In most years we would be on the brink of Lent now, but a late Easter this year means that Ash Wednesday won’t fall until we are into March. That means that, after we have celebrated the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on Sunday 2 February, we shall have a series of ‘ordinary’ Sundays before we enter Lent next month.
On these ordinary Sundays we shall be reading part of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew paints a picture of Jesus teaching the crowds. We are probably meant to think of the mountain as a law-giving place (remember the story of Moses) and that because Jesus himself is seated at the top of the mountain, he has divine authority of his own, even greater than the authority that Moses had.
I’ve heard people talk about the Sermon on the Mount as if it were a guide to good behaviour and a collection of common sense sayings. But that would be a complete mistake, and would miss the whole point.
Jesus’s words are full of reassurance, but they are also packed with big challenges. He talks to people about how they should relate to each other, but always set in the bigger vision of how they must relate to God. There is lots in there about the love of God, but Jesus makes it clear to the people that when they are more in touch with God and his ways, the experience will change them, change how they think, change their priorities and change how they act.
Jesus’s words are as fresh and demanding to us as they were to the people who sat in front of him. ‘You are the light of the world’ (which is wonderful, but what a great big responsibility it is). ‘If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled’ (which leaves no room for sitting there convincing ourselves that we are in the right). ‘ Do not worry, saying “What will be eat?” or “What will we drink” or “What will we wear?” For it is the gentiles who strive for all these things … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as
well.’ (When did we last admit that getting into the habit of fretting can get in the way of our relationship with God?)
Matthew tells us that the people were amazed because Jesus taught them with authority. I hope that the words say something new to us all this year. And if you have an hour at home, why not read the three chapters (Matthew 5‐7) in one go, and imagine yourself there on the mountain, hearing all this for the first time?
Paul Ferguson – Archdeacon of Cleveland