The Sermon on the Mount is to be practiced: that’s why we’ve been blessed with the kingdom

In Wednesday’s post I noted how central the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are supposed to be for the Christian way of life. In their book on Christian ethics Glen Stassen and David Gushee continue to make that point by stressing the Gospel of Matthew’s emphasis on the fact that the teachings of the sermon are to be done.

The Gospel of Matthew concludes with what all Christians believe is binding on the church: the Great Commission.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

As Stassen and Gushee point out, Matthew (and Jesus) surely had the Sermon on the Mount in mind when he recorded this statement. And the way in which Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Mount makes this obvious. After pronouncing the Beatitudes Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt and light of the earth and that therefore their purpose is to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (5:16) He then goes on to declare,

Therefore, whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:19-20)

The emphasis of the Lord’s Prayer is therefore on the petitions calling for the Lord’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (6:10). A good tree is said to be recognized by its fruit (7:15-20). And Jesus warns that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (7:21) Those warned to depart from that kingdom will be those who did works of great piety but were “workers of lawlessness.” (7:23) And Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with the parable comparing the one who built his house on the sand and saw it destroyed, and the one who built his house on the rock and saw his home stand firm. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (7:24, 26)

Of course all of this would be overwhelming if the Sermon on the Mount was simply another law. Yet this response ignores what the Sermon itself presupposes: that the followers of Jesus are to do all of these things because they have been blessed with the presence and power of the kingdom that is coming. As Jesus said, the church would be able to fulfill the Great Commission because “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” and as believers testify through the petitions “your will be done … And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” it is God who gives the power to do his will. The Sermon on the Mount therefore begins with grace, with the reality that in believers the power of the kingdom has already begun to work.

As Stassen and Gushee put it,

[T]he Sermon on the Mount is a primer for kingdom ethics. The reign of God is mentioned explicitly nine times in the Sermon. Each of the Beatitudes announces a blessing of participation in the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Prayer prays for the kingdom to come. Each of the main teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is actually a pointer to the way of deliverance that we are given when the kingdom breaks into our midst. (30)

Of course, one of the most important points to recognize here is that the blessings of the kingdom are promised not to those who are perfect or who have it all together, but to those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, and who hunger and thirst for justice. The kingdom has not yet fully come, and believers are called to conform themselves to its demands even as they pray with a constant refrain, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (7:12)

That said, it remains true that the means by which the disciples of Jesus testify that they seek his kingdom and its righteousness is by faithfully performing the practices to which he calls them in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is here that Stassen and Gushee offer one of the most helpful points in their entire book. They point out that the moral instruction of the Sermon is not fundamentally about commandments concerning the attainment of perfect dispositions or attitudes – a life absent anger, lust, hatred, etc. Then it would indeed be impossible to keep. The emphasis of Jesus’ moral instruction is rather on the practices that believers are to perform in order that they might begin to experience the kingdom’s transformation of their lives and attitudes. In short, Jesus’ emphasis is on concrete things that we can do, rather than on unattainable ideals. As they put it,

We believe that Jesus offered not hard sayings or high ideals but concrete ways to practice God’s will and be delivered from the bondage of sin. In other words, he taught his followers how to participate in God’s reign. He taught what the kingdom is like, what its characteristics are, and therefore what kinds of practices are done by those who participate in it and are ready for it. (31)

In my next post on this I’ll try to explain what they mean by this, focusing on the difference between practices and unattainable ideals. After all, given how much Jesus stressed that we should do what he commanded, this is something worth taking seriously.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 3, 2012, in Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Sermon on the Mount is to be practiced: that’s why we’ve been blessed with the kingdom.

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