At the end of Matthew chapter 5—the end of the first third of what we call “The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus says some things that tend to drive people crazy:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
It seems difficult to conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings toward people who wish you harm. But that may not be the point of love, and perhaps that’s not the point of what Jesus is saying.
God is the central player in the generous act of love, and Jesus affirms that as he describes the way that God cares for all people through the natural order of things. Love for the enemy, like all of God’s love, is an ongoing activity into which we are called to participate. In other words, God’s love is a party in process, and we’re always showing up at a celebration that is fully underway.
I like to think of things like love and hate as spinning cycles or wheels. You can either break the spinning of the cycle or you can latch onto it and enjoy the ride. You can join into the cycle of hatred and it will keep spinning faster and faster. You can also break that cycle by not offering it the energy it demands. In a similar way, you can jump into God’s cycle of love, allowing it’s power to carry you into places you could never go to on your own power. And even though you can never break God’s cycle of love, you can certainly refuse to participate in it.
I believe there are a number of things that work this way, things like love, forgiveness, and generosity. That’s why what Jesus says at the end of the quotation is so important to us:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word that we often translate as “perfect” can also be “mature” or “complete.” This is not an impossible call to strive toward perfection, but rather a call to participate in the generous, loving, life of God, to launch our lives into the spinning cycle of his reckless love—a love that has universal impact. Love finds perfection, not in our flawlessness, but in our vulnerable engagement with God’s love.
I wonder if, during certain parts of Jesus’ words that are reported in Matthew chapter five, his listeners thought that he had gone off the rails, that some of his mental circuits had gotten sizzled by the heat of the sun. He says things that violate basic wisdom, not to mention the logic of justice.
He reminds them of a familiar saying, one that is found in Exodus 21 but was also a common statement in the ancient near east regarding appropriate retaliation:
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
It seems to make sense, really. It’s certainly better than the possibility of violent overreactions (as in, you steal my chicken, then I burn down your house, steal your children, and send you off to live with the scorpions). If offenses are addressed with like treatment, if the punishment is in proportion to the crime, then perhaps true justice—the restoration of balance—can be administered.
But that form of logic seems to be lost on Jesus. His “But I say to you” response is stunning in its reckless disregard for parity and fairness:
Do not resist an evildoer.
If someone sues you, give more than what was demanded.
If you are forced into servitude, serve beyond the requirements.
Be generous toward those who can never repay you.
These very unrealistic responses completely ignore the ongoing realities of the world. In order to keep the inevitability of injustice and violence at bay, responses that limit the effects of human violation are necessary. Otherwise, injustice will reign supreme, and the powerful will oppress and even destroy the weak.
So, how’s that working out for us today? Is justice or injustice the dominant theme in the world?
Jesus orients his listeners—including us—toward responses that do not seek to balance the scales of justice (sometimes thinly disguised forms of vengeance), but rather to break the cycles of injustice by refusing to keep the fires of violation blazing. Not responding in kind to violence and offense exposes those actions for the distortions that they are, allowing the twisted face of evil to reveal its true nature. Jesus suggests that his followers—like him—maintain a loose hold on what others hold dear, recognizing that the real treasures of life lie within God and not in the temporality of human life.
Jesus shakes up his listeners by declaring that certain conventional and legal actions (or inactions) are not at the heart of goodness, not at the core of righteousness. He reminds them of what everyone already knows (“You have heard . . .”) and then pulls the rug out from underneath their feet by pushing them away from their perceived moral and ethical safety zones (“But I say to you . . .”). So:
Not committing murder doesn’t eradicate the internal anger that resides in one’s heart.
Not committing adultery doesn’t magically erase the objectifying of someone as a mere object of sexual desire.
Following the legal rules that allow a man to divorce his wife—thereby forcing her into a new marriage relationship in order to avoid becoming destitute—doesn’t wipe the slate of oppression clean.
These first three admonitions, while clearly not ignoring the fact that actions and thoughts do not necessarily have the same consequences (actually killing someone brings a more severe result than just thinking about murder), bring to the forefront two important emphases:
First, there resides in the human heart the potential for the worst of human actions. Therefore, all people stand together in a sea of dark possibilities. It’s one thing to make a right judgment about something, as in bearing witness to some observable event (such as, “Officer, that car made a left turn and crashed into the light pole;” or, “I saw that man strike that woman and run away with her purse”). It’s another thing to claim that the possibilities for wrongdoing and error do not exist in those of us who haven’t committed any crimes. Such a claim is at the heart of judgmentalism.
