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Keys to Happiness
5: 1 - 48
Keys to Happiness
The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5 seems to set an impossible standard for any man to reach, but many answers to life lie within the text. To understand the full meaning of the words requires more than a cursory reading. “On the surface, Jesus’ words, recorded in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, may seem calm in tone and basic in their simplicity,” (Swindoll 5) but an actual analysis of what is said will bring the realization that no one could be that perfect:
A friend of [Philip Yancey’s] named Virginia Stem Owens assigned the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, asking the students to write a short essay. She had expected them to have a basic respect for the text, since the Bible Belt extends right across Texas, but her students’ reactions soon disabused her of that notion. “In my opinion religion is one big hoax”; “There is an old saying that you shouldn’t believe everything you read and it applies in this case”; “The stuff churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not”; “I did not like the essay ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is”; “The things in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery. That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard.” (Yancey 130)
Finally, however, an analysis of what is meant reveals the secret to a fulfilling existence both with our fellow man and with God. None of us can live up to the standards set forth in the sermon. Fortunately, God doesn’t expect us to meet those impossible standards. The secret to The Sermon on the Mount is that it focuses us on what is important: God, Heaven, an honest effort to live in peace with our neighbors, a charitable heart, and living in such a way that the world will see hope for eternal life through our example.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5.3-12)
The first time you read these verses, you may react like Philip Yancey, the editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine: “When I first read the Beatitudes, they sounded to me like impossible ideals given by some dreamy mystic” (126). Further study will reveal the absurdity of their application in America, as evidenced by this speech from Yancey. While the speech is fictional, it discusses an actual event.
I received an invitation to the White House. President Bill Clinton, alarmed about his low standing among evangelical Christians, summoned twelve of us to a private breakfast in order to hear our concerns. Each of us would have five minutes to say whatever we wanted the president and vice-president to hear. I turned to the Beatitudes and found myself startled anew. What if I translated their message into contemporary terms?
Mr. President, first I want to advise you to stop worrying so much about the economy and jobs. A lower Gross National Product is actually good for the country. Don’t you understand that the poor are the fortunate ones? The more poor we have in the U.S., the more blessed we are. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And don’t devote so much time to health care. You see, Mr. President, those who mourn are blessed too, for they’ll be comforted.
I know you’ve heard from the Religious Right about the increasing secularization of our country. Prayer is no longer allowed in schools, and protesters against abortion are subject to arrest. Relax, sir. Government oppression gives Christians an opportunity to be persecuted, and therefore blessed. Thank you for the expanded opportunities. (108)
Quite obviously such a speech would not have been appropriate, nor would it have brought about the changes that evangelical Christians desired. It simply serves to highlight how a literal interpretation of the text leaves many readers thinking that if they must meet those standards then there is no hope of even trying to get to heaven.
After reflecting on the verses, the deeper meaning will reveal itself. A meaning that focuses us on the importance of a goal that is actually attainable, albeit difficult: God and heaven. Jesus makes a point here in the beginning and continues to reemphasize the same point throughout the sermon. Stay focused on God! The reason the meek, the mournful, and the persecuted are all blessed is because they are not pursuing earthly treasures. They have recognized their helplessness before God and He has established their reward in heaven where it really counts.
Salt and Light
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5.13-16)
Quite obviously, Jesus is speaking allegorically here. No one is actually sodium chloride, nor is anyone physically luminescent. In keeping with an oft-repeated theme of the Gospels, Jesus reminds his listeners that they are to bring his message of salvation to the world. This is accomplished in two ways. First, Christians are to preserve Christ’s message. “As salt preserves things from corruption and decay, so it is the office of Christians to preserve the mass of mankind from utter moral corruption and ruin” (Broadus 95). Second, Christians are not to just profess their faith in private, but are to live a public life that sets a proper example for others to see. In John 9:5, Jesus says: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Jesus spoke in terms that were immediately recognizable to his listeners, and in this case the analogy requires little explanation for men in the 21st century. Salt has undergone very little change over time and its qualities are as applicable today as they were in the first century. The late Dr. William Barclay, a former Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow notes:
(1). Salt is pure. So then, if the Christian is to be the salt of the earth he must be an example of purity.
