Intention: The Sermon on the Mount and “filthy rags”

How do you read the Sermon on the Mount?

For the bulk of my Christian life, I have been taught that Jesus’ moral teaching was designed to show us just how impossible it is to be truly righteous. So, for example, Jesus reminds his listeners that one of the Ten Commandments is “Do not murder.” Many of us read that command and think, “Of course. I haven’t killed anyone yet and I think it’s pretty easy to continue not killing anyone.” But then Jesus says that if we hate our brother or if we are angry with our brother, it’s as if we’ve murdered him in our heart.

Who then can succeed in keeping the commandment? Is there anyone who has never had a moment of hatred or anger toward another? And so, this interpretation argues that Jesus is revealing the deep roots sin has in our hearts – none of us in our own power can hope to achieve true righteousness. All of us therefore need to repent, not only of our sins, but of the primary sin of relying on ourselves to merit and maintain God’s saving favor. All of us need to recognize that even our best is tainted – our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need Jesus.

There is another way (likely there are many!) to read the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of examining ourselves, finding that indeed we have had moments of anger and hatred (perhaps many such moments), and condemning ourselves, we examine ourselves and notice that in general, because of the new life we have in Christ, we have embraced love as our rule, and we do the best we can in each moment to act from love. We have not fostered a habit of feeding our anger and hatred. We have not deliberately established the pattern of letting our anger and hatred drive our behavior. We intend to love. We fail, time and again — and repent and receive forgiveness. We do well sometimes, too. What matters is the general tendency – what we habitually do, what we intend.

Is the first reading too harsh, too strict, too discouraging? Does it drive us to give up trying to do what is right? Does it make us fear God, as if he lies in ambush against us, ready to strike the second we slip up? Or does it indeed drive us to lean more and more on God’s grace – while we continue to strive to live as we ought to, relying on his power within us?

Is the second reading too lenient, too dismissive of the seriousness of sin? Does it lead us to pride in our spiritual progress and achievements? Does it make us content with a bare minimum approach to doing what is right? Or does it indeed lead us to confident hope and peaceful rest, trusting that we are on the right path and pleasing God, who we can trust to bless our striving to live as we ought to?

Let us consider that “filthy rags” bit from Isaiah. Here’s some of the surrounding context:

5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,

who remember your ways.

But when we continued to sin against them,

you were angry.

How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

we all shrivel up like a leaf,

and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name

or strives to lay hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us

and have given us over to our sins.

This passage seems to harmonize better with the second reading of the Sermon on the Mount than with the first. “Those who gladly do right, who remember your ways” are not those who are sinless – no one is without sin. It makes more sense that these are the people who embrace God’s law as their rule, who intend to keep it, who strive to practice it, even though they do not manage to do so perfectly. In the same way, the next verse talks about continuing to sin – which suggests a deliberate, habitual pattern of sin rather than some, even many, failures in the faithful effort to do what is right.

The verse about the filthy rags seems trickier. What does it mean that all have become as unclean, that all righteous acts have become filthy?

In the first reading, it would mean that we have realized the depth of our sin – that our best efforts are never good enough to merit God’s favor. We are really unclean and filthy, more so than we thought. We can have God’s favor, but only by grace and not by merit.

In the second reading, it would mean that the overall sinful rebellion of the people has reached a point where God allows it to run its course (“you… have given us over to our sins”) – in which case both the willfully sinful and those who “gladly do right” get swept up in the consequences. That’s what it means to say that the righteous have become as filthy – the same thing has fallen on them as on the wicked. God allows sin to run its course in hopes that, seeing the consequences, the rebellious will realize how far they’ve fallen into sin, understand just how evil sin is, repent, and turn back to him.

In one sense, these two readings don’t really imply any great difference in how we should live. In either case, we look to God for our salvation and sanctification, and, through our life in him, we do our best to practice righteousness and grow in it. In another sense, it does seem that each reading could differently influence our thinking about ourselves, about sin, about righteousness, and about God – either reading could foster error or confidence, depending on how it’s taken.

Perhaps one reading is just what one person needs most, what is most corrective to that person’s errors, while the other reading is most helpful to a different person with different errors. Perhaps both readings need to be held in tension, so that we remain aware of the depth and seriousness of sin but also remain confident of God’s favor and our security in Christ.

I tend to fear God – I can know that he’s not really poised to cast me away the instant I mess anything up, but still fear that my next misstep will be no mere technicality but the last straw, the point of no return, that I could potentially exhaust God’s patience and be given over to my sins, and that I might fall so far as to refuse to repent.

I tend to be ruthless in self-examination, finding grounds for condemnation in everything I do, think, feel, or say – in a sort of anxious hope that if I don’t miss anything, but confess it all, God won’t have reason to cast me away, and I won’t fall beyond the reach of repentance. This scrupulosity is not really fruitful. It doesn’t help me love better. It doesn’t nourish my soul or foster my confidence in God. It doesn’t promote freedom, rest, peace. Nothing can separate me from the love of God (Romans 8), but this kind of thing can surely hinder my apprehension of that love.

I have much more to say about intention, the heart, righteousness and wickedness; I’ve run out of time for today, though. More later! Meanwhile, thanks to Fr. John for his teaching and listening on this and other topics; thanks to Steve Froehlich and Fr. Tom, too.

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