Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount (Part I of III)
Christian stewardship is the effective management of every gift of God for the glory of God according to the will of God.
This is the working definition on which the Stewardship Broadsword is based. What I appreciate about it is that it skirts the typical error of focusing too narrowly on the tithe. Too many churches break out stewardship sermons and studies only when the money is low, or when the sanctuary needs a new roof. Congregants, and worse, visitors see this for the manipulation that it is and ultimately resent it.
But stewardship is more than that. Faithful stewards in God’s kingdom order their very lives around the will of the Father, trusting in him for their provision as they serve him joyfully, fully employing every gift for the task. Their service is motivated by faith in and love for God. In Matthew 5-7, we see Jesus as faithful steward of the law on one hand, and of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, on the other. The skill with which he accomplishes both is breathtaking.
Chapter 5 opens with encouragement for the weary follower. Jesus effectively calls to himself all those who have desired to serve God only to be confronted by the harsh penalties of failure. He blesses the meek and lowly, those who show mercy and seek peace, and those who are persecuted. He would later refer to the people of Israel as sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless (Matt 9:36). Here, he gathers them to teach them.
But if we think the Beatitudes are the preamble to a watered-down delivery of the law, then we are mistaken. Jesus quickly establishes the standard. While the Pharisees held a high view of obedience, it was an empty obedience devoid of saving faith and Godly love. They did not love the law, nor the God who gave it. In his response, Jesus rebuked them firmly but was careful not to water down the law; to the contrary, he said to the people, “your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees”.
As the chapter unfolds, Jesus doubles down on the Ten Commandments. With a series of “you have heard that it was said… but I tell you…” commands, he asserts that the root of sin lies in the heart. Therefore, harboring malice is tantamount to murder and dwelling on sexual sin is adultery. He uses the same mechanism to show us that our love for each other must extend beyond the bounds of family and friends to include our enemies and those who persecute us.
It will always be true that our understanding of the law will inform our understanding of the God who gave it, and it is because the Pharisees abused the law – and abused the people of God in their application of it – that Jesus judged them so harshly as “wicked tenants” and “unfaithful stewards”. Far from the legalistic and faithless posture of the Pharisees, Jesus appropriately used the law to teach the holiness and supremacy of God and to shepherd his people toward saving faith.
In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus attacks false piety and pride: Giving to the needy, prayer and fasting are assumed in the life of a believer, and interestingly, Jesus makes no attempt to admonish his hearers further. His interest, as in the previous chapter is in the motive, the heart of his hearers. The Pharisees made a show of dropping coins in the coin box, praying eloquently on street corners, and suffering noisily as they fasted. Their motive was personal esteem. Far from serving the Lord obediently, they were in fact using God’s law to steal God’s glory. Jesus’ judgment was blunt: “they have received their reward in full.” (6:2)
In the verses that follow, Jesus presses his advantage. His goal is not simply to tear down the house of the Pharisees but to rebuild or reform the house of God of which he is the chief steward. Beginning in 6:19, Jesus uses three parallel analogies to focus his followers on what it takes to truly follow him. In short, he asks us to lay aside our pursuit of earthly treasure to pursue the Kingdom of Heaven with a healthy (or undivided) eye, as men who serve a single master, undistracted by fleeting worldly gain. Herein Jesus lays down a cornerstone of faithful stewardship: A steward seeks nothing but the glory and approval of his master.
If Jesus had ended here, the Sermon on the Mount would have been an incredible treatise on the law and our obligation to it, as well as a powerful indictment of sin. But Jesus has more to teach. In the next installment of the Stewardship Broadsword, we will see how Jesus re-lays the foundations on which the nation of Israel, the Israel of God, must be built – a foundation of obedience that is by faith from first to last.
In the meantime, I would be remiss if I did not encourage us to consider our own position relative to the law and to the sins for which Jesus indicted the Pharisees and against which he warns us today. We too have been entrusted with the law of God, and more than that the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Do these gifts drive us to a humble faith and love for him? Do others see this in us? Do we simply display rules-based living without an understanding of God, or is the witness of our lives compelling in a culture of compromise? May it be said of us that we know the Lord, and may the grace of God dwell in us richly!
Deacon, Chairman of Stewardship and Finance Committee, Second Presbyterian Church