Parish Eucharist 19th February 2017
The Sermon on the Mount today
The Sermon on the Mount today
This sermon was written in the erroneous belief that the readings for 19th February 2017 were Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16—23; and Matthew 5:38-48
It is coincidence, of course, but a happy one that our Gospel readings in these weeks before Lent come from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s condensing of Jesus’ moral teaching is particularly valuable in these turbulent times, when we need to look to the Bible for guidance both in our lives and in how we should witness to the Gospel in public, as individuals and as a church.
One of the characteristics of Matthew’s Gospel is the depiction of Jesus as a new Moses, and one of the clearest instance of this is the Sermon on the Mount which brings together Jesus moral teaching, and reinterpretation of the Law, the Law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and which Jesus preaches from another mountain. We can hear a distinct echo in today’s readings from the Sermon and from Leviticus. In the latter Moses tells his people that they are to be Holy because the Lord their God is Holy. Jesus tells his listeners –and us- that we are to “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.
For Jesus and Moses, morality, that is how we are to behave, is a question of holiness and perfection. Good behaviour is how we are meant to be which is ultimately, like God. And we shall demonstrate this holiness in what we do. What we do in part in respect of God, that is our strictly religious observance but more importantly in this context, what we do vis à vis our neighbour, that is in our social behaviour. These are, of course, two side of the same coin, and to achieve the holiness and perfection of which we are capable and for which we are destined, we shall need both.
So much for the theory; what about the practice? This is where it starts to get difficult.
In some ways I am attracted to the strictly regulated world of Leviticus and the Mosaic Law. It’s easier not to have to think, and if the moral code has some gaps, as inevitably it must, they are filled by the scribes and the rabbis. Some of this law may seem strange or harsh by liberal standards, but it’s all there and we don’t have to think about it. The western church has also gone in for this sort of codification, and being able to pass the moral buck undoubtedly has its attractions. But this leaves something vital out; it ignores our need for a sense of motivation and responsibility.
Because whether reformed, counter-reformed or protestant we all now feel, the weight of conscience; we are concerned about the individual and his or her responsibility and this is reflected in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where the emphasis is on integrity and honesty; on living beyond the superficial requirements of the Law; on reflecting that Law in one’s inner being. It’s about what sort of person, what sort of individual, we choose to be.
And yet the practical examples in today’s reading are paradoxical. Giving in to aggression will seldom embarrass the aggressor into more peaceful behaviour; giving in to the greedy is not likely to satisfy the one demanding more and it’s very questionable whether always giving (directly at least) to beggars, or going on lending to the improvident is the best thing for beggars or borrowers. Even more difficult is the apparently illogical injunction to love our enemies- how can they be are enemies if we love them, and doesn’t love in that context sometimes mean resisting their demands, even by force? But Jesus is here concerned with integrity and trust and the need to go beyond legal codes and social norms.
I think it easier to begin to understand these difficult sayings if we remember the context of persecution in which they were recorded by Matthew. We hear of persecution in the Beatitudes which open the Sermon on the Mount and again in the passage we heard; “Pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in Heaven”
To face persecution needs great trust and steadfast faith, and this comes from the rejection of worldly morality, as we take love beyond its normal, indeed sensible, bounds. Matthew’s Jesus is saying that we need a disposition to stand against adversity; to stand in the last resort as he stood at his Passion. His words encourage us to be “Holy Fools” (an idea picked up and expanded by Paul, as we heard in the Epistle) This is the ultimately trusting integrity which will make us Holy and Perfect as children of God, and as such, capable of bearing fruit, the fruit by which we shall be recognised.
For examples of what that fruit might be we need I suggest to turn rather to what Jesus did than what he said. But here too we find the importance of the individual and his or her integrity at the fore. Nearly all the miracles are Jesus’ response to a particular person’s suffering, fear or longing- the longing to be healed of physical ailment or relieved of social disgrace. Jesus recognises each them as valuable individuals, precious in the eyes of God. He has little to say about the structure of society, save that it should respect and accept all its members. (Perhaps surprisingly his mother’s radical programme set out in the Magnificat, has calmed down thirty years later- but that is of course in Luke’s not Matthew’s Gospel)
This failure to value of the individual is his most telling criticism of his contemporary society, and it’s equally valid as criticism of ours. Our most obvious mistake is our tendency to categorise individuals, most crassly in lumping all followers of a religion or all members of a race together (a mistake which blinds us to genuine differences which if we could recognise them we might begin to understand and address the problems they cause) But perhaps more insidiously, we are also motivated too much by a communal selfishness, nationally and internationally. I suggest that it’s our role as Christians to speak out against this, first, by emphasising the value of every individual, each capable of being Holy and perfect and a child of God. And our own actions should exemplify that unselfish and sometimes unworldly respect, in sympathy and kindness. And if appropriate, which won’t be always, but more often than we usually think, we should make it clear that our motivation in such acts is the Gospel.
Second, we should promote the idea that governments’ acts and policy can equally be based on sympathy respect and kindness for the individual. The needs of the majority may sometimes override that, but it should remain the fundamental motivation, rule rather than the exception which it is now.
That kindness, the realisation of the love of God, in particular instances, should be our touchstone and our theme as we grapple with the world around us. Amen.