How is your spiritual life? What do you think when you hear that question? Do you immediately begin counting how many times you read your Bible this month? Do you consider the regularity of your prayer life? Do you mentally tick off your church attendance record? These are the kinds of things we tend to think of when we consider the health of our “spiritual life.” We have reduced the “spiritual life” to a handful of Christian disciplines.
Skye Jethani tells of an adult Sunday school class he taught on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). He began the first week by reading the entire sermon aloud. When he finished, he asked who thought that Jesus expected his people to obey his words. Nobody raised a hand.
Jethani dug deeper. Why did people think that there was no need to obey the instructions in the sermon? A common theme emerged: The class felt that the expectations were too lofty—impossible to attain. Jesus, they believed, was picturing the ideal Christian life, but it was a life that no Christian could seriously be expected to live. It was one thing to ask a Christian to regularly attend church or read his Bible; it was quite another to expect a Christian to avoid looking at a woman with lustful intent. A Christian might be expected to pray, but surely not to turn the other cheek?
The problem, if we are honest, is that we have fallen into a subtle form of Gnosticism. We have drawn a sharp distinction between “spiritual” and “secular” matters. Praying is “spiritual.” Money is “secular.” Prayer, therefore, speaks to our spiritual life in a way that our approach to money does not. The Sermon on the Mount does not allow us to think in those terms. The sermon calls us to faithfulness in the ordinary. It is such faithfulness in the ordinary that defines practical righteousness.
If the modern reader finds the expectations in the sermon too lofty an ideal, they are not alone. The first hearers must have felt similarly. In what is perhaps the thesis statement of the sermon, Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). To the average religious Jew, the scribes and Pharisees were the zenith of personal righteousness. It was impossible to exceed their righteousness. Yet that is precisely what Jesus called his followers to do. He called them to surpassing righteousness.
John Whittaker has observed that the Sermon on the Mount can essentially be divided into four major sections. Jesus begins with an invitation to surpassing righteousness (5:1–20). He then moves to some concrete illustrations of surpassing righteousness (5:13–48). Third, he details a number of impediments to surpassing righteousness (6:1–7:12). Finally, he points to the intentionality of surpassing righteousness (7:13–27), urging his readers to put into practice what he has just told them. And though his readers respond with incredulity to his vision of surpassing righteousness (7:28–29), Jesus is clear: He expects his readers to hear and obey his words.
For the next little while, as I borrow from Whittaker’s outline of the sermon, I want to take the time each day to work systematically through Matthew 5–7. I hope you will see that Jesus’ call to surpassing righteousness is not an ethereal call to a “spiritual life” that is detached from the ordinary. Instead, surpassing righteousness—the righteousness to which Jesus calls us—is displayed in the ordinary.
Let us hear the words of Jesus and, rather than considering them an ideal that we will never attain, let us instead consider them a challenge to surpassing righteousness. Let us therefore commit to living like the wise man who built his house on the rock by both hearing and obeying everything he taught (7:24–27).