11 Helps In Reading The Sermon on the Mount
“[W]e inevitably interpret the Sermon on the Mount for our own time and place. We are neither ancient Jews nor ancient Christians. We do not live within the first-century world of Jesus or Matthew or share in their culture or participate in their forms of government. We live rather in the age of capitalism, democracy, secularization, and technology—modern realities that largely shape our identity. All this makes it inevitable that we modernize the text. For it was written not with the secularized technocitizens of democratic capitalism in mind but for believers in an almost unimaginably different time and place.”—Dale Allison
The Sermon on the Mount commands our attention. 2000 years of Christian interpretation offers tremendous insight. Entire fields of biblical studies, theology, philosophy, and ethics all bring great resources to bear. Discoveries made in the last century have helped shed light on the very first century. If you find yourself “overwhelmed,” it might be helpful to follow a few “signposts” along the way. In this last post concerning “backgrounds” to the Sermon on the Mount, I’d like to share 11 suggestions to aid us in our reading the greatest sermon ever recorded.
1. Begin with God and His grace.
Think about what comes before the Sermon on the Mount. Immediately prior to recording Jesus’ Sermon, Matthew tells us Jesus went everywhere, healing everybody. In just two verses (4:23-24), Matthew uses the word “all” 5 times. Dale Allison notes the significance of this fact:
Before Jesus makes any demands, he shows his compassion by healing the sick among the crowds. The act is pure grace, for the crowds have done nothing. The implicit lesson is that grace comes before task, succor before demand. Jesus’ first act is not the imposition of difficult imperatives but the selfless service of others. Today’s command presupposes yesterday’s gift.
Another way to say this, to quote Joachim Jeremias, is “the gospel preceded the demand.” Jesus already preached the kingdom of God, and already welcomed strangers in as sons and daughters. He already extended a loving invitation, showing his incredible character of gentleness and compassion.
Think about what comes after the Sermon on the Mount. The rest of Matthew bears out a similar theme, says Daniel Doriani:
After Jesus teaches, he accomplishes our salvation, dying on the cross and rising on the third day. The Jesus who gave the law also gave his life as a ransom for those who do [not?] follow his law (20:28). Matthew shows that Jesus was willing to pay for the sins of both moral and immoral people, people who work hard at obedience and people who do not work at all. He gave himself for disciples who could not even pray with him for an hour, even his hour of greatest need. Thus, the sermon is not a self-contained legal unit. It stands within a narrative that presents the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Finally, consider the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel. Locating the original setting for Jesus’ sermon or set of sermons proves complicated; but what is less controversial is that Matthew presents this Sermon in a gospel intended for a hurting church—full of disciples already experiencing the love and grace of Jesus. Hear Jeremias’ helpful words:
His teaching on discipleship is directed to men for whom the power of Satan has already been destroyed by the Good News, to men who already stand in the kingdom of God and radiate its nature. It is spoken to men who have already received forgiveness, who have found the pearl of great price, who have been invited to the wedding, who through their faith in Jesus belong to the new creation, to the new world of God…It is directed to lost children, whom the father has already taken back into the home. To them Jesus says: You may live now in the time of salvation.
Christian ethicist Glen Stassen reminds us that beginning with grace will have a tremendous effect on how we read the Sermon. Whatever commands or directives are issued by Christ, they are to be read within the larger vision of God’s transforming work at and by His own initiative:
The Sermon on the Mount is not first of all about what we should do. It is first of all about what God is already doing. It is about God’s presence, the breakthrough of God’s kingdom in Jesus. It is about God’s grace, God’s loving deliverance from various kinds of bondage in the vicious cycles that we get stuck in, and deliverance into community with God and others.
2. Read the Sermon as “the way of happiness” in the wisdom/virtue tradition.
As I argued in the last post, we do not have to fall for the binary trap often presented in the commentaries, due to various theological commitments. With the late Patristics, I believe we ought to read the Sermon through a virtue tradition that recognizes our goal to imitate our Master in pursuit of a new, total, transforming way of life. Thus there are actions to perform, and habits to keep, as wisdom directs, and as the Spirit provides power and strength. The Sermon speaks not simply to “what we must do,” but what type of people, by God’s grace, we may become.” This is not the art of supressing our desires for the sake of duty, but the fulfillment of desire in becoming our true selves. What God is doing to and through us involves the transforming nature of discipleship, and Spirit-directed partnership, as we grow into the very likeness of God. In the words of St. Ambrose, “When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ.”
