At the Divine Liturgy yesterday, we read a passage from the Sermon on the Mount (MATT. 6:22-33). As this Sermon is the longest and most sustained body of our Lord's teaching found in the Gospels - MATT. 5-7; and as The Sermon records the heart of our Lord's moral/ethical/spiritual teaching; it prompted the following question from me at the beginning of the homily directed to everyone in the parish, present or not present yesterday: "When is the last time you have read the Sermon on the Mount or a portion of it?" I am sure that there would be a wide range of answers:
- this weekend, in preparation for the Liturgy on Sunday, for I always look up the appointed readings ahead of time;
- last month;
- six months ago;
- last year;
- can't remember;
- what, exactly, is the Sermon on the Mount?
If Jesus is the Teacher (Rabbi in Hebrew; o didaskolos in Gk.), then it would follow that his disciples (a word which actually means "student") would immerse themselves in their Master's teaching with regularity, commitment and desire. The actual disciples of Christ had memorized His teaching during His public ministry, the main mode of learning in the Semitic culture of ancient Israel, and this "oral transmission" was the basis of the written texts of the Gospels that appeared some decades following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The memorization of a Rabbi's teaching was so integral to the entire process of retaining his teaching, that we can be quite certain as to the accuracy of the words of Christ recorded in the Gospels. Although we are so dependent on the printed word in today's world, there is no reason, as disciples of Christ, that we should not be able to at least paraphrase - if not directly quote - a great deal of our Lord's teaching. We hear the words of Christ in church, and we "hear" them when we open up the Gospels and read them. Interestingly, in the past, people would read out loud from the text in front of them in written form (see ACTS 8:26-30). Perhaps this further facilitated the experience of "hearing" the words proclaimed, or aided in their memorization. If all of the Bibles in the world mysteriously disappeared - as the Evil One would want them to - then the members of the Church - clergy and laity - coming together as a Body, should be able to faitfhfully reconstruct the text of the New Testament based on memorization from repeated reading and careful listening. What would you be able to contribute to that process?
Reading of the Bible generates further reading. There is always the excitement of knowing, as a believer, that you are reading/hearing the very Word of God within the given text. When we read the words of Christ, we are actually reading "the words of the Word." The Sermon on the Mount records the direct will of God for genuine living by His creatures - human persons made in the "image and likeness of God." Repeated and careful reading of the Sermon on the Mount would slowly help shape our minds and hearts to the image of Christ, and away from the image of "this world," whose form is "passing away." As literate and well-educated members of the Church in today's world, what "excuse" do we have for not reading the Holy Scriptures? Certainly not a "lack of time," for we know how to "make time" when necessary. And only a small amount of time is needed to read a passage or two that will nourish us with the words of eternal life. Everyone has their favorite writers, or genres of literature. But shouldn't our list of "favorites" be headed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and our favorite genre the Gospels?
If you go to the website of the Orthodox Church in America - oca.org - you will find an article by Met. Kallistos Ware entitled "How to Read the Bible." (This is under the heading About Orthodox Christianity on the home page). This is an excellent article that will prove to be endlessly insightful in preparing you for the experience of reading the Holy Scriptures.