The Great Surprise—The Message of the Sermon on the Mount
Part Three: Surprising Contrasts
The late Dallas Willard--it pains me to call him late, he just died a little over a month ago--said something incredibly wise about the Sermon on the Mount. Dallas loved the Lord, and he was a profound thinker about living the Jesus following life, but his day job was being a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. As a philosophy professor, he had a unique set of glasses by which he saw things, and he pointed out that every major philosopher at some time has to address the question—what is the good life? From Socrates to Karl Marx, if you are any kind of philosopher, you have answer the question, hey, given the realities of human nature and the realities of life, what’s the best way to live?
And what Dallas Willard said is that the Sermon on the Mount is, among other things, Jesus’ longest and most sustained answer to the question, what does the good life look like? It’s easy to miss that. After all, he addresses things like persecution, and that doesn’t seem like the good life, does it? But remember, the good life is the best life you can live given the realities of life and of the world. It isn’t about the perfect life—it’s about the good life. This is a world where those who follow Jesus are often despised. It’s also a world—and this is a big piece of the pie in understanding the Sermon—where people are being ground down by religion; where the misuse and misapplication of the faith taught in the Old Testament was making life miserable instead of making their lives joyful and liberating.
So, in the Beatitudes, the blessings that start the Sermon, Jesus says to the people, hey, I know you’ve been told that you’re far from God’s kingdom, but the good news is that you’re not far; you’re close. All these things that people think of as markers of God’s disfavor—being poor, or in mourning, or humble, or hungry or thirsty—all these marks of being down and out do not, do not, mean that God isn’t near to you; good news; you are the blessed ones! He is near!
Then He tackles righteousness and He says that real righteous living is being salt and light, not being the superficial rule keepers that the Pharisees are.
Now, this time, we’re looking at a series of surprising contrasts in Matthew 5:21-48. This section is distinct because of the formula Jesus uses throughout: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” He does that six times. Each time He is responding to a distortion of Biblical truth. Also, each time, Jesus insists on digging deeper—of going underground in our lives. Each distortion of Biblical truth is based on going skin deep. Each correction by Jesus is based on going to the heart.
You see, Jesus’ target in this section is bad religion. And on of the things that can keep you far from God is bad religion. One of the things that can keep you from the good life is bad religion. Just consider how much of Jesus’ teaching has to do with bad religion. It wasn’t the tax gatherers and thieves who conspired to crucify Jesus. It was the keepers of bad religion.
We need to guard our hearts from bad religion. And be careful how you think of that. If you start getting proud that you’re not like a Pharisee, that’s the very thing that can sink you.
You see, not only is Jesus saying that bad religion can sink you; He’s also saying that the good life is found in a truly transformed heart. He isn’t interested in just regulating our behavior; He’s most interested in changing the person we are deep down inside. And that is possible! We need the rest of Scripture to understand this, but what we need to know is that a real follower of Christ has the Spirit of God living in him or her, enabling you to have truly changed affections and interests so that what Jesus does in a person is from the inside out, not the outside in.
So keep that in mind as we look at six surprising contrasts where Jesus corrects a bad religion based misunderstanding of life and faith. The six areas He addresses are:
· Anger and murder
· Lust and adultery
· Casual divorce and sexual immorality
· Oaths and swearing
· Retaliation and non-resistance
· Love and hate
Anger and Murder (Matthew 5:21-26)
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
In this passage, Jesus is referring to furious anger, not just a mild annoyance. And He says that in the sight of God, in terms of sin against God and the sin that rips up our own soul, that furious anger is the moral equivalent of murder.
There was a one-panel comic strip called “They’ll Do it Every Time” that ran for years—it ceased publication in 2008—about the everyday frustrations of life. When someone got mad, this little box appeared over people’s heads with the words “Urge to Kill” in it. That’s the kind of thing Jesus is talking about. That anger is the root of evil deeds, and has to be taken seriously as the moral equivalence of the actual deed of murder.
