Matthew 8:18-34 – We Go to Jesus in the “Storms of Life”

Jesus is becoming so popular that the crowds are overwhelming, so he orders his disciples to take him to the other side of the lake. But before they get into the boat, a couple men approach and want to get in on the action. Later in his ministry, of course, Jesus won’t be so popular, and everybody save a few women will abandon him. Now he can do no wrong. Unlike what we might expect, again, Jesus seems to rebuff these men.

He tells the first, a teacher of the law, that basically he’s homeless, implying that following him is no piece of cake, and that the teacher would have to sacrifice his lifestyle to follow him. The other man, already a disciple, wants to go, but asks Jesus if he can first go bury his father. Jesus tells him something that could be construed as rude: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” But it’s a simple fact: those who don’t follow Jesus are spiritually dead, the wages of sin. Jesus presents this disciple the ultimate fork in the road, life or death. Matthew doesn’t say which fork either took, but that wasn’t his point; what we’ll choose is.

So now they all hop into the boat, and as they’re crossing, Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat.” And what’s Jesus doing? Sleeping! And the disciples have to wake him. Being the Messiah is hard work, so he must be exhausted. But you can imagine the disciples saying something like, how can he sleep when we’re all going to drown! In the terrifying moment they forgot what Jesus had told them they were going to do: “he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake.” He didn’t say, let’s get into the boat, go to the middle of the lake and all drown.

This is one of the great stories of the Bible whose implications are very difficult to apply in our own lives. The “furious storm” is easily seen as a metaphor for the storms in our lives, and our response is often just like the disciples: “We’re going to drown!” Jesus’ response is classic because it’s so unexpectedly expected:

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

Why? Are you kidding me? Wouldn’t it be strange if they were not afraid? Anyone who has been on a boat in a storm, let alone a sailboat with no engine, knows how scary that can be. No, fear is the human and proper response to such a situation. I think Jesus is stating the indicative; you silly little humans have so little faith. And what did they do when filled with fear? They went to Jesus and pleaded with him, “Lord, save us!” The second part of what they told him, the “We’re going to drown part,” was obviously wrong, but understandable.

The point here isn’t the amount of one’s faith. In fact, we should probably rather have little faith because if we had great faith we’d likely have faith in our faith! And not in Jesus. The point isn’t the faith. The little faith the disciples had compelled them to the right object of that faith, Jesus. When the storms of life drive us to cry out, “Lord, save us!” we’re right where we need to be, right where God wants us to be. That is, to be rid of our self-sufficiency. Which is the reason Paul could boast of his weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on him. In other words, God often puts us in positions where we have to trust him, and not ourselves. And as the disciples experienced, it’s often a very scary place.

So Jesus obliges and “he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” I love the disciples’ response:

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

What kind of man indeed! He would be the God-man, who is also the Creator of those winds and waves. Skeptics claim that the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not present to us a Jesus who is divine, or not nearly to the degree John does. But it’s one thing to heal, which can almost be explained away, but this is a whole other level of miracle. Command the natural world, and it obeys? Yep, because as Paul says, “by him all things were created.” And John confirms, ‘through him all things were made.” And this is another “criterion of embarrassment” moment for the disciples. Matthew is saying they had no idea who Jesus was, that their conception of the Messiah was woefully deficient. This is likely not something a writer would share about himself if it didn’t happen (thus the “criterion”) because it’s embarrassing. We’ll see this all over in the gospels; they read real.

And the chapter ends with Jesus healing two violent demon-possessed men when they land on the other side of the lake. The demons recognized Jesus as the “Son of God,” and accuse him of wanting to torture them “before the appointed time.” Isn’t that just like Satan’s minions—God isn’t just, he just likes to inflict pain. And before we get all high and mighty, we’re always tempted not to trust God, which is why we must pray daily that we will.

The demons plead with Jesus to send them into a heard of pigs (which they know Jesus has the power and authority to do), and he does. The pigs then run down a steep bank into the lake like a bunch of lemmings and drown. Those watching over the pigs went into town to report what had happened. The “whole town” goes out, and seeing what had happened plead with Jesus to leave. Imagine how freaky it would have been to see all the pigs dead in the water, and the once demon-possessed men in their right mind. And those pigs were money, so Jesus is not good for business. Jesus doing miracles is one thing, but when he hits the pocket book, that’s another. As we learn later in the gospels, Jesus has no need to stay where he was not welcome.

