the greatest command
In Jesus’s day he was asked by an expert on their Bible, what was the greatest of all of the commands of God gave the Israelites. This is no simple question. There were hundreds of laws he could have chosen from, ranging from the obscure to the hyper spiritual. In his response he would reveal who he was and what he said about to do. “He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:37-40 CEB) This must of sent shockwaves of frustration and doubt to his original listeners as it does to our modern ears too. Let’s be honest, we like having easy to understand instructions and everything end happily ever after. However, this response sort of sounds like a lazy response to a powerful question, or rather a first century click bait. It is like if someone were to ask best selling author and physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking, what the craziest thing that happens in our world and he replies with a robotic sigh and then saying in his famous voice, “breath.” I can only imagine the outrage of his audience, but once the dust settled and knee jerk statuses are posted, we can see the comfort and conflict that comes from this statement. Some people find it easier to love God than their neighbor, or have a deeper love for their fellow human being than the creator of the universe. Jesus is saying that both are interwoven and cannot be separated. Not only are they intertwined, but every single one of the commands and instructions given in the Bible depends on them.
This conundrum has plagued my thoughts for my entire life. As a boy, I wanted to know why in all my attempts to love God through my thoughts and actions, I still pulled on my older sister’s hair. Or, by deeply loving other people, it didn’t seem like I was loving God. I was able to place my love for God and all my spiritual or religious activities on a nicely organized shelf, while loving others was more messy and painful than I could contain. This tension is felt in all areas of my life. As a teacher, I see it with my students and staff, everyone wants to be accepted and loved. When I think about my responsibilities as a husband, I am reminded of the challenges and rewards of loving the woman I have chosen to love more than anyone on this earth. Finally, as parents of an active and loving daughter rapidly approaching her second birthday, this conundrum is always in my mind. My wife and I want our daughter to be filled with love for Jesus, but also the people she surrounds herself with. Every area of life is filled with people who need love and whose love I want in return.
an old remedy
For the past couple of months, I’ve been slowly re-reading Jesus’ manifesto on what it looks like to live out a love for God and others. In my opinion, these two chapters of scripture are overlooked and misunderstood by today’s American church. Jesus’ words bring comfort for the hurt and hurt the comfortable of his day and ours too. Two authors I have come to respect and enjoy their thoughts had to say this about it:
“Whether the Sermon is relevant to modern life or not can be judged only by a detailed examination of its contents. What is immediately striking is that, however it came to be composed, it forms a wonderfully coherent whole. It depicts the behaviour which Jesus expected of each of his disciples, who is also thereby a citizen of God’s kingdom. We see him as he is in himself, in his heart, motives and thoughts, and in the secret place with his Father. We also see him in the arena of public life, in his relations with his fellow men, showing mercy, making peace, being persecuted, acting like salt, letting his light shine, loving and serving others (even his enemies), and devoting himself above all to the extension of God’s kingdom and righteousness in the world.”- John Stott
”If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”-Kurt Vonnegut
In the next 9 weeks, I am going to be sharing reflections and thoughts on this important message Jesus originally spoke thousands of years ago, but still speaks today. I’ve been studying these words with a variety of men and women whose perspectives I share and am challenged by. I think this will be encouraging to everyone. For those of us who have been hurt by the church, those thriving in the church, the doubters, the faithful, dechurched, churched, sinners, saints, and everyone in between. For centuries, there has been a debate on how to interpret the sermon, ranging from viewing them as what the world will look like when Jesus returns to guidelines for ministers and how they are to conduct themselves. The more research I do, the excitement to share my findings with others increases. In summary, these chapters are a practical ways to live out what Jesus said was the greatest commandments.
I’m going to be using 3 translations throughout this study. By no means do I think these are the absolute best translations, but they each of their own merits and combined make the scriptures come more alive.
Common English Bible (CEB) (http://www.commonenglishbible.com/explore)
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) (http://www.hcsb.org/about/)
One of the biggest lies that Christians believe is that their faith is to be kept private. However, this belief is not taught by Jesus, as he tells those listening to his words, they are to be like salt and light. Salt enhances whatever it is placed in and light illuminates the darkness around it. Read with me and post your thoughts on the passage. We learn best from hearing from all sides of an opinion, before reaching our own. Because there will be views different from your own, keep your comments charitable. One author put it this way, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying” (CEB)
“When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He began to teach them, saying” (HCSB)
“When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said” (MSG)
commentary (The Setting of Jesus’ Sermon (5:1-2), from The IVP New Testament Commentary Series)
Various features of the setting contribute to Matthew’s portrait of Jesus.
First, “mountain” settings in Matthew are usually significant (17:1; compare 15:29; 28:16; although Moses is not alluded to in 4:8). Many scholars think that Matthew probably recalls Moses’ revelation on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:3) here. If so, Jesus’ superior revelation also makes him superior to those who “sit in Moses’ seat” (Mt 23:2); the One greater than Moses, first encountered in 2:13-20, has begun his mission.
Second, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ teaching is appropriate. That Jesus sat to teach (5:1; compare 13:1-2; 23:2) fits expected patterns of Jewish instruction (see also Lk 4:20). Thus Jesus takes the role of the scribes, but Matthew also indicates that Jesus is greater than the scribes (Mt 7:29).
Finally, Jesus’ audience is also relevant to Matthew’s point. Jesus’ ethics specifically address disciples, but Jesus also invites those who are not disciples to become disciples and live according to the values of God’s kingdom. The crowds following Jesus (4:25-5:1) function as at least potential disciples; disciples in the Gospel provide models for later believers (Guelich 1982:53). Matthew explicitly indicates that Jesus taught his disciples (5:1-2) but also that the crowds were present (5:1; 7:28-8:1), implying that Jesus wanted both to hear, calling both to decision (7:24-27; see Guelich 1982:60).
One of my earliest memories is hearing that Matthew’s account of the words and life of Jesus was intended for a Jewish audience. It makes sense then, before Jesus gives his new commands, there is a parallel of another key moment involving a mountain. The original mountain story involved Moses climbing to speak with God and God shielding Moses from seeing him face to face. This time, the barrier between humanity and God is removed, because of Jesus. Jesus removed the barrier once and for all, but while he walked this earth, he allowed those who approached him to come, listen and be transformed. Jesus’ invitation extends today, as he bids us to come to him and find rest. Come and you’ll find living waters for your parched souls. Come to me and I will not turn you away. How appropriate is it that before Jesus begins his lengthy discourse, he does not use his status to make it harder to hear from God. Instead, he lets those who seek him to come and sit with him as he teaches what I’m sure was an unexpected and challenging message for all of his listeners to hear.