Sermon Series: The Sermon on the Mount
4 Week Series
Week 1: Called to Be Blessed
As we approach Matthew 5, this Gospel already seems to be moving at an alarming rate. Following Jesus’ baptism, in chapter 4 alone we see Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days and nights, thwarting temptation on three occasions, and finally, calling his disciples. Then, almost immediately, we find hordes of people following Jesus, and “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.”
We know the teachings of Jesus that follow this whirlwind of activity as the “Beatitudes”—from the Latin word for “happiness”—or, as I thought of them as an undergraduate, “those extreme teachings of Jesus that begin with ‘Blessed are the fill-in-the-blank’ and that are also too numerous and similar to memorize for a test.” Upon further review, however, the Beatitudes should be easy to memorize precisely because of the common thread that runs through them—humility—and because of the astonishing fact that the one man who could have afforded to be a little full of himself, was not. “Anyway,” Jesus is saying here, “it is persons who are living in a state of true joy who do not need to puff themselves up.”
In order to see why Jesus would think like this, let’s flash back to that fourth chapter, where we find a very human Jesus, a Jesus “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We find in this narrative, not the questioning, seemingly hesitant Jesus of the early chapters of Mark but the Jesus who is “tempted.” We are prone to think that humans are tempted—not God! Down through the centuries, the church has proclaimed Jesus to be “fully human and fully God.” The most emphasized part of this claim is that Jesus is the only human ever to be God. Yet for Christians striving for true growth, it is just as important to say that as the only human to endure all temptation and emerge sinless, Jesus is the sole human to be “fully man,” to use the language of the early church; the only “fully human, human.” This was why the crux of the work of the medieval saint Anselm was important among the early Reformers, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, and played an especially crucial role in the work of John Wesley. Their point: all of us are called to become fully human. It was universally and paradoxically acknowledged, at least until Wesley, that all of us share this vocation, but that none of us are there yet. Since the fall of humankind, we are less than fully human, less than what we were created to be.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus gives his disciples the keys for unlocking the gate that leads us back to the path toward full personhood. While we who live in the twenty-first century talk about reason, the ability to reflect upon your own existence, and human rights as indicators of the differences between people and the other parts of creation, Jesus goes in a decidedly different direction. For Matthew’s Jesus it is crucial that, in order for people to be what they were created to be, they focus not upon the self but upon developing the strength and security to be vulnerable to God and to other persons. Thus, the happy, or the “blessed”—those living in an already realized state of joy—are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
The question that arises, however, is “do we have to? Is this a requirement, Jesus?” After all, Jesus, fully God and fully human, doesn’t use the word saved here, doesn’t say, “You must be meek, you must be a peacemaker.” Jesus uses the word blessed here; the common usage of this word in Jesus’ day conveyed a sense of joy.
For those of us who consider adherence to this section of the Sermon on the Mount optional—just as many have called the Sermon’s strict admonitions against anger, lust, and other evil desires impossible—a simple reading of other sections of Matthew will remedy such an easy escape. In chapter 16, for example, we find that humility is not one of many ways to God, but the only posture of a follower of Jesus. There again Jesus addresses his disciples, telling them that he will soon perish, that he will suffer and die in the hands of the religious elite in Jerusalem, but that the community of faith will live on. There is one requirement for membership in this church, however, Jesus tells the disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Being a follower of Jesus is not easy. Then again, unlike the world we inhabit, faithful Christianity has never assumed that an easier life is “the good life.” The Jesus we encounter at the Sermon on the Mount is already telling us that the way to the blessed life is to turn the values of the world upside-down. That is, while the world calls us to regularly make sure that our self-esteem balloon is fully inflated, Jesus calls us to be poor in spirit and meek. While the demands of our lives and of the economy may command us to get on with life after a loved one’s death, Jesus calls us to take time to mourn. In a warring world where the ability to kill quickly and precisely is valued by nations, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. Easy? No. Required of Jesus’ followers and therefore of persons who desire to be like Jesus, to be truly human? Yes. We are called to be blessed.
