Do you remember in school when a test or project would get graded on a curve? Instead of assigning each student the grade they earned, the “perfect” score would be adjusted from the standard 100% to whatever grade the top student received, and all other grades were shifted to reflect this new metric. In an instant, this small mathematical adjustment could elevate a failing grade to a passing one, or a mediocre grade to one indicating excellence. The quality of the work did not change, but the estimation of it did. As long as you outperformed your classmates, your grade would indicate mastery, even if an objective evaluation would prove otherwise.
When it comes to life, I think a lot of us are grading ourselves on a curve. Instead of measuring our success by any objective measures, we look around to see how everyone else is doing. As long as we are making more money than our peers, or our houses look nicer than the other houses on the block, or our children are better behaved then all those other peoples’ kids, we feel like we’re doing okay. Our behavior may be abysmal, our addictions debilitating, or our values atrocious, but as long as someone else’s behavior or addictions or values are worse, we give ourselves a pass. Why should I bother cleaning up my messes, we argue, when theirs (making a sweeping gesture toward everyone else) are so much messier?
Fortunately for us, God does NOT grade us on a curve. Because if He did, we would be measured up against Christ’s standard, and even the best of us couldn’t come close to receiving a passing grade based on that scale. No, God doesn’t see us and think that as long as we are just a little bit better than our neighbors we’re doing okay. His bar is set high, and despite arguments from many that the Old Testament bar was rendered irrelevant through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, Jesus Himself tells us this isn’t the case. Near the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told His followers that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And He didn’t go on to discredit standards for behavior; He elevated them.
Jesus confirmed that murder was deserving of punishment, then made it clear that anger and unkind words were just as sinful. He emphasized the importance of genuine unity and reconciliation among believers that should go above and behind civility or politeness. And He told His followers that it wasn’t just adultery or divorce that were wrong, but all kinds of lust or marital discord. Jesus didn’t mince words: He exemplified God’s standard for holiness, then leaned in hard to each of these standards for human flourishing.
Praise Jesus that His sacrifice paid the price we owe for committing sin upon sin upon sin. We fall short daily, sometimes even hourly or by the minute. We are more broken than we could ever fathom, and yet Christ’s blood washes us pure as snow. Jesus didn’t set the curve by which we would be measured; He reached down so that every one of us—even those who should have earned the most abysmal of scores—could join Him in receiving a perfect grade in the eyes of the Father.
As Christians we can have a complicated relationship with this view of sin. We may waiver from feeling unworthy of Jesus’ grace as we wallow in our sinfulness, to abusing the atoning blood of Christ as we continue sinning without thought of consequence or remorse. The gospels show us that neither approach is within God’s plan for us. Because Jesus died for us, we are acting out of pride when we think our sin is too big to be covered by His blood. On the other end of the spectrum, we squander His sacrifice through intentional sinfulness, thereby dishonoring the Lord and relinquishing the gifts of abundance and flourishing that come through living out our sanctification.
When I approach Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, I don’t want to come away feeling defeated because I could never live up to this new standard. Nor do I want to set Jesus’ commands aside, thinking they hold no relevance because I am already forgiven. In my approach to the Sermon on the Mount, I hope to follow Option Three: knowing that I will never come close to living out the guidelines Jesus presents, while still inviting Jesus to walk alongside me as I put forth my best effort. I can aspire to holiness, securely aware of the safety net of Jesus’ grace while still asking God to launch me towards the heights that following the way of Jesus may take me.