In a speech made on Christmas Eve in 1945, President Harry S Truman remarked that he did “not believe there is one problem in this country or in the world today which could not be settled if approached through the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.” When you look at the revolutionary teachings Jesus introduced in that (relatively short) sermon, you start to see that He provided a foundation that can fundamentally change the lives of all who open their hearts and minds to it. While we don’t have space in this article to go verse by verse, or even explore the various themes, I think there’s one strong theme threaded throughout the sermon that is incredibly applicable to the world today.
When you read the Sermon on the Mount, you see that Jesus’ religion is about relationship. One of my biggest pet peeves with the religious world is the currently popular idea that religion is a bad thing. They equate religion with pharisaism, a list of rules that have to be carried out and that religion precludes the possibility of a relationship with God. First of all, it’s completely transparent and laughably contradictory. A preacher getting up in a pulpit in a church building in front of hundreds of people in suits and dresses to tell them about the evils of religion is just ridiculous. How stupid do we think people are? Do we really think we’re fooling anyone?
But secondly, and more importantly, if we get back to having our Bibles opened, we’ll see that Jesus was quite interested in religion, with regards to both the Judaism He was born into (He didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill) and the Christianity He established as a result of His death, burial, and resurrection (“upon this rock I will build my church”). If we let His words in the Sermon on the Mount guide our understanding, we’ll see that there is no separation between practicing religion and developing relationships with God and other people. In fact, a great majority of the Sermon on the Mount was about practicing religion.
In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly took familiar commandments and, instead of undermining them, bolstered them by showing that our God doesn’t just want us to carry out the list of commandments. Rather, He wants us to carry out the commandments with the right heart. It doesn’t mean much that you obey “Thou shalt not murder” if you hate your brother, or if you can proudly say you haven’t committed adultery, but you regularly commit adultery mentally in your mind’s fantasies. However, that doesn’t mean Jesus was saying the obedience of religion was irrelevant. On the contrary, He was making it even more important by showing that religion should take over your entire life and not just a few isolated acts or omitted acts.
Jesus continued this same discussion of religion into Matthew 6, where He moved on from discussing how the law compels our interactions into discussing our personal spiritual lives. How can somebody downplay Jesus’ emphasis on religion when He spent this large chunk of His sermon discussing religious rituals such as prayer, fasting, and giving? We see repeatedly that Jesus wasn’t against religion—He was against religion with the wrong purpose. He didn’t want people to put their fasting or giving on display, or to pray vain, showy prayers. His whole point was about glorifying God (5:16, 6:1).
Yes, it’s wrong to think we’ll be saved by our adherence to religious principles. But it’s just as wrong to think that God will approve of our hearts if we ignore the importance of religion. Jesus used the greatest sermon ever preached to show that a right, religious relationship with God is based on obedience from the heart. He finished His sermon with a challenge to the listener and the reader. It doesn’t matter which side you fall on (the legalistic, “overly religious” side, or the progressive, “all heart” side), because there are only two options. We can choose between living out the option He set forth in the details of His sermon, the narrow road built on a solid foundation, or we can choose the broad path, determining our own way and being led by our hearts only or our works only, without combining the two. What is the choice going to be? Are we going to live lives as lights who show God’s glory by serving Him with our actions while having our hearts engaged, or will we live as lights for ourselves, doing things our way? If you’re truly religious the way Jesus was religious, you’ll see there’s only one choice.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.