Below are the entries from our 2015 Lenten devotional series on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in their original order.
Part 1: Prelude
Today’s reading: Matthew 4:17-25
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Jesus comes on the scene invoking the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming light shining into darkness.
A regime change is about to happen.
Repent. Change direction.
Get ready, because something bigger than the world has ever seen is about to happen. Something that will require a radical reorientation of your life.
This is not a simple call to apologize for personal misdeeds. It is an invitation to a new reality.
In his prelude to his Kingdom Manifesto, Jesus continues the work of his cousin John before him, preparing the way.
Reorient yourself to this new reality. The reality of God’s rule and reign overtaking all human systems and structures…even religion.
Jesus chooses his first disciples, not based on their achievements or scholastic aptitude, but their ordinary-ness. And their willingness.
For what? A political movement? Economic upheaval? Military coup? These were the expectations of the one to be called Messiah.
Good news. Jesus proclaims “good news.”
And what is this news?
The Kingdom of Heaven.
This is what Jerusalem has waited for. Longed for. The return of the King to his Throne.
But is it what they really wanted? Is it what they expected?
Look at the text: Jesus went among the crowds, “…healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people…they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.”
What kind of Kingdom is this? And who could be its king?
Repent. Kingdom. Follow. Good news.
Reorient. God’s in charge now. Come along.
It’s going to be awesome!
Part 2: Blessed
Today’s reading: Matthew 5:1-16
When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them.
Who is blessed?
The knocked down, the kicked at, the spit on. The lost, the overlooked, the forgotten. The soft, the tender, the pleasers. The losers. The nobodies that nobody wants to be around.
Who is blessed?
The ones who never feel blessed. The ones who think “blessed” always refers to someone else—someone richer, someone prettier, someone smarter, someone popular.
Blessed. Even these, Jesus says, are blessed. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
There it is again. Kingdom.
The crowds who had just experienced Jesus’ healing touch—the diseased, the sick, the suffering, the demoniacs, the epileptics, the paralytics—now being told they’re something they never thought they could be.
Blessed? Why? What has changed?
Healing. Kingdom. Jesus.
But what does it mean to be blessed? What is blessing for?
The sin of Israel had always been its insistence that it was blessed just because it was Israel. Rather than share its blessing, it coveted it.
Israel was blessed—chosen—not to rule the world, but to fulfill a purpose. A vocation.
Salt and light.
To add richness and flavor to the life of the world. To shine God’s love on its neighbors.
But when the salt has lost its flavor, when the light has been hidden, then what?
Be blessed, Jesus says, so you can fulfill your purpose.
Be healed, Jesus says, so you can live Kingdom life.
You who feel un-blessed have been restored. You’ve been touched by the Kingdom.
You’ve been touched by Jesus.
You’re empowered to be who you were meant to be.
This is good news!
Part 3: Righteousness
Today’s reading: Matthew 5:17-20
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The righteousness of the Pharisees.
How could they ever expect to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? These were the nobodies that nobody wants to be around, these crowds who had gathered to hear Rabbi Jesus speak. “Righteous” was never a word anyone used to describe them.
The Pharisees, though. Righteous through and through.
Don’t believe it? Just ask them.
The gatekeepers of the law. Judges of what is clean and unclean. Constabularies of thought and action. Arbiters of what fulfills and what abolishes Torah. Self-appointed authorities of binding and loosing.
And yet, these nobodies—the unclean, the unlawful, the unrighteous—Jesus calls them “blessed.” Theirs, he says, is the Kingdom of Heaven.
But a kingdom, it seems, they cannot enter unless their righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the keepers of the law.
Did he really just say that?
Could it be that the righteousness of the Pharisees is no righteousness at all?
Surely this is not the Law of Moses.
But…I have come not to abolish Torah, but to fulfill it.
What is this new teaching? Surely this is not what they have always heard, what their traditions have always taught.
But what if?
What if the teachings and traditions have missed the mark?
What if this Kingdom is not one of clean and unclean, of legal and illegal, of in and out?
What if fulfilling Torah is not about being right, but about being light?
Therefore, whoever breaks 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.
Where there is harm, there is no righteousness.
Where there is discrimination, there is no righteousness.
Where there is exclusion, there is no righteousness.
Where there is marginalization, there is no righteousness.
