Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere, is very hard for anyone to live up to. I certainly don’t do so myself, although I do make it my aim.
This is so hard that some Christians teach that the Sermon was never intended to be lived up to, but only to provide an unattainable standard of excellence to show us humans how sinful we are. This is the Unconditional Divine Will View or the Repentance View, numbers 10 and 11 of the 12 interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount listed in this Wikipedia article. The implication of these views, and indeed of several of the other views in this list, including the dispensationalist view, is that the Sermon should not be understood as practical instructions for Christians living normal lives in this world.
This view is challenged by the implications of what I read today at Bill Heroman’s NT/History Blog. In the latest instalment of his long series on Jesus’ life in Nazareth, Bill writes:
In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus tells us that God rewards those who fast secretly, who put oil on their heads and wash their face, so that no one will know they are fasting. If rewarding such behavior means God likes that behavior, then Matthew must be implying this behavior was characteristic of Jesus before his baptism. …
If this is not valid, we would have to assume that Matthew thought Jesus was inventing new strategies for fasting which he’d never practiced himself. That certainly doesn’t seem to fit Matthew’s high opinion of Jesus and would actually place him closer to the showy hypocrites just decried in the same series of statements. …
Therefore, if we take the original passage as an historical teaching of Jesus, according to Matthew, then we may also take the inversion of it as a historical aspect of Jesus’ life in Nazareth.
If Bill’s line of argument is valid, then Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere must be based on his own practice.
There is a step which I don’t think Bill has actually proved, that Jesus’ teaching reflects his practice before he began his public ministry, and not just during this ministry. But the alternative would have to be that his baptism marked a radical change not just in his way of life but also in his basic attitudes. This would be inconsistent with the Christian teaching that Jesus was the sinless Son of God not just from his baptism but also from his birth. Also in this case, given that the Sermon on the Mount occurs early in Jesus’ ministry and doubtless some of his hearers near Capernaum would have known him from his time in Nazareth, one would expect some references more like “Don’t do as I used to do” alongside those of “Don’t do what the hypocrites do”.
The implication of this is that during the “hidden years” of his life at Nazareth, working as a carpenter (Mark 6:3) in Joseph’s workshop and living with his mother, brothers and sisters, he was leading his life according to the standards which he later taught in the Sermon on the Mount. This further implies that it is possible to live according to these standards, not only while living apart from the world but also while living a normal family live and doing a normal job.
I note also that at this time Jesus was not filled with the Holy Spirit in the same way that he was after his baptism. So it is hard to argue that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a prerequisite for living according to the Sermon on the Mount. Anyway, this is no excuse for Christians, who are already filled with the Holy Spirit even if this is not always evident in their lives.
So why are so many of us Christians quick to find reasons why we don’t have to obey Jesus’ teaching? Could it be just a little bit too uncomfortable and demanding? Does living according to the Sermon on the Mount sound a little too likely to lead us to rejection and even death, as eventually it did for Jesus? But isn’t that what we are called to as Christians? Isn’t that what Jesus meant with these words?:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
Matthew 16:24-25 (TNIV)