So, just because a person didn’t pull the trigger on the gun doesn’t mean that her inner anger, an anger that makes murder a possibility, has no unrighteous power.
Just because a man hasn’t cheated on his wife doesn’t mean that his constant lusting over his neighbor’s wife doesn’t have the potential to destroy lives and relationships.
Second, legal permissions and boundaries do not necessarily mirror what is truly right. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife, sometimes on flimsy grounds, as long as he gave her a certificate of divorce (most likely a legally-recognized document that freed her to marry another). To be a divorced and disempowered woman in that time would be a sure ticket to destitution. Jesus wouldn’t allow for such a legally protected action, as though the boundaries of the law eliminated the destruction that would surely follow.
I wonder how things would change for us if, when we heard that someone did something awful, rather than saying, “How could he do that?” we lamented, “I am capable of the same thing.”
I wonder how generous our hearts might become if, while respecting the reality of our national laws, we didn’t allow legal regulations to be the ultimate definers of righteousness? For example:
Do the existence of immigration laws and national borders mean that “neighbor” is defined only by the legalities of residency and citizenship?
When the courts make a declaration requiring obedience—whether related to abortion, marriage, immigration, discrimination, and any number of other important issues—is the conversation over for followers of Jesus? Or do we look to him and wait for him to say, “But I say to you . . .”?
The words of this sermon in the gospel of Matthew—typically called “The Sermon on the Mount”—have been studied, reflected upon, and cherished by people for centuries. But they are not necessarily words of comfort. They force us as readers to confront ourselves and challenge our own perceived securities.
There is a road leading down from a mountain in Mexico where I have ridden my bicycle several times. There is a big sign on the side as the road begins its winding, eight-mile descent. The sign reads, “Curvos Peligrosos.” Dangerous Curves.
There should be a heading at the beginning of this message from Jesus that reads: “Palabras Peligrosas.” Dangerous Words.
In the movie Minority Report, the minds of three young seers are tapped to give future law enforcement authorities the ability to stop crimes before they actually happen. These glimpses into the future allow the police to thwart wrongdoing—especially murder—when the acts are nothing more than possibilities bubbling in the perpetrators’ minds.
Jesus said some startling things about guilt, sin, and righteousness—things that didn’t allow for the disconnecting of the mind from the body, of intentions from actions, of the state of the heart from the committing of the crime. He showed that the apparent outward righteousness of certain religious leaders—specifically the Jewish scribes and Pharisees—was a smokescreen that obscured the hidden realities of their inward realities. He wasn’t shy in his attacks against their hypocrisies and would say things like,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)
As Jesus sat with his followers on the side of the mountain, he must have shocked them with the contrasts he made concerning what they had learned from their childhoods in home and synagogue against the deeper way of thinking about life that he was laying before them. He challenged them with seven brain-twisting examples drawn from the law of Moses and also from conventional folk wisdom:
Love for the enemy
Giving of alms
Jesus brilliantly reminds his followers about what they have heard about each of these topics, and then moves behind the veil and reveals the heart that birthed each action. Are people free from the sin because they haven’t committed murder or adultery? No, because the reality of anger and lust in the human heart binds all people together under a shroud of guilt where the seeds of destruction and violation are planted, sometimes sprouting and sometimes not.
Are people safe when they build walls against one another through the legalities of divorce, the craftiness of contractual language, rules allowing for revenge, and the acceptability of hatred? Jesus collapses them all, and draws his listeners into ways of engaging with others in the completeness of love that comes only from God.
It was probably easy for people in Jesus’ day to allow social, religious, political, and military frameworks to provide artificial safety zones in which to live. It’s just as easy for us to do it as well. It’s easier to label other people as sinners when we deny the realities of our own hearts. It’s easier to allow the boundaries and borders of nation-states to define the word “neighbor” than it is to see all people as co-humans made in the image of God. It’s easier to crush others under religious dogma than it is to listen deeply and find where God is already at work in the lives of those who are not like us.