The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is no righteousness at all.
Want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus asks. Don’t act like them.
Don’t harm. Don’t discriminate. Don’t exclude. Don’t marginalize.
Heal. Accept. Include. Embrace.
They thought Jesus was turning things upside-down. But now, they are beginning to see, he’s turning things rightside-up.
Part 4: Indulgence
Today’s reading: Matthew 5:21-37
You have heard…but I say to you….
If the righteousness of the Pharisees is not righteousness, then what is?
Jesus is challenging the very core of what they had been led to believe. Striking at the heart of what their leaders had taught for generations.
Murder. Adultery. Divorce. Swearing oaths.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law were very clear about these matters.
Or were they?
Dig deeper, Jesus says.
Don’t murder, yes. But what leads to murder? Anger, condemnation, unforgiveness. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already murderous.
Don’t commit adultery, yes. But what leads to adultery? An attraction triggers a thought, a thought triggers a fantasy, a fantasy triggers objectification. Indulge these, says Jesus, and your heart is already adulterous.
Divorce? You make it too easy, says Jesus. You indulge your selfishness and dehumanize your spouse. Has she no more value to you than your crops or livestock? Do you care so little for her as to drive her to a life of poverty and indignity?
And those vows you make? Why must you swear by heaven or earth, or anything else for that matter? Is your word not enough? Are you so insecure that you need to manipulate others’ opinions by the power of your oaths? Have they no humanity of their own?
We indulge anger and we murder.
We indulge lust and we commit adultery.
We indulge selfishness and we objectify.
We indulge insecurity and we manipulate.
This, he says, is the righteousness of the Pharisees. Obey the rules, period. You will be measured by your behavior and your behavior alone.
The sin, says Jesus, is more than our behavior. It is a heart that refuses to honor the humanity of others. That places more value on “me” than on “you.” And, by extension, on “we.”
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
If you think that life is all about you and how you behave, you’re missing the point. You might as well be blind or maimed, because that’s basically how you’re going through life as it is.
So what is righteousness? What does true righteousness look like?
Part 5: Perfect
Today’s reading: Matthew 5:38-48
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus was wrecking their worldview. Declaring them blessed. Imploring them to be salt and light. Challenging the authority of their leaders.
You have heard that the law is all in all, he said. But I tell you that it is how you think about others, how you treat them, your heart toward them that matters.
What could it all mean? What would he say next?
You have heard to seek revenge commensurate with the offense. But I tell you, when you are offended, return favor to your offender rather than harm.
But don’t our offenders deserve our revenge? Are we simply to roll over and accept it when we’re attacked?
We can’t appear to be weak.
Someone has to pay!
It was too much. But he wasn’t finished yet…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies….
Love our enemies? Love them?
It was one thing not to retaliate. Avoid them, maybe. Tolerate them, at best.
This is how the Kingdom works. The radical, righteous, upside-down-rightside-up Kingdom.
Empty yourself of self. Respect the dignity and humanity of others. Give freely. We are all created by the same God, loved equally. Remember how you thought you weren’t blessed? Why should your enemies be any less blessed?
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return.
Equal under sun and rain alike, our enemies and us. Beloved by the Father. Whether we are brother or sister, tax collector or prostitute.
This Kingdom law, it seems, is not a behavior management program. It is not the righteousness of the Pharisees, which declares who is and is not worthy.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
If the Pharisees and their version of the law are not perfect, then what is?
Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Anyone can love those who look like them, think like them, sound like them, act like them.
But you, O Israel! You are more than that!
There’s only one way to live into a law like that.
Love must become devoid of self-interest. It must be filled with concern for the other.
It must become as the love of the Father.
Sun or rain, brother or sister, friend or enemy…the Father sees all through just one lens.
Part 6: Treasure
Today’s reading: Matthew 6:1-24
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Love perfectly, Jesus said. Respect the worth and dignity of each person. Even those with whom we disagree.
Even those who would do us harm.
Lofty words. High ideals.
If the Pharisees in their righteousness cannot instruct us, what does it look like to put this perfect love into action?
I lift my eyes unto the hills. Where does my help come from?
The religious leaders make a great show of their piousness. Their worthiness is obvious.
My help comes from the Lord, creator of heaven and earth.
