Not Obeying the Sermon on the Mount

The adult Sunday School class I co-teach at church is doing a quick study (eight lessons) on the gospel of Matthew.

With only eight lessons you have to be very selective about what you want to study in Matthew. For example, this last Sunday my task was to do a class on the Sermon on the Mount in 30 minutes. (The rest of our 45 minute class time in spend on visiting, announcements, sharing prayer requests, and praying.)

The Sermon on the Mount in 30 minutes!

Obviously, you can't survey the whole thing. So you pick a topic or a question raised by the Sermon and talk about that.

The question I picked was this: Are we supposed to obey the Sermon on the Mount?

That might seem like a really weird question. Of course we're supposed to follow the Sermon on the Mount. Why else would Jesus have preached it?

But there's actually a great deal of debate on this point. For my class I highlighted three places where Christians have balked at obeying the Sermon.

1. Morally Impossible
Some within the Christian tradition have argued that the Sermon is so severe and lofty in its demands that it can't possibly be obeyed. Then why was the Sermon given? To expose and humble us. By setting the bar so high the Sermon shows us that we can't be righteous through moral performance.

2. Theologically Problematic
On a related note, the Sermon equates righteousness with moral performance: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."

You want forgiveness? It's not about grace: You have to forgive. You don't want God to judge you? It's not about grace: You must not judge others. When it comes to getting into heaven, the measure you use to judge others will be the measure that you'll be judged by (Matthew 7.1-2). Not much atonement theology here.

There's also a legalistic strain that runs through the Sermon. For example: 
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.19-20)
Moral perfection is also assumed in places: "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

And finally, beyond righteousness being the result of moral performance, damnation for moral failure lurks everywhere in the Sermon:
"But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."

"Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
3. Politically Irresponsible
Perhaps the biggest argument that the Sermon shouldn't be fully obeyed is the opinion that the Sermon is politically impractical.

"Do not resist an evil person," "love your enemies," and "turn the other cheek" are taken to be immoral stances in the face of evil. And if not immoral, than morally irresponsible.

So these are the reasons you hear for not obeying the Sermon on the Mount. And yet, in his final comparison in the Sermon about the wise and foolish builders, Jesus cuts across all these objections:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

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