The Sermon on the Mount, as it is traditionally called, is found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters five through seven. The first part of chapter five, the beginning of this largest block of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, is the famous Beatitudes. In the second half of that chapter, Jesus brings forward several examples from Jewish law, introducing each with some version of the statement, “You have heard that it was said….”, followed by the statement of the commandment. Then, in each case, Jesus changes the commandment.
So, for example, Jesus says,‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.’ Or, again, he says, ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’
What is interesting to me about these reinterpretations of Jewish commandments is that Jesus is drawing our attention away from a particular behavior that is forbidden and refocusing us not on the behavior itself, but on the internal process that leads to the behavior. So our attention is redirected from the forbidden act of murder toward the build up of anger that culminated in the murder, and our attention is directed away from the act of adultery and toward the internal process that led to the adultery. In doing this, Jesus is pointing out something that should be rather obvious: that our actions don’t come from nowhere – our behavior in the world is connected to what is going on inside us, in our hearts, minds, and souls. Jesus invites us to put our attention there, on our interior life, and on the emotional, spiritual, and psychological processes that are unfolding within us.
In another place, Jesus tells his disciples that a person is not defiled by what kind of food in consumed, but rather is defiled (or not defiled) by what comes out of him or her. That is, the speech and actions that come forth from within us.
One of the fundamental criticisms Jesus makes of the religion of his time (and it is a criticism that could just as well be made about the Christianity of our time) is that too many people spend too much time focusing on the outward observance of ritual. He is not necessarily critical of the ritual, but he is critical of the disconnection that he perceives in so many people between the outward ritual and the inner meaning that is connected to it. In other words, ritual is energized and meaningful because of the faith, the internal disposition, of the people doing the ritual. In the absence of that faith, in the absence of genuine relationship with God, the ritual becomes meaningless. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, he is making a similar criticism: law focuses on external behavior, and seeks to regulate it. But genuine transformation cannot be imposed by outside regulation; it can only truly come from within, from the processes in us that give rise to the behavior which the law seeks to regulate.
And this is very much the essence of the spiritual life. The contemplative practices of prayer (which the Christian tradition has rather consistently held to be the most important or valuable practices) all involve looking inward. That inward look is meant to afford us, in part, an opportunity to recognize what is going on in our interior life so that God might have an opportunity to transform it. We are not meant to stay there – our life in the world is important. But as we begin to allow our interior lives to be transformed, the quality of our outer life will change. Our behavior in the world will also be transformed. And because that change comes from an interior reformation, it will last. And, part of the reason it will last is because it is not a change made under threat of penalty. Rather, it is a change that has come about through the grace of a loving God who desires not to beat us into submission but to love us into new life.