Have you ever witnessed so much anger as is being expressed in town meetings across our country? Can we disagree with one another and yet respect the other person and respect their opinion? Is it necessary to put people down and make disparaging personal remarks about others because they disagree?
We have lost the art of conversation. We have lost the ability to listen. Commentators on news programs all talk at once. Cynicism and sarcasm pervade the conversation. Let’s be clear: people who disagree with us are not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters. Refugees are not all terrorists. They are our brothers and sisters who are suffering. In chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks us to care for them. Yes, weed out the terrorists but let those properly vetted come in. “When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome…” (Matthew 25: 39). And what does Jesus say? “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to the least of these brethren of mine, you did it to me” (25: 40). Welcoming vulnerable women and children is welcoming Christ. Fear should not keep us from living the Christian life.
We can all disagree about approaches and policies. Honest people can disagree and still be Christian. However, in these difficult and complex times, I suggest that we allow our faith to inform our opinions and that, through prayer and openness to the Word of God, we allow Jesus to lead us from fear to faith. In this context, I highly recommend the Sermon on the Mount. Providentially, it is the Gospel readings we are hearing on Sundays till the arrival of Lent.
The Sermon begins with the Beatitudes, the attitudes of Jesus that lead to life. The eight Beatitudes and the claim that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world are the core of the Gospel. The Good News of salvation, the core of Christ’s message is right there. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount contains some examples about how to live this Good News. We are invited to be who we are: the holy people of God. Let us allow our faith to inform our opinions.
There have been various interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. Some say these are sayings of Jesus that amount to impossible ideals of perfection. Others say they are moral codes for living. I am suggesting that the rest of the sermon are simply some examples Jesus gave on how to live this Good News. There are other examples in other teachings of Jesus. These are some suggestions He makes. They are given in a relaxed atmosphere on a mountainside. Jesus does not give them in a demanding or a punishing way. The only way to understand them is to appreciate the Beatitudes and the identification of salt and light. Be who you are: the holy people of God. Let your faith inform your opinions.
If we fail to understand the Beatitudes and the salt and light, we will see the rest of the sermon as a harangue on rules and regulations. There are six statements that begin: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” Without the Beatitudes as the foundation, these statements sound like the demands of a new boss who wants us to know he is in charge. You’ve had it easy up until now but now you better measure up.
There are several admonitions about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Without the Beatitudes, these admonitions sound like instructions given to children on how to behave. Basically, we are told to do them in secret so only the Father sees them but why – simply to get a reward?
And there are twelve directives for living – do not judge, respect what is sacred, treat others as you would have them treat you, enter through the narrow gate, etc. Without the Beatitudes, we end up exhausted by the program set forth and guilty at our failures in these regards.
Are all of these ideals of perfection we are expected to live, (“Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” ) or are they a blueprint for moral living? Well, they are ideals and they do lead to living a good moral life but they are not statements that exist simply in themselves as directives and admonitions from an impersonal god. They are examples given by a God who is so personal that He came among us and sat down on a hillside to teach us some Good News.
With the Beatitudes, old teaching is brought to new depths. Jesus made it clear that He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to bring them to fulfillment. “You have heard it said … but I say to you…” because you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world that you should not even get angry with your brother, should not swear at all etc. etc. Because the poor in spirit, the meek and merciful, and those who mourn and hunger and thirst for righteousness know they are loved by God, their prayer, fasting and almsgiving can be lived out of the intimacy of their relationship with God. Notice that the reward is later not now and the reward is with God, not with one another.
Jesus reminds us that our true home is not here. He gives us some examples so that we might keep on the journey and not settle in: “Do not store up treasures for yourselves here on earth, let the light of the Kingdom of Heaven scatter your darkness, you cannot serve two masters, enter by the narrow gate, build your life on solid ground” for example. You can see that they are examples, not imperatives.
I encourage you to open your Bible to chapters 5 – 7 of Matthew’s Gospel which is the Sermon on the Mount. Enjoy listening to Christ and allow His wisdom to penetrate your heart and seep into your spirit. And listen not only to the words Jesus speaks but appreciate the person who is speaking: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the most beautiful person who ever walked the face of the earth. Let your faith inform your opinions.
May the Lord give you peace and may He give peace to your enemies as well as your friends.