Week 2: The Hard Sayings
At the end of last week’s sermon, we confronted the arduous nature of the Beatitudes in relation to the Christian life and connected them to Jesus’ command to “take up their cross” if the disciples wanted to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). Humility is to be the vocation of all Christians, then, and this is difficult. For those who would follow Jesus, it certainly does not get any easier as we move to another section of the Sermon on the Mount, to the so-called hard sayings of Jesus. Dubbed hard because they insist that our desires be as faithful as our actions, these sayings illustrate Jesus’ connection to his Jewish roots, as they recall the Law given to Israel by Moses. (Also, like Moses, the disciples have climbed a mountain to hear the will of God.) More specifically, the commandments that were given to Moses against being covetous come to mind, since the first nine commandments dealt with more concrete acts such as stealing, sexual immorality, and killing. The tenth commands that the people refrain from desiring their neighbor’s property or wife or anything that was not theirs.
As we began to recognize last week, Jesus invites people to envision and enter into a way of living that is different from the world around them. The Ten Commandments are a summary of requirements for this new, different life. These laws also stand in stark contrast to the way in which so many are living now. Behind faithfulness to these commandments, however, is the reordering of our desires, which requires a reliance on the power of God. This is one way Christians witness—by showing the world that people’s desires can be changed, that a change in our desires will result in the way we characteristically act, but that none of this is the result of our own, unassisted efforts.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (5:38-39). Just as we heard last week that we are to count ourselves among the blessed when we are persecuted and that this is linked to Jesus’ later call to take up your cross, we now hear Jesus telling us, with authority, “do not resist an evildoer,” apparently even those who are doing violence to our bodies. With this commandment, and with the others that accompany it in the Sermon on the Mount, the church has often taken Jesus’ stringency as impossible to follow. The danger of this is the implication that the socalled hard sayings are only for those who find it easy to follow the rules, or that the hard sayings are only for a small, dedicated group of religious fanatics.
As persons with a refined taste for moderation, most of us find it easy to agree with these ideas. But, in light of the humility and constant consideration of the other that pervaded Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seems that Christianity has little room for such excuses. If we can’t take Jesus seriously here, where can we take him seriously? The moderation argument seems more like a strategy used to civilize Christianity, to make it a respectable religion among other respectable religions, one that doesn’t make too many unreasonable claims and will help us lead good, balanced lives in the eyes of the world. The response to these new commandments, therefore, can never be that there’s a whole lot of stuff necessary for holiness that most of us can’t do. Jesus’ commandments aren’t hard because they’re impossible for us to live up to, but rather because they war against what we think is best for us. As we learned last week, however, apart from the Jesus who turns our assumptions upside-down and inside out, we don’t know what is best for us, or even what will make us truly joyous, blessed, and happy.
As a child, I was taught early on to stand up for myself, and always to look out for number one. When I am wronged—physically, financially, or otherwise—my initial impulse is to think that revenge will make me happy. These assumptions are deeply embedded in me. Why else does the very first of these commandments address the commandment not to kill, and then command us to avoid getting angry at our neighbor (vv. 21-22), even before the command to turn the other cheek (v. 39)? Why else would Jesus lead the Beatitudes with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” before talking about actions that lead to blessedness? If Jesus is about anything in the Sermon on the Mount, he is about changing our approach to life.
In contrast to the understanding of morality entrenched in my brain from childhood television watching—where an angel sits on one shoulder and the devil on the other, the angel trying to convince me to do the right thing and the devil urging me to indulge my evil impulses—Jesus was so bold as to call us to work on having our desires align with our actions, so that in acting well we are not overcoming our evil desires but acting in accordance with our desire to do that which is right. Surely this is what Paul must have had in mind when he noted that Christians are to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Jesus’ midrash on the Old Testament law does not give us a ridiculously high standard that we can only hope to approach. It tells us that even concerning our desires, our fantasies, and our impulses, we are deceived. We need a grace that empowers us to change. Jesus’ words give us the gift of imagining how our lives can be concretely different than they currently are. We can’t do it alone, but neither are we asked to; for in Matthew we find that we are also given a gift, called the church, in place of Christ’s physical presence—a Spirit-filled community where we are trained not only to act but also to think, so that free action is a possibility.
