Jesus Preaches on the Mountain
One day Jesus went out to find a great crowd of people who had come from far away: as well as those from Galilee, people had come from the lands of the Decapolis beyond the Jordan, from Jerusalem and Judea. In order to make it easier for them all to hear his teaching, Jesus climbed up into the mountains a little way, with his disciples and the crowd following. Christ was inconspicuous among them, and no one knew who he was, for they were all strangers to the district. He had a tablet and a stylus with him to take notes about what Jesus said.
When Jesus had reached a prominent spot, he began to speak.
'What am I preaching?' he said. 'The Kingdom of God, that's what. It's coming, friends, it's on its way. And today I'm going to tell you who's going to be received into the Kingdom, and who isn't, so pay attention. It's the difference between being blessed and being cursed. Don't ignore what I say to you, now. A great deal hangs on this.
'So here you are then: the poor will be blessed. Those who have nothing now will soon inherit all the Kingdom of God.
'The hungry will be blessed. In the Kingdom, they will be filled with good food; they will never hunger again.
'Those who mourn will be blessed; those who weep now will be blessed, because when the Kingdom comes, they will be comforted, and they will laugh with joy.
'Those who are scorned and hated will be blessed. Those who are persecuted, and lied about, and defamed, and slandered, and exiled ¨C they will be blessed. Remember the prophets, think of how badly they were treated in their time, and be glad if people treat you the same way; because when the Kingdom comes, you will be rejoicing, believe me.
'The merciful, the kindly, the meek ¨C they will be blessed. They will inherit the earth.
'Those who are pure in heart and think no evil of others ¨C they will be blessed.
'Those who make peace between enemies, those who solve bitter disputes ¨C they will be blessed. They are the children of God.
'But beware, and remember what I tell you: there are some who will be cursed, who will never inherit the Kingdom of God. D'you want to know who they are? Here goes:
'Those who are rich will be cursed. They've had all the consolation they're going to get.
'Those whose bellies are full now will be cursed. They will suffer the pangs of hunger everlastingly.
'Those who look at poverty and hunger without concern, and turn away with a laugh on their lips, will be cursed; they will have plenty to mourn about; they will weep for ever.
'Those who are well-spoken of, and praised by the powerful, and flattered and fawned over by loud voices in public places, will be cursed. They will have no place in the Kingdom.'
The people cheered at these words, and crowded close to hear more of what Jesus was saying.
Christ is Saved by the Stranger
But at the edge of the crowd someone had noticed what Christ was doing as he noted down the words of Jesus, and said, 'A spy! Here's a spy from the Romans ¨C throw him off the mountain!'
Before Christ could defend himself, another voice spoke beside him:
'No, friend, you're wrong. This man is one of us. He's writing down the words of the teacher so he can take them and tell others the good news.'
Christ's accuser was convinced, and turned back to listen to Jesus, forgetting Christ in a moment. Christ saw that the man who had defended him was none other than the stranger, the priest whose name he had not managed to learn.
'Come aside with me for a moment,' said the stranger.
They withdrew from the crowd, and sat under the shade of a tamarisk.
'Am I doing the right thing?' said Christ. 'I wanted to be sure I heard him correctly, in case there was any judgement later.'
'It is an excellent thing to do,' said the stranger. 'Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unravelled for the simple-of-understanding. In fact, I want you to continue. Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time, so that we can begin the work of interpretation.'
'These words that Jesus is saying,' said Christ, 'they might be seditious, I think. The man thought I was a Roman spy... It wouldn't be surprising if the Romans did take an interest, would it?'
'Very shrewdly observed,' said the stranger. 'That's exactly what we have to bear in mind. Political matters are delicate and dangerous, and it requires a subtle mind and a strong nerve to negotiate them safely. I'm sure we can rely on you.'
And with a friendly squeeze of Christ's shoulder, the stranger got to his feet and moved away. There were a dozen questions that Christ wanted to ask him, but before he could utter a word, the stranger was lost in the crowd. From the way he had spoken about political affairs, Christ wondered if his first guess had been right: perhaps the stranger was not just a priest, but a member of the Sanhedrin. That was the council that settled all doctrinal and judicial matters among the Jews, as well as dealing with Jewish relations with the Romans, and its members, of course, were men of great wisdom.
