Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon, part 26: Two Roads

Read Matthew 7:13-14

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30 NRSV)

two_roads_by_jelly_bonWe have now entered into the final section of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, which is a series of three eschatological (end-time) warnings. The first of the warnings is a very famous and often misunderstood teaching which utilizes two roads, one which is broad and wide with many traveling on it, the other which is long and narrow with few ever finding it, let alone travelling down it. The more desirable road leads to the desirable gate EVER; whereas, the less than desirable road leads to the most desirable gate of all.

Of course, we all know which roads these are, even though they are literal roads. Even if we have never stepped foot into a church or picked up a Bible, there are very few in the Western World (and beyond) that haven’t heard AC/DC’s Highway to Hell song blaring out of the speakers. Conversely, many know the less than desirable road as the road or the way to Heaven. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Michael Landon even had a show called “Highway to Heaven” which, despite it’s name, showed the “straight and narrow” road of God through the eyes of an angel seeking to do good in the world.

Pretty simple so far, right? It seems pretty clear that the well-traveled road leads to hell and the least traveled road leads to heaven, right? It seems clear that those on the highway to hell are outside of Christ, while those on the jagged trail to heaven are those who belong to and follow Christ, right? If all of this is true, it then follows that the warning is for all of the people who are choosing the wrong road, right? It must be a warning for all of the people choosing the “easy way” over the straight, narrow, rugged trail that leads to heaven.

Who do you think we’d find on the highway to hell? Perhaps, the adulterers, the addicts, the theives, the sex offenders, the greedheads, the liars, the cheaters, the prostitutes, and the wild partiers? In some Christian circles, anyone listening to AC/DC or bands like Marilyn Manson are traveling the Highway to Hell; if you think about it though, that is kind of like a badge of  honor to Rock N’ Roll and Heavy Metal bands! I mean, for real! Beyond the Highway to Hell, who do you think are going to heaven? Well, duh! Christians, right? As for music, what could possibly be better than listening to the Newsboys sing “God’s Not Dead” live for an eternity in heaven. Yes, that was sarcasm.

While all of this may seem clear and obvious, it is actually wrong to assume all of the above. First, we must remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” is being addressed to Jesus’ disciples, not to the masses. Yes, the multitude gathered are listening in and they do apply to them as well; however, Jesus’ warning is not geared toward the outsider; rather, it is being delivered for the insiders.

The roads to hell and/or heaven are not predicated on what music you listen to, what your view on same-sex marriage is or isn’t, or whether or not you are Christian. Hard to believe, right? Well, it is the truth. In fact, Jesus preached this Sermon before the term Christian (let alone the relgion) even existed. Rather, these roads are being presented as a warning to Jesus’ followers who have just been instructed on the standared God is calling us to uphold.

The “Highway to Hell” is the easy road. It is the road  most people travel because it requires little work or commitment. It does not have much, if any, accountability. The Highway to Hell is the road that tells us that we can be the judge and jury of what God wants. It is the way that abandons the very heart of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The rugged, narrow and long road to heaven is hard to find and remain on because it requires an absolute commitment to Christ and his way of being. It means making Christ’s way our way, and since Christ’s way leads to the cross, most would rather just not go there.

When I say “most”, one must avoid the inevitbale pitfall of thinking “non Christians”. Again, as a reminder, Jesus is addressing his disciples. These are the people who are following Jesus, not the ones who are not. What this means is that Jesus is warning HIS DISCIPLES to avoid choosing the easy way, over his way! The only way to heaven, according to Jesus, is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for this is the Law and the prophets.” The Golden Rule, of course, is the summation of the two Greatest Commandments.

Thus the easy way to love oneself, one’s agenda, one’s idealogy, one’s theology, one’s doctrine, one’s religion, one’s whatever over and above loving others as oneself. To do this is to also love onself over and above God. That is the easy way and most, if not all, of us find it without any trouble at all; however, Christ is calling us to a wholly different and harder way and warning us that our way leads to our own destruction. Christ’s way, however, leads to the Kingdom of God.

The long and rugged pathway to heaven is the cross; it is the way of love.

Lord, help me to embrace the long and rugged pathway to heaven. Amen.

The Sermon, part 25: Golden

Read Matthew 7:12

“And what you hate, do not do to anyone. Do not drink wine to excess or let drunkenness go with you on your way.” (Tobit 4:15 NRSV)

pureatisgoldIf something is truly “golden”, it must be something of great value, right? We wouldn’t take something that is golden and leave it lying around for others to steal. We wouldn’t take something that is golden and flush it down the toilet. We wouldn’t take something that is golden and trade it for something made of plastic, would we?

