Sunday, April 18, 2021

Blessings on the Mountain: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-20

Have you ever seen a news segment where a reporter goes out and interviews people in the street about things everyone assumes they should know? The footage they get is seldom encouraging. I've seen people flustered about what causes a rainbow; people uncertain who fought in World War II; people unable to point to any country on a map and name it. “Education these days!” Right? Well, sad to say, but this isn't new. In January 1889, reporters spread out through St. Louis, Missouri, to quiz the population of the city as to whether they could recite the Ten Commandments. Most people believed they knew how – after all, this was when the Ten Commandments were learned in school. And some actually could. But most were wrong.

One man they interviewed, a certain M. Klute, refused to try, offering the excuse that, for all he knew, the Ten Commandments had changed since his school days. (I want to know how old that guy was!) The local street commissioner, George Burnett, said the Ten Commandments had been crowded out of his head by learning math. A young doctor named Henry Jacobson, son of German Jewish immigrants, said he didn't know the Ten Commandments but would be happy to recite definitions out of the medical dictionary. Philip Lanham, a popular though elderly judge known as an auctioneer and hunter, would only say that his way of keeping the sabbath meant going fishing. A stockbroker in his early thirties, Joe Davidson, said that there was only one commandment he observed: “Thou shalt not buy wheat unless thou hast it already sold.” Six years later, Joe got drunk, accosted a friend at his house one night, and put a gun to the man's head, demanding payment of a $50 debt. He eventually lost a fortune in the stock market and froze in the street one winter's night in early 1903.

Local lead dealer Richard Everett, when asked, was convinced that one of the Ten Commandments was “Lead me not into temptation.” Another local broker, 45-year-old George Henry Small, said there was only one commandment he cared to remember – and that one was, “Mind your own business.” A month after saying that, he'd be appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners, and eventually would become an Assistant United States Treasurer. Still another fellow, 48-year-old Col. Henry W. Chandler – local merchant, Civil War veteran, and a committed believer in his own ability to read minds – was asked to recite the Ten Commandments, and began by saying: “Now I lay me down to sleep...” Col. Chandler later became president of the electric company but was sued by his former friend, president of the silk company, who caught Chandler in bed with his wife. And finally, 34-year-old William Hobbs, the city recorder of deeds and a reporter himself, said that when he wanted to know anything about the Ten Commandments, he just asked his wife, because, he said, “it's easier than keeping all of them continually stored up in my brain.”

On the whole, 90% of residents of St. Louis in 1889 were unable to say what the Ten Commandments were. As the newspaper reported on the results of dozens of street interviews, they ran their findings under the line: “Isn't this awful?”1 A good thing to remember any time we get too despairing about our generation today, or the next – our ancestors weren't exactly the swiftest either, sometimes.

Still, I suspect that what was true in St. Louis 140 years ago would not have been true in Jerusalem or Nazareth 2000 years ago. Jesus would not have been caught off-guard by the question or flubbed it, and neither would Joseph or Mary, or likely any of their neighbors. See, growing up, Jesus would have been taken by Joseph and Mary several times each year to Jerusalem, to attend all the pilgrimage feasts for which Jews were ideally meant to go to the holy city. And during these multiple yearly visits to Jerusalem, the young Jesus would, like so many others, have been exposed first-hand to the liturgies of worship in the temple. Each and every morning and each and every evening, Israel had been commanded to sacrifice: “One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight. And with the first lamb, a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering” (Exodus 29:39-40). And so each morning, at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests on duty held four lotteries in the Chamber of Hewn Stone to decide things like who'd clear away the ashes from last night, who'd actually butcher the meat, who'd carry the parts to the altar, who'd burn the incense, and so on. Once the eastern sky had been lit up by the dawn, a priest would unlock the large gate, allowing people access to the temple courts; and a loud voice would call priests to their service, Levites to their platform, and all Israel to their watch. And so the people would gather.2 Every time Joseph and Mary took young Jesus to Jerusalem, each day they were there, they'd listen for that call after dawn and come to see and hear. And then, after the lamb was slain, nine priests would gather into the Chamber of Hewn Stone, which was accessible also to the people. And they would recite the opening prayers of the day, as a blessing. And the first words that these nine priests would recite every day? The Ten Commandments.3  Each and every morning, the people who went to the Temple to attend the morning sacrifice would hear the Ten Commandments spoken over them, all over again.

Of course, most of the time, young Jesus wasn't in Jerusalem. He was at home in Nazareth, as was his family. There, instead of the Temple, there was the synagogue, where everyone in town would come to gather each and every Sabbath. And each and every Sabbath, someone in the synagogue would read first a passage out of the Law, the five books of Moses, and then a passage from one of the prophets (cf. Acts 15:21). Over the course of every three years, Jesus and everybody else would've heard the whole Law read. That meant that, every three years at minimum, the Sabbath reading would have included the Ten Commandments, making them familiar.

