In my pre-teen and teen years, many of the men in our home church encouraged me to think about becoming a preacher. That really wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. However, I normally found myself in some leadership role each annual “Youth Sunday.” When I was finally charged with delivering the sermon, I settled on a portion of the sermon on the mount as my text. I do not recall the exact passage of scripture used, but I remember the experience well. With no guidance from congregational leadership, I crafted a very brief message heavy on harsh warnings of “you need to live better than you are living.”
Over the years I have heard many messages similarly emphasizing the need for our behavior to be better than the hypocrites. The words of the sermon on the mount seem to offer solid footing for rousing hell-fire messages. However, I think this approach misses Jesus’ point which, I believe, was to encourage people to aim higher. Jesus’ repeated use of “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” was not intended to burden people with more law to obey. Instead, it was to tell them their lives could be better if they aimed at a goal more in line with God’s intent.
As Michelangelo’s quote (in the image accompanying this post) suggests, the human penchant for setting lower, more reasonable, more achievable goals often results in less than our potential being accomplished. Throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus encouraged everyone to embrace a higher goal than the normal instruction about prayer, fasting, possessions, examining one’s own life, and more. With that, let’s dive into specific higher aims Jesus encourages us to adopt.
Aim higher with our emotions (Matthew 5:21-26, 5:43-48, 6:16-18, 7:1-5)
Emotions are often the origin of actions. This is why Jesus said, “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgement.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgement. If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court.” The act of murder begins with the emotion of anger! Two thousand years later, we talk regularly about “road rage” and its sometimes-horrible consequences. Uncontrolled emotions have resulted in injury, crime, divorce, and even death. It is no wonder that Jesus repeatedly mentioned issues that trigger our emotions throughout his message.
Aim higher with our pride (Matthew 6:1-4, 6:19-21)
If emotions are the origin of actions, the ways we handle our finances find their origin in our pride. Thus, Jesus addresses finances in both how we practice generosity and the goals we have for saving. Human nature tends to lead people to “make a big deal” of their acts of generosity. That was true in the first century, as well as the twenty-first. Being generous is not the problem! Both Old and New Testaments teach God’s people of the virtue of generosity. Sin originates in our pride, as we hunger for others to applaud our action. Likewise, Jesus never says saving money is a sin, but he warns us of the danger of pride…the hunger to store up treasures where they will do no good. Keeping our pride in check is a never-ending battle. Jesus ties it to how we handle our finances, because pride reveals itself so easily through money.
Aim higher with our trust (Matthew 6:22-34, 7:7-11)
If you were asked to complete the sentence, “Life is like…” how would you respond? Would it be with the line from the movie Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Would you answer with words from the hymn, Life is Like a Mountain Railroad, “You will roll up grades of trial, you will cross the bridge of strife.” Whatever words we would choose, the result would focus upon the uncertainties of life.
No matter our wealth, our ancestry, our gender, or education how we deal with the life’s complexities demonstrates our core beliefs and values of life. Throughout his life, Jesus pointed all to build life upon a deep and abiding trust that God will provide what is needed. None of us can navigate life without the pain of disappointment or the scars of doubt. How we respond to the events that bring frustration, pain, and doubt will reveal where our trust lies. Should our trust be placed in ourselves, the result will be greater disappointment. If our trust is placed in other human beings, the result will inevitably be further pain. However, if our trust is invested into the sovereign hands of the omnipotent God, He will guide us home.
The words of Jesus may sound threatening with his repeated use of, “You have heard it said…But I say.” However, the challenges of Jesus do not make life more burdensome and onerous. Far from it, Jesus offers hope and light for a difficult day. Aim higher! The result will be infinitely more than anyone can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)