12 March 2021

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, is unique in the gospels. In Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus teaches mostly through parables, stories, leaving the exact interpretation of his meaning to the reader. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is much more direct. It is likely that Jesus took both approaches at different times during his ministry. Matthew's account may have been a singular event, but it could also be a collection of teachings condensed into a single story for literary purposes.

That Jesus is both an essayist and a storyteller says a lot about his approach to teaching as well as his approach to interpreting the scripture. When teaching in parables, his meaning is not entirely clear, it is necessary for the listener to struggle with the story in order to interpret it. In his preaching, Jesus gives far clearer answers, though his meaning is still not always as cut and dry as it appears.

Teachers still do this today. There is a lecture portion where the teacher shows how something is done, and a work portion where the students attempt to solve the problems they are given. But what does the teacher do if the students will not think for themselves? What if they expect the teacher to make the answers plain for them? This is precisely what Jesus is addressing in his Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus references scripture throughout his sermon. In his time, Hebrew was the language of the Temple, the common people spoke Greek and Aramaic. The language of scripture was as far removed from daily usage as Latin is in our day. Similarly, the stories of scripture had been written in (or about) a time as far removed from Jesus as Jesus is to us. The stories were old, the laws written for a nation that had long since been conquered and so no longer existed.

Jesus was teaching how to be the People of God without an earthly nation or an earthly Temple, because both were coming to an end within the next century. In his sermon, he shows how to divide the scripture, what portion is the revelation of God's will for all humanity, what portion is to set Israel apart as God's holy people, and what was meant to build a nation that had long been lost to time and empire.

Approaching scripture in the way of Jesus means to attempt to apply it to our lives, in our time. That doesn't mean we try to reconstruct a temple system with priests and sacrifices, or that we cling to the way things were, but that we open our hearts and minds to God, that we struggle with what Jesus means by "blessed are the meek" in today's economy of attention. We may all come to different conclusions, we may weigh each passage's importance differently, but the shared struggle is what makes us all children of God.

'm looking at these chapters over the coming weeks, so I leave you dear reader, with a question. Who are all these people Jesus is blessing (Matthew 5:1-12)? What do they have in common? Why does God bless them, and what is God's calling for them?

Until next week,
Peace be with you.

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