Lent, Day 37 — The Sermon on the Mount During Holy Week

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount During Holy WeekRembrandt_Christ_Driving_the_Money_Changers_from_the_Temple
I was in my second year of pastoral ministry, and already I found preaching Easter to be a challenge. I had trained for a dozen years in homiletics (the art and theory of preaching), but found it overwhelming to think about trying to cram the meaning of resurrection into a twenty-minute sermon year after year for the rest of my life. A friend told me a story about another pastor who simply read the Sermon on the Mount each Easter. “If there’s only one time someone’s going to be in church each year, they ought to hear a good sermon, especially straight from Jesus’s own mouth.”

It helped me realize our main job as pastors is to direct people toward Jesus and then get out of the way.

So I memorized the Sermon on the Mount. I didn’t want to read it, but to really preach it. And as I memorized it, it changed me. Although I grew up with Bible memory verses in Sunday school, I hadn’t realized how much the process of memorizing something shaped my own thought processes.

That’s part of what I wanted to share with you by going through this sermon, verse by verse. I want folks to understand Jesus’s pattern of thinking. Because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Now when I hear about how Jesus strode into the Temple on Palm Sunday and turned over the tables of the money-changers, I hear echoes of what he said about religion-for-show and about his hopes for his community of prophets. I hear him saying, “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full” (5:6). For people who might be shocked at seeing him attack a religious institution, I hear him saying, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (5:17). And to people who think his turning over tables justifies any expression of righteous indignation, he says: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment” (5:22).

Was Jesus angry? Sure. Did he insult the religious leaders? You bet. But Jesus’s anger is directed toward systems of exploitation that hurt people. Another gospel tells of religious leaders like Nicodemus, who could be decent human beings and were open to change (John 3).

But Jesus spent the first part of Holy Week making enemies of the religious leaders who would ultimately conspire to kill him. Matthew 23 is a chapter-long rant about the moral failings of the “actors” (hypocrites) who “lock people out of the kingdom of the heavens.” It makes it clear why Jesus told his disciples, “I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).

This is why they looked for a reason to take him out. They feared not only him, but what a community of prophets like him might do. They figured if they took out the leader of this movement, it would wither and die.

And it helps me understand that when Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” it means rejecting the lie of religion-for-show, and being hungry and thirsty for something better and more filling. 

Holy Week Prayer:
Disruptor of religion-for-show, give me the kind of enemies
who help me live at peace.