“The First Petition” – sermon audio for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year A, preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, September 3, 2017:
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is sometimes considered a summary of the teachings of Jesus. I too have thought so, but have begun to reconsider this view in recent years. After all, he taught far more and on a wider subject material than is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon contains no teaching on the devil, worship, the end times, or the sacraments, to name a few. Yet, it contains blessings, admonitions from the law, how the Old Covenant works itself out under the New Covenant, and instructions concerning prayer, fasting, offerings, judgment, the treatment of other people, and the kingdom of heaven.
Because there are so many components in the Sermon on the Mount, any one of which a pastor would use by itself in a sermon or Bible study, I have begun to wonder what the one point of the sermon might be. If there is not a main idea behind the sermon, one would wonder about Jesus eclipsing the infamous three-point sermon with a sermon that would be considered to be at least a nine-point message.
So what is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount? Is it all about the beatitudes or blessings of chapter five? Does the rest of chapter five, as well as six and seven, somehow tie back in with The Beatitudes? Although I think the whole sermon does come back around to these beatitudes, particularly the first beatitude, and will explain how, the Sermon on the Mount is not about these blessings. Rather, it is about the purpose of Jesus that lies behind those beatitudes.
Is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount to reprove us concerning the law? Surely this is a part of Jesus’ purpose. He carries the law much further than Moses and the prophets did. This is easily discovered in his use of the phrase, “You have heard.” Each time Jesus says this phrase, he takes the implications of the law to a new level. In doing so, Jesus directs our thoughts to his purpose in the sermon but his intention is not to simply develop some new interpretation of the law.
Is his intention to teach his followers how the law has been fulfilled in himself and that we are now to keep the law differently or to even keep a new form of law? Has Jesus really changed the law such that we have something new to practice in order to be a blessed people? Or is he showing us that the old law still applies to us but that, if we thought that keeping it was difficult before, it is impossible now?
Although the most practical teaching on prayer is in the Sermon on the Mount, we easily discern that the purpose of the sermon is not prayer. There is too much other information in the sermon that is not about prayer at all to suppose that the goal of the sermon is to make us better at prayer. Instead, Jesus uses The Lord’s Prayer and his other teachings about prayer to underscore the main purpose behind his sermon. The same may be said about his teachings concerning fasting and offerings. His teachings on these subjects help us understand what it is that he is really teaching. They direct our spiritual faculties in the right direction, which is not anywhere near to being better at prayer, fasting, or giving.
So, perhaps the Sermon on the Mount is about passing judgment on other people. This would certainly be a popular read on the sermon in today’s American culture. It would be so easy to twist Jesus’ teaching on judgment to fit any new, popular notion. Indeed, Jesus is teaching us to not judge others, at least in the sense of condemning them, for how could we with one hand remove what amounts to a pebble of sin in another when we are each carrying a boulder in both arms? Augustine works this out a little bit for us in a practical way by saying that we are to put the best construction on our neighbors’ actions. Our unwillingness to do so points to our own depravity and thereby, the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount as well.
Being nice to people because we want them to be nice to us is not only a practical teaching but it sums up everything the law and the prophets urge upon us. While it is easy to see that this is not the point of the Sermon on the Mount, it most certainly illustrates what the sermon actually concerns. This is why Jesus uses it; it is a point that describes the greater teaching, as each of his points do.
So, do Jesus’ individual points or illustrations teach about the kingdom of heaven as the overarching purpose? Or is his teaching on how one enters the kingdom of heaven really just another example that points to his central point or purpose for the entire sermon? Surely he intends for us to know more about the kingdom and how one enters it but there is something deeper and richer that lies behind these few verses in Matthew 7:21-23. There are simply too few verses about the kingdom for the whole sermon to be focused on that subject. The same may be said for any of the other candidates: blessings, admonitions from the law, how the Old Covenant works itself out under the New Covenant, and instructions concerning prayer, fasting, offerings, judgment, and the treatment of other people. Each of these is too limited in the space that they are allotted for them to be the real point of his sermon. Nevertheless, each of them may be seen as illustrating and even pointing to his primary intention. To better understand what Jesus is up to, it will benefit us to to venture outside these three chapters to two other stories in the gospels. While there are other examples like these two, these will serve us well in understanding the Sermon on the Mount.
Our first example is the story of the rich, young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22. A man came up to Jesus and seemed to butter him up a bit by addressing him as a “good teacher.” It intrigues me that he did not refer to him as rabbi. It almost seems that from the start, the young man did not intend to actually follow Jesus, as one would a rabbi. If so, that would in part dictate Jesus’ response to the young man’s question. The man wanted Jesus to tell him what good deed he must do in order to have eternal life. His approach to having eternal life seems to have been driven by doing certain good deeds, in earning eternal life by keeping the law. So, of course he would be concerned about whether or not he would eventually enter the kingdom. How could the young man have known if he had done enough good deeds or kept all of them that he thought were required by the law? Therefore, he asked Jesus what that one deed was, perhaps that he had overlooked or forgotten, that he must do to guarantee his admittance to eternity.
Jesus’ answer immediately moved the focus off of the young man and his religious practices, and even away from the “good teacher” himself. Jesus changed the emphasis to where it should have always been: God. In doing so, he showed that the man’s concern was not about God but instead, about himself. He was self-centered instead of God-focused. Next, Jesus began to drive home this rebuke by telling the young man to keep the commandments. The rich, young man must have been incredulous. After all, that is why he thought he had come to the good teacher. He wanted to know what commandment he needed to fulfill by doing a good deed.