(2). In those days salt was a common preservative. The Christian must be the one who by his presence defeats corruption and makes it easier for others to be good.
(3). Quite obviously, salt is flavorful. Wherever he is, the Christian must be the diffuser of joy (119-20).
Similarly, the idea of God as light was not new to Jesus’ first century audience and the functions of light require little explanation today.
(1). A light should be visible. So then, Christianity is something that is meant to be seen.
(2). A light illuminates the path. Christians must make the way clear to others (Barclay 123-4).
None of this is possible without remembering the overall theme of Jesus’ sermon: Stay focused on God and heaven! By keeping God and heaven foremost in our minds, and striving to live by the standards Christ has set for us, we will exemplify the qualities Jesus says we should bring to the world. He warns against our failure to do this when he speaks of salt losing its flavor or putting a lamp under a bowl. Both of these render the object useless to men, as a hidden faith is useless to heaven.
The Fulfillment of the Law
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.17-20)
In this passage, Jesus redefined righteousness. The words he chose must have seemed like heresy to some members of his audience which almost certainly included Pharisees and teachers of the law. They were the religious leaders of the day and held that their adherence to the law placed them above the common man. In placing all their emphasis on outward practices rather than on following the will of God, they had completely lost sight of the fact that God commands us all to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6.5), and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). Jesus repudiates the Pharisee’s interpretation of the Law and their view of righteousness by works (NIV 1445). In the words of Dr. R.C. Briggs, a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, “The strict demands for fulfillment of the Law are ameliorated by love for God and neighbor which is defined as the fulfillment of the Law” (99).
The Pharisees and teachers of the law competed with one another in strictness. They had atomized God’s law into 613 rules and bolstered these with 1,521 emendations (Yancey 132).
We can see the length to which this went from the following facts. For many generations the Scribal Law was never written down; it was the oral law, and it was handed down in the memory of generations of Scribes. In the middle of the third century A.D. a summary of it was made and codified. That summary is known as the Mishnah; it contains sixty-three tractates on various subjects of the Law, and in English makes a book of almost eight hundred pages. (Barclay 129)
The Law as originally given by God was based on the Ten Commandments. Today, these Commandments are almost considered to be common sense, and can really be defined by two overriding principles: Reverence for God (Commandments 1-4) and Respect for man (Commandments 5-10). The 1521 emendations from the teachers of the law had reduced the commandments to a legalistic code that completely disregarded these two principles intended by God. A good example of this can be seen in the treatment of the Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath and Keep It Holy. First, one of the things considered to be unholy on the Sabbath was work. Work had to be defined, and one of the things considered to be work was writing; but how much writing constituted work? Here is what the teachers of the law said:
He who writes two letters of the alphabet with his right or with his left hand, whether of one kind or of two kinds, if they are written with different inks or in different languages, is guilty. Even if he should write two letters from forgetfulness, he is guilty, whether he has written them with ink or with paint, red chalk, vitriol, or anything which makes a permanent mark. Also he that writes on two walls that form an angle, or on two tablets of his account book so that they can be read together is guilty…But, if anyone writes with dark fluid, with fruit juice, or in the dust of the road, or in sand, or in anything which does not make a permanent mark, he is not guilty…. If he writes one letter on the ground, and one on the wall of the house, or on two pages of a book, so that they cannot be read together, he is not guilty. (Barclay 129)
The result of this bastardization of God’s law was that it focused men’s attention on the law rather than on God. The letter of the law is not what makes a man right with God (McClister). The Law was given by God in love and mercy as a way of showing right from wrong. Those underlying principles are what Jesus points out are missing from the Scribal version and the Pharisaical practices.
