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Jan 13, 2019 Matthew 5:1-12 The “blessings” of Jesus’s teaching
Jan 20, 2019 Matthew 5:13-16 The disciples as salt & light
Jan 27, 2019 Matthew 5:17-20 Righteousness & the kingdom of heaven
Feb 3, 2019 Matthew 5:21-26 Doing away with anger in our hearts
Feb 10, 2010 Matthew 5:27-32 Doing away with marital unfaithfulness
Feb 17, 2019 Matthew 5:33-37 Doing away with frivolous words
Feb 24, 2019 Matthew 5:38-42 Doing away with personal retribution
Mar 3, 2019 Matthew 5:43-48 Understanding “enemies” & God’s love for all
Weds, Mar 6, 2019 Matthew 6:1-4 (Ash Wednesday) Not about our righteousness, but the needs of others
Mar 10, 2019 Matthew 6:5-15 It’s not about personal attention, but God’s will being done
Mar 17, 2019 Matthew 6:16-18 It’s not about our discomfort, but desire for God
Mar 24, 2019 Matthew 6:19-24 Having, serving, & treasuring only one, true Master
Mar 31, 2019 Matthew 6:25-34 Seeking first God’s kingdom & righteousness
Apr 7, 2019 Matthew 7:1-6 Judging ourselves before we judge others
Apr 14, 2019 Matthew 7:7-14 (Palm Sunday) Trusting the Father’s ability to give good gifts
Thurs, Apr 18, 2019 Matthew 7:15-23 (Maundy Thursday) Not every tree bears good fruit
Fri, Apr 19, 2019 Matthew 7:24-29 (Good Friday) Putting these words into practice
Nine Easy Steps to a Happy Life! (wink wink)
The secret to happiness is not as simple or universal as it is sometimes spoken about.
Everyone has heard proverbial wisdom about what will make for “the happy life,” but most—if not all—of us (including those who give the proverbial wisdom) never actually attain or maintain that happiness. And what if happiness is not what we think it is? What would God describe to us, his creatures, as true happiness?
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a large unit of teaching from Jesus traditionally called “the sermon on the mount.” It is three full chapters of material (Matt 5-7) where Jesus interacts with his disciples on Mosaic torah, ethics, and the kingdom of heaven. And, interestingly enough, it begins (5:1-12) with what we call the Beatitudes—statements about “blessing” or “happiness.”
According to Jesus, happiness is not defined by the patterns we see in this world.
In the world, it is riches, joyful experiences, power, and abundance that lead to “the happy life.” But, from God’s perspective, Jesus suggests the secret to “bliss” is actually found in spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting, purity, and persecution. It isn’t so much that his followers should seek these things out or purposely make themselves miserable, but they should recognize that, if they suffer for the things dear to God’s heart and are dissatisfied with the status quo, there is hope. God is working toward something better. There will be happiness and bliss for those who continue to live in accordance with God’s character.
So, if you want “the happy life” now, you most certainly will be disappointed. But, if you continue to follow the way of Jesus, even through all its struggles, you will find it leads you to more than you could ever have hoped for.
“Disciples Are Salt and Light”
One often goes to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to find his most famous teachings and the highest standards on ethics and morals. It is here that we read the powerful beatitudes of 5:3-12, which speak to right relationships with God and others. After these beatitudes, Jesus uses two interesting metaphors to describe those listening, one of salt, and the other of light. But who exactly is Jesus speaking to here, and what do these metaphors mean?
Just prior to this we see that Jesus is gathering to himself large crowds because of his powerful teaching and healing ministry (Matthew 4:23-25). It is from here that Jesus goes up onto a mountainside to teach, while his “disciples” come to him. There may be many people in the periphery, but this smaller, more intimate group has gathered closer to Jesus to learn from him.
It is to this group of more devout followers that Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (vs. 13, 15). Salt was used in a variety of ways in the ancient world, from seasoning and preserving food, to being used as a fertilizer. In was also connected with purity. Interestingly, Jesus goes on to say that if “salt” loses its saltiness it is good for nothing. But salt cannot really lose its chemical makeup, so what is he talking about? It seems that Jesus is saying that those who do not live out the values of God’s kingdom are as useless as salt that does not do its job.
The other metaphor, light, was an image used often in Scripture and other ancient literature for truth, goodness, and purity. In 5:14-15 Jesus explains that the light coming from a city at night, or from a lamp in a dark room, cannot be hidden if a person lets that light shine and does not hinder it. In other words, no wise person hides a light. Thus, in v. 16 he tells them plainly that they should let their light shine so that others may see their good works and so glorify God.
All in all, Jesus is calling his true disciples to 1) be pure, living out the values and ethics of the kingdom of heaven, and 2) to engage the world while maintaining a godly influence. This remains true for us today as well! Are you being the salt and light that God calls you to be?