Now the young man further tipped his hand by claiming that he had kept all of the commandments—at least those of the so-called second table of the law that Jesus mentioned when the man asking him which commandments Jesus meant for him to keep. We must give the young man a break here, for he knew intuitively that there must be something he had failed to do, some commandment he had not kept. So he persisted, asking Jesus again to tell him what he must do. At this point, Jesus drove home the point that would be totally missed by the young man. If the young man truly wanted to be perfect, as perfect as religion allows, he would need to sell everything he had and give it all away to the poor. The result would be that his treasure would not be earthly possessions but instead, treasure in heaven. Already, the young man must have been shrinking away from the advice that he had so persistently sought. Nevertheless, Jesus went the extra, needed step and added, “Follow me”—the very thing the young man never intended to do from the start.
Jesus might have said to him, “Your sins are forgiven,” and sent him away with some hope. That, however, is not what the rich, young man needed to hear. He not only wanted to hear about the law, he needed to hear the law. Furthermore, he needed to hear that the law condemned him, instead of doing what he hoped it would do by sending him on to life eternal. This man was not yet ready for God’s grace because he already believed he was good enough for God—indeed, too good for God’s grace.
On the other hand, in John 8:2-11, is the story of a woman who had been caught in adultery. Imagine her horror at being discovered in the act of sexual intercourse, let alone in the act with someone who was not her husband. More than that, she was caught by religious people who did not have her best interests in mind. They intended to do to her alone what Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 dictated be done to both she and the adulterous man. Furthermore, they put her sin on public display. You might well imagine that she felt the whole weight of the law, sensing that very soon she would be at the bottom of a pit with stones being hurled upon her.
Again, Jesus shifted the focus off of the woman. The focus was first transferred to the accusers but eventually to God’s grace. He rebuked the accusers by telling them to cast a stone if they were worthy enough, by being without sin themselves. Once all of the accusers had left, probably dropping their rocks and stones to the ground as the walked away, Jesus said to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He did not condemn her, for the law had already done that with full force. He gave her what she needed and was ready for by offering her God’s grace instead.
Jesus always gave people what they needed—either law or grace. When Jesus saw the crowds that had followed him from Galilee, the ten cities on the other shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem and Judea, and even beyond the Jordan River, he moved away from them, going up on a mountain with his disciples. It was his new disciples whom Jesus addressed with the Sermon on the Mount. As he taught, they must have felt more and more like the rich, young ruler with every point as Jesus moved through teachings concerning blessings, admonitions from the law, how the Old Covenant works itself out under the New Covenant, and instructions about prayer, fasting, offerings, judgment, the treatment of other people, and the kingdom of heaven. How could they possibly do these things? They knew themselves and what they were and were not capable of doing. These were the same guys who would fight over who was to be the greatest in the kingdom, who would chase parents and their children away from Jesus, who feared for their lives while Jesus slept in a storm battered boat, who could not understand his parables, let alone put them in to practice, and would have nothing to with his relentless and clear teachings about his impending death. How would they ever fulfill the fuller version of the law as Jesus articulated it in the Sermon on the Mount?
They could not nor would they keep the fuller articulation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount to any degree of perfection. For even Peter would take his sword to Malchus but would not stand with Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard. Later, the same one who could not walk on water even though he desired to do so, would not walk with the Lord who loved even those followers of his in the Decapolis. Instead, he withdrew from those Gentiles, to whom Jesus told Peter and the other disciples to proclaim the kingdom in the Great Commission. Though Peter knew that Jesus was the good shepherd and would bring others not of the fold of Israel into the kingdom, he did not obey the Great Commission—at least when it was not popular to do so. To his credit, he did grow from those experiences and fulfill the calling in the Great Commission to both Jews and Gentiles. Peter and the other disciples and we modern followers of Christ hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount with no small amount of unease. We know we cannot keep the teaching to any degree of perfection. Some who admire the sermon, try to follow it, fail, and give up. But those who instead follow Jesus, try to follow his teachings, also fail, but never give up. Those who would follow a new form of religion that they sense in the Sermon on the Mount but who do not follow Jesus himself, both cannot fulfill his teachings and cannot even keep trying to do so. Those who follow him, instead of religious ideas, will also fail—though to lesser degrees, given time—but because they follow the one who never fails them, though they fail, will continue trying to keep his teachings.
The law has already convicted them of their need of grace, so when they fail at fulfilling the law, they are able to receive God’s grace and try again. Dom Augustin Guillerand said, “Not to be downcast after committing a fault is one of the marks of true sanctity.” This is the power of God’s grace at work in those who know that they are poor in spirit. It is these, who know their absolute need of the riches of God’s mercy and grace, who are given the kingdom. They are therefore liberated in spirit to keep trying, even though they sometimes or even often fail and fall. By God’s grace, they are not downcast. They look ahead to the one they follow instead of looking at themselves, at either their ability or inability to keep Christ’s word. They pick themselves up and follow again.
The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to keep the followers of Jesus following him, not themselves, and certainly not religion and its rules and regulations. By reminding us of the law and making it harder to follow than ever, Jesus makes us dependent upon God. He shows us with utmost clarity that we cannot depend upon ourselves. For those who love the Lord with all their hearts, minds, souls, and strength, there is nothing else to when our strength runs out, our souls are in a dark place, our minds are are muddle, and our hearts are weary, but to depend upon God. Admitting our spiritual poverty is the gate to the kingdom of heaven, the place where we begin to follow the good shepherd.