A number of years ago a movie was made about the first pilots who broke the sound barrier. Up until that time no airplane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound. A lot of people didn’t believe it could happen. It was thought that an airplane might disintegrate under the pressure. In fact, in the movie, that is exactly what happened to a number of pilots who tried it. The controls of the plane refused to work properly once they came close to breaking the speed of sound.
The climax of the movie came when one pilot had a hunch. “Maybe when a plane breaks the sound barrier the controls will work in reverse.” So at the all-important moment, when the plane approached the sound barrier the pilot pushed the stick forward, which would normally send the plane into a nosedive. But it didn’t. The nose went up and the plane flew on, faster than any plane had ever flown before.
Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier in real life, insisted that it didn’t happen exactly as it was in the movie. However, the movie gives us an interesting picture of something that is true in the Christian life. In Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking the controls of life and making them work in reverse. Jesus takes us through a spiritual sound barrier to a place we have never been before.
When planes go through the sound barrier, you hear a loud explosion. Growing up near a naval air base, I often heard the earth-shattering noise of planes breaking the sound barrier. A visitor to San Diego not accustomed to the vibration might think he or she was in the middle of an earthquake. However, in an earthquake the ground rolls, whereas when a plane breaks the sound barrier it shakes the windows of every house in its vicinity.
When Jesus’ contemporaries first heard him utter the teachings contained in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, it must have been like hearing a loud explosion or having their whole life rattled. I cannot imagine that Jesus actually uttered all of these sayings in one sermon at one time. For one thing, it would be too much to take in at a sitting. There is such depth to each individual saying in this section that each is worthy of a sermon or more. On the contrary, I think what Matthew has done is to bring together a collection of Jesus’ sayings from across the broad spectrum of his ministry. I like what C. S. Lewis has to say about this….
We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wisecrack”. He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject”. If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down”. The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam….
Taken by a literalist, He will always prove the most elusive of teachers. Systems cannot keep up with that darting illumination. No net less wide than a man’s whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 112-113, 119)