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Over the next two weeks we’ll be looking at part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s a famous part of the Bible, well-known even among people who aren’t churchgoers. And it’s a very significant part of the Bible because it’s full of radical, confronting statements. These statements are designed to shock us; to turn our previously-accepted understandings upside-down. Jesus tells us that anger is as sinful as murder, that a lustful look is as bad as committing adultery, and that the standard which God requires is nothing less than perfection.
The Sermon on the Mount also famously appears – briefly – in the Monty Python classic, The Life of Brian.
The scene shows a section of the crowd listening to Jesus, who’s a long way in the distance. In fact, he’s so far away they’re having trouble hearing. Jesus had just said ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ but one person in the crowd looks puzzled and asks, ‘did he just say “blessed are the cheesemakers”?’ A religious type standing nearby turns to him with a patronising look and says, ‘obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally – it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.’
I think this is a very clever bit of humour, as it picks up on our tendency as Bible readers to take Jesus’ radical statements and immediately explain them away. We say, ‘what Jesus really meant was…’ – and then go searching for a way of ‘getting around’ these confronting commands. Instinctively, we try to soften the demands of Jesus’ teaching, rather than allowing their full shock value to hit us. We instantly go into damage control.
Now to some extent we need to do this with Jesus’ more radical statements. For example, if I took everything Jesus said completely literally I’d now look like this. At last count they are the only bits of my body left that haven’t caused me to sin and so would have been gouged out! To some extent, we need to interpret. But we don’t need to do it straight away. Instead, we need to hear what it is that Jesus actually said. And sit with it for a while. And contemplate its radical nature. Otherwise, all our clever formulations will do is water down Jesus’ instructions until they become something that we’re quite comfortable with obeying.
As Hermann Ridderbos puts it, ‘In many respects [Jesus’] words have the character of a Hebrew proverb: that is, an unexpected, paradoxical, and absolute manner of speaking that sharply accentuates a particular side of the truth without considering the possible exceptions to the rule. The hearer then has to ponder the matter himself.’ (H.Ridderbos, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 112, n.12.)
As we look through the Sermon on the Mount over the coming weeks – let’s keep this in mind. Let’s allow ourselves to be confronted – even shocked – by what Jesus actually said. And then do the hard work of finding out how we are supposed to put these principles into practice. Because some of these principles will go against our natural tendencies, and will make us decidedly un-comfortable.
To think about
Today is a brief post introducing the Sermon on the Mount. That’s because I’d like you to do a bit more bible reading than normal to get the big picture of Jesus’ sermon. Read at least Matthew 5 (or the whole sermon if you have time) trying to hear it – really hear it – like it was your first time. Note down anything that shocks you, disturbs you, or challenges you. We’ll begin tomorrow by looking at the first few beatitudes.