Monday, November 13, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (11) - The Sermon on the Mount

I think I've made the point a couple of times now that after writing that "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom" (Matt 4:23) Matthew immediately launched into his account of the sermon on the mount (chapters 5-7). There's obviously a connection.

The sermon on the mount encapsulates much of the ethical teaching of Jesus. Here, and in many of the parables, stories and sayings, Jesus teaches about living in relationship with others, friend and foe. But His message was not just about getting on with people: His primary concern was about building a community of people whose relationships with each other are modeled on and flow from the example of God Himself in His dealings with His people. In preaching about the Kingdom Jesus taught about forgiveness, reconciliation with others, friendship and living in community. The Kingdom of God consists of people who are living these Kingdom-dynamics.

I plan to make the next few posts about Jesus' doctrine of the Kingdom (remembering that "doctrine" simply means "teaching") and how He spelled it out in His sermon on the mount in terms of conduct, or the virtues of Kingdom-people.

The sermon begins with the beatitudes - 9 statements begining with the words "blessed are ...". The beatitudes are often understood as idealistic sayings encapsulating the high ideals that Jesus is urging us to live up to if only we could. In fact, we tend to put a lot of Jesus' sayings into this "high ideal" category and treat them as unrealistic. "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" appears to be an unattainable expectation so we easily dismiss it and replace it with something more pragmatic, more realistic, more achievable. Using that text as the rule of interpretation we are then free to spiritualise any saying that we find too difficult or too inconvenient.

However, that would be an awkward way to begin a sermon - with a list of unattainable goals that would leave us feeling defeated before we even started. If we look at the text of the first sermon recorded by Luke (4:18-19) we see that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was taken by Jesus as His 'mission statement' and by comparing it with the beatitudes we can note several similarities.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
He has sent me to
preach good news to the poor.
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

The beatitudes echo the message of deliverance anticipated by Isaiah and now delivered by Jesus. They are not high ideals, or human efforts to develop these virtues, but are rather statements about God's gracious deliverance. Luke emphasises the point that Jesus' mission was to declare God's grace: "they were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth" (v. 22).

As He begins the sermon on the mount Jesus is saying that we are blessed because we are experiencing God's deliverance (or about to), in the coming of His kingdom. Each beatitude begins a message of joy. The Amplified Bible captures some of the shades of meaning in the word "blessed": happy, blithesome, joyous, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous - with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions with a happiness produced by the experience of God's favor and especially conditioned by the revelation of His matchless grace.

Over the next few posts I'll look at the beatitudes one by one.

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