3. Climb the mountain, ascend the steps, embrace the mystical.
“It is a sermon on higher things,” said Augustine. In this he was echoing St. Gregory, who thought of the beatitudes as rungs on a ladder for those seeking higher vision of ultimate reality, wishing to participate in the very likeness of Deity. Both Augustine and Gregory find in the sermon a call to spiritual ascent, complete with spiritual exercises, designed to change every reader. Our modern, western world is far too busy, far too heady, and far too pragmatic; let the ancient wisdom expressed through these servants of God lure us into serious, reflective contemplation, seeking to adopt a spiritual vision and spiritual transformation. Our goal in reading and living the Sermon? To see, hear, touch, taste, love, serve, and walk in the very likeness of God.
4. Find, at the top of the mountain, sanctuary in the temple of God.
A theological miscalculation, coupled with personal anti-Semitism, caused many in history to fail in appreciating the rich connections between the Sermon on the Mount and its Jewish setting. Additionally, literary and archaeological discoveries in the last century have helped shed light on the Hellenistic flavor of this Jewish setting. Whereas some scholars had claimed the Sermon represents a brand new ethic, full of brand new teaching (stemming from a radical break with the Hebrew Bible and Jewish teaching), we now know that, minus a few new or heightened elements, virtually every teaching in the Sermon can find roots and reference in the wisdom of the past. The unique part of the Sermon, of course, is Jesus Christ himself. But continuity is precisely what we would expect to find if Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah proclaimed in Isaiah, the prophet like unto Moses, and the very embodiment of the Word proclaimed faithfully throughout history.
One example showing the importance of Matthew’s Jewish setting concerns the Temple itself. The Temple was the ultimate “holy place,” where worshippers held sanctuary with the Lord. The Temple was the culmination of a long history in which God’s people would journey up a mountain to seek His face. Its interesting to note that in Israelite religion and near-eastern thought, “‘Sanctuary’ and ‘mountain’ became conceptually identical.” You can find this comparison in Psalm 24, where the Psalmist speaks of the Temple in Jerusalem with language reminiscent of climbing the mountain of the Lord. The Psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend into the hill (anabēsetai eis to oros) of the Lord?” In introducing the setting for the Sermon, Matthew uses the exact same wording (Mt. 5:1).
The connection doesn’t end there. Temple vocabulary (such as mercy, enemies, righteousness, glory, love, prayer, meek, filled, serve, and ‘trodden under foot’), used numerous times in the Psalms, pervade the Sermon. Thematic elements used in the Sermon (such as lampstand, purity, gift, altar, white hair of leprosy, the narrow gate, and holy things cast before swine) first appear in the tabernacle construction of Exodus, the Temple dedication in 1 Kings 8, and the eschatological Temple vision found in Ezekiel 40-48. The Sermon on the Mount is “fundamentally grounded in the faith, hopes, grace, redemption, purity, and theology of the Temple,” writes John Welch. And this ought to affect how we approach the Sermon as a whole:
[I]n order to read the Sermon on the Mount authentically, people must see themselves—as all temple worshipers and participants did—as being in a holy place, presenting themselves in a holy state, having clean hands and a pure heart, ready to listen in the sanctuary of silence, personally prepared to renew or accept the Lord’s covenant, promising and vowing to keep its stipulations, enabling them to receive its promised gifts and blessings but also requiring them to hear and take seriously its warnings and curses.
5. See Jesus as the prophet like unto Moses.
Many authors (as far back as Eusebius, Demonstration of the Gospel 3.2) have written on the strong thematic connection between Moses and Matthew’s presentation of Jesus. Both, for example, are born to hostile circumstances where the one in power seeks to kill all male babies. Both spend time in Egypt before important spiritual moments leading from the river of deliverance to the wilderness of temptation. And both ascend a mountain to give a monumental sermon on God’s law and will for the lives of His people. In this sermon, both give or comment on commandments, and place two options before the people (two ways, two roads), urging their listeners to choose the one that leads to life, and avoid the one that leads to ruin.
