Pondering the Sermon on the Mount

Of course none of us can ever be sure we get the history right.

My imagination of what it was like for Jesus to teach in Palestine two thousand years ago is influenced by so many layers of the interpretations of the people who lived in-between. And yet I find the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) so deeply moving and confronting. Again and again I find these speeches challenging and informing my thinking.

Consider that ridiculous verse: If someone wants to sue you in order to take your shirt, let him have your coat too (Matthew 5:40)

Susan and I have decided to take it literally at times and have sought to be generous financially with people when we might have tried to secure our finances. This has meant that we could have been ‘ripped off’. On each occasion this hasn’t happened for us, and people have repaid us fully and generously in return. Of course Jesus isn’t proposing a system: be generous and others will repay in kind. There is every chance that I could have been exploited.

Did this make us fools? I don’t think so. We thought things through carefully and made deliberate choices. I need to note that for Susan and me these have been ‘face to face’ experiences with people whom we found had a particular need. I read the sermon as being about building community, not giving in to con men. Yet it is about the struggle of learning to be generous.

Don’t be mistaken. I don’t write this piece because I think I have become generous. Generosity has a forgetfulness about it. It is not yet a habit for me. In some homes I have visited it is embedded in hospitality and as ordinary as wallpaper. I have to be deliberate.

I wonder if an underlying idea is that we should aim for all people to go well, whether I understand them or not, or like them or fear them. I am to love my enemy (Luke 6:35). If I was a politician this might drive me to seek to build a fairer society or system of international relations. If I was a musician it might lead me to play music as a gift to everyone who listens. As a school principal I think I am called to try to create a school where each child flourishes. That doesn’t mean I give people what they want, or succumb to demands or avoid the truth because I am trying to conciliate. It isn’t a Neville Chamberlain approach to life. I wonder if it indicates an underlying view of human beings: others can be annoying , but so can I; I might have good reason for not liking someone, but they might have good reason for not liking me . Whether they like me or hate me, praise me or ignore me, my vocation is to enable them to go well.

So I don’t have to be defensive. I can learn to respond rather than to react. It seems in institutions that it is easy to believe Marshall Mcluhan’s comment that the medium is the message. Across these centuries do I take Jesus’ words to mean that my role is to rise above the milieu of hurt caused by tone of voice and height of modality to really attend to the issues at hand, to try to identify the best things to do so that a real benefit results?

And I don’t think it is about just making people happy. Happiness can be such a tyranny. I have known teenagers who have imbibed their parents’ mantra – I just want them to be happy – and have thus made themselves sole arbiters of their own happiness. Some have bordered on the view that the external world (teachers, friends, school structures) is there to make them happy. I have met some teenagers who become miserable spending their days pursuing their own happiness.

Of course all of us as parents wish for our children’s happiness, but is happiness a goal or an effect?

Again the Sermon on the Mount is fascinating and helpful.

Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

It is so beautifully self-forgetting. I think Jesus is saying that I need to learn to be content before God and within myself. I can’t rely upon my image: I must develop personal integrity.

This is a hard thing to do. I had a conversation this week with a member of staff about the impression created by an event at school. Both of us pondered the implications of how the event could be interpreted and how it would affect people’s perspectives of that part of the college. I am regularly being drawn back into conversations about style, not substance.

In the end I have to let people think what they want to think. Let it go. I have to make the best choices I can and be confident in them, until I have evidence to the contrary. My energy and efforts need to go into doing a good job rather than appearing to do a good job.