Then, by the very nature of labeling Matthew 7:12 (cf. Luke 6:31) as the Golden rule we are implying that is one of the most valuable rule out of all the ones that Jesus taught. It is the rule that we all should be all aspiring to attain. Just like we persist and persist in earning what it takes to get that golden bracelet, or that golden neckless, or that gold portfolio (if you’re William Devane from the Rosland Capital commercials), we would certainly persist in trying to live according to the golden rule if we truly see it as being “golden.”

The rule, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12), is the bookend that concludes the instruction section of the great sermon. The sermon opens up with Matthew 5:17, which means that Jesus is not ending his sermon with a rule that he is coming up with on his own; rather, he understands this rule to be at the core of Jewish teaching. Everything that fall between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12 are summed up by the Golden rule.

What’s more, the golden rule (which sums up the law and the prophets as seen in Matthew 5:17-19; 7:17) is also intricately connected and related to the two greatest commandments, found in Matthew 22:34-40. It is important, therefore, to note that the Golden rule is the way, or at least one of the ways, that Jesus sees the greatest commandments being fulfilled. To love God and to love neighbor as one loves oneself is to do to others what one would have others do to him/herself.

While the phrase “The Golden Rule” was coined as early as the 17th century, the value of this rule is far exceeding what any phrase can make it seem. It has appeared in one form or the other as early as 2040 – 1650 BCE in Egypt. It is accounted for in Leviticus 19:18. It has been taught in China by Confucius (500 BCE), Laozi (500 BCE), Mozi (400 BCE), in India, in Greece as early as 624 BCE, in Persia as early as 300 BCE, in Rome by Seneca as early as the potential year Christ was born (ca. 4 BCE), and in other places as well.

So, Jesus is not tapping into anything new, nor is he breaking any new ground here by stating this rule; however, what he is doing is solidifying how important his teachings between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12 are, and he is simultaneously showing what the end result of those teachings is: To do to others what one would had done to oneself. In other words, to love God is to love one’s neighbor and to love one’s neighbor is to value and cherish him or her to the exact degree one cherishes oneself, even to the point of doing to the other what one would want done to him/herself.

This does not translate into, “Do unto others had they have DONE unto you,” nor does it translate to, “Do unto others BEFORE they do it unto you.” Those are not the golden rule, but the complete contradiction of the Golden Rule. Yet, many of us live our lives in that manner. Even if we don’t personally do that to those we perceive to be our enemies, we allow our political worldviews and opinions to be shaped around a “get them before they get you” idealogy. These types of views go against the Golden Rule and the teachings leaning up against it. Reflect on how golden this rule truly is for you and also reflect on how you might work on coming to value it more than you have.

“Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” – Confucius (500 BCE)

Lord, overlay me with the Golden Rule that it may cover me and guide me in all that I do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 23: Dogs and Pigs

Read Matthew 7:6

“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.” (Matthew 7:13 NLT)

pigsandpearlsHere, in Matthew 7:6, we have yet another obscure saying from Jesus, who uses shocking language that often confuses and befuddles his audience. Its not the overall point of the statement, or what seems to be the overall point, that is shocking; rather, it is the “name calling” that is shocking. It is quite clear that Jesus isn’t talking about literal dogs or pigs but is using those terms to describe unholy people. Why would Jesus use such language? It’s not the only time that he did, either. In Matthew 15:27, Jesus used the word “dog” toward a Canaanite woman as well.

Why would Jesus call people pigs? There is absolutely no parallel to this anywhere else in the New Testament. What is up with the use of dogs and pigs? It seems that the answer, as is usually the case, is not all that clear. What is clear is that, in Matthew 7:6, Jesus is not using the term dogs in the same way as he was toward the Canaanite woman. In that passage, the woman was pleading for help and he told her that he had come for the people of Israel, not for Gentiles. He uses “children” to describe Israel and “dogs” to describe Gentiles, in order to make the point that one first feeds their children before they throw what is left to the ravenous dogs.

That brings me to another important point. When you hear dogs, try to take off your 21st century lenses and put on your 1st century glasses. In 1st century Judea, dogs were not cute, lovable pets. They were seen as wild, unruly, ravenous, and dangerous animals that were prowling the streets looking for whatever they could scavenge and sink their teeth into. Like Jesus’ allusion to wolves, his use of the word “dogs” was intended to evoke images of dangerous creatures that could charge you at any minute and turn you into their next meal.

Pigs, on the other hand, are considered to be unclean in Judaism. They are forbidden by Torah to be use for food, and must be avoided at all costs. To come in contact with a pig and/or to eat it would make one unclean, and there were even prohibitions against breeding pigs. What’s more, pigs are known for being in the mud, so to throw one’s pearls before swine is to throw one’s pearls into the mud.