Throughout history, churches and in some cases entire denominations have been ripped apart at the seams because their leaders could not agree on some small interpretation of a verse of Scripture and its application. The Pharisees and teachers of the law would debate for hours whether a man who forgot to remove a coin from his pocket had sinned by “carrying a burden on the Sabbath.” More recently, the Southern Baptist Convention leadership held a conference which determined that a woman could not pastor a church. In both cases, these “religious experts” overlooked the underlying principles that were set forth by God. Jesus once again points out to his listeners, including us, that they should stay focused on the things of God rather than the things of man. He continues for the rest of the chapter to give specific examples of the Law and to explain how it applies to the hearts of men, not just outward practices.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5.21-27)
A simple reading of these verses may leave you thinking that to be angry at someone condemns you to hell. To quote Phillip Yancey, “Growing up with an older brother, I fretted over this verse. Can two brothers weather the storms of adolescence without relying on words such as ‘stupid’ and ‘fool’?” (Yancey 132). “[These verses] ought to scare us. Who hasn’t been angry and insulted someone?” (Wilson). The condemnation to hell for this is not actually the case, but to understand what Jesus means requires deeper study. First, let me clarify some points that were obvious to Jesus’ 1st century audience, but may not be so obvious today.
(1). “Do not murder” is a direct reference by Jesus to the Sixth Commandment.
(2). “Anyone who murders is subject to judgement” was added by the teachers of the law, and in fact was taught by the Pharisees almost to the exclusion of the commandment itself (Swindoll 69).
(3). “Raca” is an Aramaic term of contempt comparable to the English “airhead.”
The contrast Jesus sets up is not between the Old Testament and his teaching. Rather, it is between externalistic interpretation of the rabbinic tradition on the one hand, and Jesus’ correct interpretation of the Law on the other (NIV 1445).
Jesus reduces murder to where it really begins: in a sinfully angry heart. He says it comes from anger that builds through three stages to the point of murderous statements and thoughts. The first stage is basic anger, “anyone who is angry with his brother.” The second stage is basically an insulting word, “Raca.” The final stage is “anyone who says ‘You fool!’.” The Greek word moros is translated “fool” in this text. It is from moros that we get our English word moron. Moros was used most often in reference to people who lived morally wasted lives. In other words, by calling someone this you have taken the position of judge because you have determined that they are morally wasted (Swindoll 70-1). If you say these words, are you therefore condemned to hell? No. The verses say “you are in danger of the fire of hell.” Jesus has accurately defined verbal murder…long lived, nursed anger that is sustained to a vicious point (Swindoll 71).
Men who are condemned to hell are condemned because of sin. Jesus has correctly asserted that the intent of the Sixth Commandment hinges on respect for man. Anger that is allowed to fester to the point of judgmental thoughts and actions disregards this basic commandment for respect. It therefore becomes sinful and brings with it the danger of condemnation by God.
What then, shall we do to avoid sinful anger? Jesus says we are to be “reconciled to our brother.” He points this out with two examples that clearly demonstrate the depth of his meaning, and the amount of effort we are to put forth to follow his teaching.
The first is the example of a Jewish man who is offering a gift at the altar. The altar was in the Temple in Jerusalem, and men often traveled hundreds of miles to come there and offer their gift to God. Many times the gift was a “sin offering” that was intended to purify the man before God by atoning for his sins. Jesus makes the point that we cannot harbor anger with men in our hearts and be pure before God. He charges that the man who traveled a great distance to offer his gift must travel that distance twice more in order to come before God with a pure heart.
The second example uses a court as its focal point, but the underlying meaning deals with pride and accepting responsibility for our actions. In order to be reconciled to our brother and be pure before God, we must be willing to admit to our fellow men when we have been in error. If we have wronged someone, we must make it right with him before we can make it right with God. That means we must ignore our pride and our unwillingness to admit mistakes. It also means we must make amends with our fellow man before we can approach God. Jesus makes it clear that we have to make every possible effort to rid our hearts of ill will in order to approach God with a clear conscience.
Dr. Barclay offers two viable applications of these verses:
(1). It may be a piece of most practical advice. Again and again it is the experience of life that, if a quarrel, or a difference, or a dispute is not healed immediately, it can go on breeding worse and worse trouble as time goes on….If at the very beginning one of the parties had had the grace to apologize or to admit fault, a grievous situation need never have arisen.
(2). It may be that in Jesus’ mind there was something more ultimate than this. It may be that he is saying, “Put things right with your fellow men, while life lasts, for some day – you know not when – life will finish, and you will go to stand before God, the final Judge of all.” (145-6)
You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5.27-30)
These verses were alluded to by the one of the Texas A&M students mentioned in the introduction to this paper. How can any red-blooded, American college-boy not look at a woman lustfully? As Philip Yancey says, “Indeed lust in America is an established national pastime, celebrated in ads for blue jeans and beer, in the annual Sports Illustrated swimming suit issue, and in the twenty million copies of pornographic magazines sold each month” (133).
