Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by establishing the values by which his disciples are to live. From there he addresses the Law of Moses, not with the intent to abolish, but to bring it to its fulfillment, to reveal the fullness of its meaning. Jesus is both calling us to a higher standard of conduct and a higher degree of happiness. For if the commandments are God’s rules for a happy life (or at least, a rundown of actions that will in the long run make us deeply unhappy), Jesus urges us beyond a surface level rule-following to a conversion of our hearts. In doing so, we can avoid the thoughts that lead to sinful actions, and fulfill his greatest commandments, to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Before looking at particular commandments, Jesus invites his followers to consider the righteousness of the Pharisees. To all appearances, the Pharisees were righteous people. Strict observance of the law was their standard for righteous conduct, and the more stringent (in their minds), the holier. (Righteous in this context means simply right with God, or pleasing to God.) Yet their standard was a superficial one, disconnected with the disposition of the heart. When Jesus speaks of the heart, he is going beyond mere thoughts or feelings, which are both fleeting, and speaking of the deepest core of our being, “the hidden center of the person where thoughts, emotions, and actions originate.” (1) The false holiness of the Pharisees can lead to an interior resentment and animosity, or pride in one’s self for checking all the right boxes rather than humility before the Lord and service to others. Indeed, the superficial nature of the Pharisees’ righteousness will reveal itself fully in their hostility to and rejection of Jesus, the source of all goodness and light.
While Jesus’ audience may have been surprised that their righteousness needed to exceed that of the Pharisees, our tendency is to dismiss the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and assure ourselves that we’re not like them. In fact, we all know people who are more concerned with rule-following than true righteousness before God – at one time or another, most of us have probably displayed this behavior. Our witness as Christians will be far better if we are at all times humble, conscious of our sinfulness and our need for God’s grace in every aspect of our lives. When we display this humility, not only are we following the Lord’s commands, but we will be much more likely to win others over to Christ.
Jesus then turns to the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill,” and adds that you shall not be angry, or insult others. God revealed the fifth commandment to Moses to stop the cycle of revenge and violence. Jesus is telling us that anger poisons our hearts: it prevents us from loving God and others, and thereby robs us of our happiness. Cruel words rupture our friendship with others, and therefore offend God. You cannot be angry and happy at the same time. You cannot love and hate at the same time. Jesus’ new law of love compels us to root out the hatred in our lives.
So too with the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Jesus adds to this that “whoever looks at another woman with lust commits adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) There’s a temptation to dismiss this as an impossibly high standard. Or respond with “C’mon, what’s the harm? Nobody’s getting hurt.” But Jesus is pointing us to the connection between the sixth commandment and the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) The marriage bond requires the same degree of fidelity. We have to be totally committed to our spouses in the way that we are totally committed to our Lord. When we fantasize about someone else, even though it’s only on the inside, it weakens the bond we have with our spouse and the love we have for our spouse. It has a corrosive effect on our love, and an attendant decline in the happiness natural to a loving marriage, that we may not even perceive, at least not until the damage is difficult to heal. Jesus knows we can’t love God fully if we’re also worshipping someone or something else. And we can’t love our spouse fully if we have one eye on someone else. And total fidelity is necessary for a truly happy marriage.
The miracle of love is like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or the miracle of the Eucharist: the goodness of God multiplies without limits. It’s not only possible but mutually reinforcing to love the Lord and love your spouse with all your heart. (2) Indeed, the second part of the great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourself, follows naturally from the love of God.
Jesus reveals the full implications of loving our neighbor in the Sermon, when he challenges his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” And “when someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn your other cheek as well.” He tells us to do this “that we may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the good and the bad, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:38-45) (3)
God is love and mercy. He bestows his love and mercy abundantly upon everyone, even though we are all unworthy. He sent his son Jesus to redeem us from our sins, to show us love and mercy in action in a definitive way. Jesus not only endured his bitter Passion, he loved his enemies even as they mocked and tortured him. It is his love that gave them breath! His love that sustained their lives. He calls us in the Sermon on the Mount to share in the happiness of God by being as holy as God.
Is this impossible? On our own, absolutely. But with God all things are possible. (3) We need to be persistent and humble in our prayer. When we fall short, we need to ask God for forgiveness, trusting in his mercy, and then get back to doing his work. We need to always ask God for the grace to do his will and be as holy and happy as he is. As Jesus is calling us to be.
(1) Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2010. p. 196.
(2) With the qualifiers that God’s ways always take precedence; and worship and adoration are reserved for God alone.
(3) The conclusion of this section of the Sermon, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” a challenging verse, is explained thoughtfully in this article by Isabella Bruno.
Image: Sermon on the Mount by James Tissot (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).