Tag Archives: The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon, part 24: Asking and Receiving

Read Matthew 7:7-11

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 NRSV)

askseekknockEvery Christmas season, kids beging to put their lists together to send to the jolly old elf in the North Pole. All year long, kids look forward to this particular holiday where their everything they want, or so they hope, will be lying under an evergreen tree wrapped in paper and a bow. With that said, all year long parents are reminding their children that they had better be nice or other wise Santa will be bringing them a lump of coal. Or worse still, they had better not be naught or Krampus (Google it) will come to visit them.

Still, kids know that they will end up with presents and not coal or some soul snatching, child-eating demon under their tree. They know that they are going to at least get some, if not all, of what they had put on their list. In fact, the list is just half of the equation. Not only do kids make their list out, but they persist in telling their parents that they really want this, or they really are hoping Santa gets them that. Their persistence is enough to get them what they want.

What is sad is that this kind of Christmas list mentality doesn’t end at Christmas time, no is it just prevelant with children. In fact, many grown Christians hold this mentality as well and it is how they approach their prayer life. God is seen as some sort of Santa Claus in the sky and faith is seen as some sort of vehicle that helps you believe God will fulfill your wish list. I guess this is the result of living in a consumer driven world, where the consumer (the church goer) is always right and expects to get what they paid for (through offering, or through faith and/or devtion, etc.).

Thus, many Christians approach today’s passage with that understanding in mind. Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” That get’s interpreted into a prosperity driven message of persisting (aka bugging) God for what you want until you get it. If God doesn’t answer your prayer it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough, or you didn’t pray in the right manner, or you didn’t persist enough in your prayers.

This is a bad, bad, bad theology and it also happens to be completely missing the point of Jesus’ teaching here. First, it needs to be said that Jesus has already modeled what our prayer should look like in Matthew 6 (refer back to parts 15 & 16 of this series to refresh your memory). Today’s text comes in light of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is clear that the kind of prayer Jesus things we ough to be praying looks nothing like a Christmas wish list for Santa.

Rather, we should be praying for God’s will to be done, for God’s Kingdom to come, and for God to give us what we need spiritually and physically to carry on the work God’s calling us to do (this is different than praying for God to give us what we want). We should be praying for forgiveness (for ourself and others), and asking God to guide us every step of the way. Today’s text is setting up what are three Jewish expressions for prayer: Ask, seek, knock. These aren’t three unrelated expressions, either, but are three interrelated expressions that help us to establish a dynamic and vital prayer life.

Asking God implies less of a “begging” for God to gift us with things, as much as implies a complete dependence on God for everything, just as a child totally depends on his/her parents. We ask God, because we know God is the one who provides. Asking must be understood in light of our dependence on God, for it to truly be what Christ is teaching us. Yet, prayer does not just involve us asking and God supplying. God is not the only active participant, but we are as well.

Jesus’ three tiered approach to understanding prayer is that we will ask by seeking and knocking. In other words, we don’t just ask, sit back and wait. Rather, we ask for God’s will to be done all the while seeking it out and knocking on all of the doors until we find the one God has opened for us. Prayer is not just done with our words, but with our very actions. We should be living embodiments of our prayers, totally dependent on God, but totally an active participant in God’s plan for us and for this world. This is what it means to pray, according to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We ask God, not only with our words, but through our actions by seeking and knocking. When we are aligned with and dependent upon God’s will, and when we actively seek and knock in order to follow God’s will, we surely will receive what we are actively searching for.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Lord, thank you for the gift of prayer. May your will be done, and may I ever seek and knock on doors until your will be revealed unto me. Amen.

The Sermon, part 22: Judging

Read Matthew 7:1-5

“Then let the heavens proclaim His justice, for God Himself will be the judge.” (Psalms 50:6 NLT)

logandspeckIt’s hard to believe, but we have just entered into the last third of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where the focus shifts from our relationship with stuff to our relationship with human beings. It is important to remember, throughout all of the sermon, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, though he is being overheard by the crowds.

Jesus clearly knew he was being overheard and so we can draw the following conclusion: Jesus was directly instructing how his disciples were to be in relationship with their ἀδελφός (pronounced ad-el-fos’), meaning brothers. The use of the word brothers here means that Jesus is referring to how the disciples interact with other members of their fellowship. It would be accurate to say that Jesus isn’t just talking about male members and so we could say that in this case, ἀδελφός refers to both “brothers” and “sisters”, even though the word itself means brothers.

