25th October 2002
``I have no problem with Jesus; it's Christianity that troubles me.''- attributed both to Ghandi and to Mick Jagger
``As to Jesus of Nazareth ... I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see.''- Benjamin Franklin, no friend of Christianity
Chapters five to seven of Matthew's gospel are called ``the sermon on the mount''. It's a big chunk of Jesus' teaching, undiluted and uninterpreted: just his words, reported as he said them. It's the longest passage of Jesus' own words in the bible; for for people like Ghandi, Jagger and Franklin who are impressed by Jesus and his teaching, it's the best place to start reading the bible. If we want to know what Jesus was like, what he stood for and what he demands of us, there's no better passage to study. It's often been called Jesus' manifesto.
We're going to give the next five weeks or so to studying what Jesus actually said in this passage. Today, I'm going to give an overview of the whole sermon, and then look in more detail at the very first section, called the beatitudes.
From that time on Jesus began to preach, ``Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.''
[Jesus calls the first disciples.]
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: ``Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ...'' (and so on, for 2336 words)- Matthew 4:17, 4:23-5:3
The evidence suggests that Jesus taught the sermon on the mount very early in his ministry. The full sermon appears only in Matthew's gospel, and is immediately preceded by the section in which he starts to become known and recognised. Crowds were just beginning to follow him, and it's likely that for many of the people who heard the sermon on the mount, it was the first substantial teaching they'd heard from Jesus. He would have been aware of that. That's why the sermon comes across as a sort of manifesto: it was deliberately preached, in part, as a sort of introduction to all that Jesus stood for.
We don't really know how many people heard the sermon on the mount, but we do know that in general Jesus' teaching attracted huge crowds. For example, Matthew 14:13-21 tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand - that's five thousand families who followed Jesus to a solitary place. So it's not stretching too far to imagine that a similar number of people heard the sermon on the mount.
There's a pleasing symmetry to the venue of Jesus' most significant teaching session. In the Old Testament (Exodus 34:29), Moses comes down from a mountain top carrying with him God's word - including the ten commandments. In effect, he's been visiting God at the top of the mountain. But in the New Testament, Jesus stands on the mountain, in the place of God, and speaks his word out for all to hear. No longer does it come to one, special person (Moses) who has to bring it to the normal people. Now, God's word is spoken directly to thousands of ordinary people.
Our main problem with the sermon on the mount is over-familiarity, which - like an innoculation - protects us from the shock we should feel when we read it. Everyone who's been to a remotely C-of-E primary school will have heard passages from the sermon read out again and again, until their meaning is dulled. In the end, it becomes to us nothing more than a parade of cliches, many of which have entered the vernacular:
The challenge for us is to put aside our nice, cozy ideas of what Jesus was teaching, and look at his actual words. If we can do that, they will shock us. The sermon on the mount alone is enough to blow out of the water forever the peculiarly popular notion that Jesus was ``a great moral teacher''. His statements and commands go far beyond mere moral teaching, in a way that is utterly incompatible with a merely human teacher.
Here are some ``highlights'':
Perhaps the single most important thing to pick up here is that the teaching of the sermon on the mount is totally contrary to the spirit of 12st century life in Western Europe.
How strange! How absolutely alien! What are we to make of it?
We can only make sense of the sermon on the mount when we understand where it comes from. It's not a random ``best-of'' collection of wise sayings to help us make our way in the world. It is an exposition of the holy standards of God himself.
If we want to understand why this stuff is important, then Matthew 5:45 holds the key:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.- Matthew 54:44-45 (emphasis added)
The point here is that in following Jesus' commands, we are behaving like ``sons and daughters of our Father in heaven''. What Jesus is describing is nothing less than the character of God himself - and we are called to be like him if we are truly his children. It's the family likeness. The bible tell us that God created us in his own image. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus calls us to live up to that image - to be an accurate representation.
In the end, God's values, priorities and character are shown to be right, and the way the world acts is shown to be shallow, short-termist and profoundly mistaken. We need to get our thinking away from the perspective that says that what the world thinks of us important. As Groucho Marx commented, ``Why should I care about posterity? What's posterity ever done for me?''
