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Jesus Teaches about Right Attitudes
Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant
Unit 2: A Heartfelt Covenant
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 30, 2019
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Key Verse: Matthew 5:12
Purpose: To embrace Jesus’ teachings amidst today’s struggles and difficulties.
Mountains to Climb
There is something about mountains. While some people may prefer a visit to the beach, most people will tell you the mountains stir their soul. They give you a humbling perspective on your place in the world. The view from an overlook into the world below reminds you how small you are and how great and wonderful the world is. I look forward to every opportunity I have to visit the mountains of North Carolina. Even a short drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway seems to refresh my spirit. The chance to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail is a rare and cherished treat.
There is a part of me that understands why people would put “summiting Everest” on their bucket list. Located in the Himalayas, Mount Everest is Earth’s highest mountain. While the first recorded efforts to reach the summit were made early in the twentieth century, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent of Everest in 1953. Over the next 30 years, no more than a dozen or so highly experienced mountaineers reached the summit in any one year.
In 1985 the situation began to change. Previously, climbing Mount Everest was the culmination of years of dreaming and training. That year, Richard Bass, a wealthy 55-year-old businessman and amateur mountain climber with only four years of climbing experience, was part of a guided expedition led by David Breashears. It was the beginning of what some have called “the era of commercialisation of Everest.”
Within a few years several companies were offering guided tours to the mountain. People were paying up to $130,000 to climb Everest with personal photographers and private bars at base camp. Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, said in a 2003 interview that his late father would have been shocked to discover that rich thrill-seekers with no climbing experience were now routinely reaching the summit, “You still have to climb this mountain yourself with your feet. But the spirit of adventure is not there anymore. It is lost. There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65,000. It is very selfish. It endangers the lives of others.”
Reinhold Messner – Italian mountaineer, adventurer, explorer, and author – concurred in 2004, “You could die in each climb and that meant you were responsible for yourself. We were real mountaineers: careful, aware and even afraid. By climbing mountains, we were not learning how big we were. We were finding out how breakable, how weak and how full of fear we are. You can only get this if you expose yourself to high danger. I have always said that a mountain without danger is not a mountain … High altitude alpinism has become tourism and show. These commercial trips to Everest, they are still dangerous. But the guides and organisers tell clients, ‘Don't worry, it’s all organised.’ The route is prepared by hundreds of Sherpas. Extra oxygen is available in all camps, right up to the summit. People will cook for you and lay out your beds. Clients feel safe and don’t care about the risks.”
Despite the assurances, the risks of climbing Everest remain. As a result, while a record 891 climbers summited in the spring 2019 climbing season, there were at least 12 climbers who died. One guide identified a major factor contributing to this deadly season – about half of climbers embarking on the journey are inexperienced, “They don't train very hard. They underestimate Everest,” said Jangbu Sherpa, who has been working on Everest since 2006. “There are lots of climbers who just want to check the box so that they can say they’ve been to the top of the world.” Some operators also fail to confirm the experience level of climbers and simply accept anyone who can afford the cost of the journey and ascent, he added. (NBC News, May 30, 2019)
How would you characterize the difference between the attitude of the early mountaineers who climbed Everest and the tourists who “just want to check the box so that they can say they’ve been to the top of the world”?
A Different Kind of Climb
Those who tour the Holy Land these days will most certainly spend at least a couple of hours visiting the Mount of the Beatitudes. A group of Italian Franciscan nuns helped finance the construction of an eight-sided chapel, designed by Antonio Barluzzi there around 1938. Most scholars agree that the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew brought together as a concise way to present Jesus’ message. Whether or not Matthew 5-7 was a single message that Jesus delivered on one day, pilgrims have been coming to this “mount” for more than 1,600 years to remember Jesus and the principles and values he proclaimed.
This mount is quite different from Everest. On the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum and Gennesaret, its highest point is 190 feet below sea level. It’s no Mount Hermon. Still a little more than 500 feet above the surface of the lake, it is easy to imagine Jesus speaking to a large crowd assembled on the gently sloping hill.
