We’re continuing to hear the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve heard it the last few Sundays and will hear it again next Sunday, the last before Lent.
The Sermon on the Mount is found in chs. 5 to 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. It comes at the beginning of Jesus’ public life – a great statement. Along with the Last Discourse, given in the Upper Room at the end of his public life, it is the longest single piece of Jesus’ teaching that we have. It contains the Beatitudes, the great six antitheses Jesus proposes – ‘You have heard it was said…but I say to you’ (we hear 2 of them today) – the Lord’s Prayer, and more. Here he is, seated on a grassy hillside overlooking the Lake of Galilee. Here he is, giving his version of the Law given centuries before to the people of Israel through Moses. Here he is, speaking as the new Moses and speaking as the Lord.
Whether we’re Christian or not, this is an extraordinary moment in the ethical and religious history of mankind. Something new comes into the world through these words – something far more new than comes, say, from any scientific revolution or discovery. And the strange thing is, it remains new. It’s new because it’s different. It’s always different to the way we would naturally moralise ourselves, to the wisdom of the world. It takes us another way.
The world has three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I think it’s true and quite respectful to say that both Judaism and Islam offer their followers a definite way of life, a set of precepts, all of them doable and teachable, thanks to which it’s possible to live in obedience to God. But the way of Jesus is different. It isn’t so measured. It isn’t so doable. It’s got a wildness in it. From a natural point of view it often seems crazy. It talks about losing your life, giving up possessions, loving your enemies, praying for people who persecute you, asking for more when they attack you, forgiving them over and over again. It asks us to invest everything in a mysterious kingdom of God. It says if you want to be happy, then be poor, be gentle, be mournful. Doubtless, there are echoes of the Old Testament here and parallels with other great systems of human wisdom. Nor is our Lord throwing reason and moderation out of the window; if only it was that simple! But there is something else here, isn’t there? An extravagance. Recently their Master-General wrote to the Dominicans asking them, ‘What are you doing to make people think you’re mad?’
The paradox is that this madness will keep us sane.
We have to try and understand what Jesus is saying. At the heart of everything he taught was the coming of the Kingdom. He was sent to bring it. And through his death and resurrection he has. The kingdom of God is among us – under siege, in mystery, awaiting its final manifestation. And the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s vision of life under the kingship of God. He’s affirming principles and illustrating them. He’s appealing to the moral imagination. He’s picturing attitudes and behaviour that will shine out in us as the kingdom, the reign, of God, becomes a reality in us. He is giving us the chance to be like him – because the kingdom is first and foremost himself.
Today’s passage has two paragraphs.
First, ‘You have learnt how it was said, Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance.’ Don’t retaliate! What is Jesus saying here? Is he saying, Be pacifists or masochists, or never denounce evil, never protest, never demand justice? Is he giving evil carte blanche, as it were? I don’t think so. What he’s envisioning is another response, other than eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Don’t, he says, lock yourself in the logic of getting your own back, getting even. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. These aren’t rules, they’re appeals to the imagination, to think differently. He’s saying, be a place where violence ends. Don’t just repeat it, re-enact it, mirror it. Don’t just hand it back or hand it on to the next generation. Let evil show how limited it is. Let it exhaust itself, burn itself out. Be a place where it ends, where it dies – as I was in my Passion. I let evil come upon me and I died of it. But the paradox is, it died and I rose. The paradox is that his ‘mad’ method of overcoming evil is more effective than our sane one.
Then, ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’. More craziness. Who wants to be perfect anyway? And perfectly what? Perfectly clean, perfectly dressed, perfectly polite, perfectly politically correct? Perfectly serene, perfectly rational, always and everywhere? I don’t think so! But the Greek word for ‘perfect’ – teleios – comes from the word for end or ‘goal’ or purpose, telos. Jesus is saying, have the same goal, same outlook, same intention as your Father in heaven who causes his sun to rise and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. He’s saying, ‘Aim higher, friends’. The tax-collectors aim at money, a good salary, the Greeks aim at a pleasant social coexistence. Aim higher! Think God. He’s appealing to the imagination again. Look at his sun and his rain! That light, that water is for everyone. If we are his, if we become children of such a Father, this is how we will love – ‘hating no-one’ as St Benedict says, light and water, warmth and refreshment for anyone.
And this is always new. Take the recent law voted by the Belgian parliament permitting euthanasia for children. It will have seemed so rational, so sane, so compassionate to those who voted for it. But it’s mad and bad. It’s a failure of the moral imagination. It’s taking away the light of life and the water of life from the most vulnerable. Jesus the madman says, be like my Father, cherish every life from conception to natural death. Granted, Jesus’ way isn’t there to make us happy and successful in the ordinary sense; Jesus’ way isn’t there to solve every social and political problem. It’s incomprehensible without the Kingdom, without eternity. But Jesus’ madness on the Galilean hillside, Jesus’ extravagance, will make for a far saner healthier world than all the world’s false sanity.
So, how do we live the Sermon on the Mount? By falling madly in love with the Son of God. The more we’re his through faith, through grace, through the Eucharist, the more we’ll have his heart, his mind, the more we’ll be sons and daughters of the Father. May the Holy Spirit help us!
(With thanks to Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis for the inspiration of his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew).