Upon This Rock: Understanding the Sermon on the Mount
MAY 12, 2022
The Sermon on the Mount (SotM) might be the most famous message ever delivered to a crowd.
Its many lessons have echoed through thousands of years of history and in all likelihood, someone somewhere gets a shiny dime every time the “golden rule” is indirectly quoted or written on the wall of an elementary school.
The lane change of the law
The closer one gets to the SotM, however, the more difficult the message becomes. For instance, it begins with a series of invitations into supernatural hope and happiness for the bruised, beaten down, and broken of the world:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
But only a few verses later, without warning or even a blinker, the message changes lanes and morphs into a type of morality bootcamp. What began with what sounded like good news for the weary, suddenly takes the form of a steel-toed boot behind your rear, relentlessly kicking you toward the highest bar of virtue – surpassing that of the pharisees and accepting nothing less than faultless perfection.
The first ‘left hook’ of the law is thrown toward any who truncate the definition of murder by reserving the label “murderer” only for those who have ended someone’s life. Instead, Jesus says, if you’ve ever lost your cool at someone on the highway or simply viewed another as a complete idiot, you’ve killed them in a way that sets you and the FBI’s most wanted contract killer on equal footing before God. In similar fashion, the command against adultery is broken not only in physically cheating on your spouse but if you’ve ever even entertained sexual thoughts toward another. Marriage, integrity, and even interpersonal relationships are all subjects for further consideration analyzed under the language of “you’ve heard it said… but I say unto you.” It’s here we learn Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Covenant’s “do this and live” system of the law, but to both fulfill it and clarify its intent.
Evil shares your zip code
There are two traps to avoid when reading the Sermon on the Mount. The first is a sense of accomplishment born out of our relentless tendency to compare. Because we’re often experts in the faults of others and blind to our own, we are prone to hearing the law and thinking something like “I wish Maria would listen to these words – that would help solve her problem of .” Both the history of humanity and the narrative of the Bible share the same story: as human beings, we are exceptionally terrible at recognizing the problem. Our condition is the consistent belief that we are rarely if ever the issue because evil is external, existing out there, in those people, the ones who made bad choices.
We fall into the second trap when we read these teachings as hyperbole. We think, “the guy who cheats on his wife and the one who lusts in his heart at a woman walking by can’t actually be the same, right?” Wrong. Jesus is not exaggerating but exacting in his exposition of the law. God does not wink at or shrug off evil…ever.
Both traps can be avoided by considering one of the most significant functions of the law: to reveal the ultimate locus of evil. The law is given to show how the line separating good from evil does not run between socioeconomic boundaries, races, political parties, or ideologies, but within every beating human heart. Its intent is to bring to light that which is dark in all of us, to speak truthfully to our hidden deceit, to say to us like Nathan says to David, “you’re that man!” The law is meant to expose our ugliness, how frequently we embody the narcissist who gives thanks for not being like those people; when, in fact, we are the ones who are poor in spirit — bankrupt and cold to the things of God.
Enduring the storm
Similar to how the New Testament brings clarity to the entire story, so too does the end of the Sermon on the Mount reveal the message of the whole. Jesus tells a parable of two houses built on separate foundations, each experience the same storm but only one endures:
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. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Building one’s house on the rock is to put these words into practice. It is to do the work of God, which according to Jesus, is to believe in the one God has sent. The SotM’s main intention is to point forward to the work of Christ on the cross and the two ways of living in light of its reality. One looks like building a house on the sand of our own ability to do good and avoid evil. When the storms of life come, the crash is always great and we’re left pointing fingers at other people in the midst of the ruins.
The other is to build our lives on the rock of Calvary, where the man of sorrows died for humankind. Upon this rock, the recognition of the Son of God given for our sins, God will build his church. Only in the sturdy security of his once-and-for-all death can we receive the exposing effects of the law as it shows us the wake we leave behind, because sin is always crouching at our door. The deadly blows of the law can break down our false safety nets of self-righteousness because we’ve been grafted into the more stable sanctuary of righteousness that is given, not earned.
Upon this rock we steadily look to Christ who endured our storm. He is the house who was “beaten against” by the harrowing winds of judgment for the evil in our hearts. This is the good news, the mysterious “spiritual drink from the rock” God has been eager to share with the world. Take up residence in this house, drink deeply from this well, and stand tall upon the rock of ages cleft for you. All we have needed, his open hands on the cross have provided. Great is his faithfulness.