This is the final entry in a Lenten series on the Sermon on the Mount as experienced through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of a fictional 1st Century resident of Galilee. If you’ve been reading along, thank you for joining me on this journey! If this is your first visit, I invite you to use the links below to read the previous parts of the series.
The Teacher took a long pause, letting his words sink in.
We had misplaced our trust. We had become so obsessed with the LAWS of Torah that we had lost the forest for the trees. The LAW, the whole body of Torah, was not meant to govern our behaviors alone.
It was meant to govern our hearts.
All of our anger, our lust, our contempt…all of our indulgence and objectification. They all were ways we condemned others in order to make ourselves feel superior.
To make ourselves feel in control.
To trust ourselves more than our God.
The Teacher’s gaze once again lifted out across the sea. He sighed deeply and spoke:
“You are so quick to judge. But don’t you see that your judgment is like a mirror? You are so quick to see the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, while you have a log in your own! First take the log out of your eye so you can clearly see how really insignificant your neighbor’s splinter is!”
A grin came across his face and a light bit of laughter came forth from the crowd at the ridiculousness of the image. But his meaning was clear. Condemnation blinds. Only love can see.
The Teacher smiled and continued:
“Don’t give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”
It was a strange metaphor, and it puzzled me for a moment. It didn’t seem to fit.
But I thought again about the righteousness of the Pharisees. And it began to dawn on me how often that kind of self-righteousness bled out into our society.
The Pharisees wanted to control us. They believed Yahweh would not intervene for us until we had purged ourselves of all unrighteousness. Cleansed ourselves of our ritual and behavioral uncleanliness.
How often, though, did we do the same to one another? It’s what the Teacher had said a few moments ago about respecting each other’s dignity, and about not making a show of our religiosity.
When we judge others, it’s not just that we’re condemning them. It’s that we try to control them, to manipulate them through our proclamations into behaving the way we think they should behave.
But what if they can no more accept that manipulation than a dog can feed on the Torah or a pig can digest pearls?
What if, instead, we put our trust in Yahweh to shape us in the image of love?
“If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will Yahweh give good things to those who ask? Just treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. This is what all of the Law and the Prophets have been trying to say since our people began.”
It seemed so simple, yet so difficult. And somehow, I sensed, so dangerous.
“The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
It was so easy to condemn the imperfect and unclean. To protect comfortable traditions, strict legalism, cozy doctrine. Anyone can cling to those things that benefit oneself and exclude those who don’t measure up. Anyone can call others to conform to their self-interest.
Anyone can love their friends and hate their enemies.
But this way of love, a love that gives and sacrifices and humanizes even those who would do us harm…this way is narrow. This way is hard.
Repent. Reorient. The first words I’d ever heard him say came again to the forefront of my mind.
Discard the way of false truth that destroys life on its way to self-salvation.
Real truth reveals itself in real love. Real peace. Kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness. Against these, there is no law.
My own thoughts were now blending seamlessly with his words as he continued speaking.
“You are surrounded by false prophets. They appear to you and behave like gentle sheep, but they are really like wolves. All they want is to devour you for their own glory. But do grapes grow from thorn bushes or do figs spring from thistles?”
Again, I looked around to see how people were reacting. Any Pharisees who might have been curious would surely have left in anger by now, but this was perhaps his most direct critique yet.
“You can call out my name all you want. Use me to declare your own power and righteousness till you’re blue in the face. But unless you love, you’ll never know me…you’ll never be part of the beloved community of Yahweh if your heart is set on self-righteousness alone.”
He paused again. I remembered again my earlier thoughts…that what the Teacher was doing was not so much turning everything upside-down, but setting it rightside-up.
I looked at a woman standing a few feet away from me. Had she been there the whole time? I honestly hadn’t noticed. Tears were flowing freely down her cheeks, but her eyes and her smile were filled with joy.
She must have sensed my gaze as she turned and looked toward me. I did not know her face. But it glowed with love. I smiled back, and felt tears starting to come to my eyes, too.
The Teacher stood up and shook out his tunic. He looked up into the sky, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. As he exhaled, he looked around the faces that remained as if to make eye contact with each of us.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. Winds and rains and storms will come. Whether your house stands firm or is destroyed is something only you can decide.”
He bowed slightly, bestowing an unspoken blessing on us all, then motioned for James, John, Simon, and Andrew to start back down the hillside with him. The others who had been sitting nearest to him followed.
The rest of us sat motionless for a few minutes, both stunned and strangely empowered by what we had just heard.
I reflected back to the authority I sensed from him the first time I heard him speak in the village square. I still didn’t know where it came from, but it was unmistakable. Surely Yahweh was speaking through him.
As the Teacher and his followers passed through the rest of us on their way back to the shore, I heard John whisper to him.
“Thank you, Yeshua.” I heard him say.
Yeshua. He who comes to save. He who comes to deliver.
Once again an earlier notion sprang up in my mind. Was this man, this Teacher, this Yeshua, the one we had waited for?
Was this Messiah?
A feeling that I could not explain began to wash over me. A knowing.
And then another memory popped into my head…the firewood. The bread.
How would I explain this to my mother? Surely she would think it was all nonsense.
But these moments on this hillside with Yeshua had already changed me.
Perhaps, I hoped, they might change the world.