Context is a slippery thing.
It can be positive. If I say, ” I love wine” in the middle of a sermon about the wedding at Cana it makes sense. If I say the same thing in a sermon about Jesus healing lepers I sound like a drunk. Context encourages appropriateness and understanding.
However, context can also be used as a way of ensuring that something directive has no power over me: “That doesn’t apply to me because it was a whole different situation”. Sometimes that’s true but usually it is a clause I invoke because I don’t want it to apply right now.
Christians invoke context a lot. It’s understandable when you follow a Lord who seems to demand what feels like lots of impossible things from you. We call for context when Jesus says something that jars, that is hard or what I’d prefer not to do. It gives me a buffer between what I believe and how I behave.
The Sermon on the Mount has featured a lot in my thinking lately and specifically about how short I fall of its demands on the do not worry end of things. In the midst of this pondering someone declared to their Facebook friends they’d bought a shotgun for home protection. I cheekily (so I thought) commented I didn’t remember that in the Sermon on the Mount. In response I was told that turning the other cheek didn’t mean letting a home invader murder you and that the Sermon on the Mount didn’t apply here because it was contextual.
Curiously, I hadn’t been thinking about turning the other cheek. I was tending towards the more uncomfortable “do not worry” and “do not store up treasures that are vulnerable to moths, rust and burglars.” Jesus knows we purchase the gun precisely because we worry that God will not protect our stuff. We worry that it will fall to us to take care of the important things.
Truth is if we wrote the sermon it would contain lots of conditional language to provide some understandable get out clauses when it got too hard. That wasn’t Jesus’ way. Jesus never obscured the cost and point of being a disciple. Being transformed in our humanity means being free of what makes us less human and even less of a neighbour. Jesus liberates us from the way the world raised us. Jesus tells us: “Be free from fear and self reliance. Be free to be charitable, to mourn, to be poor, to be a peacemaker, to be a neighbour and to trust.”
The Sermon is a theology of abundance. What can anyone take from you that God cannot restore? Walter Brueggemann tells us in his excellent essay titled, “Liturgy of Abundance, the myth of scarcity”:
We who are now the richest nation are today’s main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity — a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly.
The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. The story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us.
What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.
The only context of the Sermon on the Mount is real life lived with a desire for God to transform us. There are no time constraints, rules of engagement or escalation. I am called to live in the world and refuse anxiety, to not live for my things and to know life goes on even if everything is taken from me. I can take precautions, be prudent and plan ahead, but I know I am not now, nor ever, in control.