Scattered Thoughts on The Sermon on the Mount

 

OPENING DISCLAIMER: This weekend, as part of our Climate Revival, Plymouth Church welcomes the Rev. Jim Antal into the pulpit. He will not be preaching on the Narrative Lectionary texts.

But the passage is still very much worth our while.

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

 

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 6“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

 

7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

 

12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. 13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

 

24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” 28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

 

Last week’s blog post dealt extensively with the Gospel according to Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount. If you haven’t already, I invite you to start there.

 

This will be our last week in The Sermon on the Mount. It falls into at least four distinct sections:

  • Dealing with hypocrisy (v.1-6)
  • Asking (v.7-11)
  • The narrow gate (v.12-14)
  • Parable of the Builders

Let’s walk through these one by one.

 

Hypocrisy

 

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 6“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

 

Jesus is well-known for taking a dim view of hypocrisy. As every 1st year New Testament Greek student likes to point out, “hypocrite” is an English transliteration of the Greek hupokrites, which originally meant “an actor in a play.” A hypocrite is someone playing a part, pretending to be someone or something that they are not.

 

Jesus did not know about Freud, but it is hard for me not to think about the ego when I read these words. According to my teacher, the late James Loder, the human ego is little more than an elaborate defense mechanism, built by the self to fend off our fears of abandonment. There is a deep irony here: our culture tends to prize ego strength, and considers it a desirable characteristic, particularly in professional people. But if God means to free us from hypocrisy, the ego must somehow be subverted or short-circuited.

 

And I think this explains the otherwise obscure concluding verse. The church can be the place where we unlearn our hypocrisy, lower our ego defenses and discover ourselves in authentic community. But beware! That kind of vulnerability carries a lot of risk. Don’t enter into it casually. Find people who deserve it.

 

Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

 

Asking

 

7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

 

In some ways, this passage reaches back to last week’s advice about prayer. And what Jesus says here is so critical: God is a loving parent. So we don’t have to worry about carefully composing our words or flattering God sufficiently or manipulating God into getting what we want. God already wills and wants what is best for each one of us. Prayer that arises from this faith will be confident, intimate and easy.

The Narrow Gate

12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. 13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

 

In verse 12 we get the Golden Rule –a principle that has been articulated in many different religious and wisdom traditions. We may sometimes suppose that living an ethical life is as easy as following the Golden Rule. But verses 13-14 put the Golden Rule in a crucial bit of context. It may be easy to understand but it is hard to follow.

I like to read this passage in conjunction with the material that came before it about hypocrisy. Put them together and the message is something like this: we should expect a great deal of ourselves—narrow is the gate!—and extend a great deal of grace to everyone else.

24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” 28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

 

The Wise and Foolish Builders

I grew up singing this in Sunday School. (With great gusto!). And it serves as such a fitting coda for the Sermon on the Mount. You have heard and maybe even admired what Jesus has to say.

Now: will you do it?

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