Now that the basics have been laid out above, let’s try and make sense of what Jesus is saying here. The focus of Jesus’ message in verse 6 is holiness. Jesus is warning his disciples to keep in mind their own holiness. To be holy is to be set apart for God and God alone. It is so easy to sell out our beliefs and our values in order to fit in and go with the flow. Yet, the only guarantee we have is in God, who promised to be with us always. Yet the easy way, the most comfortable way, often leads to our own destruction. The easy path usually ends up betraying and imprisoning us, leading us to a dead end. The people and the things we end up compromising our values for, more often than not, turn on us like a pack of ravenous, wild dogs.

If we value ourselves and our relationship with God, it makes no sense to compromise those things anymore than it makes sense to take one’s pearls and throw them into the muddy pig pen. Rather, we should invest ourselves in what is valuable, and steer clear from the dogs and pigs. By steer clear, I do not mean shun, ignore, or judge. The last devotion is clear on where Jesus stands on judging. By steer clear, I mean to not put one’s hope in what is hopeless, and to not compromise one’s values and beliefs by settling for comfort and complacency.

We were created by God to be holy, to be set apart for God and for the Kingdom of God. Our call is to invest ourselves in God, as well as in God’s Kingdom. Jesus did that, and he did not settle for the easy road. I think it is safe to say that the road to calvary IS NEVER EASY, but it is the only way to the resurrection. It is the only way to eternal life. We must be willing to die to what is unholy in us, and we must be willing to let go of our foolish investment in what is unholy around us in order to take that journey with Christ.

What does that mean exactly? That means that each of us should be investing ourselves in seeking out Christ, and seeking out the purpose Christ has put before us. What is that purpose? To spread the love, the peace, the hope, the healing, and the wholeness of God. Our purpose is to stand up for justice and to live justly. Our purpose is to LOVE and to always show mercy. Our purpose is to walk humbly with God. All other paths lead to a dead end, but the road to calvary, the road to the cross, leads to the Kingdom of God and eternal life.

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” – William Shakespeare
Lord, help me see clear the distinction between the dead end highway and the road to Calvary. Amen.

The Sermon, part 12: Sixth Anthesis

Read Matthew 5:43-48

“Therefore, the proud may not stand in Your presence, for You hate all who do evil.” (Psalms 5:5 NLT)

Risen “You have heard the law says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” Jesus proclaims his sixth and final antithesis to what must have been a stunned crowd. Honestly, these words should stun even us today! As of 2012, there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, which makes up about 31.5% of the world’s population. Out of that 2.2 billion, how many of us truly give a wholehearted attempt to love our enemies?

As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there is NO COMMANDMENT in the Hebrew Scriptures stating that one should hate his/her enemies. Jesus’ language here is hyperbolic and rhetorical. What Jesus is doing is taking the conventional wisdom and purposfully conflating it with the law, not for any dubious purpose but because individuals and societies have often conflated the two. In the Hebrew Scriptures it says that God hates all evildoers (e.g. Psalms 5:5). What’s more, it follows that God’s people would hate evildoers as well (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:3-7; 30:7; Psalms 26:5; 139:21-22).

This is not to say that all Jews advocated for hating one’s enemies, and I would be amiss to even possibly imply that. That is not the case at all, nor is Jesus making that case. What Jesus is doing is shifting the extension love from just “God’s people” to all people, for God created all people (including the evildoers). I would also be amiss to not state that Jesus isn’t basing his command on some sort of humanitarn and/or human rights ideal or principal; rather, he is basing it solely on HIS AUTHORITY to set his own command and appose it with the Torah. He does so based off of his knowledge of the nature of God who loves and shows no impartiality (Matthew 5:45).

What’s more, his juxtapositioning of his command with the Torah reminds us of God’s eschatological (end-time) plan being enacted in the coming Kingdom. Jesus saw himself as the advent of God’s Kingdom, and he saw his disciples as children of God and “citizens” of that Kingdom. Thus, Jesus commands that his disciples conduct themselves in a way that is consistent and appropriate with their status as children of God and citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus then uses two interesting examples to further his point. “In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much” (Matthew 5:45-46 NLT).

While Jesus was known to be “friends of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19), and while we know that Jesus saw his messages a being inclusive of Gentiles (aka “pagans”, Matthew 28:18-20), he uses these two examples because of the general disdain among Jews for tax collectors and Gentiles. And there was good reason for that disdain. Tax collectors were unpatriotic Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. What’s more, they would jack up the taxes so that they could increase their profit.

