Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

Diving into Life

A friend of mine had made millions in the oil business.  He told me that the best thing that ever happened to him was when he literally lost it all.  He discovered, he said, that when he made money the goal of his life, what he lived for, money held him in a very tight and demanding grip.  There was never quite enough. You and I think a few million would be plenty, but my friend said he found real wealth when he was penniless.  Here’s how Jesus said it:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.  (Matthew 6:19-21 & 24 )

This sounds preposterous; everyone knows that the goal of life is to be rich.  That is, except those who have chased that goal and, too late, find themselves unable to let go.  It’s not that money is bad.  The problem is our tendency to want more and more money as a goal in itself.  When money becomes our quest, it is an addictive substance.  And, in our quest for more, we trample the attitudes Jesus calls, “storing up treasures in heaven.”   He was talking about living by the counter-intuitive principles He taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  These are based on the truth that sets a person free, that produces a life lived in harmony with God’s design.

So why does this seem so upside-down?  Jesus said it’s an eyesight problem, a consequence of how we see life:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!  (Matthew 6:22-23)

When my friend lost his fortune, Jesus opened his eyes and showed him what living was really all about.

You can check this out for yourself.  Ask Jesus to open your eyes and show you how to be generous.  That’s a dangerous prayer. Jesus will certainly respond, and put you in some challenging situations.  Real generosity is a struggle because it feels self-destructive.  It feels a lot like the first time you decided to try a diving board.  You grab onto the safety rail and think, “If I do this I’m going to hurt myself or drown!”  But it is impossible to hold that rail and dive.  You have to choose.  But when you let go and bounce off the end of the board, you discover a new and exhilarating freedom.

Jesus is waiting for us in the pool of abundant life.   He says, “Stop holding on to money for dear life.  Let go and take a flying leap into real life.  Come on in, the water is fine!”

Not so Fast

Did you know you can get a reward from God?  Jesus told us how.  Three times, Jesus said “…your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.”. The first time, He was talking about giving to the poor.  The second time, He was teaching how to pray.  Once more, while teaching about fasting, Jesus explains how to be rewarded by “your Father”. 

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  (Matthew 6:16-18 – ESV)

Once again, the point is the same: Do not try to impress people with your devotion to God; keep it private, between you and God.  Generosity, prayer and fasting are all expressions of a deep rrelationship with “your Father”.  When you use them to show others how religious you are, how good you are, they have the opposite effect.  They show people your pride and hypocrisy and they diminish your relationship with God.

Fasting does not earn us any points with God, it simply clears away the clutter and distraction so we can commune with Him more fully.  There are times, when you sit down to talk with someone, that it is natural to do it over a casual lunch.  There are other circumstances when lunch would simply get in the way: you just need to be together and talk.  It’s times like that with your Father that Jesus says are just for the two of you.  Don’t ruin them by using them as an occasion to show off to people. What is the reward? That too is just between you and your Father, but you can be sure that it is primarily the relationship itself.

This is radical stuff!  People almost always picture God as a distant and demanding figure.  Jesus says He is your Father and desires a relationship with you that is intimate and genuine. 

Just Between You and The Father

This needs no explanation, or comment:

1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ( Mat 6:1-4 –  ESV)


“I did not have sex with that woman!”  Bill Clinton’s approach to morality was the ordinary one: Draw a line that defines what is going too far, and then you can tiptoe up to the line, as long as you do not step over it.  Sex, in his mind, was defined by the act of intercourse; as long as he did not cross that line, in his mind, he was not guilty.

Jesus’ view of morality is extraordinary.  Doing the right thing is not about staying on the good side of some arbitrary line; it’s about pursuing the heartbeat of God with all your heart.  It’s. about devoting oneself to the greater purpose behind a line or a law.

Jesus knew that a central component in God’s design for humanity was a covenant marriage relationship between a man and woman, established and maintained by faithfulness.  Not faithfulness as defined by Bill Clinton but faithfulness of the heart.  So He said:

“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.”. (Matthew 5:27-28)

Jesus taught that God’s intent was not to prevent adultery, as narrowly defined by a sexual act, but to foster marriage, as defined by a heart oneness between the husband and wife.  Any act that breaks that oneness, even an unfulfilled lustful longing of the heart, is an act of adultery, since it damages the oneness of marriage.  If that seems extreme to you, think about how damaging even the suspicion of unfaithfulness is to the harmony of a marriage. 

That teaching was so radically different from the commonly held Bill Clinton approach, that Jesus shook them up with this:

“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.”  (Matthew 5:29 – Jesus continues this thought in verse 30)

Jesus was not advocating self-mutilation.  As you know, the eye only follows instructions from the heart…   Jesus was startling people with hyperbole in order to underlline how seriously flawed their understanding of morality in marriage was. 