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Matthew 8:1-17 – Jesus Healing Ministry Points to the Ultimate Cure

Jesus carries on his ministry after the sermon where he left off, healing and doing miracles. As I’ve said, we are so familiar with these stories that they fail to amaze us. Also, skeptics want us to believe that ancient pre-modern people were gullible folk who would believe anything, but if you read the text carefully that’s clearly not the case. These are stories told by eyewitnesses, and it’s difficult for me to believe, especially knowing how stories and teachings in the ancient world were transmitted, that this is all made up. Maybe, though, they are embellished stories where the supernatural gets added on in the telling? Not possible because large numbers of people not only witnessed the things Jesus did, but so many were affected by it. The New Testament writers would have had a very difficult time lying about what Jesus did because any number of people could have said, wait! Jesus didn’t do that!

Matthew starts the chapter telling how Jesus heals a man with leprosy. Jesus’ reputation has preceded him, so the man gets up the courage to approach him and asks to be healed, if he “is willing.” Than something significant happens that is missed by the modern reader: “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” What? He can’t do that! The man has leprosy; he is an “untouchable.” Not to Jesus. Jesus doing things like this is as astounding, and unexpected, in it’s time as the miracles. In this upside down kingdom Jesus is ushering in, there would be no such thing as “untouchable” people. None of the “religious professionals” would ever do such a thing, but Jesus is clearly not like them, and not only in his teaching as we saw the as last chapter ended, but in his acting and doing.

Then Jesus does something that might even be more shocking: he consorts with a Roman Centurion to heal his servant. What? Rome is the enemy, and here is Jesus helping one of their army’s officers? Remember that to the Jews, the Messiah was supposed to throw off Roman oppression and usher in a new Davidic kingdom. And Jesus adds insult to injury by not only acceding to the Centurion’s request, but he praises the man’s faith as greater than “anyone in Israel.” Okay, Jesus, now you’ve really gone too far. Then Jesus piles on by insulting those who are supposedly guarding the law, the prophets, and the ancient faith:

11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west,and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

We know from the gospels that Jesus had an antagonistic relationship with the religious professionals of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Here he is telling everyone that the gentiles will be welcome in heaven, and they will be kicked out. I think part of what’s going on here is that those who thought they were guarding the ancient faith were doing what they could to constrict it and keep people out. The Old Testament is clear that the ultimate goal of the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was universal in scope in that people from every tribe, and language, and nation would be blessed through them. Yahweh tells Abram that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Jesus came to turn the Jewish faith into a worldwide faith that would transcend all cultures, and without him that could have never have happened.

And I’ll bring up an apologetic point again because the skeptical secular culture tells us that we can’t trust our Bible as accurate history. We can, and stories like this build it’s credibility. The last thing Jew’s awaiting their Messiah, the deliverer from Roman oppression, would do to enhance their Messiah’s credibility is to make up a story of him helping and praising men in their military. People must have been shocked, but Jesus was all about upending expectations people had of him. He was a Messiah they could not make up.

The final healing of the chapter Matthew tells us about is Peter’s mother-in-law. They go to Peter’s house, she has a fever, Jesus touches her and she’s instantly healed. Simple as that. Then he adds the detail that “she got up and began to wait on him.” Can you imagine these people trying to process all this? Before modern medicine people didn’t get healed. Either they somehow got better, or they died, and who knew which one it would be. And doctors often made things worse. Now along comes this itinerant preacher and just by a touch or word people are instantly healed. That evening more demon-possessed and sick people come, and he drives out spirits with a word and heals “all the sick.” And the Hebrew Matthew tells his Hebrew audience why all this is happening:

17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.”

These words come from Isaiah 53, and Matthew is telling us that this Jesus who heals will one day be pierced, crushed, and punished for our sin. His creation has been marred by sin, and his healing and miracles are temporary measures pointing to the ultimate cure for the disease that caused death.

 

Matthew 7:13-29 – Metaphors for a Rock Solid Foundation to Life

In the rest of chapter 7, Jesus gives us three more metaphors with which to contemplate this upside down kingdom, and all familiar to most Christians. The first is the narrow and wide gate and road, and it seems a counter intuitive one to use for a man trying to build a religious franchise. Why, Jesus, are you telling us that many will in effect not follow you and do what you say, and few will? Don’t you want lots of followers? And skeptics will often ask, accusingly, why more people don’t get this Christianity thing, as if popularity were a reflection of veracity. This misses the point because Jesus, and God throughout the history of redemption, never tells us what we want to hear. Later in the gospels he’ll say such people have itching ears.

