Many have interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as a vision which is only applicable for the future - the distant future - and that it is an impossible dream for humanity to live by the tenets of these words and sayings. Others say it is only for a small minority who live a cloistered life separated from the daily grind of practical everyday living. They may be right, but I dont want to give up on the wisdom that is found by digging deeply into this narrative, even though the ground is hard. The Sermon on the Mount reminds me of another sermon preached from a figurative mountaintop; a sermon that was equally impossible to live fully into and a sermon familiar to most here today.
.so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
These words of Martin Luther King Jr were hard words to speak in a divided and disparate nation. A place where hatred led to murder and fear to desolation and despair. And yet when the spirit of those words took root in a persons heart, change and transformation began.
The Spirit of Justice and Mercy
The only way to have any workable understanding of these "hard sayings" of Jesus is to interpret them within the framework or the paradigm of living by the Spirit of the Law, rather than by the Letter of the Law. I quoted Alan Woods on the cover of the Order of Service last week. What he writes is helpful and I have adapted it here:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was referring to the 'letter of the Mosaic law' and then goes on to illustrate that he embodies the fulfilment of that 'law' and that now we may walk in the 'Law of the Spirit' thereby realizing the 'liberty'. He came to 'engift' humanity. So therefore in Christ, humanity is no longer subject to judgement but rather Grace as we 'abide' in the Spirit of Jesus.
That may not satisfy the legalists among us. But it does concur with the whole emphasis of the early Jesus movement. It was not legalistic, but redemptive; not punitive but compassionate; not revengeful or vindictive but forgiving and merciful. One of the guiding principles of judgment today and yesterday is that justice must always be delivered with mercy, otherwise justice will quickly become cold, calculated and merely punitive. What we read in these sayings of Jesus is a bold attempt to envision a new way for humanity to live together and move forward.
The Hard Sayings
Each saying begins the same way: You have heard that it was said .But I tell you And now comes the difficult part. The law said, dont murder; dont commit adultery; dont divorce your wife (interesting in a patriarchal society how it is only the man who can divorce his wife . but thats for another day); dont break your oath; the law says that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is okay. And finally the law may say love your neighbour, but I say love your enemy. Quite a list. But then the sting in the tail comes . But I tell you . When we think, maybe we are off the hook and we can all become "antinomians", that is those who live without the law, Jesus changes the focus from outward behaviour to the intentions of the heart. This shouldnt surprise us because this often happens in the gospel story.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean."
The intention of the heart, or the nurture and motivation of the inner life seems to be more significant to the message of Jesus than the mere observance of a moral code or even following socially acceptable behaviours.
Some may be put off by the overly strong images used in these sayings. If you have lustful thoughts about a woman (interesting no mention of women having lustful thoughts about men thats for another day) then pluck your eye out or if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off!! No! dont do that! This is hyperbole, exaggeration and overstatement. It is meant to get your attention. It is symbolic inflation and the listener in the first century knew it was not to be taken literally. Sadly, that has not been the case with some 21st Century religious groups who have deliberately used this for their own inhuman ideologies.
Loving Your Enemies
Nevertheless we must use the same approach to this next passage on loving ones enemies as we have with the other sayings. It is meant to catch your attention and turn around your way of seeing the world:
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Oscar Wilde said, Always love your enemies; nothing annoys them so much. Perhaps this is similar to forgiveness. When we live with anger and animosity toward others, we are the ones that pay the price. I also remember George Bush Jr saying, We do not talk to those who are trying to kill us. And a commentator saying, Well, perhaps they are the first people we should talk to.
I dont pretend that this is an easy statement to either understand or to live by. Turning the other cheek or loving ones enemies cannot be interpreted as weakness. It must come from a place of strength, resolve and wisdom. There is a scene in the film Mandela where he says to his compatriots in prison, We will ask for a small thing, a small freedom and then move to a greater freedom. We will ask that we can have long trousers rather than shorts. The implication was that they were to be treated as men not as boys.
Much of our interpretation of this concept rests on our interpretation of the word love. It is the biggest word we have in the Christian faith and it can be an obstacle to living into this notion of loving ones enemies. Nevertheless, it didnt stop Mahatma Gandhi from saying, Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love. Nor the journalist G.K. Chesterton from saying, The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.
Some years ago I came to the conclusion that I am not a pacifist. That is, I do believe there may be a time when I would use violent means to protect my family and those around me. But I also came to the more controversial conclusion that I would always discourage young men and women from going to war in a foreign country. But that may be me projecting this passage on to too large a canvas. As Chesterton says, why not start by loving those who I perceive as my enemy here and now and right next to me. That is what Martin Luther King Jr did. He had no trouble seeing that his enemy was also his neighbour.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day. This will be the day when all of Gods children will be able to sing with new meaning, "My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father died, land of the pilgrims pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."
One thing I do know is that while I hate those I perceive to be my enemy, I am forever bound to them. But when I can begin a process of love and forgiveness, then I am released from that which diminishes and defines me, and I experience freedom.