Having launched Jesus' ministry with his baptism by John in chapter 3, Matthew moves very quickly into three events that shape that ministry: first, the temptation in the wilderness (source of our season of Lent); then the calling of the first disciples; and then the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). These are all important and relatively well-known elements of the gospel story: the temptation provides a way of thinking about the choices Jesus faces about what sort of power he might have and how he might use it; the calling of disciples points to the choices he can make about what sort of leadership he wants to offer his people; and the Sermon on the Mount lays out the foundation of his world-upending teaching. All deserve careful reading. One way of thinking about the Sermon is to see how Jesus extends and intensifies what God expects of us to such an extent that it is clearly impossible for us to live up to that expectation - which means that we are all sinners. In Jesus' time, the Pharisees (the group responsible for analyzing the legal code of the Torah and updating it for contemporary times) felt they had worked out how to fulfill the law and therefore how to see oneself as righteous (and, of course, see others as sinners). Jesus wants to demonstrate the error of this position - but his point, it seems to me, is not just to convict us all of failing God, but rather to get us to see how God loves us even in our sinfulness. This is a truly radical idea. See whether that interpretation makes any sense to you!
And do not neglect the short passage of Matthew 4:12-17. While Matthew here again sets the stage by quoting Isaiah and suggesting that Jesus represents the fulfillment of ancient Israel's hopes, the last verse is perhaps the most important. It is the summary of Jesus' teaching, a teaching that is expanded powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount but that here receives its pithiest expression: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." All of the gospel, all of all four Gospels, is really explication of what that sentence means. Remember that "repent" does not mean that we should feel bad about ourselves, but rather it literally means a "change of mind," a turning from a self-centered perspective to a God-centered perspective. Does that change how you hear the Sermon?
Some more questions for consideration while reading:
- What kind of power do each of the temptations represent? How do we face those same temptations to use what power we have in similar ways?
- How does the parable of the wise man and the foolish man that ends the Sermon on the Mount draw together the many disparate elements of the Sermon? What are we to do when we fail to live up to the standards Jesus seems to be establishing - are we just the foolish man, watching our house be swept away?