Yet, Jesus also is aware that his teaching is being heard by a multitude of other people who are not his disciples; therefore, it can be safely assumed that though Jesus is directly teaching this to his disciples, it is a teaching he intends even for those beyond his inner circle. In other words, this is a teaching of how humans, in general, should be treating each other. It is not a teaching that is exclusive to just his disciples. This is perhaps why the New Revised Standard Version translates the word ἀδελφός to “neighbors” as opposed to “brothers”.

Jesus starts this final section of teachings with an absolute prohibition. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” There is nothing hypothetical or metaphorical about this teaching. Jesus is meaning it quite literally and absolutely. There is not gray area here, nor is there any “wiggle room”.

It is believed by some scholars that this teaching is original to Jesus, while the qualification that follows it was an interpretive expansion by the post-Easter church. The reason for this is that Jesus taught the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:34); however, as the years pressed onward following Easter, it became more and more clear to the church that “imminent” did not necessarily mean “in their lifetimes.” We can see this shift when we read Paul’s letters, which teach about the Kingdom soon to come, and the letters of Peter and John, who begin to understand that “with the Lord a day is like 1,000 years, and 1,000 years like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Therefore, the church sought to expand upon Jesus’ teaching on refraining from in away that reiterated the need to follow it.

Regardless, what is clear is that Jesus absolutely prohibited judging. The question is, what is meant by the word “judge”. The word for judge κρίνω (pronounced kree’-nō) means to criticize or to condemn. In other words, Jesus prohibits his disciples and all who wish to follow him from casting criticism and condemnation on other people. Jesus then, according to Matthew, qualifies this prohibition by saying that those who judge will find themselves judged by God in the same manner and with the same measure as they judged others.

In other words, if you want to bring down God’s law on someone’s head, beware! For none of us are right with God and will face similar judgment. This is further qualified by Jesus’ question of why one would try and pull a speck or a splinter from their brother’s/sister’s eye, when he/she has a huge log or beam in his/ her own eye. Nothing gets Jesus more riled up than hypocrisy!

This should be a lesson for us as well. Who are we to judge. It is important to note that judgment is different than discernment. We can discern that we should not keep the company of someone because they are behaving in ways that are not moral or beneficial. We can discern that a certain belief is not good or not consistent with our own; however, are we in a place to judge (based off of any Law or doctrine or theology) that someone evil, or that someone is damned to hell? What’s more, even if we are right in our judgment that they are damned to hell for violation of this or violation of that, are we so sure that we are not in violation and deserving of the same judgment? Jesus’ answer to us is clear. “JUDGE NOT, so that you may not be judged.” I pray that we all learn to follow this prohibition.

“The least amount of judging we can do, the better off we are.” – Michael J. Fox

Lord, thank you for teaching of the perils of judging, for who am I to judge? Steer me clear away from it so that I may live and walk in your light, your mercy, and your grace. Amen.

The Sermon, part 19: Fasting

Read Matthew 6:16-18

“This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (Leviticus 16:29 NRSV)

man-repentance-humble-humility-sackcloth-and-ashes-rend-hearts-courtesy-of-conrado-shutterstockcom_136670741There is a practice in Christianity to abstain from certain things during the period of Lent. For some, such as Roman Catholics, observant Christians abstain from eating meat on Fridays. There even some Roman Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the entire year. Others abstain from chocolate, from television, from social media, from food, etc.

Fasting has been a part of religious life for as long as people have been seeking a relationship with God. There are numerous reasons why devoted people fast. Some fast in order to humble themselves and set their relationship with God back on track. Others fast in order to enhance their prayer life. Still, others fast as a way of showing penitence for their sins, or the sins of others. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures fasted on behalf of their people, who had gone astray from the ways of God.

Fasting was a common practice in Jesus’ time. The act, itself, also included the wearing of sackcloth, the placing of ash over one’s head, and abstaining from bathing and/or washing the body. In other words, it was quite obvious when one was fasting, because they would wreak to high heaven and look like they’d slept in a hole in the ground for a month! This may seem like an odd practice; however, it was done as a part of lamentation and humility. After all, there’s nothing more humbling than having people keep their distance from you because you stink! That would be a constant reminder of one’s lowliness.

