The day in 1997 when we visited the Mount of the Beatitudes was not the best choice, it turned out. The IDF (Israeli military) had chosen that afternoon for maneuvers on the very hillside where tradition says Jesus sat down and taught his followers. I did snap this picture just before the helicopters, tanks and jeeps swarmed in.
“Blessed are the peacemakers….If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount. What irony, I thought as I watched the IDF take over the hill.
We were staying in Tiberius (the Myrtle Beach of Israel), and the afternoon before we had gone swimming in the Sea of Galilee. We had spent the morning walking around Capernaum, and at lunch time we drove up the narrow, curving road to the top of a “mountain.” It was really more like a long rolling hill. There is a church at the top of the hill and a beautiful garden setting. It was easy to imagine hundreds of people sitting on the grassy slope listening to Jesus. (You can see more of the Mount of the Beatitudes here.)
The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) has puzzled believers for centuries. How are we to take it: as Jesus’ radical requirements for his followers? Or a series of impossible demands designed to bring us to our knees begging for grace?
Notice 7:21-27. Jesus seems dead serious about us “doing” his words and not simply hearing them. In the early days of the church the Sermon on the Mount was taught as a catechism to new members: this is how Jesus has instructed us to live in God’s new social order (= “kingdom of God/heaven”). “But with the Constantinian approval of Christianity, the movement was conformed to culture. The radical character of the Sermon on the Mount was reserved for ‘saints’; for the rest of us it was scaled down by common sense.”* You might want to consider whether Jesus actually approves the widely practiced scaling down of his commands.
Some of the statements in the sermon beg to be scaled back to reasonable levels, like the famous “But I say to you, love your enemies…” (5:44). But alongside it is the almost mundane “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (5:42). Really? Give to the obnoxious woman who comes up to everyone’s car at the corner of Chamberlayne and Westwood?
There’s a lot to consider.
The last verse in chapter 5 used to be troubling to me. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” it commands (5:48). Clarence Jordan explains that the Greek word for “perfect” is “teleos,” which is literally “the goal, end, desired completion.” He suggests that a better translation of “teleos” is “mature,” the way a ripened peach, in all it’s pink glory, is mature, complete—this is the kind of “perfect” Jesus has in mind.
God’s goal for you is to become full-grown, mature, just like God. “Mature” makes more sense to me than “perfect.” And it seems to me that such a lofty goal is going to require some strong demands to push us toward it.
I like David Buttrick’s suggestion that the Sermon on the Mount is actually the way Jesus intends for us to live when we come together as a church. Try as I might, as an individual I always fail to live up to Jesus’ high standards. But if we could agree that Matthew 5-7 is how we function when we are together as a church, then our community really could become “the light of the world. A city built on a hill [that] cannot be hid” (5:14).