But more can be said than comparing biographies. Joseph Ratzinger (known more commonly as Pope Benedict XVI), said that what set Moses apart from all others was not his miracles or even his writing—it was that he spoke to God as to a friend. The Prophets who followed after him were not fortune-tellers, but those who lived close to the face of God, then turned and spoke out of this intimate experience. But the limitations of each encounter meant that God would promise to raise up an even greater prophet, like unto Moses—the friend of God. John heightens the intimacy: it is the Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, has come to make God known. There is a reason those who first heard the Lord speak there was something different about him. What he taught was not from any school. What he teaches is not something you could learn at school. What he offers is learned only from living in the intimate presence of God. His teaching doesn’t originate from human understanding, but from face-to-face dialogue.
Jesus, as the new Moses, completes Israel’s story, and brings us all face-to-face with God.
6. See Jesus as Isaiah’s promised Messiah.
In addition to Moses, Isaiah proves to be a rich resource for understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Even the way Matthew introduces the Sermon shows the connection. In Mt. 4:14-16, Matthew harkens back to the time of Ahaz and the prophetic promises given in Isaiah 7-9. The point, as Warren Carter points out, is to let the reader know that the end of Rome’s world is under way. Even the concept of “preaching the gospel” is an Old Testament idea. The hope that one would proclaim the “good news” of peace, God’s rule, deliverance and healing is distinctive in Isaiah (41:27; 52:7; 61:1-2), and Jesus is the one who distinctively fulfills this promise in Matthew—by word and deed.
The Isaiah theme is larger than comparative texts. Matthew presents Jesus as God’s delivering presence—Emmanuel himself—which is the thrust of Isaiah’s cumulative hope and promise (see Isa 43:5-19). Early Christian writers, such as Tertullian, saw the obvious comparison between Jesus and Isaiah 61 (the text Jesus quotes himself early on in his ministry). Tertullian actually applies this chapter to the Sermon on the Mount. Augustine, with great originality, brought out the gifts of the Spirit as listed in Isaiah 11, and showed how they relate to the beatitudes, and through them, to the entire Sermon. In more recent years, Glen Stassen has argued that Isaiah serves as the fundamental backdrop to understanding the Sermon on the Mount.
But in all of these connections and comparisons – with the Law, the Temple, Moses, and Isaiah, we must not forget that Matthew himself reminds his readers that “someone/something greater than” Solomon, the Prophets, and the Temple are here (Matt 12:6, 41, 42). John Wesley makes the point:
Above all, observe here the amazing love that the Son of God shows in revealing his Father’s will to us! Jesus does not bring us again to the mount that burned with ‘a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest.’ He does not speak as when he ‘thundered in the heavens,’ when the Most High ‘broke through with clouds of hailstones and coals of fire.’ Here, in this sermon Jesus now addresses us in ‘a sound of sheer silence.’
7. Claim Jesus as rabbi (teacher); but also as Lord.
In Matthew, Jesus is the master teacher (a description clearer in Matthew than in any other gospel), and we are called to assume the posture of a student. But we learn more than what he teaches, be embody who he is. That is why Jesus may come “teaching” (didasko, Mt 4:23), and be called “teacher” by those outside yet interested persons; but for those with eyes to see, Jesus reveals who he is, and is not called rabbi or teacher by insiders or those coming to him in faith.
To borrow Paul’s language, we don’t simply learn “from” Christ, or even “about” Christ – we “learn Christ” (Eph 4:20). The Sermon makes this point from the very beginning. “Theologically speaking,” writes McKnight, “the Sermon is grounded in a Christology, a view of who Jesus is, and that Christology begins at 5:1.” “[T]he beatitudes are basically a self-portrait offered by Jesus,” writes William Mattison. “This opening invitation into the life of true happiness is an invitation into life in Christ” And this self-portrait sets the agenda. As Guelich observes: “The Christological focus at the outset [5:3-12 & 17] becomes the basis for all that follows in the Sermon.”
The power, majesty, and authority of the Sermon is all derivative, borrowed from the power, majesty and authority of the teacher, who “speaks and acts for God.” He also speaks and acts for humanity, embracing the very life to which he calls us. “It makes all the difference who the proclaimer is,” writes Hauerwas, reminding us who it is:
Jesus, the Jesus who proclaimed the inauguration of a new age. And he does not just proclaim it, he is the inauguration of that age. The message of the Sermon cannot be separated, abstracted out, from the messenger. If Jesus is the eschatological Messiah, then he has made it possible, through his death and resurrection, for us to live in accordance with the life envisioned in the Sermon. The Sermon is but the form of his life, and his life is the prism through which the Sermon is refracted.