Week 3: The Disciples’ Prayer
We assume that we know the Lord’s Prayer because it is prayed so often in worship services and also in the daily prayer times of individuals and families. Even in light of humorous stories—like the fact that throughout childhood I thought “deliver us from evil” meant that Satan himself had made me and placed me in my mother’s stomach, and that was the reason I was so in need of grace—it is easy to forget that this prayer was first given to the church in the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount and that it would have been quite shocking to those hearing it for the first time. Jesus is truly on a roll in Matthew 5, having already turned our notion of happiness and morality upside-down. (Apparently, those who are blessed or joyous are those who are struck, persecuted, grieving, and generally trod upon. Our acts are not considered moral when we do the right thing while overcoming our desire to do the wrong thing, but rather when we do the right thing precisely because that is what we desire to do.) Now Jesus enters into a prayer in which he seems to be continually praying for God to return—for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s will to be done, and God’s kingdom to come—and for strength to carry out the commands Jesus has given earlier in the sermon. We are to forgive our debtors rather than being vengeful, whatever their offense against us may have been.
If there were any doubt about the revolutionary nature of these teachings, we have only to glance ahead to the end of the sermon, where Matthew adds that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus is doing more than repeating tradition in this sermon, and most shocking is that he seems to think he is God! The followers are not God, but are being sent out “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16), to be witnesses to a rough and sometimes unforgiving world. Jesus is under no illusion that the things he is calling his followers to do will be easy.
It is little surprise, then, that Jesus also teaches his disciples how to pray in this sermon. The disciples will need strength to witness faithfully. Prior to his death, Jesus sees clearly the need for communal and institutional support, and pledges to build his church upon Peter and the witness of God given by the other disciples. After Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Christ’s physical presence will be of little consequence, for when two or three gather, there he will be, praying with them. Jesus shows that in order to continue this witness, there is another thing required of the disciples: they will need to draw strength from the divine, and often in secret, in quiet places where they focus on the divine and the divine alone. If they do not do this, their witness will be hindered.
Private and personal prayer was nothing new to the disciples, given that they were faithful Jews. The Old Testament is full, not only of references to people who prayed devoutly throughout their lives, but also by all kinds of prayers—of praise and lamentation, petitions for strength and wisdom, and even blessings of children. It was the nature of Jesus’ prayer, in which he shockingly referred to God not only as Father but as the father of us all, that would have drawn gasps from the listeners. We can tell from later passages that listeners were already shocked by the authority that Jesus assumed. Now he is calling God Father and, having called us to be his followers, bringing all of us along for the trip as adopted children through our faith in him! That we can come along as God’s children, and that we are to pray this prayer (or in the view of some, to at least pray like this) along the journey, has led some to part with tradition and dub this passage the Disciples’ Prayer. After all, they contend, we are the ones who will be praying it, we are the ones who stand not only in constant need of God’s power and grace but also in need of a continuous reminder of our need, especially in light of our status as a post-Ascension people.
We can be assured that we are indeed given this grace and power. I have been blessed through my own confusion about the prayer as a young boy. It has served to motivate me to teach the prayer well to my own children, rather than having a mix-up push me away from it permanently. Since turning the other cheek applies to parenting and behavior among siblings, as well as adults in complex relationships, my family and many like us find the prayer to be a vital part of our daily life. For children and adults, it is all there: (1) identifying ourselves, like Jesus does, as God’s children; (2) asking for God’s forgiveness for our debts, trespasses, or sins (in my eldest son’s case, his tendency to grumble about his father’s instructions), and for the strength to forgive others; (3) and finally, asking for God’s deliverance from evil, which doesn’t mean that all of us are created in hell and “delivered” to Earth by Satan himself, but that God will give us the strength to be good and to not give in to the temptations of Satan!
Such devotional use of the Lord’s Prayer is in line with Jesus’ presentation in the Sermon on the Mount, and in line with the vision of life presented in the book of Matthew overall. In Matthew, Jesus gives us the church—where we come to be strengthened through prayer, singing, and hearing the gospel proclaimed each week. Also, daily and private prayer is necessary to preserve the vitality of our witness as Christians who, though part of the body of Christ, are dispersed throughout the world each week to bring the light of God to others.