There are many areas of life and thinking where Jesus rightly declares, “You have heard that it was said . . . .”
It’s more important for us to hear, “But I say to you . . . .”
[See Matthew chapter 5 for the details of Jesus’ words to his followers]
The ancient laws chronicled in the Old Testament often confound people. It’s not just the Ten Commandments, but also the myriad of dietary/social/economic laws that fill the pages of books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy (not most people’s preferences for devotional reading). The laws seem to us to be mostly irrelevant in our time and provide us with clear evidence of the fruitlessness of legalism when it comes to pleasing God.
Or, could it be that something else is going on here?
Imagine the ancient Hebrew people as they suffered through generations of slavery under the yoke of the Pharaoh in Egypt. After their rescue under Moses’s leadership, they wandered in the wilderness for a long time before landing in a place that would become their homeland. What was going on for them in that long sojourn?
They were being reformed.
The lens through which the people saw the world would be colored by their experiences of captivity in Egypt. Their religious views would be as permeated by Egyptian mythology as much as it was by early Semitic worship practices. How would they move from a people oriented around slavery to a people with a destiny crafted and energized by the God of the universe?
They would be reformed by adherence to laws that would reorient every aspect of their lives. They would be required to think in new ways about human relationships and interactions, the nature of life-giving work, the purpose and effects of communal worship, and care for the world around them. It would take a great deal of reorientation to extract the mentality of slavery from the people and to reorient them around the presence of the God who had rescued them from Egypt.
And Jesus sits on the side of the mountain and tells his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
It appears that, for Jesus, the law and the prophets were not static propositions but rather signs and wonders that continuously directed the people into the living presence of God. Yet the law had become rigid and life-draining in Jesus’ day, framed by the religious elite as measurements of personal righteousness, a righteousness attained by disciplined adherence to the ancient code of Moses.
And Jesus must have startled his followers when, after affirming the authority and purposefulness of the law and the prophets, he warns of a distortion that was evidenced in the Jewish religious leadership of the day:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And what comes next will shake people’s understanding of righteousness for centuries to come.
As Jesus looked upon the crowds from his vantage point on the side of the mountain, he called them blessed. His disciples, gathered around him as he spoke, must have recognized that Jesus’ words were not spiritual abstractions, but statements of reality. The crowds had come to Jesus, and “they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” The blessing to which Jesus referred had been experienced in the lives of the people, not simply anticipated as a reward for spiritual purity.
The tone of Jesus’ message shifts as his attention moves from the crowds to his disciples. He now speaks of blessing that comes to “you”—those now gathered before him:
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
These are words about vocation, the vocation of following Jesus, of learning anew what it means to be the people of God. There will be persecution—the history of Israel’s prophets confirms the inevitability of resistance. But there will also be the embodiment of God’s intentions for the rescue of the world, an intention first spoken to the ancient patriarch Abram as he was summoned from his nomadic life into a destiny that would result in the nation of Israel:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
The blessing that Jesus extended to the crowds brought healing and life. The blessing that he gave to his followers drew them into God’s mission. Once again, this blessing was no abstraction; the blessing came as the result of responding to the call of Jesus to follow him. Those who put their trust in Jesus would not create a new religion—they would renew and enliven God’s original intention for Israel for the sake of the entire world.
Jesus sits on the incline of the mountain and positions himself so that he can look into the faces of his disciples who are gathered before him, but also to look beyond them to the crowds gathered in the valley below.
What is he seeing?
