I found myself sighing with something like relief one day after reading a comment made by C.S. Lewis. He was responding to a statement made by a scholar who noted that he didn’t “care for” the Sermon on the Mount but “preferred” the ethics of the apostle Paul. As you might imagine, Lewis was bothered at the suggestion of Scripture alternatives between which we may pick and choose, and it was this that he addressed first. But his response also included an honest remark about the Sermon on the Mount as well, and this is what caught my attention. He wrote, “As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means liking or enjoying, I suppose no one cares for it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledgehammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of the man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure. This is indeed to be ‘at ease in Zion.’”(1)
To be “at ease in Zion” was the deplorable state of existence the prophet Amos spoke of in his harsh words to the Israelites hundreds of years before Jesus was giving sermons and causing commotion. Reeling in false security and erroneous confidence from their economic affluence and self-indulgent lifestyles, the Israelites, Amos warned, would be the first God would send into exile if they failed to heed his words: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion… who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches… you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.”(2)
The Sermon on the Mount is equally startling. Lewis’s comparison of Christ’s words to a sledgehammer is not far off. Those potent chapters are not unlike the electric paddles used to shock the heart back to life, back to the rhythm it was intended to have.
The Sermon on the Mount is like the keynote address for the kingdom Christ came to introduce. On that mountainside, Jesus points out many of the mountains that blur visions of God in our very midst. He suggests that we may well not be seeing fully, not grasping reality as it really is. “You have heard that it was so…” he says again and again, “but I tell you…” His words are hard and thorough, and even the simplest of phrases is resonant with the promise of one who so values creation that he would join us within the very thick of it:
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.(3)
Perhaps I have become at ease in Zion if I can lose sight of the one who wants to bless, who pours forth hope, who looks for opportunities to open eyes and hearts. Behind the haze of selfish ambition, guilt, or fear, Christ’s words become like a foghorn calling me to heed the hope of the one in our midst even when the following seems inconvenient at best, and more often impossible. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”(4) So easily I can move from the spiritual state of being at ease in Zion to being altogether ill at ease. Jesus is unapologetic about just how much there is at stake: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”(5)
For the crowds that gathered that day on the hillside, Jesus’s words were equally demanding. If God’s commandments were difficult before this sermon, they were now terrifying. Who can stand in this kingdom Jesus describes? And how is this good news? And yet, in the middle of his sermon Jesus proclaims astoundingly: “Do not worry.” To those trembling with the fear of certain failure and impending dread, he says with certainty: I am your way to all of this; I am your way through the law to flourishing. This, he says again at the point of the cross.
The Sermon on the Mount is a concentrated example of how Jesus lays down the law of God, even as he comes to fulfill it in a human body on our behalf. It is clear that he expects us to build the houses of our lives upon his own weighted words, even as he leads us to this house and welcomes us inside it. His very life cries out to all who are at ease in Zion, weary from self-indulgence, unaware of God at work among us. And his life also cries out to those who are ill at ease, unable to see God through their own convincing and consuming failure. Whichever scenario, his role is uncompromisable. He is both Lord to be obeyed and vicarious savior to bestow the very possibility.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis,
(2) Amos 6:1-12.
(3) Matthew 5:8.
(4) Matthew 5:13.