While climbing this hill may have not been much of a challenge, those who heard Jesus’ words “were amazed at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28). This was radically different from anything they had heard from the traditional teachers of their day. Jesus was turning their expectations upside down. In many ways the rest of Matthew’s gospel presents the unfolding of the ramifications and repercussions of this body of teaching.
Many objected to the things Jesus said. Some claimed he was mistaken. Others questioned his right to speak on God’s behalf. Some applauded his words, but warned that he shouldn’t be taken literally. Many dismissed completely what he had to say.
What is your initial reaction to the teaching Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount?
The Royal Way
John Wesley was convinced the Sermon on the Mount was not meant to be read and dismissed, but that it contained teaching that was “indispensably necessary to eternal salvation.” Particularly in the Beatitudes, Jesus was not just listing groups of people who were particularly favored by God; rather Jesus was inviting people to a way of life – a perspective on life – that would lead them to true joy and gladness. In a way, Jesus was inviting to them ascend to a new summit – one that few, if any, had ever attempted.
When it comes to character, Jesus invites those who will consider what it takes to climb to new heights. The first four beatitudes address attitudes with which those who are moving toward the kingdom view the world.
Self-confidence has long been celebrated as a key to success. “Never let them see you sweat!” Someone may have told you “Fake it ‘til you make it,” suggesting that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, you can accomplish great things.
Jesus says, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3). To begin to move toward the kingdom – to make the only ascent which has any eternal significance – Jesus seems to be saying that it is more important for you to admit how helpless, needy, spiritually impoverished, and dependent on God you are.
How many times has someone told you to cheer up? Nobody wants to be known as the person who sucks all of the energy out of the room. “Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.”
Jesus says, “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad” (Matthew 5:4). Recognizing our own hopelessness and spiritual poverty may be reason enough to move those who seek God’s presence to despair; but when you consider the public ministry of Jesus, it becomes apparent that Jesus was moved by the disease, injustice, oppression, and indifference to suffering that he encountered as he moved from village to village. In the face of a fallen creation, there is much to lament.
“If you don't believe in yourself, no one else will.” We are obsessed with self-esteem. Unfortunately, we often think that proving our self-worth means both trumpeting our own abilities and disparaging the contributions of others. We can’t win unless someone else loses. If we don’t put ourselves first, no one else will.
Jesus says, “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). It is difficult to discern when positive self-regard becomes pride, but Jesus is clear that those who are fit for the kingdom understand there is a God, and it’s not them. Paul gives good advice here: “Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you” (Romans 12:3).
Some people always seem to be looking for an angle. The question is not whether something is right or wrong, helpful or harmful, inspiring or degenerate, but whether it is profitable.
Jesus says, “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full” (Matthew 5:6). People who begin by recognizing the brokenness of this world develop an appetite for God’s order of creation to be restored. They are eager to see the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed. They celebrate the release of every slave, the righting of every wrong, the restoration of peace in families, nations, and the world.
The remaining Beatitudes move from being descriptive of right attitudes to addressing practical matters of living. Jesus speaks of those who show mercy, demonstrate pure motives, work to establish peace, and persevere in the face of opposition.
This is a very different list from the one most religious people might expect. Many of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day repeatedly ask him to rule on interpretations of the law. They seemed obsessed with determining who was guilty.
Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warns the people, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:2-4). The rest of the chapter returns repeatedly to the refrain: “How terrible it will be for you, legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites!”
Controversy, antagonism, and provocation seem to be much more evident among the religious leaders. There are few examples of people coming to Jesus with a question that seemed like an authentic attempt to understand what Jesus was saying.
There may be no better example of the religious leaders’ willingness to sell out than when Caiaphas uses this argument to convince the council to eliminate Jesus: “You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed” (John 11:50). Their worry about the own self-preservation, their roles in the temple cult, and their place of privilege in the culture was more important to them than being aligned with the will of God.
Jesus calls us to embark on a difficult climb. These heights will challenge even the most resolute. Nevertheless, the view at the top is more than worth the struggle. Jesus says, “Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12a).
Which Beatitude is most challenging to you? Who could you ask to give you support and to hold you accountable as you seek to develop in this area of your faith?
Ashley Randall is the pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain to Wesser, but spends more of his time running around historic Savannah these days.