Consider this remarkable fact: in the Sermon on the Mount, there is not a single word about what to believe, only words about what to do and how to be. By the time the Nicene Creed is written, only three centuries later, there is not a single word in it about what to do and how to be—only words about what to believe. (Robin R Meyers, Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age, p.103)
The greatest collection of Jesus’ teachings can be found in Matthew 5-7 in what is called the Sermon on the Mount. (In Luke’s Gospel, a similar collection of teachings is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain.) Matthew, seeing Jesus as a new “Moses” superseding the old Moses, connects Jesus’ story with traditions about Moses who lived over a thousand years earlier. Here are some examples of Matthew’s intention of relating Jesus to Moses:
- Herod, who sought to kill all the male babies, parallels pharaoh’s attempt to kill the Hebrew newborn sons in Egypt.
- Moses received God’s word on Mount Sinai. Jesus speaks God’s word on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew ends his Gospel with the disciples being directed by Jesus to return to the mountain where he had taught them. (Matthew 28:16) This was Matthew’s way of emphasizing the importance of the Sermon on the Mount for Jesus’ followers.
- Matthew divides his Gospel into five parts. Moses was credited by the Jews of Jesus’ day with writing the Pentateuch (“Five Scrolls”). Jesus was offering his people a view of God which both included and transcended the Law of Moses.
The above quote by Meyers unveils a very important aspect of this collection of Jesus’ teachings. Not one word is uttered about what Jesus’ followers must believe as far as doctrine and dogma are concerned. The focus is on what to do as disciples following Jesus’ example and how to be as they reflected the unconditional and holy love of the one Jesus called Abba. One would assume that if what one believed intellectually were that crucial for Jesus, he would have at least said something about that part of one’s faith. Instead, he consistently focuses on how we are to live and how we are to be as we relate to those around us.
Matthew would not have his readers assume Jesus came to bring a new kind of legalism. Jesus’ message was not a rigid list of “dos and don’ts.” Foundational to all he taught was the radical idea that we are to be like God. This is most clearly seen in his teaching about loving our enemies. We are to do so because God loves Her enemies. The most radical teaching Jesus ever taught is found in Matthew 5:43-48 where we find these words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, SO THAT YOU MAY BE SONS OF YOUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN; FOR HE MAKES HIS SUN SHINE ON THE EVIL AND ON THE GOOD, AND SENDS RAIN ON THE JUST AND ON THE UNJUST.” In Jewish thinking, to be the son of someone or something was to show the character of that person or thing. For example, when Jesus said in the Beatitudes (the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount), “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” he meant that the shalom God willed and worked for in this world should be imitated by those who claim God as the One they call Lord–like Father/Mother, like son/daughter. We do as God does, and we are as God is in our everyday living. Jesus offered a mature ethic. Our lives should reflect not a blind obedience to rigid laws or out of a fear of punishment if we disobey but out of a conscious and devoted decision to be like the God we love and worship. We join God in mending the world, and we do it with the same kind of love God has for us.
Matthew emphasizes the importance of the Sermon on the Mount in four different ways as he ends this magnificent and radical collection of teachings. (Matthew 7:13-27)
- Jesus talks about the importance of entering the narrow gate instead of joining the majority who choose the wide and easy gate which leads to destruction. Jesus is always honest about the cost of following him.
- He warns his followers about false prophets who will lead people astray and offer a sick and compromised religion which does not correspond to one’s identity as a child of God. Such a religion will bear evil fruit. Those following Jesus will bear good fruit. We can recognize the validity of someone’s religion (including our own) by the fruit their lives bear and the way they live.
- Not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the Kingdom of God. Only those who “do the will of my Father who is heaven” will have that experience. But what is the will of God? Matthew just spent three chapters quoting Jesus (the Sermon on the Mount) which reveal God’s will.
- Those who hear Jesus’ words and do them will be like one who builds his house on rock. Those who hear his words but ignore them will be like a fool who builds his house on shifting sand.
So, a follower of Jesus is one who does as God does and becomes like the God Jesus came to reveal. That’s why 87 times in the Gospels Jesus says, “Follow me”—not believe in me but follow me. In John’s Gospel and in other places in the New Testament we see an emphasis on the word “believe.” However, to believe or to have faith throughout the New Testament has the meaning of trusting God and being faithful to God in the ways one is and lives in this world. The only place I know where “believe” means intellectual belief is in the book of James (See James 2:18-26) where the author says, “You believe God is one?” This remains a cardinal belief in all three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). James’s response is, “So do the demons.” Intellectual belief without the fundamental trust and fidelity which evolves from that faith is hypocritical and worthless.
This focus on how we live and how we are is also found in Jesus’ other teachings including his parables. The late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg demonstrated that the primary characteristic of God Jesus called his followers to emulate is compassion, the deep empathy that results in a solidarity which responds with love and justice. A lack of compassion is the surest sign one knows nothing about the God Jesus came to reveal.
So many of us were taught that our salvation depends on our faith, and faith was too often defined in terms of what one believed intellectually. Such a perspective rejected any notion that we were saved by our “works.” Paul is often quoted to shore up this assumption. The Apostle is wrongly contrasted with the “works righteousness” of the pharisees and the book of James. By “works” Paul means those ritualistic acts by which one achieved favor and acceptance from God (circumcision, kosher laws, etc.) James, on the other hand, uses the word “works” to refer to the kinds of deeds one does as a result of that person’s transformation brought about by God’s grace and love. Like Jesus, James believed that if the fruit of one’s life is not good, then that person has not allowed God to love him into his wholeness (which is the root meaning of the word “salvation”). James would have agreed totally with Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:6—“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” If there are not works of love, there is no legitimate faith. (See also I Corinthians 3:10-15 for an interesting and ignored Pauline perspective on the importance of works for one’s salvation. What does Paul mean by one being “saved, but only as through fire.” I have never heard a sermon preached on this passage.)
So, why did Jesus focus on the way we live and the person we become as we follow him? Why did he seem unconcerned with the fine points of theological discourse and logic? Why were those simple words “follow me” his essential challenge to prospective followers? And why has the church so often deviated from Jesus’ emphasis as it has argued, divided, and become militant over theological differences rather than focusing on Jesus’ words and example? These questions will be the subject of Part Two of this series.