Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

We’re all familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:1-12 “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”, but how often do we read or hear teaching on the second part of the mountain sermon, the part where he puts us all in our place?

Matt 5:20-48: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “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. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. “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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We like to read the passages that gives us a pat on the back for all the good we’ve done, but gloss over the parts that tend to put us in our places. The second half of the Sermon on the Mount is one such passage, where Jesus, in no uncertain terms, lays out just how far we all fall short of the goal. But, in his usual “glass is half full” method of teaching, he gives us positive criticism, where he tells us not only what we have done wrong, but how we need to change to do things right.

So much of his teachings fly in the face of the modern world, and what the world would have us believe is the “right way” – live as you want, God (if there is one) will forgive you. Just look at all of the Hollywood movies and TV shows dealing with the afterlife, especially the latter day offerings, where everyone ends up in the arms of their loved ones after they have passed on. Doesn’t matter how you lived here, they are waiting to welcome you into the afterlife, where everyone goes, no matter the lives they lived here. They have rewritten the Gospel teachings to suit their lifestyles, rather than changing how they live to suit what is being taught.

Imagine what the world would be like if we enacted just a few of these teachings:

  • You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
  • It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
  • You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;
  • if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
  • Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
  • 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.

First off, Hollywood, and a few other industries, would probably go bankrupt over the first two, not to mention a few legal firms. But, seriously, I don’t think Jesus was eliminating abuse as a valid reason either, but was addressing what had become as common place an issue as it is today, we call it “Irreconcilable Differences”, a catch-all phrase for “we just don’t want to be married anymore.”

People often misunderstand the “eye for an eye” as a way of saying, “Well, they did X to me, so I can to X right back at them.” But that is not what was meant by the Exodus passage (21:23), this was a limiting passage. In an age where revenge was a way of life, when the loss of an eye could result in the assailants death, this was meant as a way of saying, “you can only exact an appropriate amount of punishment.” Jesus is now saying that we need to move beyond even that amount of retribution, do not seek revenge for what was done to you, just get on with your life. Again, how much would our lives change if we didn’t immediately sue someone just because our hot coffee was too hot? If we didn’t sue our neighbor because their plant grew onto our property?

The next one is not about actually giving away the cloak or walking an additional mile, but to not do so begrudgingly. So, okay, you have to do something you don’t like, we all do. There’s no reason to do so and complain about it all day long, just do it and move along. I have a couple friends like this, they will give you the shirt off their backs if you ask, then complain all day long how they could have been doing something else with their time. I am reminded of a man I work with, the house he had been building (yes, building with his two hands) was near destroyed by tornado-like winds. The Amish community turned out one weekend and helped him rebuild it; providing the lumber, laborers, and food. When the work was done they left with nary a pause for more than a thank you.

I hate the use of the word “beg” here, I believe the correct translation of the Greek αἰτοῦντί, is “ask” and not “beg”. Begging, in our age, has such negative connotations, and I don’t think Jesus was talking about the street beggars we all pass. Here he is speaking of someone whom you know, perhaps a neighbor or friend. We all have times in our lives when we are on both sides of this issue, he is asking us not to ignore the need of someone. Years ago, when I was a consultant, I was working for a company far out in the boonies. One day I went out to start my car, only to find that the battery was dead; it was too late in the evening to get one as all the stations in this small town had closed for business, I was trapped, not even a hotel in the town. A woman I was working with lived only about 5 miles from the company, she nicely drove me to her home, then lent me her car so I could get home. Next morning I returned to pick her up, with a fresh battery for my car. Such warmth, compassion, and giving nature I have found in few people, including myself. I often wonder what I would do in that situation. I have had opportunities to help someone stranded, driving them to the nearest store/shop/garage and back again, but to lend them my car?

This last one is probably the toughest, especially for American’s and Christians today. Imagine loving our Muslim brothers. Not the ones who are as against the radicals as the rest of the world, but the radicals themselves. Jesus once said, John 15:13 “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, imagine doing so for your enemies. That woman who sits in front of you in church, the one who bad mouths you to the other parishioners; the guy at work who took credit for your idea; the person who flirted with your spouse/mate; the person who belongs to the “other” political party.

 

Before I close, I want to go a bit into the next chapter (remember, chapters in Scripture are a modern contrivance, and not always at a logical breakpoint).

Matt 6:1-8: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Here Jesus gives us three more teachings on proper behavior – doing so for God, and our sakes, not for credit. When I was a child, going to the local RCC, the pastor always printed the names of the families and how much they contributed to the church the past week. It was one of the few things he did that bothered me. I grew up in a small town with people who were both in the upper financial echelons as well as those barely able to make it week to week. The bulletin was at once both a sense of pride for the rich and a banner of shame for the poor. I’m sure he did not intend it that way, but it was how it was perceived by many in the congregation (as you could hear in the back of the church after mass). It is to the former that this teaching is addressed, those who feel a sense of pride for giving more than others. We recently built a Miracle Field where I live now, a great thing for those who need a surface to play on that is not muddy. Every company/person that donated has a placard with their name on it, segregated by how much they gave (First Base Givers, Second Base…) save one man, the one who gave over half the cost of the field. His name is known only to those of us involved in the fundraising, and is how he wanted it. The field is named after someone else, as are the scoreboard and concession stands. Others would not give without a sign, he would not give if there was one.

Praying (church) works the same way. There are those who crowd to get into the front of the church or are angry if someone takes “their” seat (pity the fool who doesn’t know it’s theirs!). There are others who shyly enter into the church and look for someplace they might be able to fit into, preferably with no one around. Prayer is a private and intimate conversation with God, if you are talking so others can hear you, how can you hear his response?

I have seen prayers that go on for pages, and people who stand up in front of crowds and go on for minutes, both saying virtually nothing. I think of them as when a politician speaks in front of the press trying hard to sound impressive while avoiding the answer to a simple question. In the Eastern church we have a very simple, short, prayer that encompasses everything that needs to be said. I leave you with that:

Lord Jesus Christ,

Son of God,

Have mercy on me,

A sinner.

The Modern Theologian.

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