Rev. Alan Heatherington, Grace Anglican Fellowship - February 5, 2017
Last Sunday was the first of four consecutive Sundays on which our Gospel readings are from Matthew chapter 5, the first of three chapters in Matthew that are devoted entirely to the Sermon on the Mount. In our Bible Study last Sunday evening the question was raised as to the addressees of this sermon. To whom was it given? Who actually heard it? Various answers have been given, none of which can be regarded as definitive.
At the end of Matthew 4, we find Jesus going through all of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, healing those with various diseases, casting out demons and, in the process, attracting great crowds of followers from the entire region and well beyond. Then the first verse of chapter 5 tells us that, “Seeing the crowds, He went up on the mountain.” Why did He do that? Was it to get away from the crowds? That seems improbable; on similar occasions when Jesus clearly was trying to escape from the pressing crowds, He got into a boat and crossed the Sea of Galilee to the other side. Here, on the contrary, He simply left the seashore and went up the hillside, where the crowds easily could follow Him and where the natural acoustics would permit all of them to hear Him perfectly assuming, as seems to be the case, that Jesus was able to project His speaking voice exceptionally well. According to Benjamin Franklin, the great English evangelist George Whitefield was able to be heard distinctly by over 30,000 people at a time on a city street in an era when there was no such thing as amplification. Jesus found the ideal spot for preaching to a large crowd.
Verse 1 also says that His disciples came to Him. But it doesn’t say how many of them, and it’s not until the tenth chapter of Matthew that the number of disciples is pared down to 12. It also doesn’t say that only His disciples came to Him. It may mean that a smaller group identified as disciples were able to get pride of position closest to Jesus, or it may be that all those who went up the hillside to hear this sermon were then regarded as disciples, that is, as persons eager to be learners at Jesus’ feet, since the word “disciples” only means “learners.”
But more compelling is the final sentence of chapter 7, which states that “the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as One Who had authority, and not as their scribes.” And while there’s some ambiguity in the very next verse, chapter 8, verse 1, that says, “When He came down from the mountain, great crowds followed Him,” it also could be read, “As He came down from the mountain, great crowds were following Him.” And so, it would appear that however many or few disciples were hearing the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the crowd had formed once again before He concluded it. At the end of the day, the question of how many persons heard the Sermon is somewhat academic, since it clearly has been preserved for the instruction of all those who follow Jesus in the subsequent centuries, including us.
We mentioned last week that most of the Sermon consists of sound bites, maxims, aphorisms, apophthegms, Ben Franklinisms, without the sort of doctrinal development that we find in the Johannine discourses. Today’s reading follows that same pattern, and we could condense this already brief passage into just these 5 pithy sayings of Jesus:
- You are the salt of the earth
- You are the light of the world
- Let your light shine before others so that God gets the glory
- I have come to fulfill the Law
- Only those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
What this means is clear: we are to be a seasoning influence in our world, an influence that makes the mundane special, that brings flavor to what is merely pedestrian, that makes a definite difference to what otherwise might be unsatisfying. That’s to be the role and the influence of the Christ-follower in this world. And that applies to every one of us. We need to ask ourselves whether we are fulfilling this role: whether anyone’s experience of life in this world is being significantly enhanced spiritually by our presence, or whether we are far too busy looking out for ourselves to care. Whose salt are you? Think about it. It may be that the simple saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” is actually far more pejorative than you might have thought before. What if we are not the salt of the earth?
Frankly I find the next maxim to be even more challenging. “You are the light of the world.” That simple aphorism carries enormous weight: the weight of responsibility. Whose lives are we lighting up because we are followers of Jesus, His true disciples? We‘re supposed to be the light of the world and, on closer self-examination, we may wonder whether we’re anyone’s light! This doesn’t mean that we’re good friends to a few people. Jesus doesn’t put it in those terms. We’re supposed to light up our whole world. Imagine that! How are we doing at it? And what happens if we put this in a specifically Christian context? Are we revealing the light of Christ to those with whom we come in contact? If the light we’re shining is in reality only our own light, and even if that’s helpful to a few persons who cross our paths, this clearly is not what Jesus had in mind. We are to be the light at the top of the hill, the light on the lampstand that illumines everyone in the house.
Jesus says, quite pointedly, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” That definitely puts a different spin on our light-shining activities. We can be a light to the degree that people give us praise and acclaim for the good things we have done for them, and they may even remember to thank us for them. But how often do people witness our good deeds and, instead of or at least in addition to thanking us for our acts of kindness, also glorify our Father in heaven? This will not ever happen if we ourselves remain the center of attention. Every good thing that we do for others needs to point them to God our heavenly Father as the source. As James wrote in his epistle, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, with Whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). This means that our gifts to others should point them to the true Source: not to ourselves, but to God Himself. Anything else is an exercise in self-glory rather than in God-glory. Our light is to be our moon to God’s sun.