2000 years later, human attitudes toward faithfulness and marriage have not improved.  But Jesus wasn’t joking and God’s design for how things work hasn’t changed. 

Good Enough?

How good do you have to be to get to heaven?  For most people, the answer is, “As good as me…  I hope…”. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees thought the bar was set very high and literally spent their every waking hour trying to follow God’s commands.  Then along comes Jesus, teaching that it isn’t the self-righteous who get to heaven, but the people who know they are unrighteous, the spiritually bankrupt.  (See the previous posts .).

Imagine being one of those Pharisees, working hard to be good enough for God, and then hearing some guy from Nazareth suggest that the spiritual losers were doing better than they were! 

Then Jesus made 4 radically confusing statements:
1 – He said He wasn’t abolishing the scriptures, but fulfilling them. (Matthew 5:17)
2 – He said all of scripture would remain intact, even down to the tiniest punctuation marks, until “all things are accomplished.”
3 – He said “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…’ (and vice versa – Matthew 5:19)

And then, when he had them really scratching their heads, He really made them furious:
4 – “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”. (Matthew 5:20)

Huh?  All the commands are essential, right down to the tiniest marks, but in order to get into heaven, you have to do much, much better than the guys who specialized in strict obedience to the laws?   If you are confused, good, because that is what Jesus was trying to do.  He knew that righteousness had very little to do with strict obedience and more to do with what was going on inside our hearts. 

In the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains true righteousness, giving several challenging examples.

Stay tuned…

By the Book

Maybe it seems that because the Bible was written so long ago, and since we understand so much more today, that we should rewrite it, to bring it in line with modern customs and attitudes.  But not according to Jesus – and He knew what He was talking about when He said:

“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.”. (Matthew 5:18)

Jesus wasn’t being vague.  Even the tiniest mark was important and would not be changed until the end of the age.  You’ve heard how a comma can save lives: “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a lot different than “Let’s eat Grandma!” 

By Jesus’ clear meaning, it is dangerous for us to assume we can overhaul the Bible’s teachings.  When we changed the rules for sex, the consequences in divorce and children born to a single mother have been much greater than anyone would have predicted.  Now the definition of marriage has been rewritten.  Buckle up; get ready for a bumpy ride…

But, you may wonder, if Jesus meant what He said, why did He proclaim all foods okay to eat, why did He break the rules for the Sabbath and develop a reputation as a drunkard and glutton?

The answer has to do with what righteousness is.  The religious leaders defined righteousness as a list of rules (over 600!) that one must not break.  Jesus had a very different understanding of what righteousness is. 

We’ll chew on that next time.

Breaking the Rules

Why was Jesus such a threat to  religious people?  A lot of it was because He seemed to be breaking the rules of their religion.  God said,  “Don’t do any work on the Sabbath.” Religious people were very strict in deciding what actions constituted work, so they could be sure they didn’t break that rule. 

They still are, today!  In Jerusalem,  Orthodox Jewish leaders have decreed that pushing elevator buttons is work.  Consequently, the hotel elevators are programmed to stop at every floor on the Sabbath.  But Jesus didn’t seem to care about or obey their rules about the Sabbath.  There were no elevators, but Jesus sure pushed a lot of buttons, especially on the Sabbath – healing people, walking too far, and picking grain to eat. 

When religious people are threatened by people who don’t obey their rules.  If they can’t make them conform, they throw them out and badmouth them so others won’t be corrupted.  That’s what they did to Jesus (and much worse). 

You can see why they got the idea  Jesus didn’t respect the Scriptures.  But they were wrong – wrong about the rules and wrong about Jesus’ attitude toward the Scriptures (in those days called “The Law and the Prophets). 

That’s why there was much scratching of heads when Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and 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.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

How could this teaching fit with Jesus’ apparent disregard for the rules of the religious?   Chew on that and try to figure it out.  Next time we’ll try to unpack what it means to “fulfill” the Law.

No Morons

Jesus said, “Don’t act like a moron.” Really. There’s lots of ways to be a moron, but Jesus was talking about failing to do something amazing when you could have done it, but didn’t use the power. Like the guy who says, “If I hadn’t let up on the gas, my truck really could have jumped that creek…” If that was true, he could have been a hero, the envy of all his buddies. Now he’s a moron.

If you are looking for “moron” in your Bible concordance, you probably won’t find it. But it is there, when Jesus says:

“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. (Matthew 5:13)

When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” He’s talking about living with the Holy Spirit. When you have the Holy Spirit, you have a different kind of power and a different way of approaching life. That difference is supposed to make a difference – a noticeable and attractive difference. Like salt does on a burger. The purpose is not bragging rights, but to cause others to notice how bland life is without that Spirit, to notice and want to change. However, when we “lose our saltiness,” when we live with no discernable difference, Jesus says we act like morons. Literally, the Greek word used is the root for our English word, moron!

