“The Challenge: Jesus Offers a New Vision for God's People” by Edward P. Sri (Lay Witness, April 1999)

Edward Sri, professor of theology at Benedictine College, writes: “The famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’is known for its beautiful spiritual and moral teachings. Indeed, it would be hard to beat a sermon that had the Beatitudes, the Our Father, and the command to love your enemy and be light to the world all packed into one.

“One thing, however, which is not commonly noted about the Sermon on the Mount is how its explosive message would have shaken the world of many people who heard Jesus’words on the hillside that day.

“The Jews in Jesus'day were living in hard times. … Roman rulers controlled their land, took their money, and raped their women. Many of the Jewish priests and local leaders were assassinated and replaced by handpicked appointments from Rome or Herod. … Then came the question of taxes and tithes. With the Romans imposing heavy tax burdens, it would be quite difficult for many Jews to be able to pay both the taxes to Caesar and the tithe, which their own law required them to give to God. So should one be faithful to Rome or to Yahweh?

“The Jewish people responded to this crisis in different ways. … One burning question in first-century Judaism was: ‘What did it mean to be a true, loyal Jew during this time of oppression?’

“Jesus … began to address His band of followers on the mountainside with a startling surprise. He introduced an unexpected lineup of people who would be blessed in the kingdom He was building: ‘Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the peace-makers…. Blessed are those who are persecuted.’

“What a shock. … Jesus seemed to be blessing all the wrong people. … Many Jews would have preferred vengeance over mercy, vindication over persecution, fighting for freedom over making peace.

“Consider a few other famous commands in the Sermon on the Mount. … For example, ‘love your enemy’was not simply an abstract principle to be applied when you had to face someone who wanted to do you harm. … Similarly, the command, ‘If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles’was not simply a lesson on being generous.

“Roman soldiers often forced civilians to carry their gear for one mile. Using this image, Jesus challenged the Jews to view the Romans not as adversaries to be overcome but as brothers and sisters who are to be loved and won over for God.

“Jesus challenged the people to return to their roots and be what Israel was always meant to be — not an exclusive, nationalistic religion isolated from the other nations, but a priestly kingdom serving and leading the gentiles to worship of the one true God.

“Matthew's Gospel highlights how Jesus is a new Moses. Both Jesus and Moses escaped an evil ruler's decree to kill Israelite children by going to the Egyptians. Both came out of Egypt to return to Israel. Both went out into the desert, Moses for 40 years and Jesus for 40 days.

“Moses gave instructions for [the] covenant to be announced and ratified on two mountains after the people entered the land. Half the tribes of Israel shouted out the covenant blessings on Mount Ebal, while the other half proclaimed the curses on Mount Gerizim. … In similar fashion, Jesus announced blessings and curses from two different mountains of His own. He offered seven blessings in the beatitudes on the Galilean mountain at the beginning of His ministry (Mt. 5:3-12). And He announced seven curses on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem near the end of His ministry. There, Jesus pronounced the seven ‘woes’on those scribes and Pharisees who rejected His kingdom program (Mt. 23:13-36).”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.