Also, it was the Gentiles (aka the pagans) who were occupying and tainting the Holy Land. It was the Romans, and the Greeks before them, and the Babylonians before them, and the Assyrians before them, and the Phillistines before them, and Egypt before them who had continually kept Judah and Israel from being an independent and sovereign nations. On top of that, the Jews were divided against themselves, with some wishing to become even more like the Gentiles.

Thus, Jesus is showing the extent of God’s impartiality, and the extent in which he EXPECTS his disciples to be impartial in their showing love to others. How can you call yourself God’s children if you are doing no different than the corrupt tax collectors or the idolatrous Gentiles? How can you say, “I am God’s” if your actions scream “blessed be the WAY OF THE WORLD!” Therefore, Jesus concludes his series of antitheses with this command, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Reflect on this. Do not dilute Jesus’ call for perfection in order to find comfort and shelter from what is seemingly impossible and unattainable. Let it, for the next several days, sink in and stir up in you a desire to understand what Jesus means by perfect. Let it cause you to reflect on your own actions and on whether or not your life has lived up to God’s expectations. In our next devotion, we will take a deeper look at this seemingly impossible command.

To hate anyone is to participate in evil. To participate in evil is to become an evildoer.

Lord, steer me away from hate, especially when it is an easier path than love. Keep my heart righteous, my thoughts pure, and my actions holy. Amen.

The Sermon, part 9: Third Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:31-32

“For I hate divorce!” says the LORD, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty, ” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” (Malachi 2:16)

0308_divorce_650x455It is quite often that we will hear that divorce is on the rise in the United States. News outlets, religious leaders, and even television networks have all used the claim that about 50% of all married couples end in divorce. It is the case that, back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s divorce was at an all-time high and that there seemed to be a a marriage crisis on the rise.

The most common stat for divorce in the United States is that 40-50% of married couples end in divorce. While, I am not entirely sure if that stat holds up or not, what seems to be true is that divorce rates among married couples is actually down from the early 1980’s. For instance, the New York Times reports that 70% of couples married in the 1990’s reached their 15th anniversary, which is up from 65% of couples married in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Of those married after 2000, 11% of college-educated couples were divorced by their seventh anniversary, and 17% of couples without college degrees were divorced.

As can be seen by the stats, there isn’t as much of a “marriage crisis” as is often reported. While far too many marriages end up in divorce in this country, without doubt,  some Christian circles often overplay the divorce rate in order to push their theological and, often, political agendas. Even more unfortunately, there are some people who have remained in their marital covenant despite suffering tremendous physical, emotional and/or verbal abuse because they have been taught that Jesus forbade divorce.

Jesus’ words have been used by the Church and by ministers in a way that has been damning to spouses who are suffering under domestic violence and oppression. Rather that being redeemed by the Redeemer, many abused spouses have found themselves shackled under an even more stringent law that what the Torah offered up. This is a real shame because Jesus’ words were intended to liberate, not oppress.

Again, Jesus offers up another antithesis here. The Torah permitted any man who got a certificate from the appropriate authority to divorce his wife. While some Jewish circles called for stricter measures, in practice this could be done for any number of reasons. It could be done for good reasons such as infidelity; however, it could be done because a woman was considered by her husband to be “lazy”, or “infertile”, or not eager enough in having sex.

What’s more, a woman could not get a certificate of divorce, only a man could. While there were provisions in the Torah to protect divorced woman, such as permission to remarry, such provisions worked better on paper than in practice. What man would marry a woman who had already been married and could not please her first husband? Often times these women would become destitute and were shunned by even their families for bringing shame upon their household.

Jesus, in this antithetical form, acknowledges what the law says and then replaces it with what he says: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32 NRSV). Notice, again, Jesus reverses the laws focus from the woman to the man. Jesus states that that any man who divorces his wife CAUSES her to commit adultery. This may sound harsh on the wife, but if you read it carefully, the culpability is really on the HUSBAND.

Again, this was not said by Jesus in order to establish a new marital LAW, but rather to teach the people that God’s ways and standards are higher than ours. Jesus isn’t pushing for a new sort of legalism, nor is Jesus looking for abused spouses to remain in abusive relationships; however, Jesus is showing the people that while the religious leaders teaches the Law as given to Moses by God, Jesus gives the Law with the very authority of God. The Law isn’t presented by Christ to enslave us in some sort of legalistic system; rather, the Law is presented to point us to Christ who is the fulfillment of the Law.

