The Sermon on the Mount and Politics

We cannot serve Jesus while at the same time seeking political solutions, which of necessity rely on principles which contradict those of Jesus’s kingdom. In “The Sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 5-7), Jesus taught that the principles of the kingdom of heaven are visibly and obviously different from the principles of earthly kingdoms. He called the citizens of His kingdom to be the “salt of the earth” and to be a “light to the world” (Mt. 5.13-14).

It is essential that Christians live differently from the world. If we lose our distinction, we will fail to influence the world as the salt and light that God has called us to be. 

If the salt becomes tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under food by men. – Matthew 5.13

Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus’ teachings sound somewhat strange, offensive, contradictory to common wisdom, or even foolish. The fact that His teachings are different from everyday thinking is precisely the point Jesus is trying to make.

The Sermon on the Mount and Violence

There is no government on earth that practices, or could practice the principles taught by Jesus. As we read the Sermon on the Mount, we come across some of Jesus’s teaching on violence and the Christian’s attitude toward it.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also… You have heard that it was said “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? – Matthew 5.39-47

As we should expect, these are some very strange teachings. Christianity is different. Other kingdoms on earth tolerate, and sometimes encourage retaliation. And here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings up retaliation for the specific purpose of prohibiting it.

Here He sets forth a clear and broad difference between the spirit of retaliation and the spirit of Christianity. Living according to this difference is not just a minor side point in Jesus’s sermon that can be ignored; it is at the very heart of the theme of His sermon.

And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t simply address the outward action of retaliation. He speaks to the very heart of the matter. The section on retaliation is part of a larger section in which Jesus addressed common everyday understandings of the law (“You have heard that it was said…”), and then immediately gives a teaching that applies directly to the heart (“But I say unto you…”). For instance, when Jesus addressed adultery (Mt. 5.27-30), He condemned not only adultery, but also lust. The principles Jesus taught do not simply refer to the outward act, but also forbid the passion itself. His teachings attach guilt no only to the conduct, but also to the thought.

In another teaching, Jesus forbade not only murder, but also hateful feelings such as resentment or revenge which lead to murder (Mt. 5.21-22). When these unholy motives and intentions are prohibited, the very spirit of violent force towards our enemies is destroyed. Violent force towards our enemies cannot be encouraged or allowed if that which is necessary for that violent force is prohibited. Jesus’ disciples are taught in this sermon that all such attitudes that promote violence towards  enemies are prohibited in His kingdom.

According to everyday wisdom at that time, violence towards enemies was permitted. Jesus directly contradicts this mindset when He says “Love your enemies”. Loving our enemies is contrary to desiring harm upon them. By desiring to use force against our enemies we are violating one of the fundamental principles of Jesus’s teaching.

The tax collectors and gentiles demonstrated a similar set of ethics as the Jews. They preached the importance of love, but they limited their love to those who were deserving of it. If a person was wicked enough, they were seen as no longer deserving of their love. If a Christian decides that certain enemies are just too wicked to be loved, they have become no different from the rest of the world; they have lost their flavor as salt.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Civil State

Christians cannot serve the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. The principles taught by Jesus are contrary to the principles that are, and of necessity must be, practiced in every human government on earth. No nation on earth would survive very long if it refused to resist its enemies. First, there would be no military forces to maintain a country’s strength. Subsequently, the nation would not be able to enforce its laws upon its citizens. The implied force that lies behind all political solutions and legislation would be destroyed. (If you don’t believe all political solutions are a demonstration of force, just refuse to obey a law and see what happens).

The mindset that is necessary for the maintenance of a strong country is opposed to the mindset that is taught by Jesus. The two mindsets cannot dwell at the same time inside the same person. You cannot be gentle, forgiving, responding to evil with good, turning the other cheek, praying for your persecutors, and at the same time execute wrath and vengeance upon evil doers as God has ordained governing authorities to do (Romans 13.1-7).

Jesus understood this to be the case. He understood that the principles of Sermon on the Mount could not be kept among those who try to serve two masters.

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. – Matthew 6.24

Satan is the god of this world. To serve wealth is to serve Satan. Wealth is served in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus teaches that we cannot serve both.

 “Jesus Didn’t Really Mean That”

Many will be quick to point out that Jesus never intended for his sermon to be applied to governments. In this observation, they are correct. After all, Jesus didn’t go to Rome to preach this lesson to Caesar and his guards, and He didn’t preach the sermon to the U.S. Government.

He preached the sermon to those who were to be a part of His kingdom, and He expected His teachings to apply to every aspect of their lives. Therefore it wouldn’t make any sense to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is fine to apply to individual Christians, unless those Christians decided to become involved in political action, in which case they would be exempted from these expectations.

Consider these words from Martin Luther, the great Reformer (who in many regards should be praised as a hero). From his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Martin Luther wrote:

Thus we read of many holy martyrs, who under infidel emperors and lords have gone forth to war, when summoned, and in all good conscience have struck right and left and killed, just as others, so that in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen; and yet they did nothing contrary to this text. For they did it not as Christians, for their own person, but as obedient members and subjects, under obligation to secular person and authority. But if you are free and not obligated to such secular authority, then you have here a different rule, as a different person.

Wait, what? Christians are no “different than heathens”? For “they did it not as Christians… but as obedient members and subjects, under obligation to secular person and authority”?

Is Jesus not to be the Lord over every part of our lives? Would this logic make sense if applied to other activities in life? For example, consider if this quote were applied to lifeguarding.

Some Christians, while working as lifeguards have looked at immodestly dressed women and lusted after them, and in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen; yet they did nothing contrary to this text. For they did it not as Christians, but as lifeguards who were faithfully doing their jobs under obligation to their secular bosses.

Or apply this logic to a lawyer…

Some Christians, while working as lawyers, have told lies, and in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen; yet they did nothing contrary to this text. For they did it not as Christians, but as lawyers who were faithfully doing their jobs under obligation to their secular clients.

We wouldn’t use this logic towards other walks of life. Why would we apply it to Jesus’ teachings about retaliation and loving our enemies? Jesus never adds any qualifiers to these statements. He did not intend for them to apply to certain parts of our lives and not to other parts.

A Christian might be a lifeguard, but a Christian lifeguard should never lust. A Christian might be a lawyer, but a Christian lawyer should never lie. A Christian might live as a citizen under secular authorities, but a Christian citizen should never retaliate, resist evil with evil, or hate his enemies.

The Sermon on the Mount was not addressed to human governments, but it does apply to every Christian in every aspect of their lives. To seek political solutions to lose our distinctiveness; that is, to cease to be salt and light.

Words of Comfort and Warning

 Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. – Matthew 7.24

Jesus concludes by teaching that those who live according to the principles of God’s kingdom will stand forever. Those who do not will be overcome in destruction. The kingdom which was established by God will never fall. The kingdoms which are in the world will be destroyed along with those who live according to their way of life.

The kingdom Jesus established does not need the right political party, strong political victories, strong law enforcement, constitutionally protected rights, strong military strength, or a strong economy to prosper. If Jesus can overcome the cross, Christians can rest assured that the gates of hell (much less a bad earthly government), will not prevail against His church.