The Sermon on the Mount was most likely not one long discourse, but a gathering together of Jesus’ teachings. Just as with itinerant preachers, speakers, and lecturers of today, this material recorded in Matthew was not only shared one time. Jesus probably shared different segments of these teachings at different locations throughout his ministry, and in slightly different ways depending on the group he was speaking with. Also, the Gospel writers would want to highlight different aspects of his teachings for their audiences.
As was presented yesterday, Jesus made it clear that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets but he came to fulfill them. With the beatitudes, Jesus offered practical ways in which we can find fulfillment and happiness. In today’s account, he introduces the first of six antithesis. With these apparent contrasting statements, Jesus is providing for his disciples the way to avoid the trap that some of the religious leadership of his time fell into: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20).
Those scribes and Pharisees that Jesus was talking about were those who believed that they were following the letter of the law, but their hearts were not changed. They may have been adhering to the external provisions of the law, but were not changed themselves, their hearts were hardened, they were focused more on their own access to honor and power. They were also imposing strict adherence to the law without providing the support or means for others to achieve what the law imposed. The law became more important than the dignity or value of the person. Jesus recognized the law, but also realized that it was in place to help to provide guidance and discipline so one could better resist the temptations of our fallen nature. The law was to be a foundation to be built upon, not the end goal in and of itself.
Just as children need clear boundaries and structures in place to provide a clear path toward healthy development, so this is true for those growing and maturing in their faith. We need to learn to crawl, to build strength and balance, before we can take those first wobbly steps. With continued support we are then able to walk and soon run. Jesus is not only providing the means to go through each of these stages in our faith life, figuratively teaching each of his disciples and us today to not only crawl, walk, and run, but to also be able to fly!
The Beatitudes and six antithesis are challenging, because each of them are counter to much of the way the structure of our fallen world has been governed for centuries. If we are to catch the fire that Jesus has come to set, we need not only to read, pray, meditate and contemplate on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, we need to see their relevance and practicality to our time and place today, and begin to put them into practice. As Christians our faith ought not to be shaped and informed by our culture, but we are to be shaped and conformed by the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, so to shape and inform our culture.
Today we start with the first antithesis: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, Raqa, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna (Mt 5:21-22). The seeds of anger can begin to sprout in our mind from our knee jerk reaction to a perceived or actual threat, from our hearts hardened by prejudgments, prejudices, and/or a reflection of our level of spiritual immaturity.
Jesus addresses the known provision against murder. He then builds a hedge around the Torah. If one does not want to break the law, another is imposed so as to protect one from even getting close to breaking the first. If we can resist the temptations of our reactions and instead make decisions based on mindfulness and loving one another, such that we resist the temptation to criticize, judge, demean or dehumanize another, then there is little chance for our anger to grow into wrath, that left unbridled could lead to murdering someone.
Jesus is saying that our words matter, that they have the power to destroy or to create. Look at the example Jesus gives. He says that calling someone Raqa, Aramaic for a block head or idiot, and then calling someone a fool, would “be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Mt 5:22). Just think of how far from those two words we have fallen with the use of our language directed toward one another. How polarized we have become as a country, the level of demeaning words, tone, and language that is condoned, supported and justified is unacceptable. This has a ripple affect that poisons our culture and society. We then wonder why we have so much violence, hateful rhetoric, and prejudice in our country.
Our words and our actions matter. Jesus is challenging us in today’s Gospel to encourage, empower, and to respect the dignity of each person first and foremost. When we resist a pharisaical approach to the law and instead recognize the value and dignity of each person, we will have a better starting point of seeking to build relationships with one another, to serve one another, support and lift up one another, and shape policies that are not just for a select few, but that respect the dignity of each person from the womb, through birth and addressing each condition through their lives until natural death.
May we all take some time today to reflect on Jesus’ teaching about how we think, speak to and about, and act toward one another. May we examine our conscience and seek forgiveness for those times we have thought, condoned, or justified thoughts, words, and/or actions that have been demeaning, dehumanizing, and belittling of one another coming directly from us or others.
Jesus help and support us to be open to your infusing power of love and mercy so to live out your teachings in our daily lives. Help us to recognize the need and to strive to support, empower, and accompany our brothers and sisters, and to commit to building a culture of life and dignity for all, one person and encounter at a time. Help us to not so much change our behavior to avoid “fiery Gehenna”, but help us to mature in our faith such that we glorify God by our life, such that our hearts are burning within, moving us to desire deepening our relationship with you and our brothers and sisters that we meet and encounter each and everyday.
Photo: My pondering view when I make some time for quiet and prayer in our new apartment.