Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

Matthew’s gospel chapter 8.
So moving on from Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’, we come to chapter 8 which begins with:

“When Jesus had come down from the mountain….”

My aim in this blog is to re-discover Jesus the wisdom teacher. I am not trying to write a general commentary on the gospels so the three healing stories that Matthew tells here (chapter 8 verses 1 – 17) are, for me, an interlude. I wonder if Matthew had Moses in mind when he composed these verses. When Moses came down from the mountain on which he had received the ten commandments he was confronted with problems which had developed amongst the Israelites while he was up there for forty days (see Exodus chapter 31:18 and chapter 32). Perhaps Matthew saw the ‘sermon on the mount’ as the new commandment of love and now here’s Jesus as the new Moses responding to the crises he encounters.

Anyway, sticking to my overall plan, I can skip to verses 18 – 22 which include these startling words in response to a scribe who says he wants to follow Jesus:

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

And to someone described as a disciple who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies:

Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

Is Jesus being hard hearted here? I think not. I think this is the good news, the gospel, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. If the bereaved son or daughter thinks that following Jesus involves dropping all responsibility they have misunderstood the message. The time to follow Jesus is always now. Get that right and all one’s responsibilities take on an entirely new dimension. Elsewhere (Matthew chapter 22) Jesus tells us the parable of guests invited to a banquet who all begin to offer excuses. The crucial message is: I do not necessarily have to change what I am doing. It’s the way I am doing it that is profoundly changed when I have discovered how to follow Jesus. The banquet the guests are refusing to attend (the kingdom of God as it is called in the gospels) is always here and now. If I refuse the invitation I am saying, this is not the way I want to live my life. I am deaf to the message of Jesus, blind to the possibilities that his way of living opens up. No thanks, I’m too busy. I’m more concerned with my future, too burdened with responsibilities to follow you at this moment.

Now, why does the storm on the lake story follow on from the verses I have just been looking at and what about the story after that: the Gadarene demoniacs? I cannot possibly know what the author of Matthew’s gospel was thinking but I assume that he (she?) had reasons for arranging the stories in this particular order. For me personally the sequence makes sense. Jesus tells the grieving disciple to get the funeral arrangements in the right perspective. When the storm swamps the boat he tells his followers to have faith. When the mentally deranged Gadarenes come charging up to him yelling at him, the healing Presence of Jesus brings stillness and calm to them. People who have discovered the ‘Power of Now’, who practice the contemplative way of life, are not exempt from life’s trials and suffering but they are not swamped by them. What goes on in my head can be scary. What goes on around me in the world can sometimes threaten to swamp me. The good news is that the more I practice the way of Jesus the more these events and situations do not disturb the depths of the lake that is me. The surface may be very rough. The deeps are always still.

Advertisements

Know-it-all

Matthew chapter 7 verses 24 to 27:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock…….”

This morning as I sit to write this post it feels as if the rain is falling, the floods are rising and the wind is blowing. I won’t bore you with the personal details; just to say that I am thinking, who am I to be writing stuff about spirituality when I am feeling like this? The other temptation when I am feeling like this is to look around for help. Maybe, I should re-read that book, visit that church to pray, talk to that person ……?

The uncomfortable truth is that I am a ‘know-it-all’ – a phrase normally used in a critical way about bores who think they know everything. But in the spiritual life there does come a point at which being a ‘know-it-all’ is good. Finding yet another inspirational book, or speaker, or retreat centre can become an escape, a failure to act on what I know. What I need to know, or rather to remember, is that my house is built on rock; that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’; that there is ‘nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God’. This is what I forget too often and, of course, inspirational books and people do help me to remember. However, eventually I have to recognise that getting more knowledge won’t help. I am talking about  head knowledge. What I know in my head has to become stuff that I experience at a gut level, almost literally in my body. I re-member it, re-embody it and that is a process that can only happen from moment to moment. Perhaps this re-membering, this re-embodying, is the narrow gate through which Jesus says we must pass into the kingdom.

When J. S. Bach wrote his cantata ‘Ich habe genug (I have enough) he had in mind the old man Simeon who according to Luke’s Gospel, took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, in effect, ‘now I’m happy to die because I’ve seen all I need to see.’ (Luke 2: 29) You can hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the cantata at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSTDibqXuGo

So, at the end of this series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount you could say, “That’s it. That’s all I need. I have enough.” I could make this my last post for this blog but I think I’ll continue in the hope that I’ll find different ways of saying the same thing which, come to think about it, is probably what Jesus was doing. Words point to the reality but they are not that reality itself. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, ‘Don’t go babbling on’ and why he warned that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’  enters the kingdom.