Wait, Jesus Set the Bar How High?
There is a distinct difference between an amateur and a professional in any given area of life.
Whereas an amateur may dabble in a sport, improve in a pastime, or even excel amongst his small pool of colleagues, a professional takes it to the next level. A professional hones her craft, learns the ins-and-outs of her field, knows where the shortcuts are and knows how to bend the rules to her advantage. A professional sets the standard for all others to follow.
In Jesus’s day, the religious professionals were the Pharisees and the teachers of the Mosaic Torah. And yet Jesus came along, uneducated in their rabbinical schools, calling his own disciples and teaching about the kingdom of heaven. One day, as crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan began to follow him, he called his disciples aside, went up the side of a mountain, and sat down to teach them. And, one of the first things he taught was, unless the righteousness of his disciples surpassed the righteousness of the Pharisees—the religious professionals—they wouldn’t even enter the kingdom of heaven. That seems like an incredibly high bar to set, especially for a bunch of amateurs.
But there is a distinct difference between following Jesus or bending the rules.
It seems the religious professionals had gotten away from the heart of God’s Torah, and, as was easier, began bending the rules to their own advantage. Jesus, on the other hand, demanded that his followers not make the same mistake. This will get fleshed out in the verses which follow, but, for the sake of this passage, it certainly brings up an important question to ask ourselves:
Are we a community that simply follows our Constitution and By-laws, who meet our program goals and annual budgets? Or are we a community that deeply wants to faithfully follow Jesus as Lord? This requires committing to God’s instruction, teaching it to others, and aligning with God’s kingdom over every other human allegiance. Are we willing to do that, or do we just want the easier way?
What the Incredible Hulk Teaches Us
One of the strangest “good guys” in the history of comics has to be the Incredible Hulk.
It’s hard to technically define him as a hero—he doesn’t rationalize, doesn’t make moral choices, doesn’t even use his “super powers” for good, he just kind of gives in to the emotion of anger and destroys a lot of things. Fortunately, he tends to thwart the plans of the “bad guys” while he’s wreaking havoc, but he also leaves a lot of collateral damage in his wake. As such, it’s hard to support a kid who tells you he wants to grow up to be just like the Incredible Hulk.
However, one of the more realistic aspects of the Hulk comic, in all its exaggeration, is its depiction of anger and its effects. Human beings are a complex web of emotions, and anger is a real part of our daily lives. In fact, if we don’t have control over our anger, we can easily find that it destroys everything around us.
In Jesus’s teachings, he examined the full range of the human experience. One of the ways he did this was by expounding on themes within the Torah. He would take these themes and press them toward a “higher righteousness” (Matt 5:20) because he believed the common interpretations of his day missed the heart of God. One such example was the issue of murder (5:21). Whereas the Torah taught simply that “You shall not murder,” Jesus pressed it further to show how our anger destroys our relationships and imprisons ourselves. Neither of these brings joy to God, so Jesus used vivid examples to demonstrate how we should do everything in our power to reconcile with those around us (5:23-26).
While David Bruce Banner had to struggle to find a cure for his transmutation into the Hulk, we have the Holy Spirit and the way of the cross. So let us keep instep with Jesus and strive for the higher righteousness. And, instead of destroying things in our anger, let us restore relationships for the glory of God and his kingdom.
Love the One You’re With
The “higher righteousness” Jesus taught was a corrective to modern interpretations of Torah and a description of discipleship for all who would follow him.
Like Moses on Sinai, Jesus taught his followers from a “mountainside” (Matt 5:1) about what the Torah—God’s instruction—meant. Last week, we saw how he explained the sixth commandment—“You shall not murder”—was not just about physical death, but about our hearts, about anger, and about how our hatred and divisions with one another bring about death in relationships (5:21-22). He therefore gave vivid examples of forgiving and reconciling with each other before a time of judgment from God (5:23-26).
This week, he takes that same standard of a “higher righteousness” and applies it to the seventh commandment—“You shall not commit adultery.”
At the heart of the marital covenant is a relationship based upon a human promise, a promise about fidelity and care. Jesus identified two things from the Mosaic teachings that undermine that relationship: adultery and divorce. Like murder, adultery is more than just a physical act, it is about our hearts, our lust, and about how our lack of fidelity creates divisions that bring death into our relationships (5:27-28). And divorce, by its very definition, also divides relationships and carries consequences forward into future relationships (5:31-32). To drive the point home, Jesus again gave vivid examples about the possibility of judgment before God (5:29-30).
These teachings were not meant to be impossible or oppressive, but to honor God, uphold each other’s dignity, and be a light to the world around us. So be loving. Be righteous. Be faithful. In the name of Jesus.