Yes, let us take marriage seriously. With that said, let us also take seriously Christ’s call to grace and humility. Let us recognize that none of us can live up to the Law by our own standards, let alone by God’s. When we overlook Christ for our own theological and/or political agendas, it is we who are divorcing oursleves from the one who God has joined us with: JESUS CHRIST. Let us keep that understanding in our hearts so that we will not find ourselves separated from the one who came to save us.

“If you feel that you can follow a few little rules or some clever gimmicks to make you a mature Christian, then you have fallen into a subtle trap of legalism.” – J. Vernon McGee

Lord, teach me to be open to your heart so that you can fulfill the LAW within me. Amen.

The Sermon, part 7: First Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:21-26

“These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.” (Numbers 35:12 NLT)

  Jesus opens up his first antithesis by quoting a law as found in the decalogue (Ten Commandments). “You have heard to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder.” He then follows that up with, “and all who commit murder will in danger of judgment”. This last part cannot be found in the law, word for word, but it is a reference to passages such as Exodus 21:12, Levitcus 24:17, and Numbers 35:12.

First, it must be said, that most people misquote and misunderstand this scripture. The law states that “you shall not commit murder.” Many often misquote it, and it was mistranslated in the King James Version, as “Thou shalt not kill.” While no one likes to kill, killing is an inevitable necessity to life. Even the gentlest Buddhist, or the most conscientious vegan inevitably kills things.

I recently hosted a round table conversation regarding veganism and the Christian faith. One of the attendees brought up that the Judeo-Christian God, if “he was truly good, would have made it abundantly clear that one should be vegan and not kill animals.” While, as a vegan, I can appreciate the sentiment, this misunderstands a whole host of things. While I will not go into all of the areas that this statement is lacking in understanding, I will say that it is premised on equating killing with murder, and it is also hypocritical as it fails to humbly acknowledge that even vegans kill (plants, fruits, microscopic organisms, bugs while walking, etc.).

At face value, the law does not seem like it is lax or not to be taken seriously. It is a law that forbids the unjust killing of other human beings (aka murder) and it advocates that those who murder should face the same punishment as their crime. This goes against my sensibilities as someone who opposes the death penalty; however, it is pretty standard in terms of punishment for murderers. If you choose to murder someone, you shall be executed.

Yet, the law wasn’t as rigid as that either. Within the law are provisions to make sure that justice is truly done. It is not okay, for instance, for families to just go out and get revenge against the alleged murderer. In Numbers 35:12, the law states, “These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.” In other words, before one can be executed for murder, there needs to be a trial proving the person murdered.

What’s more, in Numbers 35:30, “All murderers must be put to death, but only if evidence is presented by more than one witness. No one may be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” As can be seen, the law is not about vengence, but about justice, and the law seeks to “prevent the death of innocent people”.

The point of this is that Israel had strict laws; however, we should not misconstrue the strictness to be unjust or unusually harsh. Jesus, in this antithesis, is not standing opposed to the law itself; however, he is pointing out the fact that those interpreting God’s law are not without culpability in breaking it. The very people calling for strict observance of the Torah are, themsleves, guilty of breaking it by God’s standard. In essence, Jesus affirms the Torah (those who murder are in danger of legal judgment), and then takes it to the eschatological (judgmeny day) extreme (those who are angry WILL BE in danger of divine judgment).

What can be said is this, while the Torah is announcing the penalty for physically murdering someone, Jesus is pronouncing the judgment to come upon people who harbor anger and resentment toward others. This judgment is not human judgment (as in the case of murder), but divine judgment. When you are angry at others, it is likened to murdering them in your heart. Every human, even the Pharisees, are guilty of that! What’s more, we harbor such anger in our hearts, even as we go before God in worship. In one word, HYPOCRISY. Jesus lets us know that a) just as we judge with the law, we are also judged by it. What’s more, b) love is not hostile, but seeks reconciliation with those anger has separated us from. Let us, as we reflect on this and the antitheses to come, prayerfully search our hearts for hypocrisy and humble ourselves before God. Let us remove hostility from our hearts, for love is not hostile!


“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” – Buddha


Lord, purge me of the hypocrisy of thinking that I am good enough to judge by the law without being judged by it. Amen.

The Sermon, part 6: Relocated

Read Matthew 5:21-32

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” (Matthew 28:18 NRSV)

jesusauthorityFollowing Jesus’ claim that he is the fulfillment of the Torah and the Prophets, he taught his disciples that in order for them to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they had better exceed the Pharisees in their understanding and application of the law. I spent the better part of the last devotion discussing the historical context of both Jesus’ and Matthew’s time periods, respectively, in order to caution you that it would not be wise to take Jesus’ words out of those two contexts when trying to understand what he means. If you did not read it, I suggest you go back and read the last devotion as it is important.

