We see this in those sections where he starts with “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you”.  There are four of them in today’s scripture, and a couple more later or.

When Jesus talks about the commandment to not murder, he goes deeper to the root of murder which is anger.  And he goes another step by telling us to work to reconcile relationships with people we’re angry with, instead of “othering” or “villainizing” them.

When Jesus talks about the command to not commit adultery, he goes deeper to the matter of lust, which deals with the objectification of people for our own pleasure, instead of treating them with respect and seeing people as God sees them.

When Jesus talks about divorce, he’s getting at the root of respecting the institution of marriage and honoring the commitment a person made to their spouse.

You see, in Jesus’ day, some rabbis taught that a man had grounds to divorce his wife if she did anything to displease him, i.e. burning his food. Talk about feeling like you’re in the pressure cooker!

A husband only needed to say “I divorce you” three times and the divorce would be final.

And finally, when Jesus talks about oaths, he gets at the core of speaking with integrity in every situation.  You don’t need to take an oath to guarantee that you’re going to tell the truth; we should be truthful and trustworthy always.

One commentator said it this way, “The law was meant to make our speech resemble an Amish rocking chair—simple, sturdy, and durable.”

So when Jesus gets at the root, the underlying meaning of the Jewish law with his vision of fulfilling the law, he’s really talking about a change of heart, a transformation that happens here inside of us.

The reality is that inner change is a lot harder than just taking on some new behaviors without doing the work of changing our motives, our attitudes, and our values.  We see this when Jesus gives his 7 woes later on in Matthew Ch. 23:

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and of the plate,[e] so that the outside also may become clean.

You see, Jesus isn’t satisfied with external expressions of piety that don’t grow out of the inside, out of a transformed heart.

No, what Jesus desires for those of us who follow him is like heart surgeryMy dad had open heart surgery seven years ago, when he was 90 years old.  His doctors had told him that at his age it was very risky, but that without the surgery, he would have about a year left to live.  So my dad went through with it, the recovery was hard, but it gave him a new lease on life.

Like heart surgery, real change and growing in maturity as Christians involves a change of heart.  It can be risky, but it’s what will truly give us the abundant life that Jesus talks about.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is echoing what God has desired of us from the beginning, which is turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, as the prophet Ezekiel said so beautifully.  (36:26)

And on our journey toward transformation of the heart which is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about, we need grace, God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness that is a gift we cannot earn ourselves, but humbly receive. We need to show this grace to others, and also show grace to ourselves as well.

I love how the Apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Without grace, we will end up in one of three camps—1)  become legalistic and judgmental of others, ‘holier than thou’ like the scribes and the Pharisees,

or 2) we will rationalize away the high standards of the Sermon on the Mount as we have seen what so many others in history have done,

or 3) we will become demoralized and feel like failures for not being able to live up to it.

Grace keeps us humble, dependent upon God, poor in spirit, meek, constantly hungering and thirsting for righteousness, as Jesus said in the beautitudes.

Grace prevents us from comparing ourselves to other people to see who’s a better Christian or a better person.  And grace enables us to live with joy, because comparison is the thief of joy.

I want to close with a couple of quotes from Philip Yancey’s book, which to me helps answer the question “What was Jesus thinking?”

 Jesus did not proclaim the SM so that we would…despair over our failure to achieve perfection.  He gave it to impart to us God’s Ideal toward which we should never stop striving, but also to show us that none of us will never reach that ideal.  The SM forces us to recognize the great distance between God and us, and any attempt to reduce that distance by somehow moderating its demands misses the point altogether.” 

The SM proves that we before God we all stand on level ground…. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God.  Having fallen from the absolute ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.”  P. 144