The Sermon on the Mount, an introduction
What is it?
The Sermon on the Mount was teaching delivered by a first-century Judean prophet called Jesus. In it he addressed the law of Moses, an earlier legal code which contained divinely inspired moral guidance.
Why is it important?
The Sermon’s significance derives from both its content and the status of the man delivering it. In it, Jesus talks about the scriptures that provide the moral foundation for Judaism, the Ten Commandments, and through it he establishes that they were also foundational for the movement that went on to become Christianity. For Christians, their belief that Jesus is God incarnate (one person of their trinitarian single God) makes these words exceedingly important. Some Hindu's consider Jesus an avatar and revere his teaching for that reason. The Qur’an portrays Jesus’ words as those of a true messenger from God (e.g. in Qur’an, Surah 3:3-4, 38-48), suggesting that his teaching should also be of interest to Muslims.
Where is it recorded?
The Sermon is reported in the Christian Bible where it is found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7. A large part of it is repeated in Luke’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Plain, whilst many of its statements are also found in parallel passages elsewhere in Luke and and/or in Mark’s Gospel. The teaching in the Letter of James seems to have been significantly influenced by it.
Who was Jesus addressing?
The four canonical gospels describe how a new movement was started by a wilderness ascetic and prophet known as John the Baptist. John called for people to repent, accept baptism and live according to a way of righteousness. However, when Jesus submitted to baptism, John announced that Jesus was greater than he was. On the back of John’s ministry, Jesus began to gather around himself a group of disciples and it was these to which the Sermon was primarily addressed. However, Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker ensured that there was an attendant crowd who also heard the teaching.
Where was it delivered?
The setting was a hill in eastern Galilee, in the region of Palestine. Two main candidates have been suggested for the location of the mount. Both traditions suggest the location was to the west of the Sea of Galilee, one suggesting it was near the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, on what has come to known as the mount of the beatitudes, whilst the other places it a little further west near the Horns of Hattin.
What is it about?
Jesus, adopting the role of a Rabbi, was teaching his disciples how to live a righteousness life, i.e. how to enjoy a right relationship with God. For Jesus, this involved discerning between two ways of living, a way of righteousness and a way of wickedness. In the Sermon he is encouraging people to pursue the former and seeking to lead people away from the latter.
A Rabbi would often use a passage of scripture as the basis of his teaching and in the Sermon Jesus does just that, taking as his text the Ten Commandments received by Moses. He then worked through them, interpreted the last six (concerning honouring your parents, murder, theft, adultery, false witness and coveting others possessions) in terms of the first three (loving God, having no other gods and not misusing his name). He didn’t mention the fourth (keeping the Sabbath), but as his disciples were effectively priests-in-training and God expected priests to serve on the Sabbath, he seems to have considered them exempt from its requirement not to work.
Jesus began by adopting the familiar teaching posture of a Rabbi. He then used a series of beatitudes, promises of blessing drawn from the Hebrew Bible, to encouraging those who persevere in seeking the way of righteousness despite persecution and hardship. Next he reminded his disciples that the point of establishing a holy city was so that its priests could have a beneficial impact. Furthermore, that such an impact would only be possible if they faithfully fulfilled their role of preserving the covenants established between mankind and God. He then emphasised the enduring nature of the God’s words. As these disciples considered God their Heavenly Father, sticking to the way of righteousness and fulfilling the divine commandments were all a matter of honouring their parent (the sixth commandment). This involves a person in following their Heavenly Father’s example (as revealed in the Hebrew Bible), being honest in their relationship with God and trusting that, come what may, that He has the spiritual well-being of men at heart.
Jesus challenges his hearers to think these issues through, by expounding the last five commandments (all of which related to relationships between people) and illustrating what they really implied. Anger could be no better than murder, lust was no better than adultery, broken promises can be as bad as burglary, conspicuous piety could be a false witness to a person’s true standing with God, a focus on acquiring wealth and status provoked by covetousness is ultimately futile, for neither are sure to last.
In a passage known as the Golden Rule, he summed up his entire teaching in typical Rabbinical manner. Following which, he went on to deliver a series of sayings designed to emphasise the importance of choosing correctly, weighing who you accept spiritual advice from, and obeying his words. Some of these sayings, such as the contrast of a house built on sand and one built on rock, are very well known.