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 most likely was not only shared at 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 antitheses. With these apparent contrasting statements, Jesus is providing for his disciples the way to avoid the trap that some of the religious leaders 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).
The 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, this is also true for those of us growing and maturing in our 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 antitheses are challenging because each one of them goes 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 upon on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, we need to also 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 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. 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). How much more egregious are we today? How polarized we have become inside and outside of the Church because of the level of demeaning words, tone, and language that is spoken, condoned, and justified? This has a ripple effect that poisons our culture, politics, and Church with growing hateful rhetoric, overt expressions of prejudice, and violence?
Instead of painting two dimensional caricatures of one another, we can change for the better when we are willing to spend time with and get to know each other. Jesus challenges us to encourage, empower, and respect the dignity of each person. When we resist a pharisaical approach to the law and instead recognize the value and dignity of each person, we will have a better chance of building relationships and so be more willing to serve, support, and accompany one another. We will also be more apt to reform policies and structures that are not just for a select few but that respect the dignity of each person in the womb, after birth, and at each stage and condition of life 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 belittling, dehumanizing, and demeaning directly from us or others and we said nothing to hold others accountable.
Jesus, please impart within us your infusing power of justice, love, and mercy so that we will be more inspired to live out your teachings in our daily lives. Help us to strive to build bridges of encounter grounded in mutual respect, support, empowerment, and accompaniment with our brothers and sisters, no matter our race, ethnicity, creed, and/or gender, and to commit to building a culture of life and dignity for all, not in some abstract utopian way, but in the concrete moments of our everyday experiences, one person and one encounter at a time.
Photo: Living the Gospel by building a bridge of friendship