No, what Jesus is saying is that this Christianity thing, this being a follower of Jesus is not going to be easy. But in the end you have to decide if you want destruction or life? Doesn’t seem like a difficult choice, does it? But Jesus predicts many will chose the former, and we know the reason; they switch the results in their own mind thinking that they are perusing life when in fact it is destruction. They reject God’s revelation in creation, Scripture, and Christ, and live according to their own lights (darkness), like we read of the Israelites in the last verse of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

And to get a sense of just how upside down following Jesus will be in this fallen world, years ago I heard Chuck Swindoll present a picture of the narrow and wide roads I’ll never forget. He said we tend to think of the roads either side by side or separate from one another, as if one were Interstate 10, and the other 5. In fact, though, the narrow road is smack dab in the the middle of the wide one . . . going in the opposite direction! Any old dead fish can float downstream. As I never stop telling my kids, life is friction for followers of Jesus. That’s where growth is, as unpleasant as it can often be, but it’s where fulfillment, meaning, hope, and purpose reside because God makes all things work for our good.

The next metaphor is one of a tree and it’s fruit. Simply, “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” Just because, Jesus says, someone plays the religious game (calling him “Lord, Lord”) doesn’t mean they will get to heaven. He’s speaking specifically of false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And lest we think what Jesus is doing here is turning Christianity into moralism (i.e., that it’s all about how moral we are), he says “only he who does the will of my Father in heaven” will get in. What is this will he speaks of? Remember, we must always interpret Scripture with Scripture. He tells us in John 6:29: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” As we trust in him for our salvation from sin, we are attached to the tree as branches which will bear fruit.

The final metaphor is of the wise and foolish builders. If we listen and put into practice what Jesus says, we will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Those who don’t are like one who builds a house on sand. When the storms of life come, and they will come, how we fare all depends on the foundation. If Jesus is the “solid rock” on which we stand, we shall stand! As the great hymn says, our hope isn’t in our performance, but in “His oath, His covenant, His blood.” So we must understand that putting into practice doesn’t mean putting into practice perfectly. We stumble and stammer and do as best we can, confessing when we fall short, and trusting what John tells us in his first letter, that God will forgive us, and it is his responsibility to “purify us from all sin.” And that will only happen on the other side of the grave.

But this foundation of God in Christ means that life, in all its vicissitudes, all it’s conundrums and struggles finally makes sense! That’s why John in his gospel calls Jesus “The true light that gives light to every man.” Or as C.S. Lewis, per usual, perfectly puts it:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.

Without him all you have is a benighted existence where nothing makes ultimate sense, where all you are left with is conjecture and speculation, and running into things because it’s dark! Would someone please turn the damned lights on! God has, in Christ! Which Matthew hints at in the final words of the chapter as the sermon concludes:

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Yes, because he is the ultimate authority, the Creator of the heavens and the earth!

Matthew 7:1-12 – Judging and Asking of the Father

Jesus continues the Sermon in Matthew 7 with a passage non-Christians and skeptics love to use to try to shut Christians up, even while they completely distort the passage’s true meaning. We are not, Jesus says, to judge others lest we ourselves be judged. Then he uses the famous metaphor that you “look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank” in your own. The illustration is powerful because we all tend to judge others by a standard we would never apply to ourselves, but the skeptics leave it there; don’t judge, ever, about anything. Jesus doesn’t say that, at all, and in fact exactly the opposite, but not before a bit of self-examination:

You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

When we do this we are able to more accurately assess the problems of others. We are not discouraged to judge (to assess, to have discernment, to make distinctions), but to judge accurately and fairly. And Jesus warns us to judge judiciously by telling us not to give dogs what is sacred nor pearls to pigs. As I’ve said it over the years, don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it just frustrates you and irritates the pig. In our interaction with others this can all be boiled down to wisdom.

Then, in another famous passage, Jesus implores us to ask, seek, and knock, for then we will receive, find, and have doors open for us. This can be a difficult passage because we all know that God isn’t a cosmic Santa Clause, and we often get exactly the opposite of what we want. This again calls for wisdom, and we get insight as to its meaning with the illustration Jesus uses next, that of children and a Father. If our children ask for sustenance (bread or fish), we don’t give them rocks or snakes. Rather, in one of my favorite verses in the Bible:

11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

First of all, Jesus calls us evil. How rude! I’m a pretty good guy, never murdered anyone. Unfortunately, that’s not the standard, perfection is. As Paul says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But even though we are in fact evil, we still want to give to and bless our children. Every parent knows the emotional power of this. In fact it’s so deeply rooted in us that most every parent would die for their children. God, in Christ, did for us.

