Who Do You Say That I Am?
Meditation March 20, 2011
by Karen L. Oberst
As you know if you've been here for the past couple of weeks, our pastor has been doing a series on "Who do you say that I am?" based on finding Jesus through several passages in the Bible. I'm going to continue that today talking about the Sermon on the Mount. Most of you are at least partly familiar with this passage which holds such things as the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, and the Golden Rule.
Let me give you a little background. The Sermon on the Mount is found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Matthew is not written in a strictly chronological order. It tends to rather group things in various subject areas, so many of the miracles are grouped together, the parables are grouped together, and Jesus' teachings are grouped together.
Now, of course, it is possible that this was a single sermon preached on a single occasion, but in looking at how the gospel is organized, it's more likely that the writer gathered teachings given in different times and different places into one passage. Many of these teachings are also found scattered through the other gospels, but the writer of Matthew has done us a great service by collecting them all in one place. Now obviously, I can't do the entire three chapters in depth, but here are some of the highlights for me.
If you were to ask me who I say Jesus is, I would answer, that to me Jesus is the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount.
The sermon starts with Matthew 5, verses 3-12, usually called the Beatitudes. In them, my Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. He says among others that those who are blessed in God's sight are the meek, or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, those who are content with what they are. He says the merciful and those who pursue peace are blessed. Especially if you work in the corporate world, how often have you had your supervisor as part of your yearly evaluation say, "I'm giving you an exceptional mark because you have shown mercy to your coworkers this year, and you have worked hard trying to make harmony in the department, and you have been outstandingly meek." Not going to happen, not in the real world. But Jesus tells us that those are the traits, among others, that God values.
Further on is a long section in verses 21-47 about several separate things, but it can be summed up by saying: my Jesus tells me that attitude matters. In the Hebrew Bible, we read "Do not murder." Jesus tells us that murder starts with anger in our hearts, and we need to root it out before it grows big enough to act on. He also warns us about calling people names - by doing so we set ourselves up as better than they and it's certainly not a loving response to others. Jesus goes on to say that the Old Testament tells us not to commit adultery, but he says that adultery starts by allowing our imaginations to lead us into those ways of thinking - taking a good long look, as the Greek says. He tells us to be plain in our talk, to say what we mean, not to dress it up in fancy words that serve as a smokescreen. We have an attitude that respects ourselves and others by telling the truth. We don't use words to manipulate; we don't say what we don't mean.
And finally, as part of this long section, Jesus gives us the hardest command of all: love your enemies. Now this does not mean we will feel all lovey-dovey towards everyone. Of course not! But it does mean that we treat all people with respect, as we expect they will treat us.
Following this is a familiar section, often misunderstood. I could spend the entire message on this "turn the other cheek" passage, but suffice it to say, that it is about people who are powerless - the slave in relation to a master, the poor in relation to the rich, the oppressed in relation to the oppressor - and how they assert they are also human beings and worthy of respect. We start by retaining our own dignity in the face of power, then we move to being proactive in verses 43-47 by showing respect to other people. We are to take our example from God who sends the rain on good people and bad people, who lavishes God's best on all. To put it simply, we are all God's children, and we act as if those we interact with are members of the same family - the human race.
The fifth chapter ends with a verse that reads in the old King James "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." This doesn't mean we have to be perfect as most would understand the word - doing everything exactly right. The Message gets closer to the meaning when it says, "In a word, what I'm saying is Grow up." What the Greek word means is to fulfill or to grow into your reason for being. Looked at this way, a perfect orange is one which has ripened and is ready to eat. A perfect bed supports you and gives you a good night's sleep. We are to grow into our true child of God selves, according to the blueprint laid down in the Sermon.
The key word in the sixth chapter is simplicity. Jesus says we are to live simply in relation to God and each other.
In verses 5-13, he speaks about prayer. My Jesus says that we should pray simply, not making a big deal about it. When I was growing up, there were people in my church who prayed in a special tone of voice, who used fancy words and King James language, and who prayed their way around the world. I'm not belittling them, It was very meaningful to them, but it did used to bother me that I could never pray like that. And Jesus tells us that it isn't necessary. He gives us the example of the Lord's Prayer - just a few simple sentences. We acknowledge who God is; we ask that God's work on Earth be moving along as it should; we ask that our basic needs be met; that we might lead lives pleasing to God, symbolized by being quick with forgiveness; that God help us stay away from temptation and evil. Simple and profound.
