I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount for 47 years, how is it that it is fresher today than 47 years ago?
Jesus’ first recorded extended teaching is not what we would expect; at least not what I would expect and I don’t think what His audience anticipated. Consider two contextual elements:
First, consider what preceded the message (Matthew 4:23 – 25): Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pain, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them. Large crowds followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.
Secondly, consider the messianic expectation of the Jews at that time, they were looking for the Messiah to deliver them from the yoke of Rome; certainly the miracles of Jesus and the large crowds following Him gave hope to many that He was the deliverer who would lead Israel to its promised place at the head of all nations.
With the above as the context, what would we have thought of the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount?
Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the gentle…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who have been persecuted…blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you…
This is hardly a clarion call to rise up against Rome. This is hardly a trumpet blast calling Israel to military and political victory. This is not Moses delivering Israel from Egypt or Joshua at Jericho or David subduing the Philistines nor Asa or Jehoshaphat leading their armies to victory. This teaching of Jesus is the opposite of what we expect. Consider verse 39, But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. Is this what His audience expected?
There are things we think are important to the point of driving our agenda and thinking which have little (if anything) directly to do with the Kingdom of God, and yet we think they do, we think that God must be driven by them. We think God must belong to this political persuasion or that one, that He must be the patron God of this nation or that nation, that He must surely be in favor of one economic system over another – we are confident that if God showed up at the ballot box that we know how He would vote. Rather than submit ourselves and egos to God we confidently insist that God inhabit our eccentricities and bless our parochial agendas and we do not doubt that we are right and that His great desire is that we be delivered from the equivalent of ancient Rome in our lives.
I cannot help but think of the vitriol swirling around the Affordable Health Care Act in the United States. There are professing Christians who seem to think that the world is coming to an end if the Act stays in place. If they think this is the case they ought to focus on bringing people into a relationship with Jesus – which indeed is what we all should focus on. We are all in danger of substituting political, economic, and social agendas for the Kingdom of God. I don’t know whether Jesus was tempted to give into political agendas or not, I do know that most of us would have been tempted to do so, I also know that I would have been in grave danger of giving in, especially at one point in my life. Jesus is showing His disciples and the crowds a better way, He is showing them the Kingdom of God, He is inviting them into a relationship with His heavenly Father; He is showing them not how to throw off the yoke of Rome, but rather how to be delivered from the oppression of selfishness, sin, and death…and religion that is focused on the external and things of this world.