When I was a pastor, I, like many other pastors, used to take part in a tradition which Howard Hendricks dubbed “the glorification of the worm.” After the sermon I would walk to the back of the auditorium and shake hands with my parishioners as they exited. They would make comments to me on the sermon: insights, applications, appreciations, testimonials of blessing, and sometimes just inane platitudes. There were times when I had poured my heart out from the pulpit only to hear, “I really enjoyed your sermon, pastor.” I’d feel like screaming, “I didn’t mean for you to enjoy it! I meant for it to make you uncomfortable!”
We don’t read that any of Jesus’ hearers came up to him after His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5 through 7) and told Him they enjoyed it! Matthew tells us that His hearers were amazed (7:28). And I’d bet they were darned uncomfortable. I suspect that He intended them to be
He tells His hearers that they’re “lucky” (Greek makarioi, usually translated “blessed”) if they’re in situations that we’d consider miserable; that not only doing, but thinking about doing certain things is sin; that they’re supposed to love people who are nasty to them; that God hates religiosity; that they’re supposed to treat people the way they themselves would want to be treated; that calling Jesus “Lord” is not enough to get one into Heaven!
So how do we deal with a sermon like this, one that makes us so uncomfortable? There have been many attempts, some of which I fear, are designed primarily to find some way to avoid its demands.
One way is to make an idol out of it, an idol to which we pay lip-service – sort of like we do to the ten commandments, although it’s too long to engrave on a stone monument. Usually those who do that don’t bother to read it.
Another way is to analyze it to death. (Some commentaries do this.) Jesus is seen as speaking in metaphors and hyperboles, so we should beware of taking Him too literally. Fair enough – but what do these metaphors and hyperboles mean?
Another twist on that one is to say that Jesus didn’t really expect anyone to live up to these impossible demands. They were given to show His hearers their need for the gospel. If so, however, couldn’t He have said it in a lot fewer words?
Or we could “dispensationalize” it. After all, Jesus was speaking to people who were living under the Old Testament Law, and we live under the dispensation of grace, the church; therefore it has no application to us. But Matthew recorded it for us in the age of grace.
Or perhaps we could isolate ourselves and our Christian community away from “the world,” Then it would be easier to carry out these obligations. But this was spoken to people living out there in the real world, dealing with mostly, fallen people. Besides, “Christian” folks aren’t that much easier to deal with than heathen.
Most of the above attempts have some validity in them: we should regard this sermon highly; we should recognize (and attempt to interpret) the figures of speech; we should recognize that its demands appear impossible; we must interpret it in the original context; and, we must recognize that its demands are not for some idealized community.
And yet there it is – a sermon that demands a radical ethic, a radical lifestyle, and radical relationships. It seems so incompatible with our comfortable religion of materialism, moralism and self-esteem, of professionalism, politics and pew-warming! I suppose it had a similar dissonance in the ears of its original hearers.
Maybe Jesus just expected us to live this way!