For several weeks now, we have been reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says a lot of things in this collection of his teachings, but we can boil down his message to three main ideas.
- He explains the principles that animate the alternate reality that is God’s kingdom.
- He calls his disciples to order their lives in accordance with the principles of the kingdom, even when doing so brings them into conflict with established religious authorities or social conventions.
- He urges his disciples to entrust everything else to God.
So, what is the purpose of the last pericope in the collection (as well as Matthew’s closing remark about the reaction of his audience)? Clearly, it drives home the point that those who will really be successful are those who put Jesus’ teachings into practice—remembering, of course, that success is radically redefined in light of the nature of the kingdom. But is there anything else that we can learn from this section of Matthew’s Gospel? I think that there are at least two things that we should consider.
Our Place in the Storm
It is worth noting that the scenario Jesus sets up is not just a test for those who claim to follow him. It is also a test for Jesus himself. Do his words make sense? Do they ring true? What happens when someone tries to live by them?
Jesus seems to be offering his hearers (and us) and opportunity. “Put me to the test,” he seems to be saying. And the context for the test is not when skies are sunny and everything is fine. The context for the test is the storm,—the noisy, shadowy, scary times in our lives, the times when our hope fades and our destruction seems imminent.
It is precisely in those moments when worry is easy and faith is hard. It is precisely in those moments when the meek seem to get nothing and vengeance seems to be the only viable option. It is precisely in those moments when the spiritual benefits of prayer, fasting, and generosity seem ineffective and the idol of wealth seems far more appealing than the living God.
We do not, however, endure such tests alone. Jesus endured the worst such test imaginable when he went to the cross, and he walks with us in the midst of our own tests. When we see things from his perspective—from the other side of the empty tomb—we see why his teachings are so important. We see the self-defeating nature of violence and the self-destructive nature of worry. We feel the pain of every woman who has been abandoned by a self-absorbed man and the outrage of religious hypocrisy. We experience God’s nearness in the midst of our heartaches and God’s mercy in the midst of our sin. And we realize that, even though the words of Jesus are hard, they are also true.
Our Place in the Crowd
Jesus invites us to find our place in the storm, but Matthew invites us to find our place in the crowd. Surely we can relate to how those people felt on that day. They came to hear a teacher, and that is what they heard. But they expected him to cite his sources, to explain biblical passages in the light of centuries of theological reflection. What they heard instead were the words of someone who claimed to have direct knowledge about that which he spoke. He didn’t cite the rabbis; he didn’t even cite the Old Testament—except to explain how his teachings transcended it. He just explained how things were and expected his hearers to receive his message.
Jesus’ discourse is no less shocking to us than it was to those who heard it (or any number of other sermons). He speaks so boldly about God’s kingdom, and he does so by referring to no other authority than himself. If he is wrong, then he is both deluded narcissistic. He should be avoided at all costs, for his madness will lead those who follow him to their destruction.
But what if he is right? What if he knows his subject matter better than any prophet or rabbi in history? What if he speaks on his own authority precisely because he is the one (along with the Father and the Spirit) who created the “deep magic” of which he speaks? What if he isn’t crazy after all? In that case, we would be fools to reject his message.