He sees many who are poor, not only in terms of resource but also in terms of life. Their very bodies suffer the poverty of malnutrition and disease, and the hope of a renewal of God’s breath within them is vague at best. That is, until Jesus has touched them. He sees them in the distance and brings them out of the depths of despair when he claims,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
There are those who have given up on their lives, seeing their suffering and pain as evidence of God’s disinterest in them. Others came in despair, having lost hope that their loved ones might be made whole again. But Jesus declares a reality that they are only beginning to experience, and he calls out,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Many who have brought loved ones to be healed by Jesus have spent long periods of time as caregivers. Some might have taken on their tasks grudgingly, but others would bring care with love and gentleness, characteristics that would not have put them in league with the strong and powerful of the world, those who would not be encumbered by the concerns of the infirm. Jesus sees those who exhibit humility and points them toward a surprising destiny:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
There would be those in the crowds who strained against injustice—injustice seen in the dominance of the Romans over the Jews, injustice within the very life of Israel, and the injustice of sickness and pain being visited upon God’s people. They would long for things to be put right in the world and for God’s intentions to be made real in the here and now. They long also for their own hearts to be made right before God. Jesus celebrates their longing and gives them hope:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
There would have been many people in the crowds who had left homes and businesses to bring others to the feet of Jesus. Many of those who were suffering would have been incapable of such travel on their own. They would have been dependent upon the mercy of others whose bodies were whole and strong to carry them to the valley were Jesus might bring his healing. Those who had given of themselves for the sake of others did not miss Jesus’ notice:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
One of the insults branded upon Jesus by his opponents was “friend of sinners.” Jesus was not put off by those who lives were lived out on the fringes of religious and social respectability. In his encounters with these “sinners,” he found some who, in the midst of their brokenness, exhibited a transparent innocence, an innocence that allowed them to be exposed before Jesus so that he might draw them into a new kind of life. Unencumbered by the scheming and posturing that often characterized the strong and powerful, their eyes were opened to the fullness of God that was in Jesus. Jesus saw them, too:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
It may be, because of the large gathering of people, that soldiers were present on that day. They might have been Jewish temple guards or even Roman soldiers, standing off and away from the crowds, watching in case some form of insurrection might be brewing. Jesus sees them just as he sees the others, and he redefines their vocations, calling them away from the corruption and violence that was always a possibility for them, and to a new view of themselves of ones who might foster peace in a violent and destructive world:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Stories of Roman persecution of the Jews were commonplace in Israel. Some were devastated financially by unfair taxation. Others might have suffered at the hands of Rome’s interrogators whenever plots to overthrow Roman rule were suspected. Many had been sent to their deaths, rows of crucified bodies reminding the populace of the power of the dominant rulers. Perhaps even anticipating his own suffering and death, Jesus refuses to allow those who have been sinned against to be forgotten:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus sees them all, and calls them blessed. He draws them—the sick, the tormented, the poor, the unpowerful, the marginalized, the “sinners”—away from the fringes of life and into the circle of God’s love. It is a place of God’s blessing, a place were hope and healing thrive.
It is a much larger circle than anyone could have imagined.
I appreciate good storytellers. For me, the gospel-writer Matthew ranks up with the best crafters of words that serve to foster a hopeful imagination (as the scholar Walter Brueggemann titled one of his great books) in the readers.
Here’s an example of Matthew’s work:
"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . ." (Matthew 4:23-5:2)
Can you see yourself in this story, following Jesus around, elbow-to-elbow with people who have gathered with the hope that their loved ones and friends will be healed in their bodies and minds? It’s a diverse group, made up of pilgrims coming from different parts of the region, giving evidence to Jesus’ broad reputation as a healer.
The picture that Matthew paints here sets the stage for what is coming next. There is nothing abstract and legalistic about the words that Jesus is about to speak. Instead, what he will say is personal, purposeful, deconstructive and reconstructive. Jesus will not offer a new set of laws that will take the place of the old forms of religious legislation; he will set people free into a new kind of living that demands honesty about the human condition yet draws people into relationship with both God and human beings in ways that crash against the boundaries of culture.
Jesus brings healing to those who were suffering, people brought to him by those who were not afflicted by disease and pain. Jesus sees them all, and he then he moves up the side of the mountain. I imagine him sitting in a place that provides an expansive view of the valley below him, not posturing himself as a lecturer behind a podium, but rather as an observer, one who has come from the gathering of the people and now reflects on who they are and how they might live in the hopefulness that comes from a life centered in God.
Jesus sits down and his disciples come to him, sitting around him, waiting for their teacher to speak. I imagine him, as he prepares to lead his friends into new depths of understanding, looking past them, over their heads, toward the crowds below who are now a gathered people who have just experienced healing in their midst.
Jesus sees them clearly. Then he begins to speak. And the first words that his friends hear are not about them. These words are about those that Jesus sees in the valley below.