So perhaps a better title for this session would have been The World Turned Right-Side Up :-)
By now, we have surely seen that the sermon on the mount is an incredibly demanding standard to live by. It's much, much harder than the ten commandments, which most people have enough difficulty with! Where Moses said, ``Do not murder'', Jesus says, ``Do not even be angry with your brother''. Where Moses said, ``Do not commit adultery'', Jesus says ``Do not even look at a woman lustfully''.
If this were not enough, the world around us makes it even harder for us to obey the teaching of the sermon on the mount, holding meekness, forgiveness and generosity in contempt, seeing them as signs of weakness.
And if even this were not enough to discourage us, we are reminded that the standard Jesus sets is an impossible one: ``Be perfect as your Father [God] is perfect'' - Matthew 5:48
How on earth can we do this?
Simply and honestly, there is no earthly way that we, or anyone else, can do it. What we need is a heavenly way - and there is one! Later, Jesus tells his followers:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor [that is: strengthener, fortifier] to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.- John 14:16-17
God sends his Holy Spirit to fill us with wisdom and strength, giving us power to live the lives he's calling us to. In the end, God never makes any demand of us that we can't meet - with his help.
This is so important. One thing we really don't want is for you to go away from this session feeling condemned because you're so far short of the standard the Jesus calls you to. Of course you are! We all are! But by God's strength, by his grace, we will come closer.
And in any case, we know that ``all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus'' - Romans 3:23-24.
Understanding the purpose of the sermon on the mount, then, let's take a look at the opening section.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.- Matthew 5:3-12
What does the word ``beatitude'' actually mean?
beatitude, n. supreme blessedness or happiness.
(From the thesaurus section:) blessedness, bliss, ecstasy, exaltation, happiness, holy joy.
(From the beatific entry:) great happiness, calmness, etc; a state of celestial happiness.- The New Collins Dictionary
beatitude, n. heavenly happiness: happiness of the highest kind.- Chambers 20th Century Dictionary
So, put simply, the opening section of the sermon on the mount is all about how to be happy. It's not by coincidence that Jesus' teaching starts here: with encouragement, helping us to deal with life's discouragements, before it starts making impossible demands.
This passage contains nine statements, each of the same form: blessed are X, because Y. This style of prose is probably a Hebrew idiom: parallelism is used to reinforce an important point and drive it home. So it's not necessarily sensible to spend too much time trying to draw specific, separate meanings from each of the nine statements.
Instead, it may be better to view the nine statements as the same truth viewed from nine different perspectives. The beatitudes are about the overall shape of our lifes, the direction of the tracks we run on. The overall question, which comes through again and again, is this: are you proud, independent, reliant on yourself? Or are you looking to God? If the former, then the world will be impressed with you; but God will not.
With that said, let's look at a few specific points:
The point here is that everyone is poor in spirit. None of us lives the spiritual life that we are capable of and designed for. The ``poor in spirit'' who Jesus alludes to are those who recognise their own spiritual poverty, and so throw themselves on God's mercy, recognising that they have no alternative.
But above and beyond that there seems to be a reference to those who mourn because they are aware of the weight of their sin. They are the ones who are led to repentance, and so to the life in the Spirit - so they will indeed by comforted!
More prosaically, this applies to more mundane issues like family feuds. You hear of families - even ``Christian'' families - in which, say, a mother hasn't spoken to her daughter for twenty years. This isn't just sad: it's offensive and sinful. In such a situation, someone - be it mother or daughter, or a third party - needs to take the initiative in being a peacemaker.
Elsewhere in the bible, Paul makes the point that ``our citizenship is in heaven'' (Philippians 3:20) and Peter that we are ``aliens and strangers in the world'' (1 Peter 2:11) When we truly grasp that, it affects our whole way of thinking, and gives us a solidity and substance that we can't ever attain if our lives are oriented to this weak, transitory world.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/wtud.html.