Jesus’ claim that there is a higher standard than that which the Pharisees are putting forth, is one that Jesus intends to support by a series of examples of exactly how that higher standard comes to fruition in the Law. For Jesus, and even more so for Matthew and his community, the Pharisaic understanding of rigid adherence to “the letter of the law”, missed the very heart of it. Yet, again, I caution the reader not to pass judgment against a group of people we hardly know apart from these words written against them.

Rather than focusing on the Pharisees and whether or not they had the right understanding of the Law, we will focus on Jesus’ understanding of the Torah itself by looking at the examples he puts forth. These examples are actually antitheses of the law as it is written in the Torah. This may sound strange, for how can Jesus go against what is written in the Torah? Well, in short, he doesn’t go against it as much as he goes beyond what is written.

Over the next twenty-seven or so verses, Jesus will do something that will astound the people listening to him, so much so that when he is finished with the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, the Bible has this to say, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV). By the end of his sermon, Jesus no doubt gets the attention of the crowd, and also the attention of the religious leaders.

Over the next several devotions we will look at each of these six antitheses individually to gain a better understanding of what Jesus is pointing to in the Law of Moses; however, for the purpose of this specific devotion, I will introduce the format in which Jesus pronounces these antitheses to the the Torah. For each of the six, Jesus starts of saying, “You have heard that it was said…”, followed by the Law as it is found in writing in the Torah and as was read in the synagogue. Jesus then proceeds by saying, “but I say to you…”, in which he then proceeds to give his own pronouncement of Law.

It is important to note that nowhere in the entirety of the Bible is the antithetical form found. Thus, you can imagine the shock that Jesus’ words must have caused the religious leaders! In the history of Judaism, no rabbi had ever proclaimed his/her own pronouncement of the Law in contrast with the Law of Moses in the Torah. Yet, in Matthew, Jesus does just that. Some would find much hope, comfort and challenge in Jesus’ words; however, others would see this as an attack upon the Word of God as handed down to the people from Moses.

No doubt, the antithetical form was meant to shock people and it should shock us as well. What Jesus does in today’s text is relocate God’s authority from the written text to himself. That authority comes through God’s presence in his life, his teachings, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. If we believe this to be true, if we accept Jesus relocation of authority to be the “Gospel Truth”, what then does this mean for us? How should we be living our lives in accordance with the Law as given by Jesus Christ? Read today’s text closely and carefully. If Christ is THE AUTHORITY, then let us reflect on the kind of heart-changes that Christ is working into our lives.

“Until the will and the affections are brought under the authority of Christ, we have not begun to understand, let alone to accept, His lordship.” – Elisabeth Elliot

Lord, I accept your authority and I choose to follow your lead. You are my Lord and my Savior. Amen.

The Sermon, part 4: Law or Prophets

Read Matthew 5:17-19

“‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the LORD. ‘I will put My instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.’” (Jeremiah 31:33 NLT)

p1010002_edited-1Jesus prefaces his sermon with today’s passage and, in fact, the whole of Jesus’ message regarding the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is book-ended between Matthew 5:17 and 7:12. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This text has often been glossed over, underwritten, and overstated by various different people trying to make sense about what Jesus is actually teaching.

It is important to note that Matthew’s Jesus sets up his teachings on the law with this statement. Historically speaking, Matthew’s community was following a much adjusted version of Judaism that, to many traditional Jews, didn’t seem a whole lot like Judaism. Even within the church, there was a major disagreement on what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, who was historically a Jewish rabbi. Can anyone follow Jesus and do they have to submit to and follow the Jewish law if they truly want to be one of Jesus’ followers?

Matthew’s community had to defend itself from claims that they were abandoning the ways and laws of Judaism. What’s more, Matthew and his community were mostly Greek-speaking diaspora Jewish Christians who lived in Syria, possibly in and around Antioch. With that historical context in mind, it makes perfect sense that Matthew includes Jesus beginning his Sermon in this Way. Jesus was Jewish and Jesus did not come to abolish or ignore the Law, the Torah, of God as given to Moses.

Yet, as mentioned above, this is only a preface to Jesus’ teaching on the law. Jesus neither denies or delegitimizes the Law, nor does he affirm the status quo. Instead, as we’ll see in upcoming devotions, Jesus shows that he is the fulfillment of the Law. He is not a fullfillment in the sense that Jesus did everything required by the Law without breaking it. It is quite clear in Matthew and the other Gospels that Jesus did break the Law (at least as it was understood by religious leaders his time period).
Jesus does not fulfill the Law in the sense that he provides a new interpretation of it, nor are his teachings a mere summary of the Laws in the Torah. Before I get into how Jesus claims he is the fulfillment of the Law, it is also important to note that Jesus says he not only fulfills the Laws but the prophets. Why the prophets? Because Jesus views both the Torah and the prophets (Joshua-2 Kings and Isaiah-Malachi) as being wholly prophetic and pointing to the end-time fulfillment of God’s reigning Kingdom.

