Deuteronomy 30:14-20; Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-24
The crowd had perhaps sat most of the day on the grassy slope of the mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was a picturesque scene where one could look across a glass-like sea when it was calm and see the mountains that rose on the other side. They often sought out this teacher, Jesus, to hear what He would have to say. When He spoke it was with the voice of authority. He was also popular with the common folk because He seemed to have little regard for the official religious leaders who walked about with an air of self-righteousness.
Today’s teaching had been longer than usual, but they had stayed with Him. His teaching had begun with a series of blessings for the people:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit…,
- Blessed are those who mourn…,
- Blessed are the gentle…,
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…,
- Blessed are the merciful…,
- Blessed are the pure in heart…,
- Blessed are the peacemakers…,
- Blessed are you when men cast insults at you and persecute you…
It was the kind of teaching to which they could relate. It was the kind of teaching that made them say “Yes!” within themselves. It was the kind of teaching that spoke to where they lived. Jesus had told his followers that they were the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Who would not have been glad to hear those words?
But as the day progressed the teaching became more difficult to appreciate. The teachings grew more difficult to understand. The teachings began to describe situations that were terribly personal. Jesus began to teach about not just actions, but attitudes. He began to teach about expectations that seemed to them unthinkable.
As we listen to the way that Jesus phrases his teaching, we might think that these are people who have not the ability to read the teachings of the Torah for themselves, or perhaps Jesus is just referring to what they have heard from the Rabbis. Jesus begins to say, “You have heard that the ancients were told, but I say to you…”
Then Jesus begins to talk about the fact that if one desires to do something sinful, even though one is not able to do it, that one has already sinned. He continues by teaching about
- loving those who persecute you,
- praying for those who treat you unjustly,
and you can’t believe that Jesus would expect you to love that way. Doesn’t He understand how it is to live under Roman rule? Doesn’t He understand how hard it is to just love your neighbor? He teaches about mending relationships with one another. What Jesus says is absolutely radical. Of course, the worship of Yahweh is expected.
Remember that first commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all you mind.” (Mark 12:30) Relationships are so important that Jesus actually teaches that if you have a problem with a relationship with another person, you should leave the offering that you have brought, and go be reconciled with the person. Then, you can come and worship God as you should.
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples at the end of that teaching day is the prayer that we pray every Sunday when we gather to worship. One of those prayer requests of God is “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” “Lord, forgive me in the same measure as I am forgiving those who have offended me.”
Even the Disciple Peter had a problem with forgiveness. He asked the question of Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” And Jesus responds, “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”(Matthew 18:21-22) In other words, no limit.
Before we become angry; before we despair at what Jesus is teaching, we need to listen a little longer, for He also says to us, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is also perfect; you are to be complete in goodness as your Heavenly Father is complete.” (Matthew 5:48) Make it your life work to become like your Heavenly Father.
Through the ages there have been many attempts to rationalize these teachings. How could they be made to not mean what we know they mean? The theologian Thomas Aquinas divided the teachings of Jesus into “Requirements and Suggestions.” He said that the Commandments were requirements; the statements of Jesus about attitude and anger were of a different standard. The German theologian Martin Luther thought we should compartmentalize our lives into our personal lives and the responsibilities that we have with society. In nineteenth century America there arose the teaching that these words of Jesus were just the last vestige of the Law and that after his resurrection, since we would be under grace, we would not need to follow these strict commands. Albert Schweitzer thought that the world would soon end and saw these teachings as “interim demands for unusual times.” All of these attempts to dilute the teaching of Jesus forget that Jesus was the Son of God who taught with authority.
We might be enlightened about our response to these teachings of Jesus about our attitudes and our behaviors by the true stories of two Russian men, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Tolstoy read the teachings of Jesus as words to be taken literally for his life. Following the teaching of Jesus to the rich young lawyer, Tolstoy freed all of his servants, gave away his copyrights, and disposed of his vast estate. He wore peasant clothes, made his own shoes, and began working in the fields beside the common workers. It was only at the insistence of his wife that he made some concessions. Tolstoy became a man who showed kindness to many, but his kindness did not come from the heart; it came from a sense of theological rigidness. He was a man who was never at peace with himself because he realized that he was never going to attain all of the perfection that he believed Jesus commanded. To those who questioned him, Tolstoy would say, “Don’t judge Christ by those of us who imperfectly bear his name.” Tolstoy’s religion became a thing of Law and he probably never realized how great is the grace of our Lord.
Dostoevsky’s experience was entirely different. Early in his life he was arrested, along with others, on suspicion that he was part of a group who was judged treasonous by Tsar Nicholas I. The group was actually a literary group that discussed books that had been banned by the Tsar.
To impress the young radicals with the gravity of their actions, the Tsar scheduled a mock execution. They were dressed in white death gowns, were led into the public square, blindfolded and tied to poles with their hands behind their backs. Just as they heard the words, “Ready; aim,” a horseman road between the riflemen and the prisoners with a note that they were not to be executed but were to be taken to long prison terms. It would be like a virtual resurrection for him.
At one of the stops on his 14-day sleigh ride to the Siberian prison a Christian woman gave him a New Testament with ten rubles tucked inside. It was the only approved reading material while in prison.
While in prison, he was forced to live in squalid conditions with thieves, murderers, and drunken peasants. At first, his belief in the goodness of everyone was shaken, but over time he began to get a glimpse of God even in the worst of prisoners. He came to believe that only through being loved is a human being capable of loving. It was the teaching of the Apostle John, “We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) His later writings would reflect the grace of God that he had discovered.
When we read the teachings of Jesus we quickly realize that in our humanness we will never reach perfection, nor are we expected to.
Tolstoy got part of it right. Anything that makes us feel that we have “arrived” at being all that God teaches us to be, is something that deceives us. Yet in his striving for perfection, he failed to realize that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Dostoevsky, on the other hand, realized that those who are in Christ Jesus live with God’s grace.
So, what are we to do with the teachings of Jesus that turned so personal? What are we to do with those attitudes that are as sinful as actions? What are we to do with that teaching of Jesus that before we can rightly worship God we must be in right relationship with one another?
When Jesus taught that day, as He did on other days, He never lowered God’s ideal for us. “Be perfect therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.”
No one has ever completely fulfilled those teachings, but we are to understand that we are made in the image of God and God is perfect in every way. While we will never attain the perfection of God, we are to attempt, as much as is possible to live out the image of God within us. We are also to know that grace is greater than any Law. Remember that Jesus forgave the sins of
- an adulterous woman,
- a thief on the cross,
- a disciple who denied even knowing Him,
- a soldier who nailed Him to the cross,
- a man named Saul whose purpose in life was persecuting Christians
God’s grace is all-encompassing.
Those teachings from Jesus that day on the hillside by the Sea of Galilee are to be our ideal, while, at the same time, we also experience a life filled with the presence of Christ and God’s grace. May it ever be.