Perhaps this from Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Island’ is a good way to finish a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount

“….people ought to take their religion warm from the cow, if you see what I mean. Not skimmed or pasteurized or homogenized. Above all not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container.”

Rehab.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matthew chapter 7 verses 1 – 4)

Is Jesus offering here a rehabilitation programme for our addiction to worry, anxiety and resentment? Yes he is. However, the word ‘judgement’ carries heavy overtones for us, doesn’t it? (See my post for September 25th, The Sound Eye.) Yet, ‘Do not judge…’ are three of the most important words in the New Testament, provided that we read also the words that follow “…..so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make, you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” For most of us, the rehabilitation programme starts when we stop judging ourselves. 

Faced with addiction of any kind we ask, ‘how do I get out of this?’ and we are inclined to give ourselves the answer, ‘if I were you I wouldn’t start from here’. But here, however, is the only possible place anyone can ever start from. We’ll look at this in more detail later when we deal with verse 13 of this chapter: “Enter by the narrow gate…”

Starting from here, in this moment, besieged and beset by our addictive behaviour is the only way forward. It is so obvious that we cannot start anywhere else but it is so counter-intuitive that we try every strategy except that of recognising and therefore welcoming the situation we’re in. ‘I don’t want to be here’ is what we are often saying and our response to that is to rush through what we are doing, or struggle with attitudes and thoughts we wish we weren’t having.

So here is the first step in our rehabilitation programme – notice the log.

And here is the crucial bit: just notice it, drop all judgement about it. Don’t immediately slap a label on it. And by the way I’m talking here not just about things we label ‘bad’ but also things we label ‘good’. Stick a label on something and you are … well….stuck with it!!

Please note that we are talking here about the vital first step. In the words of a famous hymn, ‘Just as I am, without one plea….’ Only after this first crucial step does the next one become clearer. Only then are we able to return to the practice of the presence of God. Actually, taking this first step opens up for us, however briefly, the peaceful vista of the promised land. Being the kind of people we are, it’s a step we have to keep on keeping on taking.

Addiction

Patience Strong was the pen name of someone who used to write regular ‘uplifting’ thoughts for a magazine here in the United Kingdom. They tended to be a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie’ as the Americans say. The final verse of chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel sounds a bit Patience Strong unless we read it, as Matthew obviously intends, in the context of his chapters 5 to 7.

 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”         (Chapter 6 verse 34)

The Greek word for ‘worry’ here pops up again in Matthew’s explanation of Jesus’ parable of the sower (chapter 13 verse 22) where it is translated ‘the cares of the world’. These are concerns that choke off the growth of the seed. There’s a suggestion of a divided mind as we saw a few verses back in this chapter. (See the last three or four posts in this blog). Us humans are addicted to the divided mind aren’t we? Addicted to worry I mean. It’s a perversion of the human genius for asking ‘what if?’ – a gift that has enabled us to survive countless threats throughout the millennia of our emergence. We are good at predicting and preparing for future situations. That’s how we developed agriculture all those millennia ago. But it is this very gift that becomes addictive and so inhibits our creative capacity to cope with real emergencies. Much more seriously, according to Jesus, our addiction to ‘what if?’ inhibits our emergence into full humanity. So we find ourselves constantly having to react to emergencies instead of allowing the growth of the seed (what Jesus calls the kingdom of God) that would actually equip us with infinitely greater capacity to cope creatively with all the problems that begin to threaten our very existence as a species.

So my task, as one vulnerable individual among the billions on the planet, is to nurture the seed planted in me and that means dealing with my addiction to my divided mind, to worry about stuff that might happen, about stuff that has happened and might happen again.

How? We could begin by recognising that what I am talking about is acutally a form of addiction (a word we usually reserve for drug or alcohol habits). For depressed people it’s an addiction to ‘I’m useless; I’m no good’ thoughts. For some of us it’s an addiction to resentment about something someone did to us in the past. We can be addicted to worries about our health, the food we eat, the clothes we ought to buy – just as Jesus suggested in verses 25 to 33 of this chapter. Many of us think this state of affairs in our heads is a normal part of being human. We don’t see it as a form of addiction because we don’t know there’s any other way of being. If we are lucky, however, we get dissatisfied with this way of being and we begin to wish we didn’t keep thinking these thoughts. With such dissatisfaction comes hope that things might be different.

