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The Next Faithful Step

The Meaning Making Leader: Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

Perhaps the best way to ignite this discussion of making spiritual meaning is to illustrate how the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount illustrate the lessons that a leader can learn about making spiritual meaning. In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly used the formula, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Let me exegete that passage by pointing out the leadership lessons that we can learn from Jesus’ words.

Change people’s expectations. The first thing Jesus did was change the people’s expectations – both the expectations that they attached to the Law and the expectations that they attached to the Messiah. Up until Jesus, the dominant view of the Law allowed people to interpret an implicit bargain embedded in the Law. Keeping the Law entitled someone to the good gifts of God’s blessing. At the heart of the bargain was an assumption that a person could keep the Law. And keeping the Law was defined by the rules and interpretations that the Jewish traditions had created for applying the Law to daily life. Jesus wanted to change the expectation that it was possible for a person to keep the Law by showing the people that God maintained a much higher standard for obedience than the Pharisees did. He wanted them to see that it was impossible to keep the Law. He said that even insulting another person made one as culpable as the person who commits murder. The Pharisees’ teachings had led them to expect that obedience was the best way to enter God’s favor. Jesus exploded their expectations so that they would be open to an alternative view. Instead of mastering the Law and demanding from God the prize that comes with obedience, Jesus opened the door to seeking forgiveness as the path to God. He changed their expectations.

Draw from a different repertoire of cultural resources. Jesus was interpreted by his followers as a rabbi. That is why, for example, people approached him with the title, “good teacher.” And part of being a rabbi was mastering the repertoire of Jewish tradition of stories and sayings. Indeed, the accepted way to carry on debate about a text’s meaning was to compare the various interpretations that were already a part of the tradition. This was the repertoire of meaning from which people expected Jesus to draw. And this was the repertoire the Pharisees used. But Jesus did not do that. He pointed back instead to the Hebrew Scriptures.

In so doing Jesus also reinterpreted the meaning of his own identity. Some thought of him as a teacher, others a prophet. Some even expected that he would be the political leader who would restore the fortunes of a captive nation. But Jesus did not choose to fit any of those expectations. At the same time, he did not reject the tradition whole-heartedly. When John the Baptist sends word asking about his cousin’s identity, Jesus answers with a quote from Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 18, 19). He transformed the meaning of Messiah and shifted people’s expectations by drawing on a different set of cultural resources to make sense of his identity.

Weave these resources together using a narrative structure. The message of judgment at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount becomes a message of hope by the sermon’s end. Jesus reshapes the people’s understanding of the Law at the beginning of the Sermon so that it is clear that they have no hope of attaining righteousness under the Law. But then he offers the good news by the end of the next chapter. He tells the people not to succumb to fear because God cares for them. He offers them an image of hope. “Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find.” And then he paints a simple little picture that allows them to paint themselves into the story. “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or, if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” It is a simple narrative structure. God is your Father in heaven. God is a better Father than you will ever be. You can take care of children. So we can conclude that God will take care of you. And then to tie all his teachings together, he tells the parable of the man who built his house on the sand. The Law is shifting sand. But the love of your Father in heaven is solid rock. Which one will make a reliable foundation for your life? The narrative structure allows even a child to understand that the sands cannot be trusted. Only the love of the God who gives good gifts to His children, only that God can be trusted. The story encapsulates and weaves together the Sermon’s themes.

Make sure that a clear set of actions is the natural consequence of the story-shaped interpretation. The consequences of failing to keep the Law are quite clear. The punishment for murder is death. The punishment for adultery is death. And lest anyone misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and think that he wants to sweep away the Law, he explains clearly how he views the Law. “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5: 19, 20). The clear implication of Jesus’ teaching is that God desires a different kind of obedience than the one that the Pharisees proclaim. The Pharisees, of course, felt the barb of his critique. They knew exactly what he was saying. And they hated him for it. Instead of smug obedience to a hollow standard, Jesus called for the kind of love that loves enemies and goes the extra mile. It was quite clear what Jesus wanted his followers to do.

Whenever possible, tap into pre-legitimated pathways. Jesus did not, however, create his message out of whole cloth. He did not need to explain concepts like Law and prophets. He built on the foundation that was already there. The people knew that God could and did have the right to define the parameters of righteousness. They knew what about murder, adultery, and oppression. He simply took their understanding to a new level. He did not have to eliminate their categories. Instead he redefined them. That made it easy for people to figure out what the next step of faithfulness looked like. When he called them hypocrites, they knew exactly what he meant and what special judgment God reserved for those who spoke one thing but did another. The Sermon on the Mount uses many pre-legitimated pathways.

Sometimes a leader must legitimate fresh interpretations. There are, however, crucial moments when Jesus introduces ideas that are new to his hearers. They have never heard someone speak in such intimate ways about God. There are moments when the Hebrew prophets infer such intimacy – such as when Isaiah quotes God as saying to Israel, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15). The intimacy in Isaiah is, however, only an analogy. Jesus makes that intimacy plain calling God, “your Father in heaven” and saying that this father will give good gifts to his children. This presumes an intimacy that must have been jarring to a people that regularly replaced the proper name of God with a placeholder, “the LORD.” The Pharisees revered God so much that they did not call God by name. But Jesus used a family name to emphasize the intimate care that God promises to give those who seek God’s righteousness. Jesus did not rely solely on pre-legitimated categories. At key moments, Jesus legitimated fresh interpretations.

The goal is to enable people to internalize the new expectations and interpretations. We often misuse the word teacher to describe someone whose only goal is to convey information. Jesus wanted people to internalize his teaching to the point that it became the primary lens that the person used to interpret the world. It is not enough simply to acknowledge that insults are as bad as murder or that God calls us to meet insults with love. All that does is allow a person to move in an informed way to personal destruction. That does no one any good. The ultimate goal of Jesus’ teaching is to change people’s lives. And the only way that can happen is for it to shape the outlook with which they approach the world. Think, for example, of Jesus’ admonition at the end of the Sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek.” He is referring to a decision that each of us makes in a split second. A person reacts to a slap instinctively. There is no time for careful consideration. In the moment I am slapped, I have either internalized Jesus’ teaching or I have not. Either it has changed my instantaneous reaction or it has not.

This is a crucial lesson for leaders who wish to make spiritual meaning. It is all too tempting to see the teaching task as didactic rather than formative. The goal of a leader has to be formation. It is to be to create a perspective for interpreting the world. And that cannot happen in a single lesson. It comes only from repeated lessons moving in the same direction. People glimpse new perspectives slowly and in pieces. They need to experiment with a new outlook on the world and play with it before it can become their own. The ultimate goal of sensemaking is to enable someone to internalize a new way of interpreting the world.

Even Jesus cannot control the meaning that people make. The message here is easy to misunderstand. It is possible to see these last few points as so many easy steps that guarantee a promised outcome. But meaning making does not work that way. Even Jesus could not control the meaning that his hearers made. The Pharisees took the exact opposite meaning from the one Jesus intended. And even Jesus’ closest followers did not really understand the implications of his message after three years with him. The meaning making leader must understand that no person can make meaning for someone else. All a leader can do is to create categories and interpretations that she hopes other people will choose to adopt for themselves.