The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount begins with the beatitudes, the "blessed" statements of Jesus-- blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God, blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. In the beatitudes we encounter the qualities of the kingdom citizen, the character of the kingdom citizen that Jesus expects his follows to embody in their own lives. And it's an upside down kind of wisdom from the so-called conventional wisdom of the ways of the world. To be poor in spirit, to be poor in anything in our world is not a good thing. To be meek or gentle is not the way to get ahead in this world. In fact, it seems that the only persons who inherit the earth are those with the most resources and power. And the pure in heart might see God, but purity seems to be no fun to many who live for the weekend. And the peacemakers? In my experience the peacemakers are called all kinds of things, but the children of God is not one of them.
If one reads the Sermon on the Mount and is not made uncomfortable and I mean really uncomfortable by Jesus' words, then one has either attained perfection or they truly have not truly read it. In the Sermon on the Mount, the contrast between Jesus' vision and our way of life as disciples is all too often obviously revealed. If one reads the history of Christian interpretation of Jesus' sermon, we often try to find ways to read it to soften its demands on us. Many years ago, in a discussion with a fellow pastor, he informed me that all that stuff Jesus taught us in Matthew 5-7 was not for the present, but for the coming millennial kingdom. I'm still trying to picture Jesus' hearers on that day walking away saying to one another, "We don't have to bother with what he said. His teachings are for other people long after we're all dead."
Yes, it is true that all too often Christians have attempted to soften the blow of Jesus' demands so as to make them more palatable to the way life is instead of taking Jesus' words seriously so that we might capture Jesus' vision of what might be in the here and now in the present. Pinchas Lapide was an Orthodox Jewish scholar who wrote a brief commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Here is how he described Christian attempts to blunt the sharp force of Jesus' words:
In fact, the history of the impact of the Sermon on the Mount can largely be described in terms of an attempt to domesticate everything in it that is shocking, demanding, and uncompromising, and render it harmless.Jesus' words in Matthew are instructive for how disciples are to live in the world, but they also serve as an indictment on how the church has fallen woefully short of those words; and indeed I would say subverted Jesus' words. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are themselves quite subversive, but all too often Christians have subverted the subversive by watering down Jesus' instructions to make them much less challenging and more palatable for settling into life in the world. When that happens, the Sermon on the Mount becomes an indictment of the church. Perhaps, it is best simply to quote basketball coach, the late Dean Smith, "The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars."(1)
Before we dismiss the upside down, counter-conventional wisdom of the beatific character of those who are "the blessed," Jesus moves immediately from the beatitudes (the character of the disciples) to the implications of how that character is displayed in the here and now.
'You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.'
'You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.' (5:13-16)In other words, before we can dismiss the character of the kingdom citizen as some ideal that cannot possibly be embraced today, Jesus immediately insists that such character means something significant for the here and now. "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." Notice the present tense. Jesus does not say, "You will be the salt of the earth," or "You will be the light of the world." You are to be now what salt is for bringing out the distinctive flavor of food and what light is for the dark shadows of life.
The beatific character embodied by the followers of Jesus is to be displayed by their very existence in the world. It is no accident that the Lectionary readings from the Sermon on the mount coincide with Paul's discussion of divine wisdom in 1 Corinthians. The divine wisdom of which Paul speaks is not something other-worldly with no connection to this world. On the contrary, it's the only wisdom that can save this world. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling his followers that his wisdom from above is absolutely essential if they are to witness to the saving and transforming work of God here below in the world.
God had called his people Israel to be the salt of the earth to be a preservative for the world, to keep the world from going bad by modelling the good ways of God. We must not forget that the most important use of salt in Jesus' day was as a preservative. The problem was, to quote Tom Wright,
Israel was behaving like everyone else, with its power politics, its factional squabbles, its militant revolutions. How could God keep the world from going bad if Israel, his chosen "salt," had lost its distinctive taste?
On Israel being the light of the world, Wright continues.
In the same way, God called Israel to be the light of the world. Israel was the people through whom God intended to shine his bright light into the darkest places of the world to enable people to find their way. But what if the people called to be the light-bearers had become part of the darkness? That was Jesus' warning-- and also is challenge. Jerusalem, the city set on a hill, was supposed to be a beacon of hope to the world. The people of God were to be like that... their deep heartfelt keeping of God's laws would be a sign to the nations around that the one God, the creator, the God of Israel was God indeed, and that they should worship this God.(2)And if God's people, if Jesus' people are not salt and light they are called to be, if we do not embrace in our lives the beatific, the blessed character of divine wisdom from above, we will be unable to bear witness to the ways of God here below.
The beatific, the blessed character of Jesus' disciples is essential for the salvation of the world. No, we are not the world's Saviors, only Jesus is the world's Savior. Jesus alone can fix the world, but we are the messengers in word and in deed of that salvation.
The Sermon on the Mount is for the followers of Jesus in the here and now. It's words will either make Christians better disciples or better liars.
(1) These quotes were taken from Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount: The Story of God Commentary.
(2) Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15.
Instruction and Indictment: The Sermon on the Mount and Discipleship-- Introduction