We are coming to two crucial bits of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. They offer a rehabilitation programme for our addiction. They will be the focus of my next blog post.

Compassionate action

So, if you have followed me through the last seven blog posts on Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’: his skilful summary of Jesus’ teaching, we are ready to take an axe to the roots of our consumerist society. Well, that’s what these next words of Jesus seem to suggest –

“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Chapter 6 verse 25)

 Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those of us who desire to live the way of Jesus in our complex secular lives must find our own interpretations of these vows. I talked about chastity in my last blog post. Some rare and courageous individuals take the vow of poverty quite literally in their daily living – Hindu and Buddhist monks with their begging bowls for example as well as some Christians. The difficulty for them is that they have to rely on the rest of us who do plan ahead.

Looking carefully at verses 25 – 34 of this chapter 6, I do not think those of us who make plans for the week, or month, or even years ahead are excluded by Jesus’ teaching. Last week I heard the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about their research programme. He told us that it has taken the last 8,000 years to achieve a 40% increase in agricultural productivity (No, I have not added a nought by mistake). Given the rapid increase in world population we need a similar 40% increase over the next 30 years. Scientists don’t have much time to help us avert a catastrophe. We can say the same about our response to climate change.

There are, of course, Christians who think the end of the world is a good and inevitable thing that God might bring about in our lifetime. Reading my blog, I think you will guess that I’m not one of them. The teaching of Jesus makes sense whatever we may think about the way the world might end. Notice one little word in verse 32. In the version I use it’s the word ‘strive’. Our consumerist society depends upon striving for the latest fashion, or some newly created take-away food. Jesus says,

“Strive first for the kingdom of God. So do not worry about tomorrow….” 

Notice, it’s not strive only but strive first. Get your priorities right. If you are an activist, be a contemplative activist. Act out of enlightened consciousness, not out of fear, desperation, hatred, contempt for politicians who are ‘getting it wrong’ or any other ‘I’m-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude. A Buddhist might say, listen to the cries of the world and act out of compassion and a Christian can fully embrace that. I am profoundly grateful for all the contemplatives-in-action whose compassionate striving is part of the silent revolution that is this stage of the evolution of human consciousness. They might help us avoid panicky short term solutions.

The sound eye

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6 verses 22 & 23

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

Open your eyes and light enters your body. That’s what people once believed, apparently in a simple, literal way. But here Jesus is pointing to something deeper and the 1611 King James Version gets nearer to what I think Jesus intended. It says, “…if therefore thine eye be single…” and “But if thine be evil….”.

An old lady spots a group of hoodies ahead so she crosses the road, being afraid of them. She falls and is momentarily concussed. When she comes round she finds herself surrounded by the hoodies anxiously caring for her. One of them has phoned for an ambulance.

We make lightning quick judgements on the basis of what we see. Often we are wrong. Our eyes give us information only about this instant. They don’t recall the past and they cannot foresee the future. The brain does that.

On several occasions Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” He is asking people to stop making judgements on the basis of what they have seen in the past so that they can actually see this person in front of them here and now. Seeing in this way is actually a form of repentance. Take a look at my second post in this blog: The Heart of the Matter, to see what I mean.

Wordsworth got it right in his poem, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.”

Jesus gently pulls our legs about this truth in the story at the beginning of chapter 7: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We might say the logs are not in our eyes, they are in our brains. They are the judgements we so quickly make, like the old lady and the hoodies.

Since writing that last sentence, two days ago, I have become the victim of a telephone scam aimed particularly at older people. The caller pretended to be a policeman. He invited me to disconnect and dial 999 to verify this. Apparently, because the caller didn’t also disconnect, my 999 call went straight back to his telephone and I was therefore ‘hooked’. Would the hoaxer have succeeded if I had been in eye contact with him? I very much doubt it. Like the old lady and the hoodies we are all making judgements all the time but here, without eye contact I got it seriously wrong. I shall explore this in a later blog post when I get to chapter 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

Who needs religion?

Only in chapter 6 does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount get round to religion. Almsgiving, prayer, fasting: apparently we should do these things secretly –

  • verse 3: “But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
  • verse 6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”
  • verse 18: “….so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret….”

So why do we make prayer such a public activity? Lots of people find it difficult to get a rhythm of private spiritual practice going. They do most of their praying when they go to a church service. If we look at Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his followers to pray we might think he had to be persuaded to do it. Luke chapter 11 has one of the disciples saying, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples”. Luke seems to suggest that they had watched Jesus at prayer and wanted to know how to do it. If John could teach his disciples, why couldn’t Jesus do the same?

