Exploring Dependence – Sermon On The Mount
So, throughout the Old Testament, Israel struggles to grasp that the core of her relationship with Yahweh was her dependence on Him as her Provider and Protector.
With the completion of the book of Nehemiah, the Story disappears into 450 years of silence. The next character to appear is John the Baptist, around 30 AD.
By the time John shows up, the Pharisees have become the dominant face of Israel’s worship. They were technicians of the Law who focused on the tiniest of details, but missed the heart. While they tithed off their herb gardens – mint and dill and cumin – they missed the essential elements of the faith – justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23-24; cf. Micah 6:8). Jesus did not view it as either/or. He says they should have done both.
This tension between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees is present from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It underlies the message of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus first public discourse.
Jesus begins the sermon with a description of spiritually hungry people and promises them the Kingdom and it’s attendant rewards (Matthew 5:1-12). Their character is distinctive and must not be hidden (5:13-16). Implicit in this description is the question of what is necessary for a person to enter the Kingdom.
Only those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (5:17-20). Jesus spends the rest of chapter 5 describing this righteousness. For a more developed discussion of the first part of The Sermon, see Loving Your Enemies: What Was Jesus’ Point? – Part 1.
The net effect of Matthew 5 is to explain that the required righteousness is not found in meticulous attention to the details of the Law, but reflects the attributes of God at the heart level. Later, as the Story unfolds throughout the rest of the New Testament, it will become clear that this is going to require both the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, and our transformation by the Holy Spirit.
As the Sermon continues in chapter 6, Jesus looks at the pursuit of this type of righteousness, warning against two very significant dangers in this pursuit.
The first is practicing your righteousness before men, to be noticed by them (6:1). Three areas that He specifically address are giving to the poor (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18). In each case, He warns that those who practice their righteousness before men have their reward, but that those who keep such practices private will be rewarded by God (6:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18).
This issue of reward brings us to the next danger. Just as we should seek reward in heaven over the praise of men, we should also seek treasure in heaven, over treasure on earth (6:19).
Jesus’ command is not vague. Do not store up treasures on earth. The first problem with earthly treasure is that it is so vulnerable. Moths, rust, and thieves all threaten our earthly accumulations (6:19). From these threats, it is clear that Jesus’ warning covers the accumulation of any material possessions, not just money.
By contrast, these threats do not exists in heaven. This should be the location of our treasure (6:20).
But the problem is deeper than durability. The value of anything is measured by the time, attention, and energy we devote to it. And we cannot give value to anything without giving it our heart as well. If our treasures are earthly, then our heart will necessarily be devoted to those treasures (6:21).
So, faced with the two options – treasures stored up on earth, and treasures stored up in heaven – we must choose. But on what basis? Can we trust what we see?
Jesus says the eye is the lamp of the body – the means by which light enters our body – that is, it is the only means by which our body benefits from the primary function of light – to see clearly so that we can choose our way.
If our eye is good – healthy – our whole body benefits from the light.
If it is bad – unhealthy – we do not have the benefit of light to choose our way.
If what we think is light – what we are choosing to guide us as we make our way – is really darkness, then our darkness is most severe. A blind person that knows they are blind at least knows to proceed carefully. But if they think they can see, and proceed on that assumption, the potential for destruction is great. They are worse off than the person who knows they are blind.
In context, the person that thinks they can see what to pursue, and sets their heart on earthly things is worse than blind, because the “light” guiding them is really darkness. Not only are they pursuing things that will not last, but in setting their hearts on it, they have made it their master. And you can only have one master – either God or money (v. 24).
If Jesus would have stopped here, it would be easy – even reasonable – to argue that He was warning against the excesses of the greedy and the miserly. But in verses 25-34, His application of these principles touches potentially everyone, including the poor. Even concern for the basic essentials – food, drink, and clothing – is to be avoided (vv. 25-31).
But don’t we need these things?
We do. But unlike believers (Gentiles), we have a heavenly Father Who knows our needs (v. 32). Rather than being controlled by concern for these needs, our priority is to be the pursuit of His Kingdom and His righteousness (v. 33a).
This doesn’t mean that we somehow bring about the Kingdom. It means that every decision we make is controlled by how it will impact our participation in the Kingdom. As we have already seen, entrance to this Kingdom will require a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, so pursuing the Kingdom also involves the pursuit of the kind of righteousness described above.
With this as our priority, we are promised that the Father will provide our needs as well. Therefore, we are not to worry about tomorrow; it will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (v. 34). Just like Israel experienced with the manna in the wilderness, our relationship with God is rooted in our daily dependence on Him as our Provider and Protector. Through the centuries, the message remains the same.