Jesus’ alternative is that when you are in a conflict situation, pursue reconciliation with great vigor, because unresolved conflict makes it hard to worship and because this kind of conflict is like a prison. If you even know that the other guy is mad at you, and you’re not mad at them, stop what you’re doing and “go and be reconciled with your brother.” Jesus says it’s like settling out of court—if it’s not taken care of, you might as well be in prison.
Lust and adultery (Matthew 5:27-30)
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Again, Jesus goes to the heart. Is it enough just to avoid the act of adultery? Jesus says, no, a heart of lust is the root of and the moral equivalence of adultery. The good life isn’t just avoiding wrongdoing; it’s found in a re-oriented heart, away from wrongdoing, in this case, sexual wrongdoing.
What do we make of the gouged eye/cut off hand words here? I like what Thomas Constable says here: take this literally, and you have Jesus commanding the crippling of the whole human race! No, this is what we call hyperbole, where you overstate something to make your point, which is, hey, if you’re caught in lust, don’t just stand there—do something! Run, flee, turn of the TV or the computer, do something! The heart is the battleground, not just your external deeds.
This leads us to the next contrast…
Casual divorce and sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31-32)
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
OK, let’s all admit: it’s hard to talk about divorce today without bumping into the lives of an awful lot of people. But let’s read what Jesus says here in the context of His time. What Jesus is talking about here is a religiously sanctioned casual approach to divorce. The quote is directly from Deuteronomy 24, but Jesus says that the Law of Moses allowing for divorce doesn’t make it good or desirable. As a matter of fact, that kind of casual approach to divorce is wrong on two counts. First, it sanctions adultery. If you dump spouse A so you can marry spouse B because he or she is “hot”—that’s just dressing up your adultery.
And—go a little deeper here—this is addressed to men. This is a culture that was often guilty of treating women as property. Bad cook? Gaining weight? Won’t let you watch Sports Center? Dump her! You can do better.
Hey, just because you can put a ring on it doesn’t make right what you did to the person you left behind. (I’ve heard this called serial polygamy!) You know, in certain branches of Islam, you can contract a temporary marriage—for as short as an hour! Doesn’t take much imagination to know what that’s for!
Oaths and swearing (Matthew 5:33-37)
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The Old Testament condemns breaking oaths and swearing. Jesus quotes one passage that does this, from Leviticus 19. But in Jesus’ time, a whole complex system of what oaths were OK and what oaths were not OK—what we call swearing—had developed. For example, the rabbis taught that swearing by God’s name was binding, but swearing by heaven and earth was not binding. Swearing toward Jerusalem was binding, but swearing by Jerusalem was not.
Jesus says…that’s nuts. (Layne’s paraphrase.) No more “swear to God”, no more OMG. Stop using God’s name to shore up your credibility. Be the kind of person who doesn’t need OMGs to make a point. Be the kind of person whose word is as good as gold. Be the kind of person in whom God’s trustworthiness can be seen without having to use His name in vain to make a point.
Now, I just used a phrase you probably recognized: “use His name in vain.” That’s from Exodus 20:7, which is commandment number three of the Ten Commandments. And all these surprising contrasts relate to the Big Ten: murder, adultery, misuse of God’s name. So what’s next?
Retaliation and Non-Resistance (Matthew 5:38-42)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
OK, is Jesus saying that the word of God in the Old Testament is wrong? After all, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” is straight from Exodus 21:24. No; what we have here it’s a question of misapplication. “Eye for an eye” was a way of limiting retaliation. So if your eye is put out in a fight, you can’t blind the other guy! If you lose a tooth in a robbery, you can’t knock all the other guys teeth out—get it? Also, the Law of Moses didn’t care what your social status is. In the ancient world, if you were “upper class” and someone from the common people did something to you, you had the right to exact more than equal from them.
The Jews tended to view the law of retaliation as God’s permission to take vengeance. That was never God’s intention. As a matter of fact, hear what Leviticus 19:18 says:
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
The opposite of revenge is love of neighbor—such a major them of Jesus’ teaching. And love of neighbor is what commandments 5-10 of the Ten Commandments are about.
