Thursday, February 10, 2011

What does Jesus REALLY mean?

Our sermon texts this week are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37, found here.

Last week we talked about the interpretive challenge of the many apparent contradictions found in Jesus' core teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This week, it seems that the broader question of how we interpret the Sermon on the Mount might be a good one for us to consider based on the comments I've been hearing around the church as we've dug into these texts. Things like, "If we took this literally, I'd be walking around without a right eye...or a hand...or legs..." and questions like, "Does Jesus mean we all have to do all of these things? How is this possible? It looks impossible."

The Sermon on the Mount as a whole can inspire these reactions in us. But perhaps no section more than this week's, where the things that plague us most--earthy things like anger, lust, making promises we can't keep, broken relationships--are confronted by Jesus head-on. We all get are we all subject to hell? Is calling someone an idiot really as bad as murder? If Jesus really wants us to gouge our eyes out when we look at someone lustfully, why are we not all walking around like pirates in eyepatches?

As you read these texts and wrestle with questions like these, I thought it might be useful to introduce some different ways people have looked at these texts over the years in their interpretations of them for practical living, as they've tried to answer that most annoying of questions: "What does Jesus REALLY mean?" I leave them up to your meditation, but do include my snapshot reflections on each view at the end.

Option 1: The Sermon Applies to Everyone, or to All Christians, and to All Times.
Early Christianity took this sermon quite literally, and problems quickly emerged (as expected) when Jesus' high ethic ran into a world that tends to run by the lowest common denominator.
So, interpreters have worked to figure out realistic ways the Sermon could still apply to everyone. Some say it is best to think of Jesus' teachings as standards of idealistic goals that, even if we cannot literally reach them, can at least provide us with direction for our ethical striving. The sermon, in the way, is seen as principles and attitudes that should influence our practice. Others (Martin Luther was a big proponent of this angle) said the sermon applies to us all at all times, but that its function is to help us all realize how much we are in need of grace as we cannot possibly live by this law. I don't love either of those spins; I don't believe Jesus was about scaring us into grace with visions of severed arms, but nor do I believe Jesus would speak this seriously if Jesus didn't really mean it and just wanted us to get the gist of what he was saying and do the best we can with it...this doesn't feel like Jesus to me.

Option 2: The Sermon Applies Only to Certain People.
During the Middle Ages some theologicans began to argue that the precepts of the Christian faith apply to all Christians, but that these loftier teachings are only for a select few--say, priests, monks, and nuns. This view says that as a few people embody this way of life, they help the Church as a whole be a witness to what life in the kingdom of God looks like. This feels like a cop-out to me, but maybe that's because I, as a minister, don't want to be the only one who has to live this way...I recognize that this sermon was aimed primarily at Jesus' inner circle of disciples, but he said it in the hearing of everyone...and Jesus never seemed elitist to me in the way that this view implies.

Option 3: The Sermon Applies Only to Certain Times.
Some have said this is the kingdom ethic that will be practiced during the millennial kingdom, after the second coming of Christ; or that Jesus expected the end of the world to come soon, so people would only have to live this way for a very brief period of time. Eh...this makes me nervous, too. Jesus was speaking in present tense. Jesus never mentioned time limits. And Jesus seemed to believe that with the constitution of this new community, the kingdom of God is already among us, not just a way that is to's the way Jesus lived while on earth.

So....that clears it all up, doesn't it?

I read all these angles that try to make sense of what Jesus is saying, and wonder if our problem is just that: trying to make sense of what Jesus says. Because Jesus isn't trying to give us common sense wisdom for living in this world: he's trying to give us an uncommon way to defy the sense of the way this world works with our foolish way of the cross. We look at these standards and say, "There's no way to live this in the real world; we're just human," when maybe what we need to be asking ourselves is, "How do we live the witness of a different sort of world while in the midst of this one? How can we show that, yes, we're human, but we're animated by more than that--the Spirit of God lives within our broken lives and, on occasion, helps us live in a way that is radically different?" It's almost like Jesus is inviting us (as I mentioned in my post last week) to live with imagination that goes beyond lists and things that make sense...that wades us into the messiness that is human relationship that is always in flux, that challenges us to challenge the ways that are accepted and those least common denominators we've been living by and to believe we were called by Christ to something more...and can live into that something more, bit by bit, right now.

I don't know what Jesus really meant...but I don't think he was trying to trick us, maim us, chronically frustrate us with our own inadequacy, or leave us a helpless puddle of guilt. Nor do I think he was trying to let us off the hook in any way...I think he was challenging us to be that salt and light he had called us, to live for the sake of others in a way that transforms and gives life to the world--to choose life that others might live. How can we begin to choose this life in ways that are imaginative yet faithful, possible even as we toe the line of impossibility?

*I am indebted to Eugene Boring's outstanding commentary on the Sermon on the Mount found in the New Interpreter's Bible Commentary for helping me sift through these three options of how to read and apply Jesus' words in Matthew.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Anytime a blog post starts with a dude missing an eye, I get nervous. How long have you been wanting to use THAT image?

Wonderful breakdown of some options for interpretation!

Big question for me in light of your summaries and analysis: How are we to rectify the direct and explicit directions with Jesus' view of resistance of evil through love? Even if we take them more symbolically (i.e. cutting off hand = removing from the self), this would appear to lead to alienation and shame - which, as you say, doesn't sound like Jesus.

Even if one makes a case that this was meant for a certain audience at a certain time, that doesn't change the underlying message that I mentioned above. Maybe we are being too literal here, and these things meant something different (linguistically) to Jesus' followers and disciples.