Starting in verse 19, my Jesus calls us to live with faith rather than anxiety. He tells us not to collect a bunch of things, because then we live in fear of losing them. Rather we are to seek to become a person pleasing to God. The bumper sticker "He who dies with the most toys wins," is directly opposite to how Jesus calls us to live. He reminds us that we can't live both the world's way, and God's way. They are opposed to each other. And he reminds us again to live generously - with our eyes wide open so we can see properly what we needs to be done and where we need to be.
In verses 25-34, Jesus points to the wild birds and wildflowers and reminds us how God cares for them. God will also care for us. We don't need to obsess over the future. We live for God, and trust God to take care of us. We live in the now, and don't let the threat of what might happen tomorrow paralyze us. Or, I might add, what has happened in our past. As The Message puts it, "God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."
In the very beginning of chapter 7, my Jesus tells us not to judge others, that is, don't judge them harshly, because if you do that, people are going to judge you the same way. We are to speak of others the same way we hope others will speak about us.
Now I'm going to disagree with The Message for verses 2-5, because Peterson substitutes a more modern picture for the one Jesus gives. He says, "It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own." It may be easier to understand for us today, about smudges and scowling faces, but it misses the absurdity of the Greek, because you see, my Jesus is also humorous. He says in the New International Version, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" So that might not sound humorous right away, but the Greek word for plank means the main roof beam of a house, large, and heavy. Just picture that in your mind for a moment - a person standing with the main roof beam of a house in their eye, complaining about a speck of sawdust in someone else's eye. It is exaggerated and very silly. Reminds me of the old joke that ends, "I can't hear you, I've got a banana in my ear."
Moving on to verse 7, my Jesus recommends simplicity and honesty - ask for what you need. The door opens for the one who knocks. He reminds us that if our own children ask for something, we don't surprise them with something unusable or frightening. God will not treat us that way either. Then he gives us the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. The Message calls this the "simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior." You can't go wrong by living your life that way.
Previously, Jesus told us not to judge others. One of the problems with that word in both Greek and English is that it has two meanings. We judge others when we comment unfairly on their behavior. But we can also judge in a, well, non-judgmental way. For instance, we can judge between food that is fresh, and food that is rotten, or water that is clean and pure, and what you might find in a polluted pond. This is the kind of judgment that Jesus turns to in verses 15-20. We are called to judge those who claim to speak for God. We don't listen to fancy words presented in a convincing way, but we look to their actions and their lives. Are they living the kinds of lives talked about in the Sermon? If so, then we listen to their words. And judging others by actions rather than words is not a bad way to look at politicians or others in power or media personalities.
Jesus adds that just sounding good, or building great cathedrals, or holding rallies for thousands of people are not what impresses God. In verses 21-23, we find what are to me some of the most frightening verses in the Bible. Jesus pictures the last judgment when these kinds of people will come up to him bragging of all the things they have done in his name. And he looks at them and says, "Who are you? I don't know you." We are called to lead lives steeped in the Beatitudes, and not for show, or to stroke our egos.
In the very end of chapter 7, my Jesus is practical and full of common sense. Verses 24-29 are sometimes called the parable of the wise and foolish builders. It talks about two people, one of whom builds a house on the sand, and one on a rock. Now when I was young, that was all I was told. The sand was shifting, and the house didn't stand. The house on the rock was built where the ground was safe and firm. And that's fine. But Jesus told this story in the Middle East remember. What he is picturing is sometimes called a Wadi - a narrow place where there is sand on the bottom, and high rock walls to either side. The foolish builder builds his home down on the sand, the easy place, not knowing that in the rainy season, there could be a flash flood that would wash everything away. The other builder builds high on the cliff walls, and in a sheltered spot where the house will be safe. This is about people who understand the local conditions, and those who do not. Jesus calls us to be wise in the ways of our world, so that we can act with common sense. A way I've heard this said sort of in reverse, is that we can be so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good.
So this is my Jesus. He calls us to lives based on what God has approved - meekness, peace, being merciful and quick to forgive. We are to be open and honest and generous with others, treating them as we would like to be treated. We are to live simply, and serve others. We are to live without undue anxiety, trusting God. We are to be open-eyed and live with common sense. We are to follow in the way he led.