After many months and gallons of coffee, my Tuesday morning men’s group finished a study of The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Those chapters have to be among the most challenging in the entire Bible. During our reading, I frequently had urges to tweak them just because it seems so patently impossible for mere mortals to turn the other cheek, love enemies, and not look at women with lust.
As the oldest man in that group, I felt obligated to be the voice of reason. I didn’t want the younger guys spooked by a standard so far beyond them that being a Keebler Elf would appear more realistic than being a faithful Christian.
I’m glad I resisted the urge to dumb-down the Sermon verses. After all, I’m not here to save people from Jesus.
These chapters weren’t meant to be immediately accessible, anyway. We enter them in phases, like a kid growing into his dad’s shoes. The standard described and commanded in Matthew 5-7 basically corresponds to the inner life of Christ. You’re not supposed to read it and feel like, “I got this.”
In fact, Watchman Nee once wrote in his landmark book, The Normal Christian Life, “A consideration of the written word of God—the Sermon on the Mount for example—should lead us to ask whether such a life has ever in fact been lived upon the earth save only by the Son of God Himself.”
Maybe then, the most reasonable instant reaction to this part of the Word is one of incredulity. How on earth is someone like me ever going to live like that?
Ironically, after the Sermon was over, a leper approached Jesus, saying, “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean.” (Matt. 8:2). That’s about all anybody can feel after hearing those words—”I ’m not clean. I need serious help.”
Personally, any time I’ve ever started thinking I had the Christian life down cold—because I don’t use porn or drugs or run around on my wife—these dramatic verses reminded me all was still not well in Johnnyville.
At best I’m always a bit out of alignment, a good-hearted, inconsistent Christian, with plenty of blind spots. And frequently I’m a lot worse when compared to verses like this one: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Again, how will this ever come to pass?
I don’t think the answer is in the Sermon at all. You’ll hunt those chapters in vain for special techniques, or spiritual hacks.
The key probably lies a few verses outside the Sermon in the conversation between Jesus and that leper. He had asked for cleansing, and Jesus told him, “I am willing.”
That’s music to any leper’s ears. No need for pretending to be clean, much less redefining the concept of cleanness into something less challenging.
It would be ridiculous to hope God would lower His standard to mine, when He’s willing to cleanse and lift me up to His.