“Be Careful What You Say”
When a couple gets married, they typically exchange vows before they are officially wed. Sometimes the vows come from a book of worship and sometimes are they written by the couple. They can rhyme or be in the form of a poem. They can be serious, or they can be humorous. Either way, vows are meant to express the love and devotion that two people have for each other, and what they promise to give to one another in the years to come. They pave the way for how the couple wants their relationship to look in future, no matter what happens.
Like wedding vows, the ancient Jewish culture also took vows, or oaths. It was a pledge and transaction between a person and God, in which that person dedicated themselves, their services, or something valuable to God. There were two basic types of vows, those in which a promise was made with the expectation that you would receive divine favor (i.e. Jacob – Gen. 28 and Hannah – 1 Sam. 11), and voluntary, self-imposed vows in which a promise was made to achieve better character or reach certain goals (the Nazirite vow – Num. 6). Many times, these vows related to certain offerings and sacrifices at the temple. These vows were not commanded by God, but if they were made, they were binding in almost all cases, especially when God’s name was invoked (Num. 30:2, Deut. 23:21-23, cf. Lev. 19:12).
In Jesus' day the Pharisees, who were very concerned at keeping the rules the regulations that governed daily life, were following Jewish traditions more than God’s law. They made a great show of their devotion to God, but often found clever loopholes in the system and majored on minors, missing the truth purpose and intent of the law. According to them, some vows were binding while others were not (see Matt. 15:1-20, c.f. Matt. 23). A person could swear by a lesser thing than God, and so get out of an oath. Therefore, Jesus tells his disciples in Matt. 5:33-37 that they should refrain from making any vows, because they could become an occasion to deceive and to bring false testimony against God. Jesus wanted truthfulness first and foremost.
It is not wrong to promise something, but if you do, be faithful to it. Tell the truth in all circumstances so that you honor God, yourself, and others.
Do unto Others What They Would Do to You…or Not?
There is a famous quote which says, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
While there is truth to this sentiment, it is still difficult to not want some kind of deterent for those who would harm us. If the punishment isn’t capable of fitting the crime, it could easily embolden criminals toward more extreme behavior—after all, what’s preventing them from such? So, while we may not want “an eye for an eye,” it seems like we need it in order to maintain civility within society.
And yet, even with compensatory punishments, society still seems to get worse. It’s almost as if sin continues to corrupt the human heart regardless of what measures are in place to restrain it. Even more, sometimes the sin in our hearts uses the very laws that are there to protect us to instead give us leverage over our enemies. In other words, sometimes “an eye for an eye” can actually promote vengeance instead of justice.
There is a beatitude from Jesus which states, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9).
It seems Jesus understood in his day that retaliation will not actually break the cycle of violence, nor will it always deter crime, nor will it necessarily right what was wronged. Instead, Jesus taught the true way to break the power of sin and violence is through an unwavering trust in God’s ability to judge, and an extreme commitment to kindness. While this perfectly foreshadows Jesus’s sacrificial love which he would ultimately pour out at the cross (Matt 27), it also helps us begin to think about our relationships with those we would label “enemies” (a theme he will touch on in the next passage).
So, as we ponder more deeply what it means to follow Jesus, let us choose the way of love. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but it will move us one step closer toward the kingdom of heaven.
How Much Love Is Enough?
On the mountainside, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for what it means to truly follow him and become kingdom citizens (Matt 5:1-2).
While that certainly seems like a goal we should all be aspiring toward, Jesus spends much of his teaching challenging our expectations and the way we view the world. He closes his opening monologue—the beatitudes—with the statement, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (5:11). Though that doesn’t seem to fit our definition of the “happy life,” it does begin to reorient our thinking. Jesus then follows with a call to be salt and light (5:13-16), something he apparently defines in his discussion about true righteousness (5:17-20) and the heart-meaning behind God’s Torah (5:21-42). All of these interpretations reveal to us our own attitudes, and how anger, lust, broken relationships, frivolous words, and personal retribution lead us down paths to destruction. These also pave the way for arguably Jesus’s most difficult teaching: “love your enemies” (5:44).
While most of us may want to love others, we find it is easier said than done. But Jesus presses it further: what good is it if you only love those who love you (5:46)? Instead, Jesus’s teaching on turning the other cheek (5:39-42) opens the door for rethinking our definition of “enemy” and the vastness of God’s love. This point seems to be solidified by the final verse of this chapter: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). If we then want to follow Jesus and be citizens of God’s kingdom, we need to love God and his ways, and best model those ways in this world. Thus, if God’s love is so expansive, can we, as mere mortals, ever love enough?
You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but your conclusion should be a resounding “No.”