The Hebrew Scriptures had set forth only one time for public fasting, and it was only a day long fast: The Day of Atonement. It was during this day long ritual, to be held on a Sabbath day (or a day of rest), that the priests would atone for the sins of Israel by sacrificing animals in the Temple. The people were absolutely forbidden to do any work, which also included bathing, cooking, eating, etc. The people were to deny themselves in a spirit of repentance.

While that is the only public fast required in the Torah, two other public fasts cropped up in Jewish Tradition. These were Rosh Ha-Shanah (the Jewish New Year) and the Ninth of Ab (which marked the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians); however, it is unlcear whether or not these were a part of the tradition at the time Matthew was written, let alone during Jesus’ life time. With that said, there were days of the week (Mondays and Thursdays) that were designated for personal fasting, and it seems that Jesus’ disciples (at least some of them) were participating in that.

Unlike Jesus’ words on public prayer and almsgiving, Jesus’ words here are to be taken literally, though it is still not merely a legalistic command that Jesus is making. Rather, Jesus is speaking to the heart of why we do what we do. Are we doing it so that others can see, or are we doing it for God and God alone. In other words, when you abstain from meat on Friday, or you abstain from chocolate through Lent, do you feel the need to let people know? If so, why is that? Are you doing so that people know you are “religious” or that you are “holy” or that you are ”Christian”? Or are you doing it as an offering to God who gave everything up for us?

When I was juice fasting, I initally didn’t let anyone know I was doing it. My pastor, family and friends eventually talked me into going public with it because I was successfully shredding off weight and they thought I could be an inspiration to people. I hesitated for a while on it. I wasn’t doing it for attention, but for myself…to prove that I could lose the weight and be healthy once again; however, I did eventually start to share it with people to be an inspiration to them and to show them that IT CAN BE DONE.

There is nothing wrong with publicly fasting if it is being done for the RIGHT reason; however, what Jesus is getting at is that if you are fasting so that others will see you, you will have your reward. Others will see you and they will remark how “holy” or how “religious” you are and that will be that! That kind of attention seeking gains the wrong kind of attention and it is ultimately no benefit to the spiritual growth of the person seeking the attention. God will not be impressed by that, nor will one gain anything more than human approval and/or human mockery.

Again, we are reminded by our Lord, that we are called to be set a part FOR GOD and not for human approval or recognition. We are being challenged to search our hearts and test our motivations. Are we SERVING GOD or are we SERVING SELF? If the latter is the case, then we should prepare ourselves for much needed change, or come to terms with the reality that we are spiritually shallow. Once again, Jesus draws the line in the sand to measure where we are standing. May we acknowledge the truth, and adjust our position if need be.

“Start the practice of self-control with some penance; begin with fasting.” – Mahavira

Lord, thank you for the spiritual discipline of fasting. Help me to be set apart for you, and you alone, in all that I do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 10: Fourth Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:33-37

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6 NRSV)

truth-008“What is truth?” Those are the infamous words of the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. During Jesus’ Roman trial, he was being questioned on who he was, because the word got around that he was claiming to be the Messiah, or king, and that would have been very disturbing to Pilate.

The Prefect questioned Jesus, “Are you a king? Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus answered back, Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about Me?

Pilate was enraged! “Am I a Jew? Your own leaders and priests brought you to me for trial! Now tell me, what have you done.”

Jesus looked a Pilate and ansered back, “My Kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my followers would not have allowed me to be handed over to the Jewish leaders. My Kingdom is not of this world.

Pilate was growing impatient. “So, you are a king then?”

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.

“What is truth,” Pilate retorted the philosophical question in disgust with this man, as well as disgust with the whole region.

Though these events were recorded in John 18:33-38, the question, “What is truth,” is one that is relevant to us here today. Anyone who has watched politicians at work, know that the truth is not always what it seems. Things are said, “facts” are thrown out there, and stats are flaunted like evidence! Promises are made, assurances given and, at the end of the day, nothing changes. Our trust hangs in the balance, while the truth gets buried a pile of “untruths”.

The Jewish Law, just like our American justice system, had provisions written in it to make sure that people told the truth in crucial moments. If one had taken a vow, and were under oath, one’s words were weighted and any sign of lying would result in a severe penalty. While lying outside of an oath or vow is immoral, it does not bear any legal ramifications, even if it does bear social ones.