In other words, the Torah (Law) and the prophets point to the coming of the Messiah who was to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus, in essence, prefaces his teachings on the Law with this claim: “I have come as a fulfillment of the eschatological promise found in the Law and the Prophets.” Another way that this could be expressed is, “The Law and the Prophets point to me!” Jesus’ use of the phrase, “I have come” (vs. 17) presumes that Jesus had come from and was sent by God.

Then, Matthew’s Jesus follows this up with a word to those Greek/Gentile Christians in his community who believed the Law was irrelevant and were lending credence to the argument of the Matthean community’s opponents that Christians disregarded the Torah. Jesus makes it clear, every commandment remains important. Witht that said, Matthew does not exclude those who hold this view from the Kingdom of Heaven; rather, they are “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

While it is important to get the context behind these teachings, it is also equally important not to miss the overall point Jesus is making to all of his disciples, as well as to his opponents. God’s Law and the prophets both point to Jesus, the Christ, as. God’s eschatological (end-times) promise. Dismissing the Law, as well as upholding it as the end unto itself entirely misses the point. Both polar viewpoints are incorrect because they both completely ignore and pass by the very person the Law points to, namely Jesus Christ. To dismiss the Law as useless, is to do dismiss Jesus Christ. To render the Law to some sort of legalistic measure, is to render the fulfillment of that law as impossible. Today’s challenge is to let go of our biases and humble ourselves to place of student at the feet of the One who is God’s Law fulfilled.

“It is not wisdom but Authority that make a law.” – Thomas Hobbes

Lord, humble me that I may learn all that it is you have to teach me. Amen.

The Sermon, part 2: Salt

Read Matthew 5:13

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 NRSV)

salt_blog-1-2000x1086I don’t think many of us will have a hard time understanding the importance of salt. It heals, it transforms, it purifies, it cleanses, it adds flavor, it preserves. There are so many important functions that salt carries out that it is hard to imagine life without it. There is nothing worse than a dish that does not have enough salt in it. Conversely, there is nothing worse than a dish that has too much salt in it.

In Matthew, Jesus transitions from his blessings, his beatitudes to the poor and downtrodden, by proclaiming that “you are the salt of the earth.” For Jesus, the “you” he is addressing are his disciples. They are the ones who have been following him and he has seasoned them with his teachings. It is through them that they have become like refined salt, ready to season the world.

What’s also important to note here is that, in Matthew, Jesus does not utilize “earth” or “world” in the same dualistic way that we find in the Gospel of Mark. The earth is not Satan’s domain, it is not evil, it is not something that Jesus speaks disparagingly against at all; rather, the earth is God’s creation and it is the field in which the disciples are called to operate out God’s mission. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad actors in the world and the earth can be a tricky place to serve God; however, the Jesus is not AGAINST the world, even though some in the world may be against Jesus.

Jesus goes on to say, “But if the salt loses its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” Of course, this is a warning to his disciples. To continue with the metaphor, it’s not that Jesus is concerned that the salt will some how be chemically changed into something that is not salt. Not at all. Rather, it is that he is concerned that the salt will get contaminated with so many different things that its flavor will not be able to be tasted among all of the other things in it.

Think about it for a moment. If you take a ¼ teaspoon of salt and throw it into your mouth, you will no doubt taste its saltiness. However, if you throw that into 3 ½  cups of flour, 2 cups warm water, 2 tablespoons agave nectar, 1/3 cup unsweetened apple sauce, and some dry yeast, you might have an excellent low-sodium bread…but the saltiness of that ¼ teaspoon of salt will be lost among all of the other ingredients.

Jesus is warning his disciples that, if they are going to remain effective in their discipleship, they need to make sure that their saltiness is not contaminated by other ingredients. As they will find out, there is an ultimatum being presented to them. Either they are all-in when it comes to following Jesus, or they are not. Anything less than full commitment was not acceptable. This may sound harsh in our 21st century a la carte lifestyles; however, as Jesus appropriately says elsewhere in this very sermon, “You cannot serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24).

To lose saltiness is to become like the Pharisees and the Sadducees who, while once servants of God, had become so entangled in politics, power, and status that they lost their saltiness. The result: God passed them by. “But if salt loses its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” (vs. 13) The disciples are being warned not to deny their mission or they will end up like those who did.

