The Sermon on the Mount: Is it Livable?

By Michel F. Kearney
2010, Vol. 2 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |


When the Preacher wrote, “of making many books there is no end” [KJV Eccles. 12:12] he did not anticipate the mass of articles, scholarly papers and textbooks that would be written about Jesus’ address given to a group of disciples on a hillside in Galilee, but the statement nevertheless can be applied to the literature surrounding what we now call the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49. More than thirty years ago, W.S. Kissinger listed nearly 150 pages of bibliography on the Sermon (Crump 3), and judging from the attention that this most famous ethical text is still receiving there is no end in sight for the layers of analyses that keep being generated. It would be presumptuous to think that anything new could be expressed in this short paper; however, the intent is not to present new material, but merely to add a new set of eyes to a synopsis of some of the existing material. More specifically, the material that will be addressed relates to a small segment of the literature on the Sermon on the Mount, namely the subject of the application of the Sermon on the Mount in the life of the contemporary Christian, who will be referred to in this paper as the “modern disciple.”

In order to reach the goal of application some light must first be shed on the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament, and also to the other ethical teachings of Jesus. The complex weave of , eschatology and the Kingdom of God cannot be fully addressed in this synopsis; however, neither can it be entirely neglected, as the Sermon on the Mount cannot be properly discussed without at least partially untangling these three topics. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels calls the relationship of ethics to eschatology and the Kingdom of God “one of the most convoluted and confusing chapters in modern Gospel study” (DJG 210).

Relationship to the Old Testament

Even a cursory reading will reveal that there is a relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the Law in the Old Testament. A closer reading will readily yield three possibilities: either the Sermon on the Mount presents a new Law, refines the Old Testament Law, or is something other than Law. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus makes it clear that He has not come “to abolish the Law and the Prophets”, but to “fulfill them” [NIV]. Congdon, who looked into the so-called “antitheses” in 5:21-48 in order to examine whether these verses denied or contradicted the Law, has analyzed the question of whether Jesus sustained the Law in Matthew 5. In response to the assertion that Jesus had abrogated the Law before the crucifixion he concludes, “(1) that Jesus abrogated some unscriptural traditions, (2) that He corrected some wrong interpretations, but (3) that He did not abrogate Old Testament legal injunctions. He confirmed them for Jewish people living before Calvary.” (125)

Congdon’s analysis, sound as it is, does not delve into the very nature of the Sermon on the Mount—i.e., what type of oratory [or “writing”, in the case of the account in Matthew’s Gospel] is the Sermon of the Mount? As Hawkins puts it, “Was it the purpose of Jesus merely to point out the correct meaning of the Law of Moses, or was He setting forth new principles, opposed to or higher than the principles of Law, which were to become the constitution of the Kingdom?” (1). Although the questions surrounding the nature of the Sermon on the Mount will seemingly never be fully answered, a significant clue can be gleaned from observing what it is not. Matthew 5:20 implies that the Sermon does not have solely the flavor of Mosaic Law, at least not in the rigorous Old Testament sense. The “righteousness of the Pharisees” was based on the Law, both Written and Oral, and yet Jesus said that their righteousness was not enough to grant entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Keeping in mind the brevity and the goal of this paper, namely the application of the Sermon on the Mount to the modern disciple, the discussion of its complex but fascinating Old Testament roots will have to be curtailed [Worth devotes an entire textbook to the Old Testament roots of the antitheses]. However, a review of eschatology and the Kingdom of God cannot be so easily curtailed, as these issues are closely associated with the contemporary application of the Sermon.

Some of the contrast that has been brought forward between the Sermon on the Mount and the New Testament epistles can be smoothed through an understanding of the Kingdom of God. The concept of the “Kingdom of God” was well understood by the Jewish community, who were the first hearers of the Sermon on the Mount. The Jewish nation was waiting for the arrival of a kingdom that would deliver them from the oppressive Roman order. When Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom”, the hearts of the Jews resonated with anticipation. With the advent of the Gentile mission, which in time overtook the original Jewish mission, there was a need in the predominantly Gentile Church for a terminology that was less Jewish, to avoid confusion in the minds of the new Christian converts. The absence of the Kingdom of God in the epistles does not minimize its reality, or its eschatological significance. Some thinkers, such as Albert Schweitzer, have placed so much emphasis on the eschatology of the Sermon on the Mount that they have rendered it meaningless—Schweitzer’s work led him to believe that Jesus was mistaken in His anticipation of an imminent eschaton, and if one understands the Kingdom of God to be solely expressed in an earthly rule under the absolute sovereignty of God as the King, then this places the Sermon in a sort of limbo, not having a home in this present world with its [presumably] unfulfilled arrival of the Kingdom.

