Let’s take a look at Matthew’s sermon on the mount. Again, one way we can redeem our reading this week from the way it has been harmfully used through Christian history is that the passages speaks of making disciples, not believers: followers not merely worshipers. It speaks of obeying in our lives everything Jesus had commanded his followers to do. This is not merely religious obedience that merits one a seat in some mystical post-mortem non-smoking section, but a social, political, and economic obedience that has the potential to set our communities on a life-giving path in the here and now. This is a path where we take responsibility for making sure everyone is taken care of and that each person has enough to thrive. No one has too much while others don’t have enough. It’s a path toward making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, a home where everyone has a place to rest securely and grow and not be afraid.
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What are some of these commands that Matthew’s Jesus tells us to obey? The lion share of them are found in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the centerpiece of Mathew’s gospel. In this sermon we find commands such as:
“Let your light shine before others.”
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary”
“Do not swear an oath at all . . . All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
“Give to the one who asks you.” (cf. Matthew 19:21, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”)
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray.”
“Forgive other people.”
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . You cannot serve both God and money.”
“Do not worry about your life.”
“Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness (i.e. justice.)”
“Do not judge.”
“In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
“Enter through the narrow gate.”
“Watch out for false prophets . . . By their fruit you will recognize them.”
“Hear these words of mine and put them into practice.” (Matthew 6-7)
And these are just a few. Yet there is enough here already for us to wrestle with. Interpretations of these teachings can also be life-giving or death-dealing. It’s important to listen and learn. We can let go of past interpretations that have proven harmful and we can embrace that are more healthy.
But the Jesus who taught these teachings is the Jesus who the Matthean community was so excited to share with others. As stated at the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28).
I used to practice a kind of Christianity that focused on themes that the Jesus of the gospels was never passionate about. The values and ethics that the Jesus in the stories was passionate about were things I never focused on. I didn’t understand the value of his ethics at that stage of their journey. I’m in a different place today.
There is so much value in wrestling with the Jesus of the stories, and endeavoring to apply his teachings to the suffering we have created through how we’ve shaped our world today. The systems we have created, which benefit some and harm others, are still challenged by Jesus’ teachings. The status quo may have repeatedly changed over the last two millennia, but wherever we find a status quo where humans are being harmed, there we can apply Jesus’ teachings. And wherever we find humans being cared for and with enough to thrive, then we can find resonance and affirmation of those systems in the Jesus story.
If our reading this week can be redeemed in any way for our world today, I believe it’s going to have to be through not focusing on our religion about Jesus but by focusing on the things that the Jesus of our stories actually taught himself.
Herb’s new book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is now available at Renewed Heart Ministries.