Week 4: Astounded
As we have seen, at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is the vision of a countercultural form of life among Jesus’ followers. For many contemporary Christians the term countercultural carries a good deal of negative freight; but if Jesus, as depicted in Matthew, was not preaching against the grain in first-century Jerusalem, he would not have prefaced his new commandments with the phrase “you have heard that it was said . . . but I say” (Matthew 5:21-22, for example). We are not surprised then, when we are told at the end of the sermon that the listeners were “astounded” at Jesus’ teachings (7:28).
If Jesus were to step into the pulpit of one of our sanctuaries today, our behavior would continue to merit his use of these phrases. People, and certainly nations, continue to respond to violence with violence rather than turning the other cheek. People and nations continue to pursue wealth much more vigorously than they seek to be “poor in spirit.” And of course, among those of us who are not violent, are not “storing up treasures” for ourselves, are not even actively pursuing sexual immorality, few would claim to have totally evaded anger, covetousness, or lust. This does not mean that we are not to continuously aspire to rid our lives of these faults, for by and large, the sins haven’t changed over the last two millennia. The only things that change from generation to generation are the faces of the people who are radically in need of God’s grace.
This sermon series has suggested, however, that if we are called to be fully human in the sense that Jesus has been the only fully human person to date, then our sinfulness is not the only thing that defines us. Indeed, the church has proclaimed that God’s call to transcend sinfulness, to live in relation with God, and to ultimately commune with God eternally, also defines the human species—whether in the first century or the twenty-first century. Among created beings, we are unique in this sense. We may never fully overcome the sins that plague our lives—and each of us has his or her own set of shortcomings—but the distinctive aspect of the Christian life is that all of us are constantly being called out of our sin to something greater. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to not only constantly seek God’s forgiveness for our sins—which ultimately erect a barrier between us and God—but also to forgive those who wrong us.
Forgiveness is not a purely spiritual or mental act in the Sermon on the Mount, but a physical act as well. We are called to “turn the other cheek” rather than strike back at those who would do us harm, to “do good to them that hate you” (Matthew 5:44 KJV). In all of our actions, we embody either God’s forgiveness or we embody the world’s ethic of looking out for ourselves first and what we believe to be our best interests. In so doing we either submit to the purposes of the perfect will of God or to our own, flawed egos. We cannot serve two masters.
But how to serve? There seems to be some ambiguity in this famous sermon. In chapter 5, Jesus seems intent not only on having us desire and behave well but also to do so publicly: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 NRSV). Yet in his teachings on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—the portions of teaching that bookend the Lord’s Prayer—Jesus emphasizes that much of what we do as Christians must be done in secret.
The answer is that our service to God is neither completely public nor totally clandestine. Our ability to live in a peaceful, countercultural manner (as called for by the Beatitudes), or to align our desires with our actions (as in Jesus’ words on the commandments), or to rely on God in prayer is not about us and our piety, but about God. The reason for letting our light shine is to glorify God. The same applies to prayer in secret, for in the Lord’s Prayer we offer to God the praise that says, “Thine is the . . . glory forever. Amen.”
At the beginning of this sermon series we noted the importance of proclaiming Jesus to be fully God and fully human. Not only is he the only human ever to be fully God but he is also the only human ever to be fully human, precisely because his life, all the way through the event of his death, was lived in order to glorify God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to such a life, a life in which all prayer, desire, and action is ordered to the goal of glorification of the God and Father of us all. What if we took this call, this vocation, seriously? At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew writes that “when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine” (Matthew 7:28 KJV) and rightly so, because here was an individual expanding upon Old Testament piety as no one ever had. But the astonishment did not end with the words of Jesus’ sermon or the authority with which he preached. There are more beatitudes to come, and also healings and other miracles, which were astonishing not only because they seemed to violate both the laws of Judaism and the laws of nature, but ultimately because of the love in Jesus that prompted them. Imagine the astonishment of the world today if we were to embody the words of the Sermon on the Mount, which, by definition, means that we would embody them humbly.