Becoming a Christian is the act of giving up of one’s rights in order to become a slave to Christ. It’s the putting to death everything that isn’t Jesus in order to embrace the fullness of what Jesus offers. It’s the giving up of all power by submitting to the One who truly holds all the power.
However, much of the Christian culture in the United States does not reflect this reality.
To the Christendom-minded individual, you must grasp firmly to your rights so that others cannot impose that which is contrary to your assumed morality. It’s the seizing of every opportunity to gain ground in the political sphere so that it can be “won.” It’s the desire for more control over culture in order to fight for Christian-like ethics, even if that fighting ironically goes against scripture itself.
Which camp do you fall within? One way to tell might be exploring how you read and apply Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5-7. It’s that section of scripture that talks about being salt and light and not worrying. But it also says things like:
- “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (5:5)
- “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (5:22)
- “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (5:28)
- “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (5:39)
- “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (5:41)
- “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (5:44)
- “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (6:14-15)
We are normally pretty comfortable when Jesus is talking about prayer or being salt and light. We apply these portions of the sermon literally. However, our normal default application of the stronger teachings found within this sermon is to label them as impractical platitudes. Or, we say that Jesus must have been offering up a purposely impossible ethic to make clear that we are sinners and could never live up to God’s standard.
While it is true that we cannot ever live up to God’s standard, that’s not exactly what Jesus was going for within this sermon. We cannot earn salvation on our own. And yes, nothing we can do in this life could earn us our place in Heaven. However, within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t purposefully pointing out our present inconsistencies but instead offering up an alternative way of living. He’s giving us his “Heavenly vision,” or the ethic that citizens of his kingdom should follow when representing his rule on Earth.
The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be taken seriously. Christian’s are really meant to do what Jesus tells us here.
But I do understand why it’s not. To take Jesus seriously here, and especially in the harder teachings quoted above, would be to give up our rights and privileges. It would force us to let go of our pursuit of power.
Let’s look specifically at Matthew 5:41 to unpack this idea more.
What is Jesus referring to in this verse?
There seems to have been a custom within Persia to legally allow a soldier to commandeer any citizen and force them to carry their military gear for a specific length of time. And in Jesus’ day, the Roman government seems to have adopted this Persian practice much to the chagrin of most Jews in the first century.
But the Zealot, if forced to carry a soldier’s sword, would have used such an opportunity to cut the Roman soldier down. To them, the Empire was severely infringing on what was theirs. And they had no problem using any means necessary to regain power in the land. The Pharisee would likely have refused on the basis of purity law. They would not have wanted to defile themselves by touching something Roman. In fact, in their mind, if they maintained such a code and successfully convinced most of the rest of society to do the same, God himself might take notice and pour out His divine wrath on the Roman intruders.
But all in all, what Jesus was asking those in the crowd to do would have been perceived as a laying down of their inherited privileges. He was asking them to give up their rights in order to properly represent God’s kingdom. They couldn’t both cling to their power and have an effective witness. Because if they did, the kingdom they would be representing would be their own and not God’s, even if they were grasping for power to maintain their religious identity.
In other words, personal self-sacrifice needed to displace personal retaliation, whether that retaliation be violent or social.
Why? Because this is the way that Jesus himself took, and the only way that leads to life. Jesus did not retaliate when beaten or abused. He submitted to the governing authorities. He loved both Jew and Gentile, Roman soldier and Zealot. He gave up his rights as God for the sake of all. He willingly went to the cross.
He calls his followers to do the same.
So What? (Here’s the Face-Mask bit)
How might Matthew 5:41 relate to today?
Our government’s new order, requiring all people to wear face masks in public spaces, has understandably frustrated many people: “Aren’t we reasonable adults? If we’re sick, won’t we stay home?” “Isn’t this government overreach?” “Isn’t this an infringement of my rights?”
But how a Christian responds to such a law might also be telling on how they read and apply scripture.
That is, if we understand the Sermon on the Mount to be impractical platitudes, or if we don’t take Jesus at his word, we’re likely tempted to disobey the face-mask order. We’re likely to refuse to let go of control, much like the Pharisees and Zealots of Jesus’ day did when confronted by a Roman soldier demanding them to carry their gear.
But, again, to make such a decision is to act contrary to the will of Christ. And when we do so, we are representing a kingdom that’s only masquerading as God’s. But the king of God’s true kingdom laid down all of his rights at the cross. He called his followers to relent control in Matthew 5:41. He still asks us to do so today.
 For an extended conversation on this by a New Testament scholar, see: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-things-didnt-know-sermon-mount/
 Robert. A Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 223.