To paraphrase, Jesus says, “You have heard it said that ‘You must not break your vows’. But I say to you, do not make any vows! Don’t swear by heaven, or the earth, or Jerusalem, for those are not yours to swear by. They are God’s! And do not even swear by your own head for you can’t even control turning one hair black or white. Rather, just say a simple ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’. Anything beyond this is from the evil one!

Here again, Jesus took what seemed to be a common sense law and gave us an absolute antithesis in return. Rather than our words mattering sometimes, yet not others, Jesus proclaimed that our words matter ALL THE TIME. Truth is truth, lies are lies, and to say otherwise is to be, well, not truthful! God is not a liar, and God will not be represented by liars.

This, again, is not meant to establish a new law, but to point us to the one who is the fulfillment of the law. The one who embodied the TRUTH at all costs! This is not about being kind to a friend you think doesn’t look so great in those plaid pants, or anything like that. Jesus is NOT against tact! Nor is Jesus against those who lie to do what is morally just, such as lying to the gustapo that one isn’t hiding away Jews when they really are in the house hiding.

What Jesus is doing is speaking truth to power, and to those who choose to follow the power of the world, rather than the Truth of the Word. Jesus, the Word of God, is faithful and true and calls all followers to be likewise. We are to be truthful, we are to not make oaths for there should be no need to swear by this or that; rather, we should mean what we say and say what we mean. While we cannot force the world to be truthful, we can choose to not be beguiled by the world. Let us, instead, follow the one who IS TRUTH and let TRUTH lead and guide us in all that we do.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha

Lord, reveal your TRUTH in me, and speak it through me in all I say and do. 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.

Start With Yourself

Read Matthew 7:1-6

“I have much to say about you and much to condemn, but I won’t. For I say only what I have heard from the One who sent Me, and He is completely truthful.” (John 8:26, NLT)

logsFor those of you who are on social media, and perhaps some of you read these devotions on some of those sites, have you ever run into comments posted that make you sit back and seriously question what in the world the people who posted them are thinking? Often times, people post things that they think are “wise beyond their years”, often decrying something they think they don’t like…yet they are no better than the people and/or the things they are bemoaning. More often than not, many of us have come across such things and have been left scratching our heads and wondering, “For the love of God, why?”

I have seen many such posts that have left me wondering. For instance, people posting to the world that they are “going to rise above” and “not let people bring them down” only to follow that up with a series of comments putting down the said people that they are supposedly “not going to let bring them down.” In this world of social media, many people have lost their filters and their self-awareness; many people end up posting things they would never say to the face of others. While there are many awesome things about social media, it is such behavior that ends up giving social media a bad reputation.

Of course, social media is not just to blame regarding this. Prior to social media there were bumper stickers (perhaps there still are) and the like that expressed the same kind of sentiment. But the truth is, that if you want to not let people get you down, you kind of need to start with yourself first. It is so easy to look across the way, point the other finger, and hold other people accountable for your you’re feeling. Yet, the truth is, it is not quite as easy for us to self-reflect and see where and how we are bringing ourselves down. What’s more, often times misery likes company and we end up bringing others down with us!

The truth of the matter is that this kind of behavior has been going on for quite some time. Jesus, during his famous Sermon on the Mount, talked about this very thing when he warned his listeners not to pull out the speck in another’s eye without removing the huge log their own eyes first. The fact of the matter is that we all play our part in viewing ourselves as the ones who are in the right and everyone else as being in the wrong. The truth is that not one of us has clear eyes or 20/20 vision when it comes to our own shortcomings and for us to act as if we have none is both disingenuous and sinful.

Christ is calling you to concern yourself with the log(s) that are clouding your vision before you even begin to point out the specks that are in another’s eyes. If you do not want to let other people bring you down, then you had better start with yourself. Once you have been perfected then you will see clear enough to judge other people. Of course that day of perfection will never come in this life and so, therefore, our judgment of others should never come either. Let us, rather, leave judgement and speck pulling up to God who could judge each of us for our faults but chooses not to. Amen.

“Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions.” (Proverbs 18:2 NLT)

Lord, help me to be a person who does not tear others, myself included, down; rather, let me be one who lifts people up both in prayer and in life. Amen.