It is pointless and stupid to have the Holy Spirit and live as though you don’t. If salt isn’t salty, you throw it on the ground and trample it.

Don’t act like a moron. Live by the Spirit.

Don’t Take the Fire Escape!

You are startled awake by the loud blaring of the fire alarm.  You can already smell the smoke and you hurry from your room on an upper floor of the hotel.  Rushing down to the fire escape, you discover that it is about to be overcome by flames. So you turn around and head back the other direction.  You have to fight your way through a stampede of hotel guests who are trying to reach the fire escape.  “No!” you say, “Turn around; you will die if you keep going that way.”  Most of them don’t believe you.  Some call you an idiot for ignoring the fire escape sign.  Those few who decide to trust you, turn around and follow you in the “wrong” direction.  They live.

Jesus was in a situation like that.  He knew we were thundering toward death.  He urged us to turn around and head the “wrong” way, in order to find eternal life.  That is why so much of what He said seems up-side-down.  Like this:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  (Matthew 5:4 )

He didn’t say that those who grieve are happy.  He said they would one day be comforted and therefore are blessed.  This statement follows the previous one about realizing our spiritual poverty.  The kind of mourning Jesus was referring to was the desire to be spiritually full, spiritually rich, without being able to change one’s spiritual bankruptcy.

Jesus said people in that condition would be comforted.  He wasn’t talking about someone who would feel sorry for them and say soothing things.  He was talking about a total reversal in their spiritual bank account.  Here’s how I know:  Jesus said,

‘If ye love me, my commands keep, and I will ask the Father, and another Comforter He will give to you, that he may remain with you—to the age; the Spirit of truth, whom the world is not able to receive, because it doth not behold him, nor know him, and ye know him, because he doth remain with you, and shall be in you. ( John 14:15-17 Young’s’ Literal Translation)

I used that old fashioned sounding translation because they gave the literal translation of the word Jesus called the Holy Spirit – Comforter.  It is the same root word He used when He said those who mourn “will be comforted.”  The people who are spiritually bankrupt and who mourn their condition, who are unable to be good enough or spiritual enough to change it, will be comforted.  How?  They will receive the Holy Spirit, Who will “remain” (live)  in their souls forever.  This is eternal life.

Ok, but what’s all this business about “if you love me and keep my commands?”   Those are like the folks in the hotel hallway who turn around and head in the opposite direction because they trusted you.  That’s what happens when you trust and love Jesus.  You turn around, you follow, you live.

Winning in Last Place

She knew what people thought of her.  Whores have eyes; she could see the looks on their faces.  She put on a posture and look that said, “Screw you; I don’t care what you think…”  But down deep, inside the hard crust that surrounded her heart, she was much harder on herself than they were.  Because she knew the worst of what she was really like.  And when she came face to face with Jesus, she lost it.  She collapsed in tears, clinging to His feet.  Imagine her embarrassment to see a mixture of her tears and drool and snot, splattered on His feet.  Desperately, she wiped them with her hair…

Jesus had people like  her in mind when He said,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3)

How can that really be true?  People who are spiritually bankrupt are blessed?  Seriously?

It’s because we live with illusions of reality that are upside down from Jesus’ understanding.  When Jesus says “Blessed,” He means, “If you could see what is real and true from My perspective, you would realize that this kind of person is ultimately in a better place.”  Sounds ridiculous to us, but when Jesus compared that devastated hooker to a man who was known for being very religious, He held her up as a better example.  He was trying to shock people out of their upside down illusions.

Think of it like this:  If you are in a race to see who is the fastest and the best, and you are going in the wrong direction, if it looks like you are winning the race, in reality you are losing.  Those who have stopped and turned back the other way are the ones who are actually ahead.  Jesus knows that people who feel self-righteous, people who think they are doing better than others, are heading in the wrong direction.  Turning around spiritually, begins with recognizing how poor in spirit you really are.  It amounts to admitting that, on your own, you are in deep trouble.  Turning around means recognizing you need Jesus.

Is this really true?  Who do you think is most likely to qualify for the kingdom of heaven? Perhaps Billy Graham?  What do you think: Is Billy Graham “poor in spirit?”  Is he spiritually bankrupt?  Most of us would say no, he is rich in spirit.  But, if you asked Billy – the guy who knows Billy Graham in his worst moments – he would tell you that there is a good reason that one of his favorite songs is “Just as I am, without one plea…”