I didn’t explore this in the Lord’s Prayer post, but it’s apropos here. When Jesus tell us to address God as “Our Father,” that was quite the radical notion. Having just made my way through the Old Testament, I’m pretty sure God is never addressed in such a way prior to Jesus’ teaching. He is introducing his people to a God who is no longer a far away, a deity who is to simply be feared, but in Paul’s words, is now our Daddy. It becomes clear how as we read through God’s revelation to us in the New Testament, but we know now without a shadow of a doubt that God is as well disposed toward us at all times as we are toward our own children. And because he is God, our inevitable failures and mistakes and stubbornness don’t vex him like our children often vex us.

But the point I’m making is that we as parents would never give our kids everything they ask for because we know more and better than they do. And if we did give them everything they want we would turn them into terrible children and adults. I’ve often prayed in the past something like, God, it would be ideal if such and such happened or what have you. How in the world would I know what ideal is? I don’t now anything! But if God works everything for our good, as we are promised, then everything in some sense is ideal, and in a big way because “ideal” relates to eternity, as Jesus said in the previous chapter, the storing up of treasures in heaven.

But what I love about verse 11 is Jesus saying, how . . . much . . . more! We’re evil and we want to do this. God is God, and he does in ways we can’t even imagine! Remember, unlike any other religion on earth, we know objectively that God loves us because he demonstrated that he did in Christ. I know we’re constantly tempted to think God has it out for us, like we’re the little bug the rotten kid is torturing, but when we look to the cross we know just how much he really loves us. We are to ask, seek, and knock in the knowledge of just how much we really are loved. Our desire, dreams, wishes, and aspirations matter to our Father God, but he has much bigger purposes in mind for us, eternal purposes, because he has the biggest picture, and the wisdom, knowledge, and power to pull it off.

And to me a bit strangely he ends this section with:

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

But it’s not so strange because the transforming fatherly love God has toward us (in Christ) is ultimately relational because life is lived among persons. Because he loves us so greatly we are compelled to love others, and the “golden rule” sums it up.

Matthew 6:19-34 – Our Treasure and Peace Rooted In the Gospel

Now Jesus really hits us where it hurts, dealing in this part of chapter 6 with money and worry. He talked repeatedly in the first half of the chapter about the Father rewarding us if we did our good deeds for him and not to impress others. Now he takes it a step further to see if we really trust him with our lives, and not just our religious duties. First he challenges us with what we “treasure,” or that which we put value on, where we find meaning and significance. He commands us:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

If we’re to live life in his upside down kingdom, we’re to live it with an eternal rather than a temporal perspective. As we know, this is difficult because we can see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and experience the temporal, what is in space and time, whereas heaven, not so much. Yet the temporal is temporary, fleeting, over before we know it, a breath as David says.  Yet I bet every person who gets into their 70s, 80s, 90s, and closer and closer to death is incredulous. Wait! How did this happen? It’s one thing for young people to fall for the illusion that the temporal is eternal, but that quickly fades with each passing decade.

So to treasure that which will not fade, we must set our heart on heaven, on eternity. All that we value and do in life must be lived in reference to that. But how do we do that? Well, we’ll never do it perfectly because we are ensconced in time, but this can only be done in reference to the gospel. If we understand the depth of our sin, God’s wrath and justice against the guilt of our sin, his great love in Christ dying in our place to redeem and reconcile us to him, then eternity can become our treasure. Our loves determine our treasure, and the gospel is the means by which we fall in love with our Father God. That’s how we do it!

In regard to our treasure, Jesus speaks specifically of money, that we cannot serve both God and money, that we cannot have two masters. Yet he’ll speak later in the gospels about being wise with that which we’ve been entrusted. The point, as with everything in life, is relative value. Money is a tool, something we cannot live without, but Jesus wants to remind us that it is not to be served, it is not our master, not something we bow down to. We serve God alone.

Matthew ends this chapter with Jesus’ famous teaching on worry, which we are not to do. First he makes the practical case. Worry doesn’t benefit us in any way. God cares for his created world, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, so how will he not care for us! We have much more value to our heavenly Father than they do. Then he gets to the crux of the issue: “O you of little faith.” I define faith pretty much as a synonym for trust, and more fully, trust based on adequate evidence. Jesus presents us with the evidence of the natural world, that all of it works because of the providential care of a loving, heavenly Father who loves us as the apex of his creation.