To carry out the love commandment, Jesus gives us a truly surprising teaching: Don’t resist the evil person. If he whacks you on one check, turn the other check toward him. If he wants your tunic (the long shirt worn next to the skin) give him your cloak (the outer garment that kept you warm). If a Roman soldier makes you carry his stuff for a mile (which they could under Roman law), carry it two. If someone wants something from you, to borrow it, lend it.
This was something new. All these involve shame, and the culture of the time was very much an honor and shame culture.
Does what Jesus teach here mean that we can never defend ourselves? Dear friends in non-resistant churches like the Church of the Brethren take it that way, and I respect their position—but also respectfully disagree. The point is not to become a doormat. The point is meeting hatred with love instead of hatred. The Pharisees found a way to religiously sanction hate. Jesus says instead that even—and especially—personal mistreatment should be met with love.
Do I need to say it? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus Himself did when He faced the cross? He was struck, stripped, forced to march under a Roman cross and gave His all. And He says to us—come and follow Me.
And that leads to one more contrast:
Love and Hate (Matthew 5:43-48)
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This follows right on from the last one, doesn’t it? This time, Jesus is reacting to a mixture of what the Scripture says and what people thought it ought to say: it does say love your neighbor—we just saw that in Leviticus 19:18. But it doesn’t say “hate your enemy.” That just seemed like a “reasonable add-on” to a lot of the rabbis. The reasoning goes like this: My neighbor is my fellow Israelite. I am to love him. But what about non-Jews? They are not God’s people. God’s disfavor and rejection abides on the Gentiles. As God has rejected them, so do I; hate the Gentiles!
But Jesus says, when it comes to enemies, love them! Pray for them! Greet them! You who despise Gentiles, even those pagan Gentiles know this and do this!
On what basis does Jesus say this? This one: even your enemies are your neighbors. Jesus would go on, in the parable of the good Samaritan, to radically redefine who our neighbor is—namely anyone we encounter who is in need.
This is the good life. The good life is the life that’s lived from the heart. It is not superficial; it cannot be achieved by just keeping certain rules.
Matthew 5:48 finishes today’s passage and sums up not just the section on love and hate, but all the surprising contrasts:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And let me tell you, understanding this verse is
important. Some take this to mean that you really have to be PERFECT! (So, straighten up!) Others take it to mean Jesus really means to—as one commentator put it—to drive us to despair by the impossibility of living by His commands that we’ll be driven toward the grace of God.
But there’s a much simpler way of understanding what Jesus means here, and after what we’ve been seeing here the last three weeks, it will make perfect sense to you. Part of the meaning of “perfect” in the Bible is simply, “mature” or “complete.” God is perfectly complete; our kind of maturity or completion isn’t like that, but if Jesus really is addressing “the good life”—isn’t this it? It’s a life that is more than just not doing evil, but activity doing—and being—good.
It pursues reconciliation—not anger. It purses purity—not lust. It doesn’t look for “escape clauses” to justify sins of the flesh or misusing God’s name. It dumps revenge in favor of love, even sacrificial, painful love. Most important, it is life lived from a redeemed, transformed heart. No spray paint religion here. No bad religion. No misuse of faith to somehow sanctify my selfishness, lust, greed or hatred. This is the real deal: the life of Jesus being lived through me into the rough and tumble of a real and often harsh world.
In 1889, a great fire destroyed 31 blocks in downtown Seattle. The city fathers decided to deal with the problem of fire, all new buildings had to be made of brick, and to deal with frequent flooding downtown, to seal off the first level of buildings and move ground level up 10 feet. For over seven decades, the first level of downtown Seattle was sealed off. Today you can take a tour of Underground Seattle. You might say that Underground Seattle is the real Seattle.
Jesus tells us that the good life, the God-blessed, God-filled, shalom-blessed life, is not won above ground, but underground—in the heart—the true person. This life is available to you and to me right now. Come, follow Him…and be free.