Lust is not a new emotion, and it was just as much a problem in Israel in the first century as it is in America today. Jesus, who never wasted a word, cuts right to the heart of the problem. He quotes the Commandment “Do not commit adultery,” but he reduces adultery to where it really begins: in the heart.
Jesus never promoted a performance-oriented, surface-only religious lifestyle, but rather an authentic, true-to-the-core life of faith. So if that’s true, then the subject of adultery must be traced to the origin of the problem: the inner person where thoughts find their root. To put it straight, long before adultery takes place in the bed, it has already been visualized in the head. (Swindoll 83)
Unfortunately, over the ensuing centuries, not everyone has understood the true meaning of these verses, and some have taken an obscenely literal interpretation to grotesque extremes. With great zeal and little wisdom they have followed His words to the letter. Origen of Alexandria actually made himself a eunuch. In A.D. 325, at the Council of Nicea, self-mutilation was finally declared a barbarous practice and officially forbidden (Swindoll 83).
By focusing attention away from the act of adultery to where the problem begins, in the heart, we are freed from the need to pluck out our eyes (Richards 542). While the reality exists that to take the verses literally and dismember oneself in order to remain free of sin is, in fact, better than being subjected to eternal damnation with a healthy body, Jesus offers a much more enticing alternative. Dr. John A. Broadus explains:
The vigorous self-restraint which is requisite in order to avoid the sin just forbidden, suggests the idea that all our propensities must be controlled, and that the greatest possible self-denial would be far better than that suffering in hell, which must be the reward of sinful gratifications. (109)
Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation, for even a blind man can lust. The point is that we should deal as drastically with sin as necessary (NIV 1446). Jesus points out throughout this entire sermon that it should be a life of faith and reverence for God that motivates us. Here he simply states in plain terms what the penalty is for disregarding his words.
It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5.31-32)
The Pharisees and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day had severely convoluted the whole idea of marriage and divorce. Marriage was becoming endangered because of the ease with which many leaders allowed divorce. Again, the problems that existed in first century Israel exist in 21st century America. Marriage is increasingly described as a fragile institution in our society. Divorce rates hover around 40 percent (Donahue 30).
Personally, I think Charles Swindoll has the best possible approach to the issue of divorce and Jesus’ comments about it in his sermon:
It may help you to know that when Jesus spoke of divorce, he addressed a hot issue that was often debated among religious leaders in his day. Contradictory positions were taught in rival rabbinic schools, Shammai and Hillel. Rabbi Shammai, the conservative, took a rigorous approach. He founded his teaching on Deuteronomy 24:1, which he felt allowed divorce strictly on the basis of some grave matrimonial offense or indecent act of unchastity. This austere position grew out of Shammai’s extremely strict interpretation of Scripture. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, adopted a much more lax position. Josephus, a well-known Jewish historian, states that Hillel applied the Mosaic provision to a man who “desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever.”
As I examine Jesus’ teaching, both in Matthew 19 and here in his sermon on the mountain, I find three contrasts between his position and the Pharisees’ position:
(1). The Pharisees were preoccupied with grounds for divorce, but Jesus was much more concerned with the institution of marriage. They wanted to know how to get free from the commitment, while he emphasized the sanctity and permanence of the partnership.
(2). The Pharisees called Moses’ provision a command, while Jesus considered it a concession. This is not nitpicking at words. The former calls for obedience and seems to justify their desire for divorce. The latter holds much tighter reins on the issue, making divorce a reluctant and hesitant act of regrettable compromise.