So we can live in the moment, in peace that our Father will care for us. We don’t have to obsess over what we’ll eat or drink or wear, as the pagans do, but we can do something that will completely reorient our temporal existence:

 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

I always had a problem with these words because I saw them in “religious” terms. If I do “spiritual” things, then the “material” things will take care of themselves. Actually, no they won’t because there is no such thing as a dichotomy between “spiritual” and “material.” These two ideas are part and parcel of something we call . . . life! We are to do everything to the glory of God and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. All of Jesus’ ethical teaching, like in this sermon, is a reflection of the Father’s kingdom. It is not something we earn, but something that flows our of the heart of the gospel, and our gratitude that our king, Jesus, would lay down his life for us. That is how we know, objectively, that we are worth more than all the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. We can live these difficult teachings to some degree when we focus on what God has done for us in Christ.

Matthew 6:1-18 – Newsflash: Christianity is Not All About Us!

Jesus begins this section with a theme that exposes sinful human nature, and then gives several examples of how we tend to make our good deeds all about us:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

What is this reward? Jesus doesn’t say, but the idea is likely that if we do our good deeds for the purpose of being seen by others, then their affirmation is our reward. There will be no blessing in it, and the point of our existence as created beings is to find approbation before our Creator. And it isn’t approval or praise from God that’s the point, but that our lives are lived in the way they were ultimately meant to be lived, with our primary orientation toward God and not other human beings. We are most psychologically and emotionally healthy when we act before an audience of One.

Then Jesus uses three spiritual disciplines as his examples: giving, prayer, and fasting. In our giving, the purpose of our generosity isn’t to impress other people. In fact he uses an evocative image to get his point across: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing . . .” We are not even to pay attention to our own giving! It all goes back to human pride, the great downfall Satan bequeathed to us in the Fall. We are, in Augustine’s and Luther’s great phrase, incurvatus in se, turned in on ourselves. Jesus is telling us, don’t do that!

In next addressing prayer, he calls “hypocrites” those who made it a habit to ostentatiously stand praying in public so people could see how holy they were. But for those who live their lives with their sole orientation to the Father (or try to), our prayer like our giving should be done in secret. That is where we will find our reward.

A side note about this idea of reward. Just as Jesus will say during his ministry that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, Christianity is not a self-less religion. Jesus takes the self seriously, that it is something we should be concerned about and want the best for. It’s just that when the self becomes the priority, we distort its existence beyond recognition. Self-obsession is the path to misery, not fulfillment. The healthy self knows its fulfillment is a byproduct of obedience to God and service to others.

So Jesus teaches us how to pray, contrasting it with the “babbling” of pagans, as if it was the quantity of our words that entices God to listen. No, as we contemplate the Lord’s Prayer, we see that it is our acknowledgement that God is God and we are not that is the key to God honoring prayer. This is true for our daily sustenance, as it is for our fight against the gravitational pull of sin in our lives. And as we seek the forgiveness of God for our inevitable sin, we are compelled to forgive others who sin against us. Mercy is what greases the skids of human existence. And in the most powerful phrase in the prayer, Jesus gives us a hint as to what’s going on with all his teaching:

10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.

Living the Christian life is God’s rule breaking into our fallen world. It is resisting and pushing back against the implications of that fall, rather than floating downstream with it. He reiterates the essence of that pushing back:

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

This is pretty sobering, but we know from the rest of Scripture this is not a means to earn God’s forgiveness. Rather it is a consequence or fruit of truly understanding God’s mercy toward us. If we know the depth of our sin before a holy God, his just wrath against us as the punishment for the guilt of our sin, then our gratitude for his forgiveness will be immense. The awareness of God’s precious mercy toward us will then compel us to have mercy toward others, even when it’s not so easy.