But as if that weren't enough, each and every morning, committed believers among the Jews had prayers that they'd pause to recite several times a day, at fixed times: morning, noon, and night. Jesus would later go on to criticize some of the Pharisees for timing their errands so as to make sure that the call to prayer would catch them at an intersection so more people would see how devout they were and be impressed (Matthew 6:5). But Jesus does assume that the people hearing his Sermon on the Mount are already observing these fixed times of prayer. Joseph and Mary would have taught young Jesus the prayers to recite each morning in Nazareth at the same time the priests were reciting their blessings in Jerusalem – and we have evidence that tells us that devout Jews living far from Jerusalem were adopting the same prayers.4 In Nazareth, Jesus would have begun each and every day of his earthly life by reciting the Ten Commandments first of all. So even from a purely human point of view, the Ten Commandments cannot have helped but leave an indelible mark on the way Jesus lived and the way Jesus thought during his time on earth.

But, of course, we do not see Jesus only from a human point of view. Because Jesus is not only human. Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God. He is the Eternal Word made flesh. And when Moses gathered the people at the foot of Mount Sinai that fateful day we heard about last week, and when the storm and flame came down on the mountaintop – Jesus was there. The Old Testament never uses the phrase “Ten Commandments” – what it actually calls them are the “Ten Words,” the Ten Words of God, which he spoke in fire from the summit of the mountain. But every word that God speaks is, at its heart, the Word of God which is indivisible, who can be expressed only partially through the medium of frail human language.

In other words, God has been continually speaking his one unique Word, the Word that became flesh; and all the times we find God speaking, he's speaking Jesus – only expressed, in different partial ways, in human language. In some way, each of these “Ten Words,” these Ten Commandments, is Christ himself, the self-revealing Word of God. When God opens his mouth on the mountain, so to speak, what comes out is Christ. Each of these commandments, each of these declarations, just is Jesus, but seen through a pinhole, heard in slow motion. In being the Word of God made flesh, you could say that Jesus is therefore the Ten Commandments made flesh. And that makes sense of why St. Irenaeus, our friend and mentor from the second century, referred to “the Ten Commandments, which, if anyone does not observe, he has no salvation.”5

So, as the Ten Commandments made flesh, who grew up reciting the Ten Commandments each morning, Jesus clearly values and cherishes the Ten Commandments. Later in his ministry, when a rich young man came to this rabbi and wanted to know how to live well, Jesus told him, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). And when the rich young man asked which ones, Jesus started rattling off many out of the ten (Matthew 19:18-19). But quite some time before that, Jesus sat down on a hilltop in Galilee, turning it into the new Mount Sinai. Those gathered below him, seated in the fields, probably had little idea that they were in the same position as their distant ancestors who'd stood at the foot of the desert mountain and heard the words of God proclaimed in fire and fury. But when Jesus comes to the mountain, with the crowds down at the foot and his disciples approaching him, these apostles are like Moses and Aaron and the elders of Israel, approaching on the mountain the God who is Jesus. Jesus, for his part, is both the Prophet Like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) and the fresh face of God to the world – all these things rolled into one. And so, in a new way, he's come to teach the Law all over again – which is exactly what he does, in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1).

If we understand the posture Jesus is taking here, then we can understand why some people might have thought that Jesus had come to replace the Law with something different – that he was smashing the tablets all over again, so that he could write in their dust. And we can also understand why Jesus makes very clear that that isn't what he's doing. He hasn't come to cancel out the commandments, hasn't come to demolish the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets! I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus says that not even one single letter will fall out of the Law until everything has happened (Matthew 5:18). Jesus says that loosening even one of the minor commandments, or teaching other people to ignore it, will forfeit honor in the kingdom of God; but living out the commandments and teaching others how to do the same – that's the path toward honor and greatness (Matthew 5:19). And in that way, Jesus announces, our righteousness – our faithfulness to these commandments and to their Giver – should go beyond the way they were performed by even the most committed Law-abiding people of the day. It's a mighty tall order: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Because to do that, isn't just about the Ten Commandments. By the time Jesus was speaking, many had come to understand the Ten Commandments as something like a table of contents for the whole Law. Each one was broader than what it literally said, and covered many different kinds of circumstances. And so, as we begin exploring the Ten Commandments for ourselves, we're going to take that into consideration.