In secret. Jesus says to do it all in secret. As if one hand doesn’t even know what the other is doing.
It’s not about how others perceive your deeds of kindness, your acts of sacrifice, your stirring words of prayer.
You don’t need their approval.
For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Whether in public or in private, pray like it’s just you and God.
Father…Your kingdom come. Make our lives like yours.
Show us how to love the way you love.
Feed us your very self.
Make us forgivers so we can experience your forgiveness.
Protect us from the trials we will face. Deliver us from persecution.
In this prayer, God’s way becomes our way.
This is no chant or charm, no formula for getting what we want.
It’s a door to a relationship. Where what we want becomes exactly what God wants.
What do you treasure? Your comfort? Your convenience? Your morality? Your power?
All these are so easily lost. In a moment, perhaps. Over time, certainly. Slowly, imperceptibly disintegrated by forces unseen.
But love. Love. There is a treasure which cannot be destroyed.
A heart of love sees things as they are. Undarkened by self-aggrandizement. Undimmed by self-indulgence.
Pure reality, bright and clear.
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
There is but one way to pursue Kingdom life. One reality to which to pledge our allegiance.
On earth as it is in heaven.
Part 7: Judgment
Today’s reading: Matthew 6:25-7:12
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Love your enemies. Treasure what God treasures. Pray for love.
Their worldview was fully unraveled now. This was Israel. Chosen nation. God’s own people.
Tied together by legal codes that specified who was and was not in God’s favor.
It was all about getting from out to in. From unclean to clean. From excluded to included.
These were things worth fretting over.
But even this, Jesus says, is not as it seems.
Why worry? Isn’t God in charge? Either he is or he isn’t. See these birds? They work, but only to be what God made them to be. See these flowers? Each one beautiful, not because it chose to be beautiful, but because God created it beautiful.
You are blessed. From the highest and greatest to the lowest and least. Blessed.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Righteousness. There’s that word again. Not the righteousness of the Pharisees, of the law-enforcers, the status-quo-protectors.
The righteousness of God.
You have heard it said…but I tell you….
Anger, contempt, indulgence. Objectification. Dehumanization. Condemnation.
Splinters and logs.
You must see others for who they are. Created by, loved by, cared for by the One who created, loves, and cares for you.
Condemnation blinds. Only love can see.
It was all so hard to hear. So hard to accept.
Particularly, perhaps, for those most threatened by it.
Do not 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.
This Kingdom is dangerous. Love is dangerous.
Be perfect, Jesus said. Repent. Reorient.
But if even the Pharisees and teachers of the law have missed the point, how then could these outcasts and misfits access this love Jesus proclaims?
Ask. Seek. Knock.
It cannot come from human will alone. Only God has that power.
But God, it seems, is willing to share it with his children.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your strength.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
This is it! This is the law!
Love God fully. Love others fully.
Trust God, pray to God, to give you power where you have none. To see as God sees.
Not through eyes of distrust or condemnation or judgment.
But through eyes full of the light of love.
Part 8: Authority
Today’s reading: Matthew 7:13-29
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
He had redefined the law. Fulfilled it.
Love. Unbridled, unconditional. Counter-intuitive, upside-down, inside-out.
Love that puts the welfare of others ahead of self.
Love that places no burden on others. Love that sees through God’s eyes.
Love that sees through God’s heart.
The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Their religious leaders had gotten it so wrong. It was so easy for them to condemn the imperfect and unclean. To protect their comfortable traditions, their strict legalism, their cozy doctrine…that, Jesus said, was a wide and easy path.
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.
This way is life.
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.
Bear good fruit, Jesus says. Not the bad fruit of the Pharisees and religious elite that poisons and kills, but the fruit of love that nourishes and flourishes.
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.
Good news. Kingdom news.
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.
Love is the way to life. Love that respects the God-breathed humanity and dignity of each other person. Love that blesses the undeserving.
It had to be true. No other “truth” could measure up.
There was authority in these words, in this man, like none they had witnessed before.
It was as if their leaders, the ones who claimed God’s truth, who called them to follow God’s law, who confidently declared who was “in” and who was “out,” didn’t really know God at all.
To truly know God, to be citizens of his kingdom, was to truly understand that love alone fulfills the law.
This was a kingdom worth living for.
This was a kingdom worth dying for.
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