The Lord’s Prayer is found in a section of the Gospel of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5 – 7). Pressed by crowds of people, Jesus goes up on a mountaintop. He is joined there not by “the crowds” but rather by far smaller group of people who would aspire to his disciples.
Matthew is conjuring up the memory of Moses going up on the mountaintop to receive the ten commandments by which the Hebrew people were to live by. Jesus is portrayed as the “new Moses,” and the sermon he gives from his mountaintop describes what the lives of those who follow him should look like. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches in saying that what he expects out of his followers goes far beyond what Moses required.
It would be a gross understatement to say the sermon is challenging. Among other things, Jesus says that feeling angry is no different from being a murderer, and having lust in our hearts is the same as being adulterers. He says if someone smacks us on the cheek we are to turn the other cheek so they can smack that one as well. Love and pray for our enemies, he says. He assumes we’ll be helping poor people, but makes a point of saying that we should do it secretly so nobody will praise us. He says to live like the birds of the air who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, trusting God to provide for the present day. He says we’re not allowed to judge anybody.
Jesus recognizes that all this stuff is contrary to the way things work in this world, and that if we manage to do so in such a way that people start persecuting us, we should consider ourselves blessed.
Throughout the history of the church theologians have debated what Jesus was trying to say with this sermon. Some have said that he really meant what he said, and if you’re not serious about trying to live this way, you shouldn’t be calling yourself a “Christian.” Others have argued that Jesus was calling attention to the fact that we all fall far short of the glory of God — that it’s impossible to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48) — and that in the end our only option is to humbly throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
Either way, the sermon on the mount should give us pause when we are tempted to easily identify ourselves as “Christians”, and in particular, when the impulse arises to pass judgment on those who don’t so identify themselves.
Lord Jesus, from that mountaintop long ago your words ring through the ages, humbling us still. We know we have stumbled time and again in our attempts at following you; nonetheless, we long to be your disciples in the present age. Teach us your way. Amen.