While Your One Hand Isn’t Looking
In the so-called “sermon on the mount” (Matt 5-7), Jesus, like Moses, teaches torah to his followers.
After he resets our expectations for where God’s blessings or divine favor lie (5:1-12), calls us to be salt and light (5:13-16), and warns of our need to have a surpassing righteousness compared to the religious upper-class (5:17-20), he then expounds on different Mosaic commands (5:21-48), culminating with the teaching to “love your enemies” (5:44). Jesus seems to think that, as his followers, we should return to a deep love of God and one another as we had at the beginning of creation.
When Matthew’s Gospel advances to chapter 6, Jesus now focuses on three of the main practices of Jewish piety, beginning with almsgiving, or giving to the needy (6:1-4).
While plenty of people gave to the poor in Jewish society, Jesus challenged their motive. Those he called “hypocrites” (probably still the religious upper-class he spoke against in chapter 5) apparently gave in order to attract attention to themselves, thus using their charity as a means to increase their own social status. Jesus teaches, however, that giving is not about our own personal attention but about the needs of others. Therefore, to give for accolades from our peers fulfills itself in this earthly realm but doesn’t increase our standing—or relationship—with God. In order not to be tempted away from our relationship with God, Jesus satirically suggests we develop the skill of giving with one hand while the other has no idea what we just did.
As we begin the season of Lent, there will be plenty of opportunities to give alms or be more charitable. Instead of letting each other know how generous we’re being, maybe we should just focus on God, learn to love those who need our benevolence, and pray for the coming of God’s kingdom.
Private Conversations Between a Father & His Children
As we contemplate prayer, it can be very easy to draw the wrong conclusions.
Prayer is not to get what we want, to practice speaking a foreign language, or to impress bystanders. Prayer is simply a conversation with our loving Creator-God.
When Jesus was teaching his disciples from the mountainside, prayer was one of the topics he addressed. He did so in a greater dialogue about righteousness. The majority of Matthew 5 (vv. 21-48) was about righteousness as it applied to the Torah; the “You have heard that it was said, but I tell you…” formula. Then, in chapter 6, Jesus began teaching about righteousness in the public sphere of everyday religious activity; the “Do not be like the hypocrites” formula. All of this teaching addresses the danger of practicing our righteousness before others merely to gain their approval (6:1). By doing so, we miss the blessing of God. Instead, Jesus is calling us into a more intimate relationship with our heavenly Father.
The prayer that Jesus taught was simple in its design. It addressed God’s authority and reign (6:9-10), our physical needs (v. 11), our spiritual needs (v. 12), and our protection (v. 13). Jesus taught this prayer to contrast what the “hypocrites” were doing; namely, not trusting in God’s desire and ability to provide (v. 8), and having an unforgiving attitude toward others (vv. 14-15).
Perhaps the best way, then, for us to think about prayer is like children walking into our Father’s room to have a private conversation with him. We aren’t just talking to others about our heart’s desires; we aren’t just talking about God, as if he isn’t there; we’re actually talking to him—trusting that he hears, trusting that he loves us and wants our best, and trusting that he has the power to act on our behalf.
“Getting at the Heart of Fasting”
I might be going out on a limb here, but I'm guess that most people do not like to think about, talk about, or practice the act of fasting. Who likes to feel their stomachs growl because they are not able to eat what they enjoy? We need food to give us energy and life, so why do we even try to practice it in the first place? While fasting doesn't always seem relevant in the 21st century, it has been practiced by many for thousands of years. There must be a reason for this, especially for us as Christians.
In the Old Testament there was a one required fast day per year for the Jewish people, the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). This was a time in which the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to atone for all the sins of Israel. Other fasts were also practiced, though not required, and they were used as a sign of repentance, for seeking God’s mercy, and for mourning. The point of these fasts was not just to discipline the body, but also to humble the hearts and souls of the people before the LORD their God. Fasting was an important part of the lives of faithful Jews.
By the 1st century CE, fasting was still an important practice for various people, like the Pharisees (Luke 18:2), John's disciples (Mark 2:18), the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:37), and later on, believers in the early Church (Acts 13, 14). Even Jesus fasted (Matt. 4:2). Yet, some were doing it for the right reasons and with the right heart, while others were not. Jesus tells those listening to him on the mountainside that when they choose to fast, they are not to be like the hypocrites. The hypocrites are those who neglect their appearance so that others will take notice of them. Jesus says that the praise and attention they receive from doing this is all the reward they are going to get (6:16).
On the other hand, true disciples of Jesus will do their best to look and act normal when they fast so that people will not take notice of them. Jesus is getting at the issue of the human heart. When someone fasts before God, they are to do it with humility, knowing that the Father sees past all attempts of vain glory. He looks at the motives of the heart and will reward those who fast before him with true righteousness and reverence.
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