May 29, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Matthew 7:28-29 (NIV)
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
However wise they might be, spokespeople and interpreters don’t really know what an author knows. As only the “author” of all things can do, Jesus describes God’s intention for us as human beings created in the image of God. In clear and practical terms, Jesus helps us see what that looks like lived out in real life in the middle of broken human communities and a fractured world.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story about “the fastest gun in the West.” Standing before a crowd, a self-proclaimed hero announces his status as a lightning-fast, quick-draw artist. Then, standing there without moving, he says, “Do you want to see it again?” You may feel a bit like that, having read yesterday’s reflection and now finding yourself in the aftermath of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Undoubtedly you are thinking, “What happened to the Sermon itself???”
But before we turn to the substance of Jesus’ teachings, it’s helpful to look at what happened when Jesus finished. As with Jesus’ demonstration of power which preceded the Sermon (Matthew 4:23-25), the crowd is amazed. This time, though, it’s not just Jesus’ works of power, but Jesus’ teaching that startles his audience. So, why might that be?
As we noted yesterday, Jesus teaches in a setting that is remarkable in its ordinariness. Unlike Israel at Mt. Sinai, this mountain experience lacks any cinematic grandeur. It certainly isn’t a promising setting for a sequel to Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster movie The Ten Commandments. But what the Sermon on the Mount lacks in drama, it more than compensates for in the substance of its message. And perhaps more surprisingly – and what our text for today underscores – is that for the Sermon on the Mount, the messenger is the message.
Despite Israel’s remarkable Sinai experience, the Sinai message was delivered by an intermediary. All of Israel’s teachers in Jesus’ day were in some sense meditating on the mediated message of Sinai as well as Israel’s prophetic traditions that followed Moses. In that sense, it’s all a bit like getting things second-hand. Instead of hearing from the author of a book, we hear from those who have read his books, pondered what they have to say, and what they might mean for us.
That’s why, in its own understated way, today’s conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount is so startling. It seems to suggest: The author of our world and of our history is here in person! No more hearing things second-hand! Jesus speaks “as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” By the way, I don’t think the latter phrase means Jesus’ audience is necessarily dismissive of Israel’s great rabbis. Instead, I think the crowd’s reaction is analogous to what we might feel when we hear a great author in person rather than listening to a spokesperson or interpreter, however wise they might be.
The crowd’s visceral reaction to Jesus’ sermon embodies what the New Testament scholar, Richard Bauckham, observes, “The only Jesus we can plausibly find in the sources is a Jesus who, though usually reticent about it, speaks and acts for God in a way that far surpassed the authority of a prophet in the Jewish tradition” (Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 93-94). As the writer of the Hebrews says even more pointedly, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2, NIV).
So, why might that be important for us? One reason is that, however wise they might be, spokespeople and interpreters don’t really know what the author knows. As we will see in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, an important question since Sinai (and still a critical question today) is the following: In Scripture, what is the real divine intent of its teachings, and what is divine accommodation to the human condition and culture? In what way is the Mosaic law (as well as the teaching of the prophets) meant to restrain the excesses of evil, rather than giving full expression to God’s goodness and full intention for humanity and the Creation? Those are foundational questions that make reading Scripture well (both the Old Testament and the New Testament, by the way!) so challenging and interesting.
And reading Scripture well is what Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount helps us begin to do. As only the “author” of all things can do, Jesus describes God’s intention for us as human beings created in the image of God. In clear and practical terms, Jesus helps us see what that looks like lived out in real life in the middle of broken human communities and a fractured world.
And that brings us to why this Sermon is important to our work as leaders. To lead faithfully means learning and practicing what God intends for us as human beings and for our human work. If you are at all like me, that’s difficult and disruptive, and requires significant attention, energy, imagination and courage. It requires that I face some realities I would prefer to avoid. And most importantly, it requires my willingness to change.
Even when Jesus is being clear, it’s easy to be dismissive or to rationalize. As Mark Twain memorably said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand!”
How different is Jesus really from Moses and Israel’s other prophets? What difference does that make for you?
Take time to read the whole Sermon on the Mount at one sitting, ideally multiple times and in different translations. Notice what Jesus says about the purpose of being human and how to live that out.
Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the author of all things, including of us as your image-bearers. We are grateful that you not only sent your servants the prophets, but – at just the right time – you yourself came that we might come to know you and your purpose for us.
Help us as we begin this journey to hear afresh your word to us. Give us grace to respond to specific words that helps us become more like you.
We ask in your name, Amen.
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. A blog on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: But What Are You For?
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
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