As I continue my review of the gospel of Matthew and what is says, and does not say, about what Christianity demands regarding unconditional love and absolute tolerance, I come to the sermon on the mount. My motivation for this effort is claims that Christianity ought to be nearly a ‘anything goes’ religion regarding sinful behavior. As you might suspect, I consider the sermon on the mount to be something of a ‘home run’ in making my point that Christ did not teach a ‘anything goes’ type of gospel.
This sermon starts out with the familiar beatitudes, where a list of behaviors with their associated blessings are declared. For the topic at hand, hungering and thirsting after righteousness makes the list. Along with blessings regarding persecution for righteousness’ sake. Our good works are to be placed on a candlestick to give light to all, that they may see them and glorify the Father. This is again very far away from embracing and celebrating our sins and self-identifying with them.
Christ then makes clear that he did not come to destroy, but to fulfill the law. We are called by Christ to keep and teach the commandments in order to be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Further, if we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven, our righteousness had better exceed that of the scribes and pharisees. Christ then teaches even higher expectations for behavior. He goes beyond ‘thou shalt not kill’ and teaches us to not even get angry with our brothers. He goes beyond ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ and teaches us not to lust in our hearts.
For those who advocate for absolute tolerance and inclusiveness, he teaches that if an eye offends it should be plucked out, or if a hand offends it should be cut off. This should of course not be seen as teaching some self-mutilation, but rather a heavy emphasis of doing whatever it takes to avoid temptations and sinful behaviors – even if it means denying yourself of fundamental experiences.
At about this point in the sermon, comes one of the first cases of teaching unconditional love in Christ’s teachings. Christ tells us that we must love not only our neighbor, but also our enemy. If we are truly to follow Christ we must love all, even those who hate and persecute us. This is an important part of becoming perfect, which Christ teaches us to do. But it is a forced either-or to say we must either live righteously, resist temptation, and teach others to do the same, or love our enemies. Clearly we can and must do both. And we should recognize that teaching others to live righteously and resist temptation is itself a form of Christ-like love.
Christ then teaches that we should perform our alms, and saying our prayers in secret, and that in doing this, our Father will reward us openly. Christ then teaches us how to pray with the famous Lord’s prayer. For this study, I believe the key phrase is ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’.
In concluding the sermon on the mount, Christ says to ‘judge not’. There are many who would say this is a teaching that demands absolute tolerance, that we should not judge others at all, and therefore must tolerate all behaviors. I think that a key to understanding where this leads is the example Christ gives directly after this declaration. The example is that of motes in our brother’s eye, and beams in our own. To avoid hypocrisy, we need to acknowledge that our own eyes have need of attention, and that cleansing ourselves is the highest priority. But with the topic at hand, it is interesting that one of the purposes of removing the beam in our own eye is to the see more clearly so that we may cast out our brother’s mote. The point is that all of our eyes require some debris removal, and that in the end, both beams and motes have been removed, and thus all eyes become clean. The point is not to stubbornly retain our own debris, and to accuse those who are trying to help as being hateful hypocrites.
I think it is interesting that in the midst of a very high expectations type of gospel being preached, that Christ invites us to ask, seek, and knock. Promising that what we seek will be provided.
Christ then reiterates the straight and narrow gate that leads to life, with few finding it, and calling us to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing who will convince us to follow more wide and broad gates. The way to tell the difference is the fruits of their behavior. The good fruits are those which come from following what Christ actually taught, and who therefore act as wise men who build upon the rock. The bad fruits are those who work iniquity, and build their house upon the sand.
While this sermon does include the command to love our enemies, and judge not, it certainly can not be reasonably read to demand an absolute tolerance / anything goes style of gospel.