Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Intro to the Sermon on the Mount

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About once a year or so, our Youth Minister, Roger, presents a telling of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. He has committed the sermon to memory and tells it, much as it must have sounded hearing Jesus tell it. It's a wonderful, powerful way to consider the teachings of Jesus.

This year, Roger prepared an introduction to the Sermon, to give us some context. This, too, I thought was very cool, and so I present it here for your consideration.

Palestine in the time of Jesus was difficult. Galilee, Samaria, Judea and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean region was under the occupation of the Roman Empire. Luke’s birth narrative begins with, “In the days of Caesar Augustus…” and Caesar Augustus was the first full-blown emperor of Rome. Rome had been a republic until Julius Caesar seized control and began the transition away from more democratic principles toward empire. His nephew, Octavius, inherited his power, took the name Caesar Augustus, and consolidated Rome’s position as an empire. Not only did Caesar Augustus consolidate political power, but he began to consolidate religious power as well. The expectation was for the conquered lands to worship the divine Caesar as a god.

This proved to be a problem for the Jews. Whereas most of the Mediterranean world already believed in many gods and had little difficulty assimilating Caesar in as another god to be worshipped, it was not the same for the Jews. The Jews believed there was but one true God, the creator and master of the universe. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

There was no way they could worship God and worship Caesar. Fortunately, because this was their religion when Rome took control, they weren’t forced to sacrifice at the altars to Caesar Augustus, but they were expected to capitulate to the political and social expectations of the empire.

But even this was too much for the Jews. “How can we, the chosen people of God, live in this unacceptable situation? Why are we again under the rule of the pagan gentiles? Didn’t we have our own rulers and our own temple? What has gone wrong?”

There were four significant points of view on this question in the days of Jesus. The zealots wanted to rise up like the Maccabees and violently drive Rome from the Promised Land. “It’s our land and we’ll kill the Romans and their lackeys to keep it.”

The Sadducees and Herodians urged the people to go along to get along with the rule of the empire. “If we rise up we’ll be destroyed. We must work together.” The Sadducees and Herodians had a credibility problem with the people, though, because as collaborators with Rome they became rich oppressors themselves.

The Pharisees viewed Roman rule as punishment from God for the people’s sin. “If we would only purify ourselves and truly become God’s holy people, then God will send his Messiah to lead us to victory against God’s enemies.” They were pretty serious about this, too, developing over 600 specific rules to make sure they were pure in the sight of God. This approach left little room for error and as a result the Pharisees tended to be a tad judgmental and intolerant toward those who didn’t follow their rules just so.

The Esseenes said, “All y’all are crazy and don’t get it” and they withdrew from society into the wilderness and refused to trouble themselves with earthly concerns and conflicts.

And in the region of Galilee from the town of Nazareth, Jesus, a carpenter turned rabbi, began a ministry of healing and of signs and wonders that the people had not seen before. And he had a message that put him at odds with everyone.

The zealots liked the way he exposed the hypocrisy of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but he also said, “Do not take revenge against the evil doer” and “Love your enemies, too, like God does.”

The Sadducees liked Jesus’ words of blessing to the poor people of the land, but when he enjoined them to stand up to those who backhand you and turn the other check to make them treat you like an equal or to stand naked before the judge and expose the economic injustice of the system or to turn the tables on Roman law by refusing to give a Roman soldier back his backpack after he has forced you to carry it for a mile – why, that just rocks the boat too much!

The Pharisees liked many of the themes of Jesus’ teaching – almsgiving, praying, and fasting, these were good, measurable acts of righteous in their eyes – but then he sums up the law with “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” and their 600 plus rules seem a bit silly and extreme.

The Esseenes could relate to the times Jesus withdrew to the mountains in solitude to pray, but then he always came back to the people and invited them to participate in the kingdom of God right now. And this participation was not based on how zealous or rich or pious or mystical one was. “It’s not even about calling me Lord,” Jesus said, “or prophesying, or casting out demons or performing miracles. That’s not how you know me and that’s not how you participate in the realm of God.” Instead it was based on recognizing the traps that pull us to sin and avoiding them. It was based on embracing God, not as the master of the universe, but as our Abba, our Daddy, and on carrying on the family business of reconciliation and love. It wasn’t about selfish prestige, or monetary gain, or being afraid and worrying about getting it right. It was based on simply treating others the way we’d like to be treated in return.

The Sermon on the Mount is the longest sermon of Jesus in the Gospels. Listen for these themes. Listen to how his message was heard by the zealots and the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Esseenes. Listen to how his message was heard by his disciples and by the people of the land. And then listen to how his message sounds to you as you try to live your life with integrity in the empire today.

The Sermon on the Mount