Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Impossible Sermon

Have you ever read Jesus "Sermon on the Mount" and finished with a sense of despair? I challenge you to read Matthew 5-7 now if you have the time and then finish reading this entry. But, if you don't have time here are a few impossible morsels:

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad..." vs 5:11-12a
"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven," vs19
"Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." vs 20
"Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement." vs22
"Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery..." vs28
"If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away..." vs30
"If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." vs39

This is just a sampling. Yikes!

The question is, "Why would Jesus preach this way?" Did he not know he was asking the impossible? The people already held the pharisees in high regard for their extreme dedication to following every conceivable law and religious regulation. Now they are being told that the pharisees have missed the mark too? Who then can be saved? Despair!

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic novel The Brothers Karamazov the description is given of a reclusive ascetic monk named Father Farapont. All the monks at the monastery and all in the town lived in awe of him. He ate nothing but crusty bread and drank nothing but water. He fasted for days and always wore a belt of extremely heavy weights to keep himself "humble" through self-mortification. None was more perfect in holiness, yet he harbored a secret hatred for Father Zosima who lived joyfully by the simple principles of grace from God and mercy to others. The contrast between these two friars is striking and we must not miss the point: We are saved only by grace.

Jesus did know he was preaching the impossible and he did it on purpose. The reason is that he knew that unless people sense their utter lostness and inability to meet God's standards they will not really understand grace. The point of the Sermon on the Mount, in my mind, and Dostoevsky's point as well, is to knock out of us any ridiculous pharisaical notion that we can somehow earn God's favor by being good or righteous. If we miss this point we are likely to turn into holy monsters.

Jesus came to die on a cross so I might come and die there too. He died physically so that my death might be of a different kind. All who seek salvation and the favor of God must die to the lie that Father Farapont believed, namely, that God will love me most if I suffer most. The crushing weight of the law, works, good deeds and holiness cannot save any soul. Remember, Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

So, the next time you read the "Sermon on the Mount" remember grace and be glad! Amen.

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