Jesus is emphasizing the importance of the Law. He didn't come to do away with it, or to teach anybody not to keep these commandments. Rather, what he wants to do is to crack them each open for us, so that we can see how he's written all over it, and how each commandment can write Jesus on our lives, as we meet him there and hear his loving voice. And by meeting Jesus in the commandments, we can be shaped into a people of blessing. Because we love the commandments, we will refuse to fight our way through life with the tools of sin – and that refusal is a blessing, because the spiritual poor who cry out to God will be citizens of God's kingdom (Matthew 5:3). Because we love the commandments, we'll take more and more notice of the gap between our world and God's vision for the world. And that gap, that gulf between the two, will sadden us. It'll make us lament, and it will make us mourn. And that sorrow is a blessing, because Jesus promises to comfort such mourners who grieve that gap (Matthew 5:4).

Because we love the commandments, we'll learn the value of restraint – having power to do certain things, but gently choosing not to. And that's a blessing, because the meek, those who gently restrain their power, are destined to inherit not just the land from river to river but the whole of the earth (Matthew 5:5). Because we love the commandments, we'll hunger and thirst for justice to be done on that earth – and that's a blessing, since Jesus promises to satisfy that hunger, to quench that thirst (Matthew 5:6). Because we love the commandments, we'll lean into their challenge for us. And as we understand how readily we ourselves fall short, we'll know that we're gravely in need of grace and mercy. We'll understand that the same obstacles we ourselves face are faced also by others. And in that understanding, we'll show mercy to them. That's a blessing, because Jesus promises to show mercy to the merciful (Matthew 5:7).

Because we love the commandments, we'll use them to examine our conscience. And these commandments will become God's scalpel to perform surgery in our hearts, scraping out the roots of sin that stain. And that surgery, that scalpel, is a blessing, because it will make us pure in heart, and Jesus promises that those purified in heart will finally be able to see God (Matthew 5:8). Because we love the commandments, we'll encourage others to love them too, so that they can have great peace – for as the psalmist says, “Great peace have those who love your Law” (Psalm 119:165). And that's a blessing, because Jesus promises that peacemakers will be counted as God's very own children (Matthew 5:9). And finally, because we love the commandments, we'll be dreadfully unpopular by the standards of a rebellious and lawless world. And that's a massive blessing, because Jesus tells us that those who are persecuted for the sake of this justice and this righteousness will have the kingdom of God and that those who are slandered for clinging to Jesus have an unthinkable reward in store (Matthew 5:10-12).

We want all of those things! We want each and every one of those blessings! And that life of blessing begins by learning the commandments, learning Christ in the commandments, and living Christ in the commandments. God's word, God's commandments, are a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105). And as we lean into God's commandments and keep them in Christ, then that light will radiate throughout our lives. Our whole lives will shine with that light, which no basket or bushel can be allowed to hide (Matthew 5:14), and no part of the house of this world will be able to hold onto its darkness (Matthew 5:15). As people see our “good works,” our lives that fulfill everything these commandments mean and everything the Law was trying to accomplish, our lives that hew closely to God's will, then observers will “give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

So to do that better, we're going to spend most of the rest of this year on a journey through the Ten Words which God spoke at Sinai – which are really just his one Word, who is Christ. But under the forms then given and the history that followed, we're going to learn the Ten Commandments and apply the Ten Commandments to our lives today, to shine that light on them. We don't want to be like those people in the St. Louis streets who didn't know them. We're going to know them. By the end of this year, I dare say each one of us, if asked the Ten Commandments, will have no problem scoring 10/10.

But even more importantly, we're going to see how to live them – or, rather, how we can yield place for Christ and his Holy Spirit to fulfill them in us by his love. For these commandments were spoken by Jesus no less than any other words you'll find in the Gospels or anywhere in the Bible. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn't do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand,” but “everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:26, 24). These tablets of stone – they're a rock worth building our house on – and our hope on. Amen.

1  “Isn't This Awful? Few St. Louisans Know the Ten Commandments: Citizens Put to the Test by Sunday Post-Dispatch Reporters,St. Louis Post-Dispatch, vol. 39, no. 197 (27 January 1889): 19. See <>.

2  Mishnah: Tamid 4:3. The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish practices put together in the late second or early third century by Rabbi Judah the Prince, president of the Sanhedrin and the great-great-grandson of the Apostle Paul's teacher Rabbi Gamaliel.

3  Mishnah: Tamid 5:1

4  For instance, the Nash Papyrus, which was written in Egypt between 150 BC and 100 BC, contains the morning prayers in Hebrew and begins with the Ten Commandments. A full translation of what remains of this papyrus, and a picture of it, may be found at <>.

5  Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 4.15.1

No comments:

Post a Comment