I said that the Bible seeks to open a discussion. The Bible is no oracle to be consulted for specific advice on specific problems;
rather, it is a wellspring of wisdom about the ambiguity, inevitability, and insolubility of the human situation....
The Bible makes us comfortable with struggle but uneasy with success.
~William Sloane Coffin

The Sermon on the Mount – 1: Beginning Assumptions

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As we begin to consider the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5-7), I think it is a good practice to begin by reading the entire passage straight through before reading commentary.  That opens our minds to think about and consider:

  • What we are interested in.
  • What we already know.
  • What questions we have.

If we begin with a commentary, it drives our minds.  Let’s begin by driving our own minds.  If you haven’t already read it (or don’t have a Bible handy), CLICK HERE!

We have to be clear that we are focusing on Matthew’s version of the gospel, so we need to be aware of some of his focuses and biases.  Therefore, let us keep these things in mind:

  • By far, Matthew is the most Jewish of the four gospels, so he is more concerned about all things Jewish than are Mark, Luke, or John.  Related to this is his reverence for the name of God; thus, Matthew often speaks of the kingdom of heaven instead of the kingdom of God.  Why?  It is improper to overuse or misuse the name of God, so “heaven” is substituted.
    When you think about it, there really is no difference in saying the “kingdom of Caesar” or the “kingdom of Rome.”  In the first century, had you been in Ephesus, you’d have still been in the kingdom of Rome even though you were not in the city of Rome!
  • The book is likely written in Palestine between 75 and 85AD.
  • Jesus is the “new and better Moses” who gives a new or re-interpreted law. The two are often compared.  In terms of the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to remember that Moses received the “law” from God on Mount Sinai (or Horeb).  Jesus gives a new law (or interpretation of the law) on a mountain.
  • Matthew focuses on the conflicts of kingdoms (i.e. the Kingdom of God / Heaven vs. the kingdoms of this age / Caesar / Satan / etc.).
  • Matthew has a real concern for the  church / community (Matthew is the only Gospel with the word EKLESIA– i.e. Church / assembly in Greek).
  • Discipleship is key in being a follower, learner, disciple of Jesus.
  • There is no ascension story; thus, Jesus is with us always until the end of the age (when two or more are gathered and when we serve the least of these).
  • Matthew probably used Mark and possibly other sources such as Q, changing both along the way to fit his needs.

It is most unlikely that this sermon was copied down verbatim, especially considering that most of the people Jesus dealt with were peasants.  Rather, it is likely a compilation of Jesus’ teachings (with modifications by Matthew and others) that had circulated in oral and, eventually, written forms.  Some even argue that parts may be creations of Matthew or his sources, and as such, may not go back to Jesus at all!  This does not necessarily mean, though, that their ideas are not inline with what Jesus may have thought – though at times they may be against Jesus’ ideas!

An important distinction that should be made is that Jesus and much of the New Testament as a whole is combating a “prosperity gospel,” which is easily found in the Deuteronomic tradition (i.e. books like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) and in Proverbs.  This basic theology is, “Do good, get good,” and “Do bad, get bad.”  Thus, the extrapolation is that if you are poor, sick, or having bad times, you must have done something wrong.  God is punishing you.  Jesus (as we will see in the Sermon on the Mount) is saying that God is present with us even in the bad.  Sun and rain equally affect the righteous and the unrighteous in good and bad ways.  Thus, when faced with good or bad, we have a choice in how we will respond.  Will we respond in a way fitting of God’s kingdom or in line with the kingdoms of this world?

Somewhat related to this discussion is the Greek word that gets translated as “righteousness” (or a form of that word) in most of our English translations of the New Testament.  Sadly, we typically interpret this word in very “individual” and “moralistic” terms:  i.e. I’m “unrighteous” if I tell a little lie.  However, the word can be equally translated as “justice.”  Yet, we’ve also put a narrow interpretation to this word.  With the backdrop of the U.S. justice department, we usually think this word deals only with making sure those who did something bad get punished and those who were falsely accused get off (retributive justice).  This idea is definitely one part of the Greek understanding of this word, but there is much more there.  The phrase John Dominic Crossan usually uses is “distributive justice.”  In addition to the punishment / reward idea in retributive justice, distributive justice means that everyone gets enough; thus, everyone should get what they need to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs met.  CLICK HERE to read a PDF with more information about this idea.

As a friend of mine recently noted, the Sermon on the Mount (and I’d add other teachings of Jesus) can be quite vague.  I think this was purposeful to make us think on two levels:

  1. Simply to engage our minds.  It’s Jesus’ way of making us find and eventually use our own voices – affirming we have a voice, even if we are “the least of these;” and
  2. To make sure we don’t fall into the trap that there is only one way to do something.  In other words, he is only giving an example of how we could react.  Using insights from that example, we are to figure out other creative ways to respond to life.

Books that have influenced the interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount that will follow (and that might be useful for your own edification) include:

CLICK HERE to read the commentary on The Sermon on the Mount – 2: Congratulations (aka Beatitudes).

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