Sermon on the Mount – Introduction

Jesus launches his teaching ministry with what Matthew calls the Sermon on the Mount. You could say that it is Jesus’ manifesto on what life in the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. But like most of the Bible, how to understand Jesus’ words is not always clear.

Setting the Stage for the Sermon

Hundreds of years before Jesus stood on that mountain, the prophet Moses stood on Mount Sinai and gave the people of Israel’s God’s Law. During the first four chapters of Matthew, the author has the life of Jesus mimic the history of Israel.

Much like Pharaoh killed every baby boy to limit Israel’s population from growing, King Herod, in a fit of jealous rage, kills all the infant boys in hopes of eliminating the one the magi called the King of the Jews. Just like Israel originally went to Egypt to seek refuge from a life-threatening famine, Jesus family goes to Israel to seek safety from the life-threatening Herod. While Israel crossed the Red Sea before spending forty years in the wilderness, Jesus went to the Jordan river for baptism before spending forty days in the wilderness.

So when Jesus gets up on a mountain and begins to teach, it would be hard not to think of Moses delivering God’s Law on Mount Sinai. The question is, would the people hear Jesus as intended? This question links back to last week’s episode on, Teaching to Obey. Is Jesus telling us what to do, or is Jesus inviting us to sit and observe reality from a different perspective? Does Jesus reframe the law or does he invite us to embrace Israel’s wisdom tradition? How should we read the Sermon on the Mount?

What is Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount?
Photo by john ko on Unsplash

Starting Off Right

Here I think Abdullah Shoaib’s poem Pretty Ugly offers a helpful illustration on missing the point because we don’t start from the right place. The poet writes:

I’m very ugly
So don’t try to convince me that
I am a very beautiful person
Because at the end of the day
I hate myself in every single way
And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying
There is beauty inside of me that matters
So rest assured I will remind myself
That I am a worthless, terrible person
And nothing you say will make me believe
I still deserve love
Because no matter what
I am not good enough to be loved
And I am in no position to believe that
Beauty does exist within me
Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think
Am I as ugly as people say?

After a line break, the poet then suggests reading from the bottom up. When that happens, everything changes:

Am I as ugly as people say?
Because whenever I look in the mirror I always think
Beauty does exist within me
And I am in no position to believe that
I am not good enough to be loved
Because no matter what
I still deserve love
And nothing you say will make me believe
That I am a worthless, terrible person
So rest assured I will remind myself
There is beauty inside of me that matters
And I’m not going to lie to myself by saying
I hate myself in every single way
Because at the end of the day
I am a very beautiful person
So don’t try to convince me that
I’m very ugly

Now I’m not suggesting we read Jesus’ words backwards, or even worse, listen to tapes of the Gospels backwards as we try and find hidden subliminal messages so we can understand what Jesus really said, but I am suggesting that reading his words and understanding them are not necessarily the same thing.

Hearing vs. Understanding

A number of years ago my then wife came home from work shortly after we’d gotten married. We’d just moved into a condo in downtown Denver and most of our stuff was still in boxes. I didn’t have to work that day and, rather than spending the day cleaning the house and unpacking, I spent most of it dinking around on the computer.

Understandably, she wasn’t happy with me and she let me know it. While I heard the words she said, I completely missed her heart. What I heard is that I failed to do the right thing. I got frustrated because I didn’t know what she wanted done let alone how she wanted it done. If she’d given me a list or some directions, I would have happily complied because I wanted her to be happy with me.

But my failure to do stuff wasn’t the source of her frustration. She didn’t want to see a completed checklist when she got home. Words like compliance caused her blood to boil. Because what she wanted, was to know that I was committed to the process of making this house a home for us to share. She wanted to know that we were a team, and to see my actions reinforce my profession that I would work in partnership to make things happen.

I think we often do something similar with the Sermon on the Mount. We seek out checklists of things to do to make Jesus happy, but what he’s really inviting us into is a relationship. Perhaps no where is this idea more clear than where Jesus starts, what we know today as the Beatitudes.

The Series

This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.

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