This also means that discipleship is, quite simply, an effort to become like our Lord. “Whoever hears Jesus’ words hear him,” writes Doriani. “His words perfectly express his convictions; they also represent his character. His thought, his character, and his actions are wholly consistent. If we follow his word, we become more like him.”
It makes a world of difference whether we hear the sermon simply as great teaching, or as the call to follow the life of the one who taught through example. According to Gene Davenport,
[W]hen the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel heard Jesus’ call to suffer rather than to inflict suffering, to accept death rather than to inflict death, to reject all efforts to save themselves from their plight by military action and to leave their deliverance to God, they knew that the one who gave such scandalous instruction had himself lived and died in accord with that call.
8. Hear the summons as a call to community.
The Sermon on the Mount is a sermon preached to a gathering. It was always intended to be lived, not in isolation, but as a community of disciples. In the words of Warren Carter, “It is an identity-shaping, community-forming sermon. It shapes the identity of a community of disciples who enact, who live out this way of life. It trains us in the ways of God’s saving purposes, God’s reign. Good preaching will concern itself with the same task.”
Stanley Hauerwas wrote an interesting article titled “A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount,” in which he made several important reflections on the community aspect of the Sermon:
I want to maintain that unless we are a people formed by a practice suggested by the proposal, we lack the resources properly to understand, much less live, the Sermon—which, by the way, ought to be the same thing. In short, I want to maintain that the Sermon on the Mount presupposes the existence of a community constituted by the practice of nonviolence and that it is unintelligible divorced from such a community…I want to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount constitutes and is constituted by a community that has learned that to live in this manner requires learning to trust in others to help me so love. In other words, the object of the Sermon on the Mount is to create dependence: It is to force us to need one another. This means that the Sermon on the Mount obviously makes no sense to those not formed into that body called ‘church.’ This is particularly the case in our society where we are told that what it means to be human is to be independent, to be able to take care of ourselves. So to interpret the Sermon on the Mount properly means that we must already be a people who are formed by community habits that those who do not worship Jesus Christ cannot be expected to have.
Forgiveness and reconciliation name the practice through which the church acquires a history that makes it be God’s alternative to the hatred of self and others fueled by our fear of the acknowledgment of our sin. When the Sermon is divorced from such ecclesial contexts, it cannot help but appear as an abstract law that comes from nowhere and is to be applied to equally anonymous individuals. But that is contrary to the fundamental presupposition of the Sermon, which is that individuals divorced from this community of the new age made possible by Christ are, of course, incapable of living the life the Sermon depicts.
All the so-called ‘hard’ sayings of the Sermon are designed to remind us that we cannot live without depending on the support and trust of others. We are told not to lay up treasure for ourselves, so we must learn to share. We are told not to be anxious, not to try to ensure our future, thus making it necessary to rely on one another for our food, our clothing, and our housing. We are told not to judge, thereby requiring that we live honestly and truthfully with one another.
9. Accept the reality of “not yet.” Keep hope alive by rooting your expectations in eschatology.
Next, allow your hope to remain strong and your imagination to run wild. This is an eschatological text. As such, writes Allison, it concerns itself not with what is practical or what is possible, but what is perfect. We don’t follow the high and strange teachings of the Sermon because they have proven true, time and again; nor do we follow them because they provide a great deal of financial, material, or emotional fulfillment in our lifetime. No—we pursue the way of Jesus as recorded in the sermon because that is what it means to follow Christ. Listen to Gene Davenport:
The oppressed who show mercy on their oppressors do not know what effect their mercy will have. The result may be martyrdom. The Reign of God is still a hidden reign. On the other hand since God still opens the eyes of the blind, the result may be conversion. Either result holds out the possibility that at least some people, seeing, will recognize the good works and glorify God.
There is nothing optimistic about such a practice. The Sermon does not promise that if we just love our enemies, they will no longer be our enemies. The Sermon does not promise that if we turn our right cheek, we will not be hit. The Sermon does not promise that if we simply act in accordance with its dictates, the world will be free of war. But the Christian does not renounce [violence] because he or she can expect intelligent citizens to rally around. They usually will not. The believer takes that stand because the defenseless death of the Messiah has been revealed for all time as the victory of faith that overcomes the world.
