Today we bring our short four-week series on the sermon on the mount to a close. In that time we have explored Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be blessed, to be truly happy – to know our need of God and our value in Him; to love others with justice, mercy and peace; to hunger and seek after God. We have thought about how to respond to difficult relationships – with generosity, courage and prayer. And last week we looked at how our money and possessions are gifts to be used in God’s service. We finish this week by exploring what Jesus has to say about our attitude to one another and our attitude to God.
When I was at school, I wasn’t always the most popular child in the class. I wasn’t the best footballer or the funniest or the trendiest. But if I wanted to be in the “in-crowd” the easiest way was to pick on someone who seemed less popular than me, to make jokes at their expense. There was boy who was easy to pick on, mock, judge. And by doing so I won friends, though very fleeting ones at best. It was only later in life that I came to realise that judging this boy, criticising him, doing him down, said far more about me than it did about him, about my own insecurities, my own need to belong. Negatively judging and criticising an easy target seemed a quick way to gain friends.
But as I reflect, the same thing all too easily happens in adult life too. At football grounds, fans pull together by chanting against the rival fans: “Stand up if you hate the Arsenal” if you’re a Spurs fan for example. In politics, we may feel we can make sweeping statements when we are with like-minded people, condemning the stupidity and selfishness of remainers or brexiteers, depending on our preference. In the workplace, there can be a real temptation to find a figure that we can all unite around, shooting them down, most often the boss: “can you believe what they’ve gone and done now!” In our community, it may be the neighbour whose garden is somewhat overgrown, or the young people who shout to each other across the street, who provide the common, easy target. It can even happen in church, too. We find a common target and judge them and condemn them.
Maybe we all have a tendency to make judgments about others, to find fault with others. In doing so, it may make us feel that at least we aren’t as bad as they are, and it may give us a sense of solidarity with others who share our views. But it goes right against Jesus’ teaching here in the sermon on the mount. “We are not to judge,” he says, for “then you too will be judged.”
Jesus highlights this with a memorable illustration drawn perhaps straight from his own painful experience of working in his father’s carpentry shop. Getting a speck of sawdust in your eye can be extremely painful. Your eye begins to water and you can’t focus on anything, especially not detailed work, until you have removed it. Well, if that is the case with a speck of sawdust, how much more with a huge plank in your eye. The idea that you will ignore the plank in your eye to try and point out and deal with a speck in someone else’s eye is just clearly ridiculous. Its a nonsense!
Likewise for us. How can we think that we have the right to judge or criticise others when we ourselves have issues that need to be addressed first. Jesus says: sort yourself out first, deal with your own failings, your own errors and mistakes first, and then having done so, you may have the experience and the integrity to perhaps offer help to others.
When we find ourselves quick to want to point the finger of blame, to criticise others, to rage against their failings, whether that is against distant national figures or colleagues or neighbours or family members, stop and ask whether we are not equally as culpable, that we too fail and fall short.
It should not be a surprise that the people who we most likely listen to, the people whose judgment or criticism we are most likely to take on board and appreciate, are those who offer their judgments tentatively, humbly, with grace, who have spent the time getting their own house in order. We may be willing to listen to them. Though interestingly, those type of people may be the slowest to offer judgment. Instead, their lives of integrity are enough to inspire us to change.
For ultimately, judging others is not our job; it is God’s. Only God can make a true assessment of a person’s faith and worth.
So when you see a failing in someone else, before you judge or criticise, pause and ask yourself: if that is the speck in their eye, what is the plank in my own eye that I am missing? Hold fire, don’t jump in, but hold a mirror up to yourself instead.
Well, if that is our attitude towards others; what should our attitude be towards God? How should we approach God in prayer?
Sarah and I have enjoyed watching an American drama on TV over the last few months called Madam Secretary. In the programme, the main character, Elizabeth McCord, is the US Secretary of State, the equivalent of our Foreign Minister. Each week, she is dealing with seemingly insurmountable international crises – nuclear warheads falling into the hands of terrorists, a coup in Russia, Chinese aggression in the South China Seas, a botched election in southern Africa. But at the same time, she is a mother trying to keep a normal home life and steer her three children through the challenges of teenage angst. She may have had the most demanding day at work, but when she gets home, what she wants more than anything is to talk with her children, or more pertinently, for them to talk to her, to tell her about their worries and concerns. Compared to saving the world from nuclear armageddon such worries may seem small; but within the context of family, they are what uniquely matter to her.
I find it helpful to bear that kind of relationship in mind when I come to God in prayer. God is far more than some fictional Secretary of State. He knows intimately the needs of the world. He is alongside the needs of the starving, the critically ill, the bereaved. He sees the plight of the environment, the extinction of species. And yet he is also our Father, a father who longs for us to come to him in prayer, who delights when we are open with him about our struggles and challenges, when we ask for his help. Jesus says: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
As we saw last week, God is a wonderfully generous and kind God. If he feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, how much more will he care for us. If a human father is only going to give good things to his children, Jesus says in our reading this week, how much more will our heavenly father give us good things. We can trust in the generosity of God.
And so we are to come to him in prayer. What we ask for does matter. As James puts it in his letter to the church: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” God in his goodness does not give us everything we ask for, just as a parent doesn’t give a toddler everything on their birthday wish-list, knowing that a gun or a motorbike may not be the most loving presents to give, no matter how desired! But as we spend time in his presence, as we come to know more and more the heart of God and the things that matter to him, so we become more desirous of the things that he delights in giving. Prayer becomes a wonderful place of intimacy, where we express our needs before him and he meets those needs with love.
We have come to the end of our whistle-stop tour of the sermon on the mount. How do we sum it all up? Well, Jesus used what is known as the golden rule: “do to others what you would have them do to you”. This, he said, summed up all the law and the prophets, and indeed the sermon on the mount is in many ways a practical guide as to how to live this out.
Jesus wasn’t the first or indeed the last great moral teacher to offer this rule, but what Jesus offered that makes his teaching distinctive and ultimately possible is that underpinning this moral law is the love of God. It is God’s love that makes it possible for us to love others with justice, mercy and peace; it is God’s love that helps us to reconcile with others; it is God’s love that enables us to generously share our possessions with others; it is God’s love that calls us from judgement to humility.
And that is why, the sermon on the mount begins with a call to acknowledge our need of God – “blessed are the poor in Spirit”; it finishes with the parable of building our lives upon the rock which is God; and at its centre is the Lord’s prayer, praying that God’s kingdom will come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Let us turn to him. Ask and it will be given to you.