The main route from our neighboring province came across the Jordan through the town of Capernaum where I lived. A tax collector named Levi had his toll booth very near the beach where a crowd would gather and listen to me preaching. Tax collectors were hated as the scum of the earth. They were viewed as traitors because they worked for the Romans. Having paid for a contract, they could collect as much as the traffic would bear. Travelers were fleeced, and merchants had to pay bribes to move their goods.
On occasion, in spite of the dirty looks, Levi would come over and listen to me preaching to a crowd on the beach. So one day as I passed his office I invited him to come and be one of my disciples. He was taken aback, and wanted to be baptized right away (Mark 2:13-14). That evening he invited me over to his home, and we were joined for dinner by a number of the social outcastes in the town. The next day some of the Pharisee theologians from Jerusalem angrily asked my disciples "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mark 2:15-17). I explained that a physician is meant to go and be with sick people, not sit apart with the healthy (Mark 2:17). That silenced them for a few days, but they kept looking for an opportunity to nail me..
At that time I was being invited to preach in synagogues all over Galilee (Matthew 4:23). After one service we were walking through the fields, and my disciples plucked some heads of grain and were chewing them, just as I used to do as a boy. Some of the Pharisees saw this, and they said "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath day?" I answered "The weekly day of rest was given to us for our good (Exodus 20:8-10). Humans are not meant to be in bondage to petty rules of sabbath keeping (Mark 2:27).
After a synagogue service people would come to have me lay hands on them and pray for healing (Matthew 4:23). It wasn't easy for them to complain about me praying when there was a big crowd of grateful people around me. But in one synagogue the Pharisees watched a man whose hand was paralyzed to see if I did anything which could be called working on the sabbath. I decided to call the man forward, and I asked the teachers who were there: "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they sat in their seats glumly silent. I was very angry, and horrified at their hardness of heart. Then I got the man to stretch out his hand, and as I took it everyone could see he had got back the use of his wrist and fingers (Mark 3:1-5).
From that day I was a marked man. Normally the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Herodian party hated each other. But I had undermined their authority and they had to destroy me (Mark 3:6).
As I took every opportunity to announce the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, people began coming from as far away as Damascus (Matthew 4:23-24). We soon had other disciples helping with the hundreds of baptisms and the basic instruction that followed. But obviously there was a need for systematic teaching on the ethical questions that ordinary people faced. They wanted to know how my teaching related to what the rabbis had taught them from the Law and the Prophets and the Writings.
I decided to use a mountain just south of Magdala for a weekly teaching session. It was not far from the main road and easily accessible from the area west of the Sea of Galilee. Some would come after attending their synagogues and camp out for the night. I sat on a big rock, and on a fine day there might be a thousand people sitting on the grass below me.
I always began by explaining that genuine happiness is very different from what people usually assume (Matthew 5:3-16). Then I would go through the ten commandments. The commandment about murder for example had been made into a law for judges to assign the death penalty (Matthew 5:21). But I explained that you could murder people without actually killing them. Angry rage, writing people off as no good, and treating them as complete idiots, were already murder in the heart (Matthew 5:22). That is why it is essential to find a way to love others before such heart attitudes result in disaster (Matthew 5:23-26)
Similarly the rabbis were keen to kill people by stoning, especially women, for adultery (Matthew 5:27, John 8:1-11). But I showed how adultery begins in the heart long before the physical act has occured (Matthew 5:28). It was like picking up a bow, pulling back the string with your right hand, and aiming along the arrow with your right eye on the victim. Murder or adultery has occured even if you miss. Better look to the Spirit and take your hand off the bowstring (Matthew 5:29-30).
I also objected to the rabbis allowing a man to tell his wife to get lost at the drop of a hat, merely by giving her a bill of divorce (Matthew 5:32). Divorce is always a disaster. And for both parties it results in the adulteration of what should have been a beautiful marriage (Matthew 5:32).
There were many questions about the law of love. How did loving one's neighbor relate to "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Matthew 5:38). I pointed out that there had never been a case of an assailant's eye being put out or a tooth being knocked out. This was a rule for judges to assign equivalent damages (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:18-21). What is the loss of an eye or a tooth worth by way of compensation? It was totally wrong to make criminal law into a principle of revenge. When insulted, better turn the other cheek. And when a Roman soldier made you carry his pack for a mile, you could smile and carry it for an extra mile (Matthew 5:38-42).
That does not mean being a doormat. One certainly had to defend oneself as best as one could against an enemy. But you could still love and pray for the person who had treated you badly (Matthew 5:43-44). That was the way the Father loves us, and he longs for us to do the same. That is what I had in mind when I talked about being perfected in love (Matthew 5:45-48).
After a break for lunch and a siesta, I would deal with religious observances. Ordinary people get riled by the hypocrisy of so many religious people. And they are right. "When you give, don't sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others" (Matthew 5:2). The solution was "let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:2-4). That means you should not notice, let alone tell others, what you are giving to a good cause.
I agreed with their horror at hypocrites who "love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others." Better have a conversation alone with our heavenly Father (Matthew 6:5-6). And there is no need to keep repeating petitions, as if the Father was deaf (Matthew 6:7-8).
I also suggested some of the topics it would be good to talk about. Begin with the loving character (the name, as in Exodus 34:5-6) of your Father. Discuss with Him the work of our Kingdom. Look to the Holy Spirit to guide you in meeting the daily needs of your family. Be thankful for being totally forgiven, but then make sure there is no one you have refused to forgive (Matthew 6:7-15, see the parable in Matthew 18:23-35).
Similarly with self-denial. Hypocrites want others to know they are fasting. I prefer my disciples to to discuss costly service with the Father alone (Matthew 6:16-18).
Often there would be a third session when I talked about the cost and the joys of serving the Kingdom of Heaven. The key is how we look at life and other people (Matthew 6:22-23). Any kind of perfection involves working within narrow limits. There is only one way for a craftsman to get a gold ornament just right, and there are many ways to get it wrong (Matthew 7:13-14). As you follow me, there will be many false prophets who will try to deceive you. Watch to see the fruit in their lives and in the lives of those who follow them (Matthew 7:15-23). And I was able to promise them that, if they built their lives on my words and put them into practice, their house would be built on a totally solid foundation (Matthew 7:24-27). If they wanted to start learning how to do that, my disciples would be baptizing most days on the beach in Capernaum or across the river in Bethsaida.
I find that ordinary people really appreciate practical ethical teaching that they can use in the tough and tragic circumstances of their lives. After a day of teaching like that, unlike their religious leaders, they would go away astonished and very appreciative (Matthew 7:28-29).
Chapter 7 .....