A few friends and I have been sitting with the Sermon on the Mount the last few weeks. We are part of a small group – our “village” – that increasingly wants to take discipleship more seriously than we have and as a starting point, we’ve been asking the question: “What would it take for our village to look more like the Sermon on the Mount this time next year?” To answer that, we’ve started by simply dwelling with Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7.
Here’s one of the more important observations I’ve run across in that time: the Sermon is all about honest-to-goodness, real, live people. It’s about how God relates to them, and how they relate to God, and how we relate to them, and about how our relating to them shapes the way we relate to God.
When I say it’s about honest-to-goodness, real, live people, I mean the Sermon largely concerns itself with a view of humanity in which humans cannot be reduced to the sum of their virtues, vices, and pragmatic usefulness. For all they do right and wrong, for all the ways in which they are helpful and hurtful, they remain fully, beautifully, and frustratingly human, and in the kingdom, God’s insistence is we continue to see them as nothing less.
The Beatitudes, for instance, are addressed to people we tend not to see. In claiming the kingdom is for the poor, Jesus challenges me to see an entire class of people I tend to pass over or malign for a whole host of reasons. If the kingdom is the place where the poor find dignity and a way forward, I can no longer ignore them, vilify them, or use them and claim to be a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus asks me to learn to treat them like honest-to-goodness, real, live people.
The same sort of thing is going on the long section of teaching, beginning in Matthew 5:21. This is a rich, complex teaching that goes right to the heart of our deepest woes. Within that complexity is the insistence we not see our neighbors as objects. We don’t have to worry about murder when we refuse to dehumanize our neighbors into objects of our anger and problems that need fixing. We need not worry about adultery when we stop valuing our neighbors as nothing more than pieces of flesh that feed our appetites. Jesus spoke this difficult word about divorce into a culture where many thought a wife could be cast off as a disposable household appliance. Jesus even went as far as to insist we see our enemies – those we are most likely to dehumanize – as brothers and friends worthy of our blessings.
He begins that teaching by saying our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. At the heart of this kingdom righteousness seems to be a commitment to seeing those around us as our Father in heaven does.
Beginning in Matthew 6, Jesus is teaching about where we derive our worth. At the beginning of the teaching, he warns us not to do things for the sake of impressing others. At the end of the teaching, he warns us not to derive our worth from things that fade, rust, or can be taken away. In between, he gives us three examples of things the average Jew might master in order to be important, or cool, or valuable in their religious culture.
In his insistence that our value be rooted in God, Jesus forbids us from reducing others to mere tools by which we aggregate our own identity. Your neighbors, he insists are not there to bolster your self-esteem.
I could go on through the entire Sermon, but let me give you one more brief example and I’ll stop. In the beginning of Matthew 7, Jesus warns us the way we judge others will be the standard by which we are judged. Among the things we might learn here is the value of treating those around us with the grace, dignity, and understanding we typically feel we are owed. Of course, this would require we treat our neighbors with their full humanity, as that is what we typically assume we are.
So, what would it look like for us to begin living the Sermon more fully? There are, of course, lots of places that journey could start, but here is a good place: practice treating the people in our lives as honest-to-goodness, real, live people.
How would that look in your life?