Jesus Continues his Sermon on the Mountain
Christ took his tablet and stylus and moved to a place where he could hear what his brother was saying. It seemed that someone had asked Jesus to tell them about the law, and whether what it said was still valid in the time of the Kingdom of God.
'Don't anyone think I'm telling you to abandon the law and the prophets,' Jesus said. 'I haven't come here to abolish them. I'm here to fulfil them. I'm telling you truly: not one word, not one letter of the law will be superseded until heaven and earth pass away. If you break one of these laws, even the least of them, beware.'
'But there are degrees, aren't there, master?' someone called out. 'A little sin isn't as bad as a big sin, surely?'
'You know there's a commandment against murder. Where would you draw the line? Would you say murder is wrong, but beating someone is maybe a little less wrong, and just being angry with them isn't wrong at all? I'm telling you that if you're angry with a brother or a sister, by which I mean anyone at all, even if you've just got a grudge against them, don't dare to go and offer a gift in the temple until you've made your peace with them. Do that first of all.
'And I won't have any talk about little sins and big sins. That won't wash in the Kingdom of God. The same goes for adultery. You know the commandment against adultery: it says don't do it. It doesn't say "You must not commit adultery, but it's all right to think about it." It isn't. Every time you look at a woman with lustful thoughts, you're already committing adultery with her in your heart. Don't do it. And if your eyes keep looking that way, pluck them out. You think adultery is bad, but divorce is all right? You're wrong: if you divorce your wife for any reason other than her unchastity, you cause her to commit adultery when she marries again. And if you marry a divorced woman, you commit adultery. Marriage is a serious business. So is hell. And that's where you'll go if you think that as long as you avoid the big sins, you can get away with the little ones.'
'You said we mustn't be violent, master, but if someone attacks you, surely you can fight back?'
'"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"? Is that what you're thinking about? Don't do it. If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the left as well. If anyone wants to take your coat away, give him your cloak to go with it. If he forces you to go one mile, go two. You know why that is? Because you should love your enemy, that's why. Yes, you heard me right: love your enemies, and pray for them. Think of God your Father in heaven, and do as he does. He makes the sun rise on the wicked as well as on the good; he sends the rain to fall on the righteous as well as the unrighteous. What's the good of loving only those who love you? Why, even a tax-collector does that. And if you care only for your brothers and sisters, you're doing no more than the Gentiles. Be perfect.'
Christ wrote this all down diligently, taking care to inscribe 'These are the words that Jesus spoke' on each tablet, so no one should think they were his own opinions.
Someone was asking about almsgiving.
'Good question,' said Jesus. 'What you should do when you give alms is to shut up about it. Keep silent. You know the sort of people who make a great spectacle of their generosity: don't do as they do. Let no one know when you give, or how much you give, or what cause you give it to. Don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Your Father in heaven will see, don't worry about that.
'And while I'm talking about keeping quiet, here's another thing to be secret about: and that's prayer. Don't be like those ostentatious hypocrites who pray out loud and let the whole neighbourhood know about their piety. Go to your room, shut the door, pray in silence and in secret. Your Father will hear. And have you ever heard the Gentiles pray? On and on, yakkety yak, blah blah blah, as if the very sound of their voices were music in the ears of God. Don't be like them. There's no need to tell God what you're asking for; he knows already.
'This is how you should pray. You should say:
'Father in heaven, your name is holy.
'Your Kingdom is coming, and your will shall be done on earth as it's done in heaven.
'Give us today the bread we need.
'And forgive our debts, as we shall forgive those who are indebted to us.
'And don't let the evil one tempt us more than we can resist.
'Because the Kingdom and the power and the glory belong to you for ever.
'So be it.'
'Master,' someone called out, 'if the Kingdom is coming, as you say, how should we live? Should we carry on our trades, should we build houses and raise families and pay taxes as we've always done, or has everything changed now we know about the Kingdom?'
