Doesn’t the Sermon on the Mount seem rather miscellaneous—the way it jumps from topic to topic?
Yes, it can. That may be partly because it’s made up of separate sayings or groups of sayings that could have been handed on quite independently of each other among early Christians before Matthew brought them together in this form. But there’s another reason why the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t have a direct line of development. Jesus’ goal is to reshape our whole perspective on God, the world, and our own lives. His purpose isn’t so much to give us information as to point us toward new perspectives we must somehow come to and decisions we must make for ourselves.
Here in the latter half of chapter 6, we’re right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus started with beatitudes and told his audience that they, undistinguished as they were, were the light of the world. Then we had a series of sayings where Jesus both affirmed the Torah and began to reinterpret and refocus it on the generous God who makes rain fall on everybody, righteous and unrighteous alike.
Then, in the first part of Chapter 6 we found sayings that push us to take our relationship with God as absolutely central to our lives. Even being religious is a potential danger because then our public reputation may become more important to us than our relationship with God. Think, for example, of the way some contemporary Evangelical leaders shrink from criticizing the appalling morals of their congregations’ favorite political leaders. They do not seem to be willing to lose their supporters’ confidence.
But why this next shift? He was telling us to avoid religious hypocrisy. Now he’s telling us not to be concerned about basic survival!
It does sound that way. But the shift isn’t quite as abrupt as it first seems. What are the earthly treasures that Jesus dismisses in 6:19-21? Are they limited to material possessions? Or do they also include the treasures of ostentatious piety and the social credit one accrues thereby? Our earthly treasures include anything that obscures our focus on the centrality of God. When we are truly turned toward God we become full of light; we perceive things truly. The person focused on public standing is in the dark. (vss. 22-23)
And there are no half-measures?
Ultimately, that’s true. In reality, few if any of us—even the great saints—fully measure up to this ideal. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to watch Jesus’ original disciples stumbling over it again and again in Matthew’s Gospel. Our growth in faith is a long and sometimes faltering process. But, ultimately, we have to focus more and more on what we truly care about. The service of “Mammon” isn’t simply the possession of wealth. In fact, I think the NRSV translators were mistaken in translating it as “wealth.” If Matthew had wanted to say “wealth,” he had a perfectly good Greek word for it. Why does he use an Aramaic word instead? It suggests a broader significance. In fact, it sounds almost like the name of an idol. It’s what we are worshipping when the desire for wealth and reputation and power takes possession of us.
But what about responsibility for our own lives? Is Jesus really telling us to give up responsibility for ourselves? This “lilies of the field” thing sounds dangerously improvident—and lazy!
Actually, Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t work.” He says, “Don’t be anxious.” Anxiety, he is saying, is the opposite of trust. And trust (Greek pistis, usually but perhaps misleadingly translated “faith”) is the core of our relationship with God. Anxiety, in turn, is what lies behind the effort to serve two masters. “Yes, I trust God—but, just in case, I will also worship the market, my social media, the gang I run with, my political party, my luck. . . .” And in the process, our side bets, as it were, wind up obscuring, compromising, or even replacing the trust, hope, and love that join us to God.
But Jesus does ask his inner circle of disciples to abandon their houses and families and jobs and live a wandering life with him—on the alms of others!
Yes, good point! But he doesn’t ask this particular kind of discipleship of everyone. Later on, he even turns down some people who volunteer but whom he perceives are not prepared for it (8:19-22). Remember that the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to the whole crowd of curious listeners, not just the inner circle of disciples who have left all.
For that matter, Jesus and his inner circle could live as wandering mendicants only because he had other followers who made it possible. Matthew will later mention a group of women followers, standing at the cross, who had come from Galilee for this very purpose (27:55-56).
Most of Jesus’ followers must have remained in their hometowns, working at their jobs, going out to hear him when he was near enough for them to do so, cultivating in their own context the trusting and loving relationship with God that he called them to. And to all his followers he addresses the same words: Don’t be anxious. Anxiety is a form of doubt, of mistrust—a temptation to betrayal.
The inner circle will fall into that pit repeatedly throughout the story. They will shy away from Jesus’ prediction of the cross. They will try to outmaneuver each other to be Jesus’ second-in-command. They will repeatedly fail to understand what he is telling them. One of them will betray him to death. Most of the rest will betray him by fleeing and hiding out. Even at the end of Matthew’s gospel, some will still be found doubting (28:17).
Worry is an invitation to start looking for or creating idols—little gods that we hope we can control better, that we hope will prove more predictable than our Father in Heaven. Polytheism always seems easier than relying on a single God. But it threatens to result in a fragmented life, one with no stable center. Happily, the God who sends rain upon just and unjust alike does not abandon us even when we fall into this pit.
Next up: THE NARROW GATE