DOING WHAT JESUS SAYS
For two thousand years many Christians have considered the Sermon on the Mount to be the most important words in the whole Bible. You would think that the words considered to be spoken by Jesus and written down would be easily interpreted and followed.
But over the centuries these words have become the most hotly debated words in history. And that’s part of the problem. They’ve been debated more than followed. Some parts of the sermon are either so problematic or difficult that they’ve been left alone by preachers and teachers. Have you ever been invited by a church leader to shape your life around this teaching of Jesus? My guess is that you haven’t.
This is your invitation to the most important teachings of Jesus Christ. There’s a lot to know, but most importantly there’s a lot to do. When it comes to the knowing part, I’m going to err on the side of non-technical explanations rather than complicated and detailed. Why? In order to focus on the doing of the words of Jesus.
Right here at the beginning I want to give you a brief sketch of how the Sermon on the Mount has been handled differently since Jesus’ words were first written and passed down. Don’t worry—I’m not going to bore you with a prolonged explanation of what scholars have said over two thousand years; but the broad strokes of the use of the Sermon on the Mount are fairly important to understand as we get started.
Early church leaders thought the words of Jesus could be practiced literally, and the Didache, a Christian document from the early second century, includes lots of language that sounds like words from the Sermon on the Mount.
In the fourth century when large numbers of people were baptized into the Catholic Church, Christian leaders began to make a distinction between those who really keep the hard teachings of Jesus (monks and bishops and the like) and those who are baptized adherents of the church who are expected to follow only the basic precepts.
So over the centuries, the Sermon on the Mount became something that was for extra credit. Eventually people believed the sermon was just too hard to do, that Jesus was proclaiming an ideal of the new kingdom, but that his words were not meant to be practiced literally. Some church leaders have even thought Jesus intentionally set a high standard to illustrate how far short we fall and how much we need the grace of God.
On the other hand, from the sixteenth century on, a group called the Anabaptists thought that Christians should practice the Sermon on the Mount literally, that there should be no dif- ference between clergy (church leaders) and laity (regular folk) when it comes to following the words of Jesus.
In the last five hundred years the church has argued about whether Jesus really said everything in the sermon or whether Gospel writers just based it on true events of Jesus’ oral teachings but bent it toward their own way of thinking. That would make the sermon a way of showing Christ’s authority as the Messiah, rather than an actual manual for living.
The bottom line is that over two thousand years the church has believed and practiced the Sermon on the Mount in one or more of five ways:
- We can do this.
- Church leaders can do this but it’s too hard for regular folk.
- These teachings of Christ are too hard for anyone, and if we try to follow them it leads to legalism.
- The teachings are too hard but they show our need for God’s grace; keeping the laws literally is not the point.
- Yes, they are too hard but by God’s blessing and grace we must try to keep them.
My journey has taken me through all of these approaches as I’ve studied, heard, prayed, and tried to live the sermon. But I have come closer to the fifth category than ever before. This book is the story of how I’ve gotten there and what I’m trying to do about it. And it’s an invitation to you to come with me, to live the sermon, to do what Jesus says. Category number five above is really a return to what the early church thought: We can do this. But we certainly need God’s empowerment and grace in order to obey what Jesus says.
So this book is not just a study of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a way of discovering what Jesus says so we can do what Jesus says. My intention is not to add information or advance scholarship about the Sermon on the Mount. The simple historical sketch I just gave is about as much as we need for our purposes.
What I’ve written here is different from other writings on the Sermon on the Mount. For more than two thousand years we have benefited from scholars, translators, and interpreters who have indeed debated and taken different positions on the words of Christ, yet they have been talking about the most important words we have on record of the teachings of Jesus. I believe that by using the best translations available and accept- ing that these words were written based on the oral teachings of Christ and written down for us by Matthew and Luke, we must take these words seriously as a rule of life. In fact, many Christian communities throughout the centuries have based their rules of living together on the words of this sermon.
So I’m not attempting to write a scholarly book on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m trying to provide a field manual for living the life Jesus wants for us.
This book, which includes content from a film series I did by the same name, can stand alone, or it can be used along with the DVD as a field manual for groups or individuals who want, not only to know more about the Sermon on the Mount, but also to live what it teaches.
The Sermon on the Mount is full of hard teachings, but at my core I believe Jesus wants us to live out these teachings, however imperfectly. I believe also that by living these teachings Jesus gives us incredible and abundant life. He even promises that if we practice the commands and teach others to do so, we will be called “great in the kingdom of heaven.” He says that those who hear his words and put them into practice are wise. Those who do not are foolish.
Jesus didn’t intentionally make this so hard we can’t possibly live any of these teachings. I believe the teachings are doable, but the problem is that the church has long taught that these truths are so unattainable and impractical that they’ve simply been ignored.
What G. K. Chesterton said about the Christian life is par- ticularly true about the Sermon on the Mount: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
Not only has it been found difficult and left untried, but even to suggest following the Sermon on the Mount as literally as possible—we’ll make plucking out your eyes and cutting off your hands a quick exception—appears to many as some sort of fanaticism.
I teach at a small university in Texas. Each year I stand in front of eager—and sometimes not so eager—students and teach them the truths in the Sermon on the Mount. I always have to convince them that Jesus is really serious about living this life. This isn’t “Suggestions on the Mount.” This isn’t Jesus raising the bar so high that we can only try and fail and so learn a lesson about the grace of God—though certainly that will happen over and over in our lives.
No, this is Jesus standing in the hills around Capernaum, probably overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a breeze blowing, and eager—and some not so eager—people hanging on Jesus’ words. Some wanted to catch him in theological corners and then try to paint him in. Others wanted just to be healed of diseases. Still others heard those words and believed that they could follow Jesus and do what he said.
So, here is the beginning and the end of the Sermon on the Mount: doing what Jesus says. And that’s what this book is about.
The question for us is not, “Can you do these teachings?” They are doable but not doable perfectly, so expect some failure, some resistance from yourself and others.
No, the question is, “Will you try?” This book is a field guide for those who choose to try.