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The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn


Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 15: The Voice With Authority


From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 7:24-29. For the parallel passage see Luke 6:47-49. To follow up the theme look at I Corinthians 3:10-15.


On Daniel Webster’s tomb in Marshfield, Massachusetts, is the epitaph which the famous statesman dictated the day before his death:

"Philosophical argument . . . has sometimes shaken my reason for the faith which is in me; but my heart has always assured and reassured me that the gospel of Jesus Christ must be Divine Reality. The Sermon on the Mount cannot be a mere human production. This belief enters into the very depth of my conscience. The whole history of man proves it."

According to Matthew, those who first heard Jesus had a similar reaction. Without benefit of all the centuries of history that Webster looked at, they sensed something amazing. "The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."

 A New Authority

Even on the surface the note of authority was obvious. Jesus' listeners were acquainted with two kinds of appeal to authority in their tradition. First, they knew the scribes, who started from the authority of the Mosaic Law, then expounded it. Second, they knew the inspired prophets, who started with the ringing declaration, "Thus says the Lord." But Jesus did neither. We have seen how he introduced startling statements with the words, "but I say to you." We have seen how be looked ahead to the day of judgment when some will hear him say, "I never knew you." No wonder people said he spoke with authority.

There had been other clues along the way. At the synagogue in Capernaum people were astonished, "for he taught them as one who had authority." Immediately afterwards, when he healed a sick man, spectators marveled that he had authority even over unclean spirits. (See Mark 1:22, 27 and Luke 4:32, 36.) Still more amazing -- some thought it blasphemous -- was his assumption of authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:2-8).

All these signs led to the recognition on a deeper level that there was some mysterious power and authority in Jesus himself. But, before we can understand that, we need to consider what we mean by authority.

Three Kinds of Authority

1. Often when we speak of authority we mean some pronouncement that settles an issue for us. This authority is external. The parent decides some issues for the child -- wisely, we hope, but whether wisely or not, the decision is made. Congress decides the rates for income taxes; we citizens have some influence on the decision, but whether we like it or not, we acknowledge its authority. Such external authorities can change their minds. When they do, we are bound by the new decision rather than the old.

Such authority may exist in religion. The Pharisees accepted the authority of a code of laws and its official interpretation. Our Roman Catholic friends accept the authority of the pope. When he changes his mind, as he has often done, they change accordingly -- whether it be a question of belief or of the rules for fasting. Although they may voluntarily accept the authority, it is external to themselves.

2. Sometimes people who chafe under authority rebel and say: "I am tired of having someone decide things for me. I reject authority. From now on, I'll make my own decisions. I recognize no authority except myself." Usually this kind of protest is quite impractical, but it may give one a tremendous feeling of exhilaration, at least temporarily.

Unfortunately, people often seem to think there are only these two kinds of authority. They think: Either I am the master of my soul, or I am the slave of someone else. Either I am my own authority, or I submit to some external authority.

But there is a third kind of authority.

3. Truth is an authority that no one can long defy. It is superior to any individual; yet it is not external to us. It is imbedded in ourselves and our universe. It does not change its mind and then require us to change accordingly. Unless we are hopelessly adolescent rebels, we know we must come to terms with truth.

God is that kind of authority. Because he made us in his image, something of his truth is part of our inmost beings. When we defy him, we defy our truest selves. When we respond to his Word, we say: "This is no alien voice, no external commander ordering me around. Nor is it any mere whim of my own. This is no ruler who may change his mind tomorrow. This is my Creator. He calls me to be true to that self which he made and filled with the breath of life, not to this twisted self that is torn by conflicting loyalties and warped understanding. This is the authority of the Physician who can heal, the Savior who can redeem, the Creator who can even now give new life."

That is why Christian faith has always said we are most truly ourselves, not when we boast of our independence but when we love; not when we command but when we serve; not when we buck the truth but when we freely accept what is given.

That is why we recognize that Christ speaks with authority.

The Sermon and the Christian Gospel

The authority of the Sermon on the Mount is like the authority of the rock foundation in that final striking parable. In the debris of history are countless crumbled buildings, shattered when their sand foundations washed away. This rock foundation endures. It is the Rock of Ages, the Rock of Eternity.

But the truth of the Sermon is not just abstract truth, locked in sentences which we tediously translate and study. You can lose or misunderstand a sentence here or there, and the truth remains. For it is the truth of the living Spirit who gave us the sentences, the truth of the God who acted through this man teaching on the mount for our salvation.

Martin Dibelius points out that many of the sentences of Jesus have parallels in the sayings of Jewish literature. Yet the rabbinic statements won no authority outside Judaism. Why did the Sermon on the Mount inspire such universal acclaim? Because it was Jesus who proclaimed these sayings.

Occasionally you may have heard the curious idea that the Sermon on the Mount is a simple moral message, which has nothing to do with the rest of the church's teaching about Jesus. Someone says: "I don't believe all this theology, but I believe in the simple teachings of Jesus."

