Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
They call me on and on across the universe.
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter-box.
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.
– John Lennon (1940-1980), from “Across the Universe” (1969)
It’s very unlikely that there ever was an actual Sermon on the Mount. The Jesus of the Gospels was an itinerant teacher with an ever-increasing crowd in His wake, and there were always Temple guards around who were eager to report to religious leaders whatever heretical statements they heard. Since much of what the Lord had come to teach amounted to heresy, He had to parse out most of His teachings in innocuous bits here and there. For Him to have stood on a hillside and given to hundreds or thousands of people the long and organized speech containing many heresies that is the Sermon on the Mount would have been a lunatic act! And it comes early in the public phase of His life. If He had taught this way, He could not have survived and continued to teach for three more years at a time in history when the only way He could have made any impact at all was by teaching the truth over and over again in many places over years of time. It is likely that those who wrote down the folk memories of the teachings of Jesus that survived into the third generation simply organized them into collections that later made their way into the written Gospels.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke mostly share the same sources. In Luke, an extract of the collection of teachings that became Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount appears as what is called the Sermon on the Plain, and it is interesting to see how the sayings subtly differ as these two Gospel writers use their common source material. We’ll talk about that next week.
Chapter Seven concludes Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In Chapter Six, Jesus tried to banish fear; now in Chapter Seven He works to bring us to a more adult understanding. But before we plunge in, I hope you won’t mind if we pause here briefly. There are two points that I want to make sure you always keep in mind when you read the Gospels.
First, Jesus lived and taught two thousand years ago. He taught at least two centuries before there was any recognizable version of Christianity, and nothing He said even hints that He was trying to form a new religion. On the contrary, He seems to have been trying to move us beyond the need for religions so we could relate to God on our own. We must never forget how primitive the world around Jesus was two thousand years ago! Nor can we overlook the fact that His Gospel teachings were spoken in Aramaic and passed along orally for a couple of generations before being written down and translated into Greek, and from Greek they then were translated into Latin and all the modern languages. And even beyond all these sources of potential confusion, the Gospels spent more than fifteen hundred years in the custody of Christian leaders to whom some of what Jesus had said must have felt antithetical to their religion. That the Catholic clerics didn’t butcher the Gospels when they could have done that so easily is an astounding blessing. It may be a miracle.
And Second, the dead consistently tell us that the Gospel teachings of Jesus are accurate. Even despite the handicaps enumerated above, we are assured by those not now in bodies that the teachings of Jesus as we have them in the four canonical Gospels are indeed substantially what the Lord taught. To be frank, that really is a miracle! But perhaps it’s not such a surprising miracle, since Jesus told us two thousand years ago that He was speaking as God on earth. For example, He said, “ I and the Father are one” (JN 10:30), and “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (JN 14:10). Not everything Jesus is quoted as saying in the Gospels actually was said by Him, since the First Council of Nicaea in 325 added some passages on church-building, sheep-and-goats, predestination and election, hellfire and damnation, and end-times nonsense. But those additions are so inconsistent with the Lord’s genuine teachings that we can easily pluck them out. When we have done that, we still have today the genuine words that the Godhead spoke to us through the Lord two thousand years ago!
Matthew’s Chapter Seven is teachings that are mostly quite familiar to us. I am going to give them to you as they appear, and then share a few thoughts at the end of this post. These are teachings that the Lord’s followers considered to be so important that they lovingly passed them along to their children, who shared them with their children and their children’s children. Sixty years or so is three solid generations of oral tradition. So let’s give a grateful thought to the families who made it possible for us to have so many of the Lord’s words intact today!
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
12 “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits.
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
28 When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; 29 for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (MT 7:1-29).
There are three confusing passages here that we have never before considered:
Jesus is a Man on a Mission! What Christians might see as impatience or anger is just His ardent zeal for the teachings that He came to share. And the author of the Gospel of Matthew seems to be delighted with the Lord’s mission, which is one reason why for many people this is their favorite Gospel. Next week we will consider how the author of Luke uses the same sources to create from the teachings of Jesus a quieter and more sobering Sermon on the Plain.
Sounds of laughter, shades of life are ringing through my open ears,
Inciting and inviting me.
Limitless, undying love which shines around me like a million suns,
It calls me on and on across the universe.
– John Lennon (1940-1980), from “Across the Universe” (1969)