Jesus ends this section talking about fasting saying, “When you fast . . . ” I never fast. Maybe I should. He seems to imply it’s part of the deal. But I gather it was very much more part of the ancient Jewish religious ritual, and thus another way people thought they could earn favor before God by showing others how religious they were. He calls such people hypocrites. These people think that a relationship with God is all about the outward show and not the inward transformation. The latter is what Jesus came to earn for us, and accomplish in the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Matthew 5:21-48 – Jesus Telling Us What Fulfilling The Law Looks Like: Love

The Sermon next addresses specific sins and attitudes that both reflect Jesus’ authority, and his genius. Most people don’t look at Jesus as someone who is intelligent or smart, but the gospels show us a man with mental abilities far and away above average, mixed in with an otherworldly wisdom. As I’m always thinking apologetically, skeptics claim that Jesus and his words were either completely made up, or that he didn’t see himself as the divine Son of God, simply isn’t credible. His words, and deeds, are no mere human invention, and his teaching in this sermon reflects that.

Jesus uses a construction in the rest of chapter 7 that makes my point, and he does it a perfect biblical seven times. He starts with, “You have heard that it was said . . .” referring back to the Ten Commandments and the law, and then follows it with, “”But I tell you . . .” This, my friends, is radical! He is telling us that his words superseded Yahweh’s words in the Pentateuch. No wonder they eventually tried and crucified him for blasphemy; he thought he was God! And make no mistake, that is exactly what this construction means. He is claiming that his words have greater authority than Israel’s God of the Old Testament. We know they are the same words, but one is for an old covenant, and the other for the new.

The first action/attitude he addresses is the sixth commandment, and the first one broken in human history, murder. He says that although murder is bad enough, just being angry with someone subjects us to judgment. He is moving the faith of God’s people from outward conformity to inward fulfillment. Sin has distorted our entire being. Evil attitudes and thoughts are as guilt worthy as evil actions. And he takes it a step further with this sin. We are to not only not be angry, but if we are having a problem with someone, we are to proactively go and be reconciled to that person. This, as he says, is required before we do our religious duty. For grudge holders this will not be easy, but nothing Jesus is going to say will be easy. He did not come for easy.

Then he comes to the uncomfortable sin of adultery, and tells us that even looking at a woman lustfully is sin. The very first time I opened a Bible when I was 18 and read these words, I closed it and said, this Christianity thing is impossible and stopped reading. Of course it is, which is why we need a Savior! It would be great if we did everything Jesus says here, but perfection is required, as he’ll say shortly. He also tells us how horrific sin is by using hyperbole. If a part of our body causes us to sin, we should gouge it out or cut it off. Better to go through life maimed, than for our whole selves “to go to hell.” Yes, Jesus believed in hell. Of course, no amount of radical surgery will get rid of our sin because sin is who we are. He wants us to know how horrific sin is. It is no spiritual jaywalking, that’s for sure.

He deals with divorce (not for it) and oaths (don’t make them) next, but it’s the last two issues he addresses that get really radical. The first is what’s known as the “turn the other cheek” and the “go the extra mile” passage. The contrast is with the attitude of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Like the getting rid of body parts, these words can be problematic if taken too literally. And we must always remember that we never interpret Scripture in isolation, but only in light of all of Scripture. Instead of seeking revenge, Jesus says we are to “not resist an evil person.” So taken in isolation, it sounds like we’re not to defend ourselves, or if someone takes something from us we just give them everything they want.

You can find a good historical/biblical explanation of this passage here, but Jesus is speaking to a specific historical moment and how the law had come to be understood. It actually has legal implications, as in courts of law. But taken for the average person Jesus is teaching us not to be vengeful or vindictive. Such attitudes are never to be absolutized because wisdom tells us when one course of action is right or wrong in a specific context. Christianity gives us wide latitude wherein the exact same action can in one instance be wrong and the other right. Christianity is no legalistic template.

Finally we are, Jesus says, to love our enemies. Now he’s gone too far! We don’t just turn the other cheek, we love them? We are to go so far as to “pray for those who persecute” us, specifically that we “may be sons of our Father in heaven.” What good is it to love those who love us? What is the challenge in that, and he critically asks, where is the reward in that. Love ultimately is transformational, which is why all the law and the prophets are summed up in it. And loving his enemies is something God is very good at because his blessings (sun and rain) come to all, and all as we know are his enemies by birth. And Jesus will show ultimate love to his enemies, us, by dying for us on a Roman cross. Jesus ends the chapter telling us why we will need that sacrifice of his body upon a tree:

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

People who teach that the Sermon on the Mount is all about striving for moral perfection seem to ignore this little verse. Loving others is how we reflect the perfection of God, and we only love, as John tells us, because he first loved us. Perfection is required, and impossible to attain, but we can love when it seems impossible because his love for us is our sole motivation. That love in its transforming power allows us to experience a bit of love’s transformation as we struggle to love others.