(3). The Pharisees regarded divorce lightly. Jesus always viewed it seriously. They were forever on a search for reasons to claim a marriage could end, while Jesus resisted such an attitude. He stood steadfastly for the bond that was sealed at the time of marriage. (86-7)
Finally, it is important to note that Jesus does not necessarily allow infidelity as a reason for divorce. He simply states that in a case of infidelity, a divorce does not cause the woman to become an adulteress. She has become that on her own. Again, Charles Swindoll has addressed this better than I ever could:
An unfaithful mate may give you the right to seek divorce, but you are not obligated to exercise that right. Remember, divorce is a God-given concession, not a command. The laws of our land give us the right to sue whomever we wish, but most of us live our entire lives and never sue anyone. Instead, we swallow hard, take it on the chin, and occasionally live with mistreatment. Why? Because taking someone to court, like divorcing an unfaithful mate, is not an obligation, but a concession. Before you yield to divorce, I suggest one simple exercise, taken seriously: Review what you vowed when you got married. (89)
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.” But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No;” anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5.33-37)
These verses are straightforward and require little explanation. It should go without saying that a man should be a man of his word and any need to go beyond that creates distrust. Jesus, however, felt it was necessary to address this issue for the following reasons:
In the time of Jesus there were two notable problems relating to swearing an oath:
(1). The first might be called frivolous swearing, taking an oath where no oath is necessary or proper. Far too often people (even today) use the most sacred language in the most meaningless way. They take sacred names upon their lips in the most thoughtless and irreverent way. The sacred names should be kept for sacred things.
(2). The second problem that existed in Jesus’ time might be called evasive swearing. The Jews divided oaths into two classes, those which were absolutely binding and those which were not. Any oath which contained the name of God was absolutely binding; any oath which succeeded in evading the name of God was held not to be binding. The result was that if a man swore by the name of God in any form, he would rigidly keep that oath; but if he swore by heaven, or by earth or by Jerusalem, or by his head, he felt quite free to break that oath. The result was that evasion had been brought to a fine art.
The principle which Jesus lays down is quite clear. In effect Jesus is saying that no man can keep God out of any transaction. Here is the eternal truth. Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved and in others of which he is not involved; there cannot be one kind of language in the Church and another kind of language in the shipyard or the factory or the office; there cannot be one kind of standard of conduct in the Church and another kind of standard in the business world. God is everywhere, all through life and every activity of life. We will regard all promises as sacred, if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God. (Barclay 159-60)
An Eye for an Eye
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5.38-42).
This section and the next contain some of the most difficult teachings for modern day Americans to follow. It simply is not part of our psyche to be gracious when we have been wronged, and it is not part of our psyche to give more than is demanded of us. Philip Yancey initially reacted to these verses like many who simply read them without attempting to uncover their true meaning. “I stare at these and the other strict commands of the Sermon on the Mount and I ask myself how to respond. Does Jesus really expect me to give to every panhandler who crosses my path? How can I possibly translate such ethical ideals into my everyday life?” (133). Perhaps a brief review of the historical context in which these words were spoken will aid our understanding and help us to apply them to our lives today.
“Eye for eye” comes from the oldest law in the world – Lex Talionis – which appeared in the Code of Hammurabi, circa 2285-2242 B.C. The aim of this law, which also appears in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, was never really tit for tat. It was actually a way of limiting vengeance. The aggrieved party could exact no more revenge than the damage received. Viewed this way, it was actually a law that allowed the beginnings of mercy (Barclay 163).
The word resist used by Jesus here is probably in reference to a court. The slap on the cheek Jesus mentioned was really more of an insult than an act of violence. The point Jesus makes is that it is better to be insulted twice than to take the matter to court (NIV 1446). This is in perfect keeping with his earlier comments concerning “settling matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.”
There was a Jewish law spelled out in Exodus 22:26-27 that did not allow for a man’s cloak to be taken from him permanently. A Jewish man would have only one cloak, and, in addition to serving as his outer garment, it also served as his blanket at night. So, if a man lost his cloak in a lawsuit, the winner had to return it to him each night so that he might sleep comfortably. Essentially, a man had an inalienable right to his cloak. The idea Jesus impresses upon his listeners that applies to us today is that the Christian thinks not of his rights, but of his duties; not of his privileges, but of his responsibilities (Barclay 167).