But you cannot say that, if you know what is in the Sermon on the Mount. A vast, profound theology is there. There is the promise of God's kingdom, the assurance that maii eaii trust God, the warning that we are evil, an ethic so searching thatit convicts us of sin and sends us helplessly searching for life, the prayer for forgiveness, the confidence that a merciful God will forgive, the warning that life stands under divine judgment and that the voice that speaks the sermon will be the voice heard at the judgment. All this is in the Sermon.

Still the Sermon is not the entire Christian gospel. It makes us ready to hear the gospel. As Archibald Hunter says, "If God means that, in order to be saved, we must completely fulfill all these demands, then we are all doomed to be damned." (A Pattern for Life by Archibald Hunter, p. 102 The Westminster Press, 1953. Used by permission.) But the gospel goes on to tell us that this Jesus, who gave us the Sermon, was crucified, that in his very crucifixion he forgave his murderers, that his forgiveness was the forgiveness of God for humankind. It goes on to say that God raised from the dead this Jesus, the Lord and Savior of all who trust him.

That is the only reason we have the Sermon on the Mount. Otherwise it would have been lost long ago. But the early Christians were convinced that in this Jesus, the eternal God had entered into human life for the salvation of men. This "gospel" -- the word, you remember, means "good news" -- was the most tremendous thing in their lives. So they collected and treasured the words which Jesus spoke when he was on earth, passed them on to newcomers in their fellowship, and wrote them down in the "Gospels" that are now part of our New Testament. These were the sayings of their Lord who reigned in heaven, the Savior who had bestowed upon them the Holy Spirit, who had promised and brought into their midst the revolutionary power of the kingdom of God.

Building on Rock

The Sermon on the Mount ends with the parable of the two houses. "How terrifyingly it is driven home!" said Augustine. Look at some of the phrases. "These words of mine" -- there's the note of authority we have seen. Everyone who "does them" and who "does not do them" -- that is absolutely clear and leaves us no out. Then the two men -- one building on rock, the other on sand. The listeners perhaps thought of the desert wadies, streams that are dry most of the year. The smooth sand might seem an inviting place to build, and in calm days the house would seem secure. But then come rain, flood, and wind -- like the struggles which come into every life. One house stands; the other falls.

It's clear, but still puzzling. Can we really build a life upon this foundation that Christ offers? We have seen in our study many ways of dodging the issue. Let them pass in review. One method is to reduce the whole thing to some practical version of the Golden Rule, or to identify it with the common goals of Americanism. That can be done only in ignorance or dishonesty. The opposite method is to make it all an ideal, not quite practical but lovely to aspire to. That is certainly not making it the foundation rock. In between these two are the many variations on them. Some say this kind of life is possible within a Christian community, but not among outsiders. Some reserve many of Jesus' "counsels" for the lives of a few saints, and frankly settle for a good deal less everywhere else.

Jesus does not allow these evasions. True, he is proclaiming the kingdom of God in all its holiness and purity. We can say in complete truthfulness that the kingdoms of this world are still far, far from the kingdom of God. And we must live in the kingdoms of this world. But Jesus calls on us to seek God's kingdom. So what shall we do with this disturbing preacher?

One qualification we have discussed. Jesus was not legislating for any conceivable civil government. If in democratic citizenship we take responsibility for government, we cannot rush the Sermon on the Mount through Congress. Governments provide for laws, courts, powers of enforcement, the maintenance of objective norms of overt actions -- things which the Sermon on the Mount dismisses. Yet even in this area of government we cannot ignore Jesus.

"You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them," said Bismarck. Coercion and armies do things -- we cannot escape it. But they are not the rock foundation on which a house can sit through wind and flood.

What, then, of our personal lives -- insofar as we can distinguish them from political life? No one has such trust in God, such disdain for mammon, such courage and faithfulness that he can claim to have built on rock. Much of what we have built -- what every one of us has built -- is doomed to crash. Many of our dearest accomplishments are destined for destruction "on that day" of which Jesus speaks.

If we recognize that, the Sermon has done something for us. "It plants a seed of permanent dissatisfaction in the soul," (The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VII, p.155. Abingdon Press, 1951) says Amos Wilder. It sends us to the Father, with whom there is forgiveness.

But that forgiveness, if sincerely received, is no idle escape batch. It is the source of the trust and confidence which alone can -- with some reality in every Christian life-bring alive in humanity the spirit that Jesus demands and imparts.

"Thy kingdom come," the Sermon teaches us to pray. That kingdom comes with storm and destruction to our works of proud ambition. It comes with healing mercy to the merciful who trust in God and long for the "blessedness" that he offers.

A fitting conclusion for a study of the Sermon on the Mount is a prayer from the Book of Common Order:

 

Give ear, 0 Lord, unto our prayer, and attend to the voice of our supplication.
Make us poor in spirit: that ours may be the kingdom of heaven.
Make us to mourn for sin: that we may be comforted by thy grace.
Make us to hunger and thirst after righteousness: that we may be filled therewith.
Make us merciful: that we may obtain mercy.
Make us pure in heart: that we may see thee.
Make us peacemakers: that we may be called thy children.
Make us willing to be persecuted for righteousness' sake: that our reward may be great in heaven. Amen.

 

 

 

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