According to Don Carson: “Nothing could be more calamitous than to meditate long and hard on Matthew 5:1-7:12 and then resolve to improve a little.”
And he’s dead right.
Jesus’ teaching is far too radical for that. It’s nothing short of revolutionary. For it is good news (not good advice) — the good news of the human renovation project God is performing through Jesus.
This becomes impossible to miss in the closing moments of the Sermon on the Mount.
At this stage, we can’t help but contend with the fact that we’re not listening to someone dispensing wise advice that we can take or leave — picking and choosing whatever seems most likely to amp up our current lifestyle.
Just as the five books of the Old Testament Law concluded with blessings for obedience and curses, Jesus concludes his landmark teaching by presenting a stark Either/Or:
‘Listen to me (and do what I’m saying), and you’ll live. Don’t listen to me, and it’s game over.’
Life — a full and flourishing, truly human life — is what Jesus is offering here — just as he has been all through the Sermon.
And here Jesus fulfils one of the deepest longings of our modern liberal culture, while tearing to shreds the way it suggests we satisfy that longing — namely, by multiplying our life options until we arrive at “infinite possibilities” (to borrow the current marketing slogan of La Trobe University).
I can understand why we believe in choice. And why we chafe against constraints. It can seem self-evidently better to have more options than less.
Although if David Bentley Hart and Stanley Hauerwas are both right (as I suspect they are), our deification of choice tends to blind us to how little of this kind of libertarian freedom we actually enjoy — and how bad it’d be for us if we did.
But Jesus offers anything but just another life option.
According to Jesus, listening to him and putting his words into practice is our only option.
It is life — as well as wisdom and genuine, fruitful spirituality.
There’s only one gate and one path that leads to life. There’s only one fruitful and genuine approach to spirituality. And there’s only one wise way to build your life.
Anything else is death.
It’s that simple.