3 things you may not know about the Sermon on the Mount
The sermon is wisdom from the Father, inviting us through faith to re-orient our values, vision, and habits from the ways of external righteousness to whole-heartedness toward God.
It has been a great joy for me to devote a lot of mental energy to studying, teaching, and writing about the Sermon on the Mount. Even though I’m done writing my new book on the sermon, this famous biblical text continues to teach me new things every day.
Here are three things I’ve learned about the sermon that most people probably don’t know.
Jesus’s sermon is radical but not entirely new
Out of respect for Jesus, we often assume his message was a lightning bolt of novel and wonderful things never heard by humanity before.
The Sermon on the Mount is a lightning bolt. It’s direct revelation from God, coming from the mouth of the incarnate Word himself. But this doesn’t mean Jesus’s teachings were entirely new.
When we understand the sermon in the cultural context of the first-century Mediterranean world, we can discern as much continuity as there is difference. This is a good thing. Jesus wasn’t speaking Mars-based gibberish, but revealing God’s kingdom to real people in real cultures.
There are two slices of Jesus’s cultural context that both illuminate what Jesus is saying and also show that the sermon isn’t entirely new. In the Jewish context, Jesus is presented as a prophet, just like those in the Old Testament. Jesus is calling people to reconsider who God is and what he desires for his creatures. Jesus’s message in the sermon is that God is our Father who sees and cares about the heart, not just external righteous deeds and religion.
This teaching is rooted in and resonates with the prophetic tradition, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah, with a healthy dash of Daniel and the minor prophets thrown in for good measure. There is deep continuity between Jesus’s words and the rest of the Bible.
The other context operative in the sermon is the world of Greek and Roman philosophy. Jesus isn’t only a prophet, but also a sage — a wise philosopher who calls people to re-orient their lives according to a virtuous vision of the world.
As a philosopher, Jesus invites people into ways of being in the world that promise the good life (or human flourishing). He is a teacher who gathers and instructs disciples; his teachings are gathered together into memorable epitomes; he offers a series of macarisms (beatitudes) that promise true life; and he emphasizes virtuous wholeness (see especially Matt 5:48). Certainly there are differences between the content of what Jesus said and what other philosophers taught, but the form and feel of the sermon would be familiar to hearers in the first century.
At the end of the sermon the crowds are amazed, but this isn’t so much because the content is new but because of the clarity, strength, and authority with which Jesus teaches. His teachings are radical, but not out of the blue.
Jesus’s sermon isn’t an impossible ideal to show your need for grace
A common reading of the sermon, especially within Protestantism, is that its high ethical demands are meant to show us the impossibility of being good, thus creating a crisis that makes us flee to Christ for his grace and imputed righteousness. Jesus’s call to never lust or hate, turn the other cheek when attacked, do pious acts with perfect God-centered motives, not worry about the future, and never judge others—all of these are impossible to do perfectly. This shows us our desperate need for Christ’s saving work in our lives, so the story goes.
While the impossibility of earning salvation and the need for radical grace are true from a whole-Bible perspective, this misses the genre, point, and goal of the sermon. The sermon is not — to use Luther’s overly reductionistic categories — “law” that makes us see our need for “gospel.” Rather, it is wisdom from the Father, inviting us through faith to re-orient our values, vision, and habits from the ways of external righteousness to whole-heartedness toward God. This isn’t “law,” but rather “gospel.” Jesus is inviting us into life in God’s kingdom both now and in the future age. This is grace.
No one can perfectly perform the vision of the sermon (except Jesus), but this doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to our lives. By faith and through grace, Jesus invites us into a life of discipleship. We participate in and (imperfectly) imitate his Father-trusting, kingdom-awaiting way of being in the world.
The sermon isn’t all that we need to know or all that is true of the gospel. The end-game of the gospel story is the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Through his faithfulness, he brings about a new covenant between God and humanity. On this basis alone, empowered by the Spirit, we’re made alive. All of this is by grace. This is essential. In this, Luther — and Christians of any stripe — are right.
Now standing in this grace, believers respond to Jesus’s invitation in the sermon. Our habits and ways of being are deconstructed and reformed through his teachings and model. Being a disciple is the appropriate and necessary response to God’s amazing grace, and the sermon plays a crucial role in that.
Jesus’s sermon is meant to be memorized and to serve as a source for constant meditation
In the modern Western world, we are flush with Bibles. Literacy rates are remarkably high. As a result, most Americans and Europeans interested in Jesus and the sermon can easily find a copy and read it. Google “Sermon on the Mount” and you can easily find countless translations and explanations. This is good.
However, this isn’t how the sermon was originally received, nor the kind of pedagogical context in which it was intentionally produced. Rather, the sermon comes from a time and culture that concentrated on the ear more than the eye. The sermon (for both Jesus’s original speaking and Matthew’s writing) is designed as an aural, memorizable meditation device.
It’s one of Matthew’s five teaching blocks that gather together Jesus’s teachings on various themes, present them in a memorable thematic structure (usually in sets of three) — with vivid images and poetic language — so that would-be disciples can easily hear, memorize, and thereby meditate on what the Master has said. To be a disciple is to memorize the Teacher’s sayings and to model one’s life on his.
I haven’t yet memorized the entirety of the sermon (much to my regret), but I regularly take long walks and recall and recite the portions that I have memorized. I’m always amazed at the fresh power, the new insights, and the cross-canonical connections that flood my mind—things that I never noticed despite multiple readings and thorough literary study. This is why the sermon was written. Try it.