I spent much time this semester translating and reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
The message of Jesus is radical. We may be Christians all our lives, such that the Sermon has become so familiar to us that we miss the weight of that which he demands of us.
Some examples from the sermon come to mind. Matt. 5: 35-37 argues that one shouldn’t make an oath at all, for one’s word in the affirmative or negative should be enough to guarantee that an action will follow one’s word. Jesus argues “anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matt. 5:37) We are prone to be fickle as we are commitment-phobic 21st century human beings. From making a decision about which group of friends we would rather join for dinner, to the selecting a career trajectory, commitment scares us. Jesus is here arguing that at times indecision is evidence that one’s thinking finds its source in evil. This seems entirely contrary to the contemporary intuition that, often times, indecision is a sign of wisdom, maturity, and level-headedness. We may often thinking that the one who says yes quickly or no immediately is one who is rash, naïve, or even prideful. I’ve heard it said, for example, that one should hold our yes’s and no’s loosely when it comes to relationships, and especially when it comes to religions – after all, who knows, new evidence might come to light or we may feel differently one day, so we must be flexible enough or mature enough to allow these things to intrude upon our lives without becoming embarrassed. Our culture seems to glorify the “sophisticated” man with no backbone, no convictions. Jesus, on the other hand, argues that our words must indicate a commitment to action, and not merely, as they say, to be taken with a grain of salt.
Some other examples come into view. In 5:38-42 Jesus commands us to refuse retaliation when enemies seek to shame us. Likewise, Jesus thus tells us to love our enemies, and to seek reconciliation immediately rather than to seek revenge. Jesus also identifies murder with anger and hate, and adultery with the lust of the eyes. I then wonder whether if preachers in our churches preached this way today they would be accused of being legalistic or unloving or impatient, or even of being unrealistic. There is a certain inflexibility and uncompromising character in Jesus’ commands. He demands absolute consistency from those who seek to follow him.
This connects with what Jesus says, further, in Matt. 8:19-22. In that passage Jesus tells those who want to follow him that they cannot turn back, not even to bury their own father. He says “let the dead bury their own dead.” His response is telling. In effect, he’s saying that those who are not committed disciples of him are already dead men burying other dead people, and those who want to follow him cannot turn back. Indeed, to follow Jesus Christ means to prioritize him above even one’s own family. Likewise in Luke 12:51 he reiterates the same point in a starker way: he has come to divide family against family. In other words, prioritizing him is so important that a division of one’s earthly families is a cost that one must be willing to pay in order to follow Jesus.
Jesus is, in effect, calling us to greater consistency. He closes the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching that his disciples must build upon the solid foundation of obeying his word. In effect there are only two kinds of people: those who follow that word and those who live in sinking sand. There can be no shifting back and forth. Those who follow Jesus must follow Christ in such a manner that they put him first above all things: whether career, the self, or one’s own family. There is far greater things at stake here than merely going to church on Sunday and tithing ten percent of one’s income. Following Jesus is an all or nothing enterprise: either one lays down one’s life, family, and job in order to follow Christ in and through those avenues of life, or one may find oneself coming to him on the last day only to hear him say that he has never known you.
Such radical words of Jesus must still be heard today.