There are some chapters that are just daunting to write about; the next three are some of those. What can be said about the Sermon on the Mount that has not already been said and said better or is really worth saying? Like James, these are chapters that will meet us where we are, somewhere different each time we read them. Do share how God speaks to you this time around.
There are many different theories on what exactly Jesus was trying to do in the Sermon on the Mount. Was he, the new Moses, giving a new law on a new mountain? Was he setting out the moral code of the Church? Was he giving the “impossible dream,” a perfectionistic dare that only punctuates how God’s Kingdom is only attainable by the power of God? Or something else?
No doubt the parallels between Moses and Jesus are no accident, but 5:17-20 discount a view of the Sermon that diminishes or reverses the role of the Old Testament law. No doubt the Church has turned the Sermon into its moral code, though we haven’t done so well, have we? Consider how successful Christians are doing with lust, hatred, divorce, and love for our “enemies.” Sayings like the following one do sound like they are “impossible” reminders of our own frailty,
Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect. (5:48)
But why does the sermon end with the declaration that we are as “foolish” as a man who builds a house on a sandy seashore if we do not do what has been said in this sermon (7:24-27)?
I would like to advance a different idea, one that is certainly not my own and has been gathered from many different places, none of which I remember off hand. The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life when you come into the Kingdom and when the Kingdom comes into you. Partly idealistic but also partly practical and doable, this snapshot of Kingdom-life was Jesus’ invitation to a whole new way of life, here and now, a worldview (beliefs and actions) that if accepted would revolutionize the follower and those in his sphere of influence.
With this idea in mind, consider the Beatitudes (5:3-10). Eight character traits or positions in life are put forward as “blessed” or fortune or happy — humility, the need to mourn, meekness, longing for divine justice, merciful, purity, peaceableness, and persecution. Most of us would look at this list and say there is little blessing or happiness in most of these. But these are exactly the kinds of people who will find God’s Kingdom to be an answered prayer. These sorts of people will find what our present world’s system cannot or does not afford. These marginalized, downtrodden, and sad people will find this new way of life that Jesus is bringing to be truly blessed. These are the kinds of people who need a new system and they will find it if they will truly follow Jesus. On the other hand, there are others who at the exact same time cannot embrace this way of life as anything other than a curse. As an interpretive key that this is a plausible reading of the Beatitudes, I appeal to the “inclusio” or enveloping structure of the Beatitudes: both the first and last Beatitudes mention the “kingdom of heaven.” In other words, all the falls between is the blessed Kingdom-life.
Old Testament Law and the Kingdom
Or consider what Jesus was doing in the long “you have heard it was said/but I say” section at the end of this chapter (5:21-48). Jesus is not taking on the Old Testament law as 5:17-20 won’t allow it:
Don’t suppose that I come to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! (5:17)
Jesus has come as a restorationist. He is the rabbi who does not wish to start a new religion, rather has come to return God’s people to what they were called to in the beginning. Jesus is not saying to ignore the Old Testament laws not to murder, commit adultery, divorce, swear falsely, reattribute justice fairly, or love your neighbor. Kingdom people respect and keep God’s law (5:19). Instead, Jesus is attacking the reductionistic legalism of the Judaism all around him that settled for the letter of the law and ignored the underlying attitudes that cause sin in the first place. In so doing, he was in fact calling Kingdom-people to a “covenant behavior [that] is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20). Life in the blessed Kingdom is obedient life, but of a deeper kind than had become the norm in the world — even the religious world — around them.
Matthew 5 is a majestic start to a truly magnificent sermon!