Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. –Luke 6:46
Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The answer has varied wildly and been heatedly disputed, yet this question is decisive. A great deal of ink has been spilt trying to answer this question. But according to Jesus, the answer can’t be written down; it can only be lived.
“Jesus is Lord,” the first Christians proclaimed. But such a claim was not a definition, much less a slogan. It was a life experience. Jesus had changed their world and their lives. He lived and worked and ruled in their midst. And so, what he taught was lived out right before their eyes.
Whoever people claim Jesus to be, one thing is clear: he wants his followers to obey him. He expects those who hear his words to put them into practice. Yet for some reason, too many of us fail to do this. Perhaps this is because we keep ourselves from him. How many of us are Christians without Christ? We speak of Christ, but don’t want to come to him. Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me…” In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) we meet Jesus. This is critical, for he is the sermon he preached—“the Word made flesh.” His teachings are one with his life. Jesus didn’t just show the way, or teach the truth, or bring life. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Those who acknowledge Christ as “Lord” understand this. They accept Jesus’ word as final; it cannot be judged or interpreted by any standard other than Jesus himself. If he is Lord, then he himself comes before his teachings. Jesus alone – his life, his death, his resurrection – is the key that unlocks the meaning of his words. Any condition that comes between Christ and our obedience to him must be discarded.
For this reason, how we come to him is as important as our coming. Jesus said, “I will manifest myself to him who loves me” (John 14:21). Only those who love Jesus can accept and do what he says. At his trial, Pilate brashly asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus was silent. He could not enlighten Pilate for the simple reason that Pilate didn’t want to see Jesus for who he was: the truth. Separated from our love to Christ, his teachings remain words – bits of sage advice for us to interpret and apply. Christ’s word without Christ himself is little more than a myth, a cypher, an ideology, or a theology.
To come to Jesus means listening to what he says. To listen is more than “hearing” his words. It requires us to surrender our need for explanations. It means letting go of our questions and allowing Christ to wrench us from all our ideas of what is good and right. Otherwise we will push Christ aside and judge him and his teachings. Doctrine, moral values, or a string of Bible passages will end up replacing Christ. When this happens, we cannot hear what he has to say. Instead of becoming like him we will only talk about his words.
When Jesus speaks he does so with authority. His word has power, “living, active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12-13). It is not something to analyze or dispute, but to embrace with our whole hearts. If we filter what he says through our own agendas or with norms received elsewhere (i.e., science, philosophy, politics, sociology, etc.), we will not hear him. We will resist. We will be held captive by our experience, our logic, and our own ideologies – the very things that need to be transformed.
A certain expert in the Jewish law approached Jesus, wanting to know how to inherit eternal life. “Love God and love your neighbor,” the Law taught. “But who is my neighbor?” the expert asked Jesus. Jesus didn’t answer him. Instead, he told him a story – of a Samaritan who came to the aid of one dying alongside the road. “Go and do likewise” Jesus said. The expert didn’t want that answer. Hidden within his question was his desire to evade action. He wanted to sidetrack Jesus, and so asked him the kind of question one could keep on asking. Is my neighbor a family member? A fellow countryman? A fellow believer of like faith? A stranger? A passerby? An enemy? To the question, Who is my neighbor? Jesus simply said, “Go and do likewise.” The expert in the Law knew the answer to his own question already: Be a neighbor!
Of course, someone will invariably argue that obedience presupposes understanding: How can anyone obey unless he or she first understands what they are supposed to do? But Jesus’ commands don’t need explanation, they just need doing. Although he explains some of his parables, Jesus doesn’t explain the Sermon on the Mount. His own manner of life is enough; it “explains” everything.
Some things must be done in order to be understood. Whether playing a sport, learning a skill, or practicing a trade, we understand through action. Jesus’ teaching is like that; it aims to fashion our lives in accordance with his. Therefore, it must be lived before it can be fully understood. Jesus didn’t bring “enlightenment” or expound a set of moral principles. No, he depicted a way of being in the world. He taught in such a way that his word would be written in those who follow him.
Jesus taught, and we are to listen. But there is more. A woman in the crowd once cried out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28). Jesus does not want us to interpret his commands, but to obey them. “If you continue to follow my teaching,” Jesus said, “you are really my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Why is this so hard for us to grasp? Is it because, in the words of Bonhoeffer, there is some “part of our life that we refuse to surrender to Jesus, some sinful passion, maybe, or some animosity, some hope, perhaps our ambition or our reason”? Only those who allow Jesus’ word to rule over them will begin to grasp the significance and relevance of what he taught.
A refusal to submit to Jesus’ word, especially when we know exactly what he wants, is dangerous. We risk losing, or even mocking, his word altogether. An ethics professor of mine once expounded in class on Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies.” “In the end,” he said, “to love one’s enemy may demand that his life be taken. For love always seeks to overcome sin. And to prevent someone from committing an atrocious act, even if it means killing him, is the cost of loving him.” This set my head spinning. Then a timid hand went up. “Professor, does this mean I should sleep around with other women to teach my wife how important it is to forgive seventy times seven?” The spell of sophistry was immediately broken.
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” G.K. Chesterton said, “it has been found difficult and not tried.” Jesus’ words ask the impossible, but only for those who are unwilling to obey and be changed. If we find Jesus’ teachings “hard” or “difficult” it is not because we can’t understand them but because they are all too easy to understand. His word is hard because it demands everything from us.
Jesus’ teaching is indivisible and cannot be dissected or deflected by pious half-measures. “Christ, who is whole, wants us whole,” writes Eberhard Arnold. If we are not ready to live his word completely and decisively we had better leave it alone. As Kierkegaard writes,
We have become such experts at cunningly shoving one layer after another, one interpretation after another, between Christ’s word and our lives.… All this interpreting and re-interpreting is but a defense against it.
It is all too easy to understand Christ’s teachings (“Give all your goods to the poor.” “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the left.” “Count it sheer joy when you meet various temptations” etc.). The most ignorant, poor creature cannot honestly deny being able to understand God’s requirements. But it is tough on the flesh to want to understand it and to then act accordingly. Herein lies the problem. It is not a question of interpretation, but action.
Yes, action! And such action, though difficult, is blessed by God. It is blessed because, as Jesus says, it bears good fruit. To use another metaphor from Jesus, it is blessed because it is rock solid. All who come to Jesus, who pay attention to his words and then put them into practice are like the wise person who builds his house on a rock. When the rains come, the streams rise, and the winds blow and beat against the house, it will not fall. Those who live the Sermon on the Mount stand firm against the storms of life.
My youth counselor at church once told me that I could be the only Bible someone would ever read. I took that as a challenge and was determined to live more like Jesus. “Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say?” Jesus asks. For those of us who claim to be his followers, this is the central question we must answer. The world is watching. The only answer Jesus accepts is for his followers to honor him with their lives. It is not talking about him, studying him, or contemplating his words that matters, but allowing him to transform our lives to match his. This is what the world needs and longs to see. It is the only way to proclaim Jesus as Lord.
For other perspectives on this topic, check out Plough Quarterly No. 1: Living the Sermon on the Mount.