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The “Sermon” on the “Mount”

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Jesus Traditions

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  Contents of Jesus Traditions

The “Sermon” on the “Mount”
(Matthew 5 – 7)

 

This collection of Jesus’ sayings deservedly enjoys a place of honor among Christians and others alike, for its extraordinary religious perspective, its challenging—even radical—ethical demands, and indeed for its eloquence, too. It in no sense diminishes its importance if in the present discussion we call attention to a rather complicated history behind the verses we now read in Matthew’s gospel. For reasons that will become clear, the discourse could be called more accurately . . . 

The [So-Called] Sermon on the [So-Called] Mount

     1. We remind ourselves that the sayings material in the synoptic gospels circulated during the period of oral transmission in isolated units, rather than in extended discourses; click on Separate Units. The casual reader may have the impression that the sayings in Matthew 5 – 7 constitute a single continuous discourse or sermon delivered by Jesus on one occasion in a particular place. But more careful analysis shows that the sayings before us went through several stages before they finally emerged as we have them in the Gospel of Matthew:
     

Stage 1
The original sayings of Jesus

Stage 2
Oral Transmission of sayings

Stage 3
Sayings arranged in written sources

Stage 4
Sources  incorpo-
rated into the gospel

  
Sayings are spoken in various situations (in their “frames”)  →→  

  

  

  
Sayings circulate orally without their original “frames”  →→  

  

  

  
Sayings are included in Q or Matthew’s special source  →→

  

    

  
Matthew uses sayings from Q, from his special source, and from oral sayings, together with his editorial additions; he provides new “frames” for sayings
    
From this analysis, it will become clear that we can restore very few if any of the original occasions or “frames” of the sayings which Matthew has brought together in this discourse. Hence we can use the phrase, “the so-called sermon on the so-called mount,” because it is Matthew and not Jesus who has provided the sermon frame for these sayings as we now have them; and it is Matthew and not Jesus who has placed the discourse on a hill or mountain. Many of the sayings which Matthew places on the hilltop are the same sayings which Luke (6:17-19, 20-49) places on a level place, or plain. 

It has sometimes been suggested that Matthew placed this first of five discourses on a hill to symbolize the giving of a new Torah, analogous to Moses’ delivering Torah to Israel from Mount Sinai; click on New Moses.
    

     2. This arrangement is one clue, among others, that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was thoroughly Jewish, and had a love/hate relationship with the synagogues of his day. He was thoroughly committed to the Jewish Law/Torah and its requirements, but spoke scathingly in his criticism of the Pharisees, the dominant religious party in the synagogue. The author had both exclusivist tendencies (Matthew 10:5-6; 15:24) and universalist tendencies (Matthew 28:19-20). He likely wrote for the benefit of a Christian Jewish community, of which he would have been a part; such a community might have been found in Antioch, or some other city of the eastern Mediterranean world.
     
     3. With elegant craftsmanship, the author of the first gospel has woven together the sayings available to him into a masterful discourse. He begins with a portrait of the Christian disciple, sketches the relationship between a disciple and the world, and then contrasts the teaching of Jesus with that of Judaism, so far as moral requirements are concerned, and then compares the piety of the new with the piety of the old. He concludes with a series of diverse teachings, for which no thematic structure seems to have been available. Click on A Manual of Discipleship for an overview of how this discourse is laid out.
     

A Portrait of the Disciple: Matthew 5:3-12

Here in the Beatitudes we find a composite picture of the ideal disciple, for emulation. These blessings, or felicitations, also serve, despite their brevity, to introduce themes which are more fully developed in later parts of the discourse.
     