I warned you that this Sermon on the Mount is not necessarily a pack of warm-fuzzies that make us feel good about ourselves. Quite the contrary, most of these sound-bites do indeed bite; they’re mirrors revealing how far short we fall in doing what is expected of us in the spiritual realm. Neither being salt nor being light in our daily lives is a passive endeavor where we can let ourselves off the hook as long as we are not harming anyone in our way. Being salt and light mean fulfilling some demanding expectations as witnesses of Jesus Christ and as search-engines that direct people Godward.
Maybe the next maxim gives us a bit of a breather, since the subject of the sentence is not us but Jesus. He says, in essence, that He has come not to abrogate the Law but to fulfill it. This sounds really good because He is taking the responsibility on Himself to do something that we cannot possibly hope to do. But the minute Jesus begins to explain what He really means, we’re even more on the hook that we were before. In fact, this little aphorism of Jesus is the harshest one we have encountered so far. He states that “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” and immediately adds that “whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
“One of the least commandments” is really tough. If we limit Jesus’ words to just the 10 Commandments, which I suspect is a much narrower focus than He intends here, we might agree that the least of them is not to covet. We read the other 9 and, while we certainly may not have committed murder or adultery, we would never suggest that these are the “least” of the commandments. Let’s stick with coveting for now. Raise your hand if you are certain that you’ve never in your lifetime coveted anything that belonged to someone else. Jesus is confident that He has captured every single one of us in a classic moment of “gotcha.”
Incidents when we have taught others to covet may not occur to us as quickly as those when we ourselves have had covetous thoughts. But if we probe deeply enough into our own consciences, we will come up with some examples rather quickly. As soon as we say to someone else, “you mean you’ve never eaten caviar?” or “you’ve never been to my favorite European destination?” or “you’ve never driven a Mercedes?” or “you’ve never had my favorite experience?” we’re teaching others to covet what is our own. We may do it more indirectly than that, but we do it all the same.
Well, what does Jesus say is the penalty for leading others into disobeying the “least” of the commandments? He says that we will be “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Mercifully, He does not suggest that we’ll not be there at all. But He does indicate that our reward will be scant, whereas those who keep and teach the commandments “will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now He’s talking. If I can model godly living and encourage others to fall in line by following my example, all will be well and I will get that appellation “great” when I get to heaven.
But wait. Now we come to the last of this passages’ apophthegms, and it takes the wind out of our sails. Jesus says in scary plain English “that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Not even enter, says He! Now when we read this statement in the 21st century, knowing how severely Jesus castigated the scribes and Pharisees for being Pharisaical, that is for being self-righteous and hypocritical, we need to realize that these same words would have been heard very differently by the crowd that had gathered on this Galilean hillside. To them, the scribes and Pharisees were paragons of virtue. They were the teachers of the law. They were the persons devoted to the study and interpretation of the Scriptures. They stood around under trees debating what the Scriptures meant and jotting things down on tablets that would be preserved as teaching tools for others. And Jesus is saying that you can’t even get into the heavenly Kingdom unless your own righteousness exceeds theirs. This could have been one of those points at which the crowd might have thinned out a bit.
What could Jesus possibly mean here? Will He maybe lighten up a bit in the next few verses to let real people off the hook? No, far from it. The next verses only serve to raise the bar even higher to a point where no one could contemplate pleading innocent, only “guilty as charged.” You can read ahead in the Sermon on the Mount to look for the point at which Jesus changes His tone, but you’d be looking in vain. There’s no point in the teaching of Jesus where He suggests that our righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees and make us worthy of the heavenly Kingdom on our own merits. Instead, He says things like this: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48); or, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father Who is in heaven” (6:1); or, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (7:14); or, “Many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name, and do many mighty works in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (7:22, 23). And those are just a few more of the verses in this Sermon on the Mount.
In John’s Gospel we can switch to sayings that are more on the positive side of things, but they’re no less demanding: “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5); “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you cannot have life within you” (John 6:53); “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6).
In other words, the route of pursuing righteousness on one’s own is a dead end that never will lead to the heavenly Kingdom. Citizenship in the heavenly Kingdom is dependent on a relationship, not an action: a relationship to God through Jesus Christ. And when that relationship is in place, righteousness is no longer something we acquire on our own; it’s something that’s imputed to us on the basis of the righteousness of the Son of God, the One Who “loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). When we come to the end of ourselves and recognize that going it on our own is certain to fail, once again, and again, and again, God simply takes over.
What we could not do, God did. What our own righteousness could not do, God did. What the law could not do, God did. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4, 5).
To Him be all honor and glory and praise and thanksgiving in Christ Jesus, now and forever. Amen.