Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
There is a problem that we as Christians have. We have replaced a Gospel of grace that transforms our lives so that we can become sources of life, hope, and peace for others into a religious ideologies from which we derive a system of ethical obligations.1
This is no more evident than how we often look to the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount has been looked to as a source of ethical reflection about what it means to be a (really) good person. We hear Jesus talk about addressing our angry behaviors, letting our yes be yes, loving our enemy, praying and giving not to be seen, not judging, etc. and we think to ourselves: “This is what a good person is like.” Correspondingly, we then also think if people don’t do these things, they aren’t being good people or, at least, not being good Christians.
However, we don’t always pay close to attention to the way Jesus concludes the Sermon. Jesus says that those who do Jesus’ words will be like a wise person who builds his house on a solid foundation that can withstand the onslaught of multiple disasters. The metaphor of building casts an image of progression and of development. For Jesus, doing or not doing the things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t about “being good” or “being evil,” but it was about being able to come to face the challenges of life and still be standing.
Put succinctly, the Sermon on the Mount is about spiritual formation, not a behavioral code righteousness. Jesus demonstrates that the value of the Torah is to then bring to light and address other interpersonal behaviors other than just what was explicitly given in various commandments that leads people to move towards the completeness of God’s love. The concerns about not being focused on the public praise for public piety and to not worry about the future allows a person to redirect their own hearts and minds towards the God the Father, His Kingdom and righteousness. It is through putting into practice Jesus’ words that we are brought into a new way of life, that we participate in the movement from the first Beatitudes about the poor in spirit, mourning, and meek that leads us to crave righteousness to the Beatitudes that speak of people being a life-giving influence through mercy, purity of heart, and becoming peacemakers, who are able to stand even when the persecutions come.
The problem for us Protestants is that we thought faith was the mark by which we lived and experienced God’s grace, rather than the means that we discovered, relate to God, and become conformed to the free, life-giving grace of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. The Bible, including especially the New Testament, was divided instruction up into matters of faith and ethical law. Consequently, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole was treated more like ethical law that we used to identify and regulate people’s behaviors that didn’t have much to do with faith rather than an expression of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that our faith leads us to put into practice for the purposes of realizing God’s will for our life.
In my own spiritual life growing up, I sought to put Jesus’ teachings to practice, but it came with a perfectionistic mentality. With my Protestant worldview, I committed myself to want to go beyond faith, but I wanted to do what was good. I sought to do what Jesus said, as imperfect as I was at it. To that end, the attempt to obey was of mixed results. On the one hand, when some harsh trials came in life, I was able to keep the core of myself alive and standing, even when I experience the emotional chaos that emerged but, on the other hand, I had internalized a sense of moral judgment for my imperfections and failures that made the recovery from the series of calamities harder to get up from.
However, the Sermon on the Mount was never intended to be a way to judge who is or isn’t a good person, but it was about showing God’s People the way to come to realize God’s purposes in their lives in a way that the people of the Exodus failed. The Sermon on the Mount is a New Torah instruction to lead people through their wilderness, to bring to fulfillment what God’s Torah instruction through Moses did not accomplish.
When one appropriately addresses one’s angry behaviors, when one forgives, when one prays for God’s kingdom, when one seeks God’s righteousness, when we refrain from judgment and we do this because we believe Jesus has the authority, or expertise if you will, to teach this, we are allowing the instruction of God in and from Jesus Christ to shine light on and direct our paths, forming us to be new people.
Do what Jesus says for your formation. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t about you being “good” because of what you do instead of being “bad,” but it is about allowing God to define, mark, and direct your future so that you can be a source of the life-giving goodness that God desires for the world. If you aren’t perfect with forgiveness, if you struggle with feelings of sexual desire that would be inappropriate to act upon, if you find yourself thinking a little too much on money, if you can have a judgmental spirit on select occasions, don’t see yourself as somehow “bad,” but nevertheless continue to seek to live Jesus’ instruction in your life so that you build your life on a solid foundation. These struggles do not make us evil, but in seeking to continue to do as Jesus says, we put to death the deeds of the flesh so that these desires that we do have do not (re)gain a stranglehold to turn us to evil so that we can then discover and realize God’s goodness in all of our relationships with others.