We are big on doing things our own way. We often say “I have the right to live my life the way I choose”. As a child, I upheld this virtuously – and often told adults “I will do it my way”. It drove adults around me nuts. And because spanking was common, back then, my wanting to do things my way often also left me smarting. Yet it never stopped me.
But isn’t “doing things our way” a norm for adult life as well? I think we all resist being told what to do and how to live. We still want to do things our way. We are big on self-will. We see this openly in childhood, but the same feeling persists and flourishes into adulthood – even if we are usually a little more subtle in how we show it.
A recent survey by a charitable organisation found that nine out of ten Britons admit that they regularly go a whole day without performing a simple act of kindness for someone else. Almost a quarter can’t remember the last time they went out of their way to show kindness to another human being. We are often self-centred. Not God-centred, or other-centred.
Perhaps this is why the Sermon on the Mount can be so unsettling. It sits uneasily with our self-will and self-centredness. It also cuts across our individualism and our desire for autonomy. We read it with the feeling that it’s a beautiful ideal – but too demanding, not practical in today’s society. But, as I said last month, the Sermon on the Mount is the Magna-Carta of the Kingdom of God. It answers the question that we, the people of God, must ask ourselves: “How then shall we live”?
The Sermon on the Mount is a call to live righteously. “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed,” says Jesus “for they shall see God”. Righteousness is the core characteristic of those who know God. A citizen of a country recognises its laws. If we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, then we need to recognise the laws of God’s Kingdom. Righteousness is about doing the right thing – following God’s norms, rather than conforming to the norms set by the world. Righteousness is being right with God, and therefore living by the values and virtues of His Kingdom.
But what does Righteousness mean?
In Matthew 5, Jesus presents the commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures: “You have heard that it was said… you shall not murder.” The disciples must have thought, as we would, “I am not a murderer… I haven’t killed anyone”. Relief, perhaps mixed with a little self-righteousness. But Jesus continues – with a “But”. A dangerous word, which changes and reinterprets what has gone before.
“But,” says Jesus, “I tell you, if you are angry… insult… call your brother or sister a fool… you are equally guilty”. That is a completely different kettle of fish. That is us. Our angry words, our bad feelings, our insults, our derogatory remarks to others – or about others. Resolving anger and bad feeling, says Jesus, takes priority – even over worship. First we must be reconciled to anyone we have fallen out with. Only then are we to come to the altar.
In the section on adultery, the stakes are even higher for a world saturated with images and pornography. “Looking and lusting” is considered “adultery”. Not just the act. In the first century Jewish world, where a husband could divorce his wife on a whim, Jesus had strong words to say to them. I suspect he would speak equally strongly to our world, where marriage is often taken lightly.
Jesus’ examples show the attitude and behaviour he requires. It is not just about outward actions – Jesus includes our inner attitudes of heart and mind. The need to live righteously before God is so vital that Jesus uses hyperbole to emphasise its importance. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out; if your right hand is causing you to sin, cut it off”. How we live – outwardly AND inwardly – is supremely important. This is why the Sermon on the Mount matters – then and now! It describes a way of life. It calls us – citizens of the Kingdom of God to make a better world – the Kingdom that Jesus brought to Earth.
Jesus was not addressing the general public – although these Kingdom values, if lived, would transform the World. God knows and loves us, and his Rule can restore and heals our broken world, broken people, broken lives, broken relationships, broken society.
Gandhi recognised this truth. When the former British Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, asked him what would solve the problems between Great Britain and India, Gandhi picked up a Bible and opened it to Matthew 5 and said: “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.”
But Jesus was addressing his followers. His disciples. And Us. The Kingdom of God he says, brings a new way of life – God’s Way – and those who choose it will see better lives and communities. Why? Because God’s Kingdom is about the two fundamental commandments: “Love God with all your heart” and “Love your neighbour as yourself”.
And this is how the early Christians attempted to live. They really did give away their goods and share their possessions. They forgave those who persecuted them. They turned the other cheek. They did good to those who cursed them. They lived out the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps that is why they had such an impact on their world, why people wanted to know Christ. Their goodness and holiness pervaded their society and stood in contrast with its norms. In Acts we read that the “Christians” turned the world upside down – overturning the norms of society, with Kingdom values. In the power of the risen Christ.
I recently met a woman – a Professor at the University of Glasgow – who took the words of Christ seriously and lived out the Sermon on the Mount. She had an open home and regularly welcomed the homeless and destitute. She cared for the weak. She had adopted a teenage Eritrean refugee off the streets of Glasgow. She and her husband had chosen to live on the national average income of £24,000. They gave the remaining £40,000 to help those in need. And she lived the life of a busy academic as well. I have no idea how she managed to do this. But even before she said a word to anyone, her life was speaking of another Kingdom, another set of values, and of Christ.
In Deuteronomy, God says: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life”. Why? “So that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God and obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you, and length of days.”
What does it mean to “choose life”? It is to choose a life of loving God and obeying Him. A bit quaint and dated, you might think. Yet the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount – God’s way of life is a better way. Choosing to hold on to anger, to nurse bitterness and hatred, to pursue immorality and sacrifice relationships is corrosive to life. Eastenders illustrates this every week, I believe. As does the news. This is why God calls us to “Choose life”.
Many illnesses today are caused by stress and tension. Emotional turmoil destroys us. Communities are destroyed, families damaged, and marriages broken. Recognising these problems, Stress Reduction classes are running at Skainos and in West Belfast. It is not surprising that many such courses address issues of anger, bitterness, lack of forgiveness, dishonesty. Would our world not be better if people embraced these powerful commandments of Jesus?
The film Trainspotting opens with John Hodges’ cynical poem, rejecting life and its meaningless choices:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big Television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electric tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage… Choose your future. Choose life.
Choose life, indeed! We have an alternative to the meaninglessness he hated. Because Choosing life, the life Christ offers, might not be easier, but it is abundant life, and life to the full.
One practical way we could live out that choice is to read the Sermon on the Mount during the coming week, with fresh eyes, and a heart that is open to hear what God says to us. And choose to live by some of its principles and values. An act of generosity or kindness. Restoring of a broken relationship. Forgiving an old hurt. Turning away from anger. Showing love to a person you dislike. And many others.
At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers a choice similar to the one offered in Deuteronomy. There are two roads – one narrow and the other broad. The broad way, the easy choice, leads to destruction – of life and community. The narrow way, which Jesus himself agrees is difficult, is the way that leads to life.
Our lives are stronger and deeper for choosing the narrow way. The principles of God’s Kingdom are beneficial for us. Beneficial for community. Beneficial for our world. We are called to “choose life”.
May God give us the grace and strength to always “Choose life”.