I recently started reading the New Testament again and am thoroughly enjoying Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. However, right off the bat Matthew starts telling us a lot of what Jesus was teaching and a lot of it sounds pretty much impossible. What are we to make of this?
Matthew chapters 5–7, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, have attracted a diversity of interpretations over the centuries. In On Being a Christian, Hans Küng lists five historic views. I summarize them below:
- A two-class ethic: this interpretation holds that the Sermon on the Mount is binding only for a special category of Christians, namely the clergy. In other words, if you’re just a regular Christian, don’t worry about it! This view was held by Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church before Vatican II.
- A penitential ethic: this view holds that the requirements of these chapters are impossible to fulfill and that obedience isn’t the aim of this legislation. Rather, these impossible demands are designed to expose our impotence and lack—an unflattering mirror in which we see ourselves in a harsh light—causing us to repent and place our trust in Christ. In other words, read it and weep. This view was held by Martin Luther.
- A pure dispositional ethic: this view holds that what matters most is not the concrete fulfillment in deed of these demands, but the proper attitude of our heart. In other words, “want” is good enough. This view was held by Immanuel Kant, philosophical idealism, and liberal theology.
- A social ethic: this view takes the Sermon on the Mount very stringently as the basic law and social program of a new society which will render political power and the legal system redundant. In other words, toe the party line! This view was held by Leo Tolstoy and many religious socialists.
- An interim ethic: this view holds that Jesus’ radical teachings here were only spoken in light of the imminent advent of the kingdom of God, as they could only be maintained for a short time, only “in the light of the apocalyptic glow of the approaching end.” Now that the eschatological horizon has receded they too have depreciated. In other words, forget about it! This view was held by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer.
None of these views are quite adequate. Luther’s view probably comes closest to the Lord’s intention but misses the real thrust of these chapters—that they are to be lived. This is not merely a sermon with rhetorical force; it’s a decree from the new King of the kingdom’s constitution. Good deeds are to be seen (5:16), righteousness is to be done (6:1), the commandments are to be practiced (5:19). The whole tenor of the discourse is one of expectation—Jesus clearly expects this to happen. Without that basic assumption, the entire passage—the longest recorded teaching of Jesus in the gospels—loses its force.
So then, how is it to be understood? How is it to be practiced? The secret lies in the divine life, indicated by the repetition of the words, “your Father”, which occur 16 times in these three chapters. The highest demand of the kingdom of the heavens can only be met by the highest supply of the heavenly Father’s life. This life not only saves us but enables us to reign in life—a reigning that issues from our experience of God’s life. Paul explains that reigning in life is a result of our receiving God’s measureless grace, not our striving (Rom. 5:17).
The effectiveness and the unspeakable generosity of the divine grace are such that it will not merely bring about the replacement of the reign of death by the reign of life, but it will actually make those who receive its riches to become kings themselves, that is, to live ‘the truly kingly life’ purposed by God for man.
Later in Romans, Paul says that the divine life operates as a scientific law—the law of the Spirit of life—and will fulfill every requirement of God’s law as long as we give it a chance to work. Here, a preposition is a source of great insight and encouragement—”in”. The righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled IN us, not BY us (Rom. 8:4).
With all this in view, Watchman Nee claims that Matthew 5–7, far from being a source of discouragement, is actually a source of comfort:
After men sought for centuries to attain the first standard [of the law] and failed, how could the Lord dare to raise the standard higher? He could raise it because He believed in His own life. He was not afraid of placing tremendous demands upon Himself. We should find comfort in reading the laws of the kingdom in Matthew 5–7 because they show the utter confidence that the Lord has in His own life. These three chapters set forth the divine taxation of the divine life. The greatness of the demands He makes upon us reveals the greatness of His confidence in the life that He has put within us.
I love this. What a game changer!
My friend David at sidekicksanonymous.com agreed to write a post on the same chapters in Matthew. You should check it out—The Highest Mountain.