What the sermon on the mount seems to suggest, what Jesus seems to suggest, is that there is something more important than simply going to church. Religious practice, going to church (challenging and uplifting as it often is), may not deal with the junk in our personal cellars (see my last two blog posts). Indeed this junk, often labelled ‘the ego’, gets in the way so much that our religious practice may actually encourage it. Think of Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple (Luke chapter 18 verses 9 – 14). This is why the basic stance of prayer is confession, by which I mean, no deception (of myself or anyone else). Confession is nothing to do with grovelling guilt. It is the simple, honest, acknowledgement that this is me, warts and all, at this moment. No ifs, no buts, just me with all this junk in the cellar.

Now, here’s the miracle, the good news. We discover that this basic stance turns out to be not just confession but confession/forgiveness: a dynamic, perpetual process. Look at verse 14 and compare it with Mark chapter11 verse 25 and John chapter 20 verse 22/3. Clearly, for the Gospel writers, forgiveness is central to whatever we mean by prayer, indeed for the whole Christian way of life. As the American novelist Saul Bellow wrote, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required”. Amen to that.

What lurks in the cellar?

Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 5 verses 17 – 26

We should be like cows grazing in the meadow. Coming to a thistle, it is best not to get upset: just move gently on to some fresh green grass. In this sermon on the mount meadow I come to verses 17 – 20: several thistles! Some scholars think these verses represent the struggle of those very first Christians in Jerusalem (Jews, remember) as they tried to reconcile their profound experience of Jesus with their Jewish upbringing. Since I am not attempting a scholarly blog I can quietly let the scholars get on with their (important) discussions and move on.

The grass gets greener in verse 20:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom.”

It looks like a thistle at first sight but look at what follows in the rest of this chapter 5. We get a series of sayings each beginning with, “You have heard it said…..but I say to you…..” Each one highlights a practical outcome of the shift in consciousness I talked about in my last post. If they look impossible to achieve that’s because we haven’t ‘repented’: we haven’t made the shift into the kingdom consciousness. We haven’t learned how to ‘let go and let God’. Therefore we don’t know who we truly are.

Perhaps Jesus got a bit frustrated with people who asked him for a ‘sign’ (see Matthew 24: 23-27; Luke 11:29; John 4:48). They were looking everywhere for the truth except inwards. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was already an Anglican priest when he heard a sermon in a Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London. He reported, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. Now, I cannot ‘strangely warm’ my heart to order. Such an experience is not mine to manipulate. It is a gift. I can receive it. I can ignore it, or even reject it. I cannot make it happen. I can put myself in the way of it, hope for it, ask for it. If I have eyes to see, ears to hear, if I let go of all that I think I know, I discover that the gift has already been given. I discover that it was lying there within me, unopened, all the time. It might be hidden amongst the junk I have collected in my search for meaning and truth but it was there from the beginning.

What follows in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are examples of how the junk gets in the way: anger, for example, in verses 21-26. Here I am, feeling angry with someone, just at the moment when I want to do something good: to offer my gift at the altar, as Jesus puts it. What to do? Deal with the anger first, says Jesus. That means first, accept that I am feeling angry. Trying to ignore it, push it away, won’t help. That’s just pushing around the junk in the cellar of my mind, disturbing a lot of dust maybe, anything but finding the gift that lies there in the depths of my being. So step one is, accept that I am feeling angry. I’ve picked up a piece of my mental junk. Step two: don’t throw it away in disgust. That just raises more dust and disturbs the other junk that’s lying around. Put in down gently and wait. What then becomes clearer is the next step. That’s the wonder of the gift of the strangely warmed heart. The next step may indeed be to go and say sorry, or explore gently with the other person why I’m feeling angry with them. Quite often, though, such a step becomes unnecessary once I have gently put the anger junk down. It simply subsides. Notice I keep using the word ‘gently’. Getting agitated about feeling angry is, well, more junk! It’s like worrying about being worried.

So where is this gift of the strangely warmed heart? Why can’t I find it? Well, I’ll never find it so long as I keep poking about amongst the junk in the cellar. It’s not just another package. Stand still amongst all the clutter. Wait, quietly. Look! It’s the whole cellar!! And here’s the astonishing good news. If dealing with the junk takes me down into this wonderful cellar then even the junk is useful. Tempting junk? Bring it on because it can help me discover who I truly am in the depths of my being!!