'You're right, friend, everything has changed. There's no need to worry about what you're going to eat or drink, where you're going to sleep, what you're going to wear. Look at the birds: do they sow or reap? Do they gather wheat into the barn? They don't do any of those things, and yet their Father in heaven feeds them every day. Don't you think you're more valuable than the birds? And think what worrying does: has anyone ever added a single hour to the length of his life by worrying about it?
'And think about clothing. Look at the lilies in the field, how beautiful they are. Not even Solomon in all his splendour looked as glorious as a wild flower. And if God clothes the grass of the field like that, don't you think he'll take even more care of you? You with little faith! I've told you before: don't behave like the Gentiles. They're the ones who fret about things like that. So stop worrying about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Today has enough trouble of its own.'
'What should we do when we see someone else doing wrong?' called out one man. 'Should we try and put them straight?'
'Who are you to judge anyone else?' said Jesus. 'You point out the speck in your neighbour's eye, and you don't notice the plank in your own. Take the plank out of your eye first, and then you can see to take the speck out of your neighbour's.
'And you need to see clearly when you look at what you're doing. You need to think and get things right. You don't give meat from sacrifices to the dogs ¨C you might as well give a pearl necklace to a pig. Think what that means.'
'Master, how do we know that all will be well?' said one man.
'You just ask, and it'll be given to you. You just search, and you'll find. You just knock, and the door will be opened. You don't believe me? Consider this: is there a man or woman alive who, when their child asks for bread, gives them a stone? Of course not. And if you, sinners every one of you, know how to give nourishment to a child, think how much better your Father in heaven will know how to give good things to those who ask for them.
'Now I'm going to stop talking soon, but there are a few more things you need to hear and remember. There are true prophets, and there are false prophets, and this is how to tell the difference: look at the fruits they bear. Do you gather grapes from a thorn bush? Do you look for figs among the thistles? Of course not, because a bad tree can't bear good fruit, and a good tree doesn't bear bad fruit. You will know true prophets and false prophets by the fruits they bear. And a tree that bears bad fruit is cut down in the end, and thrown on the fire.
'And remember this: take the hard road, not the easy one. The road that leads to life is a hard one, and it passes through a narrow gate, but the road to destruction is easy, and the gate is broad. Plenty take the easy road; few take the hard one. Your job is to find the hard one, and go by that.
'If you hear these words of mine, and act on them, you'll be like a wise man who builds his house on a rock. The rain falls, the floods come, the winds howl and beat on the house, but it doesn't fall, because it's been founded on a rock. But if you hear my words and don't act on them, you'll be like a foolish man who builds his house on sand. And what happens when the rain falls and the floods come and the winds beat against it? The house falls down ¨C and it falls with a great smash.
'And this is the final thing I'll say to you: do to others as you hope they would do to you.
'This is the law and the prophets, this is everything you need to know.'
Christ watched as the crowd moved away, and listened to what they said.
'He's not like the scribes,' said one.
'He talks as if he knows things.'
'I never heard straight talking like that before!'
'That's not the sort of waffle you get from the usual preachers. This man knows what he's talking about.'
And Christ considered everything he'd heard that day, and pondered it deeply as he transcribed the words from his tablet on to a scroll; but he said nothing to anyone.
The Death of John
All this time John the Baptist had been captive in prison. King Herod Antipas really wanted to put him to death, but he knew that John was popular with the people, and he feared what they might do in response. Now the king's wife ¨C the one John had criticised him for marrying ¨C was called Herodias, and she had a daughter called Salome. When the court was celebrating the king's birthday Salome danced for him, and pleased everyone so much that Herod promised to give her whatever she asked for. Her mother prompted her, and she said, 'I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.'
Herod was privately dismayed. But he had promised in front of his guests, and he couldn't back down; so he ordered the executioner to go to the prison and behead John at once. It was done, and the head was brought, just as Salome had demanded, on a platter. The girl gave it to Herodias. As for the Baptist's body, his followers came to the prison and took it away to be buried.