10. Accept the call to discipleship.
As I have tried to argue in several posts, we ought to read the Sermon with every intention to do what it says. We are called to imitate the Christ whom the Sermon portrays. Let the Sermon be our manifesto, our lifestyle, and our biography.
11. Take it to heart.
May I suggest that we, literally, take it to heart. Learn it by heart. Memorize the Sermon. Its been done many times, and students in several classes at my University do this every semester. Dewey challenges us to think of the heart as the primary repository for the sermon, the written record of it as the back-up storage! This sermon was intended for your heart!
When memorizing the sermon, feel free to use the kind of language you would use in everyday life. Dewey’s example is to say “because” rather than “for”; after all, when was the last time you said to your wife, “Honey, I’m running out to the mini-market, for we are out of bread”? No, speak the words in such a way that they become part of your daily speech.
But do not let it simply be words you know by heart. Let the Sermon become your way of life. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” wrote G. K. Chesterton; “it has been found difficult and left untried.” Randy Harris claims the words of the Sermon have been “debated more than followed.” Let this not be the case with us. McKnight reminds us that there comes a time for our debates to fall silent; when our exegesis over, and our books are closed. There is the moment of decision, when taking action is required:
When we seek to ‘improve’ the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount by setting them in a larger theological context, we too often ruin the words of Jesus. There is something vital…in letting the demand of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness. Only as demand do we hear this Sermon as he meant it to be heard: as the claim of Jesus upon our whole being.
 Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (New York: Crossroad / Herder & Herder, 1999), p. 175.
 Allison, pp. 9-10.
 Allison, p. 29.
 Joachim Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount, Facet Books, Biblical Series 2, Trans. Norman Perrin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 31.
 Daniel M. Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount: The Character of a Disciple (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), p. 12.
 Jeremias, pp. 31-32.
 Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace & Deliverance (Jossey-Bass / Wiley, 2006), p. 8.
 Allison, pp. 8-9.
 S. Talmon, ‘Har’, in G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (eds), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol 4, trans D. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 444.
 Noted in John W. Welch, “Temple Themes and Ethical Formation in the Sermon on the Mount,” Studies in Christian Ethics 22/2 (May 2009), p. 154.
 Welch, p. 156.
 Welch, pp. 156-157.
 Welch, p. 155.
 Welch, p. 154.
 Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 1-8, esp. pp.6-7.
 See Warren Carter, “Power and Identities,” in David Fleer and Dave Bland (eds), Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), p. 16.
 Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), p. 45.
 John Wesley, John Wesley on the Sermon on the Mount: The Standard Sermons in Modern English, Vol II, Sermons 21-33, ed. Kenneth Cain Kinghorn (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), pp. 40-41.
 Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), p. 26.
 McKnight, p. 21
 William C. Mattison, III, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 114.
 Guelich, p. 173.
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 93-94.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “Living the Proclaimed Reign of God: A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount,” Interpretation 47 (April 1993), p. 154.
 Doriani, pp. 3-4.
 Gene L. Davenport, Into the Darkness: Discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 15.
 Carter, p. 14.
 Hauerwas, p. 153.
 Hauerwas, p. 156.
 Hauerwas, p. 156.
 Allison, pp. 12-13.
 Davenport, p. 88.
 Hauerwas, pp. 157-158.
 Dennis Dewey, “Great in the Empire of Heaven,” in David Fleer & Dave Bland (eds), Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), p. 74.
 Randy Harris, Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount (Abilne: Leafwood, 2012), pp. 9-14.
 McKnight, pp. 2-3.
FIRST POST IN THIS SERIES ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1
PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS “BACKGROUNDS” SECTION:
Conversation Partners for Reading the Sermon
The Devil’s Masterpiece: Sermon On The Mount Background–Part 1
Literal When Possible: The Sermon’s Earliest Reception: Background–Part 2
Not Problematic…Paradigmatic: Later Patristic Readings: Background–Part 3
The Middle Ages: Virtue, Vice, Mendicants & Moral Manuals: Background–Part 4
Protest and Dissent: Reformers Read the Sermon on the Mount: Background–Part 5
Biblical Criticism and the Sermon: ‘Literal’ As Problematic: Background–Part 6
Beyond the Binaries: A Return to Wisdom and Virtue: Background–Part 7
THE NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES
The Pinnacle of Hope: Ascending the Mountain (Mt 5:1-2)
photo credit: Ghirlandaio, Jesus Commissioning the Twelve Apostles (1481)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.