The Quest For Perfection
Posted by foryourfaith on February 13, 2010
The crowds gathered on a mountainside to hear Jesus and his new disciples. All awaited Jesus’ words. As the Gospel of Matthew recounts, the first thing Jesus did was to pronounce God’s blessings on groups of people who were often victimized or disregarded. By offering hope to these people, Jesus began to mark out values that helped his hearers to grasp what the kingdom of heaven was all about.
These “Beatitudes” or “blessings” that begin the “Sermon on the Mount,” are the best known single body of Jesus’ teaching. The Sermon on the Mount occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5-7), but a shorter version known as the “Sermon on the Plain” appears in the Gospel of Luke (6:20-49). Although close study of the Sermon suggests that it is an anthology of traditions about Jesus’ teachings rather than a single sermon delivered on one occasion, still it has lived through the centuries as an arresting unity. It is the first major event of Jesus’ ministry that Matthew describes in detail, and Jesus’ words become a sort of “keynote” address for all that follows.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)
Is there a mystery within the Sermon on the Mount? On the surface it seems quite the opposite of mysterious. Certainly it is not an esoteric or secret teaching; its setting is as public as large crowd on a mountainside can make it. Nor does Jesus use convoluted or obscure language; his commands are clearly stated, and his images drawn from everyday life – salt, lamps, lilies, birds. Nor are all the sayings of Jesus unique; parallels can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In some ways the mystery of the Sermon emerges only when a person takes the place of one of Jesus’ disciples who is committed to live according to the teachings of his master. Jesus, as it were, looks those disciples in the eye and with great simplicity and clarity commands the impossible. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Certainly there are elements of the Sermon on the Mount that are very down-to-earth, but again and again it seems to fly in the face of practical wisdom. Its mystery lies in the remarkable manner of Jesus’ teaching, which combines profound trust in the intimate presence of God – the Father who is with you “in secret” and “knows what you need before you ask” – together with a radical challenge to common values and patterns of behavior.
At one point, for example, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment, whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
Since Jesus uses the legal terminology of “judgment” and “council,” at first glance Jesus seems simply to have made the law stricter. But in spite of its legal language, Jesus’ statement is not a general law. Rather it applied to Christian communal life. One can only imagine the legal chaos that would result if every display of anger were treated as though it were murder. The casual listener can readily dismiss Jesus’ “law” as impractical if not ridiculous; the serious learner, the disciple, begins to probe his own anger, and a transformation begins.
Thus for Jesus, statements that sounded at first like legal rulings or traditional proverbs became a way of reaching into the hearts of those hearers, challenging their basic values and setting them on a lifelong quest for God’s kingdom. At the heart of his teaching he placed love – a love that could have no boundaries: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Characteristically for Jesus, such a quest was to be carried out not by rigorous control of one’s life, but by surrender of all anxiety about life and all desire for public display of piety. The disciple must trust the care of a God who “clothes the grass of the field” and who promises, “seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
As Matthew recounts, Jesus did not imagine that he was minimizing the demands of obedience to God, but transforming and concentrating them so that a disciple could build his life on a rock that could withstand every storm.