How high are the standards for a Christian? Some may argue that Judaism or Islam have higher moral standards, but is this so? In the Bible passage assigned for this week, Jesus ‘raises the bar’ with regard to how a Christian is to behave and think. He starts by using traditional rabbinic teaching: “you have heard that the law of Moses says do not murder….but I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgement! If you call someone an idiot……and if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” Clearly for Jesus the sin doesn’t start with the action but with the thought. Behind the label of ‘idiot’ is the sin of pride and contempt for others. Worse still, is cursing someone else, or destroying their reputation. This is tough teaching. Who of us can honestly say that we have never been angry with people, or looked down on someone for what they have done to us, or others? The key to understanding Jesus’ teaching is in the realisation that Christianity is about the heart. It is not about outward ritual but inward attitude. If we get the heart right, then everything else will flow from that and all our actions will be based on love and forgiveness just as we have been loved and forgiven. Yes, the standards are high but we should expect nothing less from a God who, in Christ, gave everything for us.
What do we mean when we say, “you are the salt of the earth?” In Jesus’ time salt had three important properties. Firstly, it was considered to be pure. Its glistening whiteness was associated with purity. The Romans said that salt was the purest of all things because it came from the purest of all things: the sun and the sea. The second important property of salt was that it could preserve food. Salt stopped meat from going bad by keeping it fresh. Plutarch said that salt is like a new soul inserted into a dead body. Finally, and most importantly perhaps, salt gives flavour. Food without salt can be insipid and flavourless. Salt makes food more exciting. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said that his followers should be “the salt of the earth.” God wants His people to be pure, to be a cleansing antiseptic and to bring flavour to life. It is this last quality that was important to Jesus. “What good is it if salt loses its flavour?” It is a call for all Christians to be people that radiate the richness of life. That is what God wants from all of us.
What is the right way up for our values? At present the rich, powerful and manipulative tend to live longer, earn more and enjoy more opportunities and better health. The Bible passage this week is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching known as the sermon on the mount. Jesus starts with the beatitudes. The Latin word ‘beatus’ means blessed. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger for justice. Does this make sense? After all, we know that mourners often go un-comforted, the meek don’t inherit very much and those longing for justice carry that longing to the grave. This is precisely the point. The kingdom of heaven will turn our values the right way up. Jesus has started the process by inaugurating a new value system. The beatitudes are a summons to live in the present in a way that will make sense in the future. God’s promised future has arrived in Jesus and will be fulfilled one day in Jesus. It may all seem upside down to us now but we are called to believe, that it is and it will be, in fact, the right way up!
How is fishing like Christian discipleship? It is an unusual question perhaps but, in the Bible passage for this week, Jesus tells his followers that he will make them “fishers of men.” Can I suggest three ways in which a good fisherman would make a good disciple, or good witness. Firstly, a good fisherman has ‘an eye for the right moment’. Sometimes it is good to cast and sometimes not. For the Christian, sometimes it is good to share the truth with others and sometimes people will harden their views against the truth. Next, the good fisherman will fit the bait to the fish. For the Christian, it is important to meet people where they are in their unique circumstances. The Apostle Paul said, “I am all things to all people in order to win a few for Christ.” Third, and finally, the wise fisherman will keep himself out of sight. If he obtrudes his own presence or even shadow, the fish will not bite. The good disciple or witness will keep himself out of sight so that Christ may be seen instead.
What are we looking for? What is the aim of our lives? For some of us it is security, for others a career for others still it is peace. But what about us? What are we looking for? This was precisely the question Jesus put to the disciples of John the Baptist when two of them (probably Andrew and John) followed Jesus home at about 4pm one spring afternoon in Galilee. This was Jesus’ first encounter with those who would later become his closest disciples. Their reply to Jesus’ question was, “where are you staying”. In other words, we want to come to your home so that we can spend time with you and learn from you. Jesus’ reply is characteristically welcoming, “come and see”. To all of us who are genuinely looking for real meaning in our lives, Jesus invites us to ‘come and see.’ Like much of the Gospel story it was (and is) very simple and very profound. That afternoon, those two disciples went and saw who Jesus really was and their lives were never the same again.
Are we our biggest critic? For many of us, we get annoyed with ourselves for getting things wrong. We may often say to ourselves, “why did I do that?” Or even, “how could I be so stupid?” But is this the way that God looks at us? In the Bible reading this week, we have the account of Jesus’ baptism where a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, with Him I am well pleased.” What is interesting is that, in Mark’s Gospel, we have the words “with YOU I am well pleased.” It is not unreasonable to think that God is well pleased with us. After all, he created us and, elsewhere in the Bible we read, He sings over us. We are adopted into his family. We are his children. He has promised us eternity with Him. Perhaps it is time to re-orientate our thinking. Perhaps we should not be too hard on ourselves but rather bask in His love. This love was demonstrated by the cross.