Israel, during the time of Jesus, was occupied and ruled by the Roman Empire. One of the laws Rome forced upon the Hebrew people was that a man could be compelled to bear a Roman soldier’s load for a distance of one mile. This was a common practice, and only caused the Jewish people to hate and resent their oppressors all the more. When Jesus told his listeners to go two miles, there must have been astonished disbelief throughout the crowd. Dr.Barclay, however, applies these verses to us in a most practical way:
There are always two ways of doing things. A man can do the irreducible minimum and not a stroke more; he can do it in such a way as to make it clear that he hates the whole thing; he can do it with the barest minimum of efficiency and no more; or he can do it with a smile, with a gracious courtesy, with a determination, not only to do this thing, but to do it well and graciously. He can do it, not simply as well as he has to, but far better than anyone has any right to expect him to.
Jesus is laying down three great rules – the Christian will never resent or seek retaliation for any insult, however calculated and however deadly; the Christian will never stand upon his legal rights or on any other rights he may believe himself to possess; the Christian will never think of his right to do as he likes, but always of his duty to be of help. (169)
Love for Enemies
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.43-48)
These verses are more challenging than any other in the sermon (Loving 17). Who among us even remotely desires to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors? It goes against the very grain of the human spirit to do these things. That is true of every man of every age of every generation. It is the innermost part of our beings. Naturally, we dislike our enemies. We cannot help that feeling. Even those among us who pray regularly have a difficult time praying for our persecutors.
Jesus drove his point home to his listeners that day by using examples of their enemies and persecutors. The tax collectors were Jewish citizens employed by Rome to collect taxes for Caesar. Often they demanded more than was due, and they were considered by the Jewish masses to be the most corrupt sinners (NIV 1447). The pagans (or Gentiles) were considered to be equivalent to dogs. They were treated as if they were less human than Jews. When Jesus pointed out that these “sinners” and “dogs” were spiritually equivalent to the Hebrew people, his words must have hit with the force of an earthquake.
Speaking for us, Proverbs 25:21-22 is truly practical advice in this area. “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” In 1990, I was assigned to instruct at the Air Traffic Control School in Millington, Tennessee. I was only 23 years old, and there was a much older gentlemen who worked in our testing department. He also outranked me considerably, and he took that to mean he could treat me with the most awful verbal abuse whenever I entered his office. I was not the only recipient of this treatment. He was consistently rude and abrasive to everyone who came to him. From the very beginning, I never responded in kind. The meaner he became, the nicer I became. He obviously had never experienced this before and had no idea how to react. After only a few weeks, he became very indifferent to me while he remained as rude as ever to the other instructors. While indifference is not the ultimate goal, my relationship with him was at least tolerable while others suffered mightily. This Proverb and the ideals Jesus presents in this section paid big dividends for me in that situation, and they can be applied wherever there is strife in anyone’s personal relationships.
Jesus calls us to “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” This is quite possibly the most impossible ideal presented anywhere in Scripture. The Greek word for perfect is teleios. This is an ultimate perfection for which everyone strives throughout life. For example, the surgeon general is teleios when compared to a pre-med student (Barclay 177). Dr. Barclay continues:
So then a man will be teleios if he fulfills the purpose for which he was created. For what purpose was man created? The Bible leaves us in no doubt as to that… [In the creation story]…. Man was created to be like God. The characteristic of God is this universal benevolence, this unconquerable goodwill, this constant seeking of the highest good of every man. The great characteristic of God is love to saint and sinner alike. No matter what men do to him, God seeks nothing but their highest good. (178)
In the verses of this chapter, Jesus gives an appropriate definition of grace. Webster’s Dictionary defines grace as “The love of God for mankind.” The love of God is perfect and unending. It does not matter where we have been, what we have done, or whom we have done it with. God is there to love us always. As Philip Yancey says,
Thunderously and inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: Murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace. (144)
For this reason, when people who have been focused on themselves and the things of this world instead of the things of God come to recognize God’s love for them, they do so with tears in their eyes. God’s love and the grace that accompanies it are not fair, especially to God, and the realization that God loves everyone whether they return His love or not, is emotionally overwhelming. Grace does not end when we come to God, it only begins.
God’s grace is the reason that the seemingly impossible standards presented in this chapter of Matthew are really the key to happiness. To live in the experience of God’s love and the fellowship of Jesus Christ brings a joy and a peace that none deserve, but that allows each of us to recognize and respond to the ideals presented in the Sermon on the Mount.
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