This past Sunday I made a few points about The Sermon on the Mount that you may not have heard before. Let me summarize, and then offer additional resources for reading and reflection if you want to dig more deeply into these ideas.
- The Sermon on the Mount is not just an abstract spiritual teaching; rather Jesus is speaking directly to the crowds and his disciples about the problems and pitfalls of Israel in his day. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ political manifesto.
- Five percent of the Jewish population were wealthy and tied into the Roman system of domination and exploitation. As such, many (not all) religious leaders made themselves wealthy and powerful off of exploiting and oppressing the vast majority of Jews.
- Most Israelites in Jesus’ day lived in abject poverty; hand to mouth sustenance farmers and laborers. Many of Jesus’ parables assume (and detail) this situation. Jesus was a part of this destitute majority. He was homeless and relied on others to take care of him.
- Jesus ‘fulfills’ the law – Torah and Prophets (what we call the Old Testament) – by demonstrating in his life and teaching what it was all about. The dominant way religious leaders of his day taught and lived the law was to break it down into “Heavy” and “Light” commands. They ‘used’ the law to consolidate their own power in Jerusalem- and- to keep the poor and non-elite ‘outside’ the circle of blessing and prosperity. Basically: many religious leaders ‘used’ the law in Jesus’ day to hurt others and help themselves.
- Jesus says the law was intended to be understood as loving justice for the sake of others, NOT religious/economic oppression at the expense of others. This is one MAJOR reason Jesus made the religious leaders of his day so angry: he exposed the religious/economic/political racket they were running- and- gave another way of being a faithful Jew to the 95%.
- So – the righteousness that ‘exceeds’ that of the scribes and Pharisees ISN’T trying harder to do better; rather, it is a righteousness (or justice- they are the same word in Greek) that helps and empowers and blesses and loves other people. Jesus contends for a loving justice for the sake of others: THAT’S the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes.
- People still use God and religion today to consolidate their own power, to subjugate and oppress other people, to perpetuate injustice and economic inequality in the name of God. We’ve replaced loving justice for the sake of others with selfish rights at the expense of others. We want to hear and receive Jesus’ teaching as a call to repentance together.
If you’d like to learn more about how to see the Sermon on the Mount this way here are a few resources I’d recommend:
- Mike Erre’s “Vox Podcast” has a series on The Sermon on the Mount you can access the first episode here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/253-neither-right-nor-left-nor-religious/id1049250910
I’m learning a lot from Black theologians about how to read the Sermon on the Mount. Here are two books that have helped me tremendously:
- The Politics of Jesus, by Obery Hendricks, Jr.
- Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman
As always we welcome dialogue and thoughtful engagement on these things. We need the entire Body of Christ to live faithfully in these challenging times.
God’s grace and peace be with you all,