The question for us is this, where are we in our saltiness? Are we pure salt, ready to season the world with the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Are we ready to season it with hope, healing, and wholeness? Are we ready to season it with love, peace, compassion, respect, dignity, and presence? Or are we so caught up in other things, so caught up in our comfort and our lifestyles, that we have lost our saltiness? Reflect on this and make honest adjustments so that you may truly be the salt of the earth.

“We’ve made elevator music of Jesus Christ. We’ve made Him the most boring, bland, blah person; and He was the most revolutionary man.” – John Eldredge
Lord, help me to discover my saltiness that I may faithfully season the world for Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Sermon, part 1: Introduction

Read Matthew 5:1-12

But He gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” (James 4:6, NLT)

sermononthemount We just made it through our last series, “The Beatitudes”, and now we are beginning an extension of that series, called “The Sermon”. This particular series will helps us to journey back in time to the base of a mount, as we await the Rabbi יְהוֹשׁוּעַ (Yeh-ho-shoo’-ah) to rise and teach to us the word of God. Many of the people gathered around us are more than likely awaiting some sort of proclamation of kingship. Many were hoping that this יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, also known as Jesus, would proclaim himself to be the Messiah, the one sent from God to rule Israel and defeat and destroy all of Israel’s enemies.

We, on the other hand, have hindsight as an advantage over and against those surrounding us. We know that, indeed, Jesus does proclaim to be the Messiah; however, Jesus was not proclaiming to be king of any ordinary, worldly kingdom, but the very Kingdom of God. We have this hindsight, because we are time travelers and we know the outcome of this sermon and, indeed, of Jesus’ life. Yet, this hindsight, as we have gained from Sunday School, Church and/or the Bible, can also work as a hindrance to us in understanding the fullness of what Jesus was ACTUALLY teaching. Thus, we will take many weeks to journey back to the foot of the mount so that we can listen to our Lord’s sermon within the context it was preached.

To introduce this series, let us look back to and recap our previous series on the Beatitudes. As the crowds were gathering around him, Jesus climbed up on the mountainside and sat down. As his disciples sat around him, he began to teach them what we have now come to know as the Beatitudes. What’s more, he began what has gone down as the greatest, and most well-known, sermon of all times.

If you remember, Jesus taugh that the poor in spirit were blessed for the possessed the Kingdom of Heaven. While the impoverised are certainly among those who are “the blessed”, Jesus is also referring to those who do not arrogantly think they are above God’s blessing, as well as those who are not “needy” in the sense that everything is about them and what they need (aka the selfish). The New Living Translation puts it best by paraphrasing Jesus in this way, “Blessed are those who are poor and realize their need for God.” Such people are the true people of God.

Jesus taught that those who mourn shall be comforted and that those who are humble shall inherit the whole earth.  By “mourning”, Jesus is referring to those who are lamenting over the world and it’s current state. They shall be comforted on that day when God finally recreates the earth to be a place where God’s justice, love, and peace reign supreme. Those who are humble (or meek), will be exalted and blessed. Those who are proud, arrogant, and selfish will be humbled.

Those who hunger, not only for food but for justice, will be satisfied on that day “when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet” (The United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 14). Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by God. Those who are pure in heart, meaning those whose heart is solely devoted to God and God’s reign of peace, love, equality and justice, are the ones who see God. Those who work for peace are the children of God. Finally, those who are persecuted for doing what’s right are blessed and in possession of the Kingdom of God. In fact, they should be filled with joy and where persecution like a badge of honor, because people have been persecuted for doing what’s right throughout the ages.

This, I am sure, is not what many in the crowd were hoping to hear. They were probably wanting to hear Jesus call out the Romans for oppressing Israel. They were probably wanting Jesus to call out the Temple and its leadership, for the corruption that had become of God’s holy house in Israel. They were probably hoping Jesus would call down God’s heavenly army down on the opponents of Israel for the wicked evil they had perpetuated throughout the world, especially against God’s people Israel.

This, I am also sure, is not what many of us what to hear. The reality is that if we are living in a Western society such as the United States of America, we are more than likely either middle-class or higher. Sure there are poor people in America, but most of America has plenty and live life-styles that are centered around self (including family), wealth, and comfort. Jesus’ message challenges us because it forces us to look at our own lifestyles, and our own faith, to discern whether we are truly “poor in spirit”, recognizing “our need for God.’ As we approach this new series, let us let go of our biases and agendas so that our Lord can teach us about God’s heavenly kingdom

“Justice that love gives is a surrender, justice that law gives is a punishment.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Lord, humble me and prepare me for the things you have to teach me. Amen.