“You have heard that it was said. . . but I say to you“
Jesus goes up onto a mountain, sits down, the disciples and the crowd gathers round him and Jesus begins to teach. The choice of location for this teaching is quite deliberate. Given the content of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, the intention is quite clear. Jesus’ listeners, the ones on the mountain with him, and us listening later, are meant to make a connection. We are meant to spot the parallel between Jesus teaching from the mountainside and Moses giving the Law from a mountain. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ take on the Law, his interpretation of the Law. Indeed from a Christian perspective Jesus’ “interpretation” is so authoritative that it effectively replaces the Law.
Things start out well enough. Jesus begins with the Beatitudes. We happy enough to listen to them. Jesus offers us a series of counterfactuals, sayings that declare blessed situations and circumstances which would not normally be considered a blessing: Poverty (even if it is in spirit), mourning, hunger, persecution. We are happy enough to listen to those, because would could see ourselves in those circumstances and be glad of the blessings that are promised. But from there things go rapidly downhill, until we arrive at this passage. I once heard someone say: “Oh you don’t want to take Jesus too seriously when he says things like that. He was a bit of an all or nothing guy!”
Err. . . actually yes, he is an all or nothing guy. Which is exactly why you have got to take him very seriously when he says things like this!
Jesus takes four of the prohibitions from the Law and significantly tightens them: He turns the Law against murder into a prohibition against anger. He turns the Law against adultery into a prohibition against lust. To which he adds the terrifying and gruesome suggestion that self-mutilation: poking out an eye or severing a limb would be preferable to falling under judgement. Then he significantly narrows the possibility of divorce. And strengthens the insistence on truthful speaking. It is at moment like this that we might begin to wonder about our assumptions about Jesus aren’t faulty. This is no “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” And the assumption that Jesus comes to make things easier for us is also called into question. Jesus is profoundly critical of the Pharisees and their interpretation of the Law. He accuses them of piling extra-burdens of people without offering a hand to lift them. Yet at the same time he also demands:
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.“
At every turn in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus interprets the Law, he makes it stricter than the interpretation that even a scribe or a Pharisee would give!
The Law was given through Moses to make the people of God. The children of Israel are different and distinctive because they have the Law. They show their devotion to God, and their identity as a people, are rooted in their devotion to the Law. It is in a way the constitution of the children of Israel. It is what makes them who they are. Since the Sermon on the Mount is the summary of Jesus teaching, and in particular contains his interpretation of the Law, it serves a similar function among Christians. This teaching marks out who we are. We are the people who accept this teaching. Our identity is rooted in our devotion to what Jesus says here. This is our constitution.
Jesus’ choice of commandments to focus on is not arbitrary or accidental. He is addressing and talking about a community, his disciples. And much of what he says is about how that community holds together as a people, how they behave to one another, how their relationship with each other are regulated. Jesus picks out four significant regulations, reminding his listeners what they have already heard:
“You have heard that it was said…
You shall not murder…
You shall not commit adultery…
Whoever divorces his wife let him give her a certificate of divorce…
You shall not swear falsely…”
What perhaps these have in common is that they are the things most likely to cause fractures in and the disintegration of any community if they are not prevented or at least regulated. I think it is reasonably safe to say that pretty much every society has similar regulations. No community can survive if these things become commonplace. They also regulate areas of life that are at the heart of the problems created by being humans, living in bodies, in close proximity to other humans, living in bodies. Yet even these four rules, as near universal as they are, prove very hard for human beings to keep. The very existence of the rules, and the existence of all the interpretations and all the exceptions that are made to them indicates just what very great difficulty humans have in keeping them. You have heard it said “You shall not murder.” But on the other hand we’ll avoid calling it murder, and call it war, and self-defence, and even capital punishment, so that we can do it. “You shall not commit adultery.” Well you shan’t, but a lot of people do, it is remarkably commonplace and people will find all kinds of excuses for why it was ok in their case. Perhaps the regulation of divorce remains much as it did, because there was so little restriction made in the first place. But it still has the potential to create a residual of sorrow and loneliness. “You shall not bear false witness.” Perhaps most shocking of human failure of the last few years has been in the area of truth telling. We have suddenly found ourselves living in a “post-truth age.” We know we shouldn’t lie. But we have convinced ourselves there is no truth only opinions. And even a bare-faced lie can be called “an alternative truth.”
But Jesus it seems has very little patience with that kind of human weakness. He is not going to let us wriggle out from underneath the restrictions of the Law. He is not going to let our human frailty destroy the community of his disciples. So it is not just that we shouldn’t kill one another. Jesus goes to the root of the problem in human nature. We must not even be angry with one another. And again when it comes to adultery. He prohibits not just the act, but the thought that leads to the act. Divorce is no longer permitted. And you don’t have to tell the truth only when you have promised to tell the truth, since doing that would make all speech deceptive, you should simply tell the truth all the time!
Human beings can’t keep the regulations even in the form that we heard they were said. How then are we to have any hope of keeping Jesus’ much more strict interpretations? How are we to overcome human nature? We could throw our hands up in despair and admit it is impossible. Indeed that is often how we handle what Jesus says here. You have heard it said that the Law and especially Jesus’ interpretation of it is impossible to keep and that is kind of the point. The purpose of the Law and of Jesus’ sermon on the mount is only to confront us with our weakness and failure. The point is not that we keep the Law or Jesus’ teaching but that admit that we can’t and rely on God’s mercy displayed in Jesus instead. And there is some truth in that. Except it is also another rather convenient way of wriggling out from underneath what the Law and Jesus are actually asking of us.
The real point of the Sermon on the Mount is not so much the teaching itself. Though that is very important. The point is who is speaking: Jesus Christ. Jesus points to the world that we live in: A world that is full of murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce and loneliness, and full of lies. And he indicates that following him offers an alternative world. A world that is freed from anger, lust, loneliness and falsehood. Such a world is possible to the followers of Jesus because their lives serve a new purpose in following him. Their end is no longer themselves. Their end is to enact the world, the kingdom, that Jesus embodies, by following him. The Sermon on the Mount, like the Law, calls together a people that is called to be different. But not to be different in order to be different. Jesus clearly thinks his people will be different, but that difference is because of what he is, the Son of God. The difference is being pulled into a different life made possible by Jesus. The teaching which Jesus gives in not so much proscriptive, or prescriptive as it is descriptive. The Sermon on the Mount is a description of a way of life of a people that results from following this man; a people amongst whom: anger and lust and loneliness and falsehood become unknown; a community of reconciliation, of authentic love, and of friendship and most of all a community of truthfulness. Not because we heard it was said that the alternatives were prohibited, But because we heard him say: “I say to you,” and followed him into that life and that kingdom.
But I Say to You by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0