Blue = Q     Green = Special Matthew

 

Matthew 5:3-12

Luke 6:20-23

3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 20Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 21bBlessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 21aBlessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled
7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.   23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

A glance at this text will show that Matthew has used a substantial amount of Q material, which he has “enriched” with his special material, whether written or oral, together with a quotation of Psalm 37:11, and perhaps his own editorial material. We shall not try to settle whether Matthew’s or Luke’s version of the beatitudes is more original, though one suspects that Matthew may have spiritualized an original, “Blessed are you who are poor,” with his “Blessed are the poor in spirit;” and that Matthew may have expanded an original, “Blessed are you who are hungry now,” with his “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” especially since righteousness is a favorite term of Matthew, appearing seven times in his gospel, and never on the lips of Jesus in Mark or Luke. Nevertheless, a number of important insights emerge in Matthew’s version, both for matters of spirituality and for ethical issues.
     

     1. Spirituality in the beatitudes. 
   •  The discourse opens with the proclamation: it is through a low gate that one enters the kingdom; access is granted to the poor in spirit, or those who know their spiritual need (5:3).
   •  Consolation for mourners (5:4): this is one approach to dealing with loss experiences, whether it is bereavement, or loss of employment or property. This verse could also be understood as promising forgiveness to those who mourn their sins.
   •  The reciprocal quality of mercy (5:7) is a prominent theme in Matthew, whether in the Lord’s Prayer (6:12), or the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (18:23-35), in which a servant’s debt, amounting to some tens of millions of dollars, is forgiven by the merciful king, but then a fellow servant’s debt of perhaps a hundred dollars is not forgiven. (We shall not try to decide whether this narrative is a tall tale, or whether because of its improbable features it is to be reckoned among the allegories.)
   •  We find a remarkable condition required of the disciple, purity of heart; and an even more remarkable promise, the direct realization of God’s presence,  knowing God first hand.

Matthew 5:Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

By way of explanation, heart is a typically Hebraic term, not for the emotions, but for the thought processes, the mind or the will. So purity of heart signifies not so much an empty-headed person, or the absence of vice, but a more positive, and quite indispensable quality: concentration of the mind upon a single goal or purpose, undistracted by conflicting ideas or loyalties. Clearly, this singleness of mind or purpose is indispensable for knowing God, as we shall discuss later at length.
   •  Another mark of the disciple is a high level of commitment, even to the extent of enduring persecution and abuse (Matthew 5:10-12). If this is a state of blessedness, it is not because one enjoys suffering, but because one suffers on account of one’s loyalty to Jesus, and thus is in good company, the “noble fellowship of the prophets,” as the Te Deum has it.
     

     2. Ethical conduct in the beatitudes.

   •  The disciple not only seeks after justice or righteousness, as a hungry person seeks food, but actively pursues peace, the condition for being part of God’s family:

Matthew 5:Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

In particular, a disciple seeks reconciliation, and is willing to go the second mile, turn the other cheek, and love one’s enemy as well as one’s neighbor, as we will discuss in detail later.
     

     3. The rhetoric of paradox.

   •  Something noteworthy about Jesus seems to emerge especially in these epigrammatic beatitudes, spoken with succinctness and in a manner which shows delight in paradoxical statements:

bulletThe poor in spirit are possessors of a kingdom;
bulletThe meek inherit the earth;
bulletThe hungry are filled;
bulletThe persecuted rejoice and are blessed!

It is evident that Jesus was continually challenging people to “think outside the box,” as we would say; to open their minds to a totally different valuation of happiness and success, and how they were to be achieved.
     

The Disciple in Relation to the World (5:13-16)

Embedded in these spare metaphors is one of the most central and potentially revolutionary themes in the teaching of Jesus: the challenge for the followers of Jesus to take seriously Israel’s world mission, to reach outside the limits of Judaism for the benefit of the nations. While it leaves us guessing in what respect disciples are the salt of the earth, we are on firmer ground in understanding the metaphor of disciples as light of the world: the anonymous prophet writing in Isaiah 49:6 makes clear the mission of the Servant as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Such a universalism puts Israel to the test: to the extent that Israel ignores this mission she is as useless as salt without taste, or a lamp lighted and then hidden under a bushel basket. Click on Salt and Light, for further discussion of this passage.
     

     

Revised July 14, 2003

     

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