The difficulties with the timing of the arrival of the Kingdom of God can be made more tractable when the Kingdom of God is paralleled with important doctrines of the New Testament, such as eternal life and salvation. Even though salvation is an eschatological concept, it still finds realization in the past and in the present. This is represented in a commonly used precept which states that we “were” saved, we “are” saved, and we “will be” saved. The fact that the Kingdom of God has not been fully realized on earth does not preclude that it has already “come”. This becomes important when deciding how to apply the Sermon on the Mount, because it is addressed to the children of the Kingdom. This last statement is presented without proof, but some help in deducing it can be found through identifying the intended audience of the Sermon.

Examining the first and the last two verses of the Sermon on the Mount, it appears that the immediate hearers were the disciples and that the crowd overheard what was said, in a kind of ripple effect. It must be remembered that it is in fact the King that is preaching the Sermon, the One who proclaimed that the “Kingdom of God is at hand”. In fact, an important key to understanding how to apply the Sermon on the Mount resides in the dissolution of the separation between King Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Paul Tillich expresses this dissolution in the following fashion:

The new state of things will be created with the second coming, the return of the Christ in glory. In the period between the first and the second coming the New Being is present in him. He is the Kingdom of God. In him the eschatological expectation is fulfilled in principle. Those who participate in him participate in the New Being, though under the condition of man’s existential predicament and, therefore, only fragmentarily and by anticipation (118).

Relationship to Other Ethical Teachings of Jesus

There is a parallel to the Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6:20-49. This parallel account has been named the Sermon on the Plain, based on Luke’s introductory remark in v.17: “He went down with them and stood on a level place.” [NIV]. It is generally recognized that both versions are respective conflations from a common Q source. The order of the material is the same, except for the Golden Rule, which Matthew delays until his summary-climax in 7:12. The two accounts of the sermon are structurally similar; however, there is an added detail in Luke’s account that may have implications for the practical application of the sermon material. In two of the beatitudes and two of the woes, Luke adds the word “now”. This addition may reflect the evangelist’s concern for the application of the sermon to the Christian life in the present state.

The metaphors of salt and light in Matthew’s account have received considerable attention in a number of contexts, particularly in evangelism. As expressed by Stott, “We are all familiar with salt and light. They are two of the most common household necessities. They are found in virtually every home in every throughout the world.” (129-130). These metaphors have universal appeal as well as ethical implications. Salt and light make the ethic in the Sermon on the Mount a practical ethic. The disciples are meant to season and to illuminate their world, and it may not be too great an extension to state that the Sermon material directly relates to the quality of the salt and the light. The underlying principle is that of proper relationships and how the quality of relationships impacts people in all settings. The metaphors of salt and light therefore help to connect the Sermon on the Mount with the corpus of Jesus’ ethical teaching, which is always based on relationships.

Another overarching theme in the Sermon on the Mount, which helps connect the Sermon to other ethical teaching of Jesus, is found in the concept of “goodness”. The word “good” is found eleven times in Matthew 5-7. “It is of paramount importance in assessing the ethical teaching of Jesus to consider his idea of the good, for this serves as the norm by which all human acts must be judged.” (Guthrie 896-897). The origin of goodness becomes important in the application of the Sermon on the Mount. Can goodness be generated through exhortations, such as those provided by Jesus in his Sermon? Or does the Sermon on the Mount lead by example in presenting how an already-present goodness should be translated into actions?

Practical Applications for the Modern Disciple

The foregoing background to the Sermon on the Mount, along with a few overarching ethical ideas in the teaching of Jesus are cursory at best, considering the sea of literature on the Sermon as a whole or in part. This information was nevertheless presented in order to better understand if, or how, this crucial teaching of Jesus can be applied directly or indirectly to the modern disciple of Jesus Christ. The history of application of the Sermon on the Mount is nearly as vast as the history of its interpretation. Interpretation and application are evidently related. Harvey King McArthur lists twelve schools of thought on the application of the Sermon. It is not the purpose of this paper to examine the various ideas about application, or even to defend a particular view. Rather, the thoughts of four practitioners are presented in order to show how some of the great thinkers of the past have approached the Sermon and to use these approaches as a means of bringing out the key points discussed earlier in the paper.


Augustine is one of the earliest thinkers who prepared a treatise on the Sermon on the Mount. “He who had investigated all philosophical systems of his times in the search of truth, found here a complete rule of life, the best philosophy of life.” (Jepson 3). Augustine’s view is that there is a double standard for the application of the Sermon. The general population need only concern themselves with the general precepts, whereas only the most pious, predominantly the clergy and monks, could attain the level of practical application of its specific ethical points. This view does not line up with an application of the Sermon to all who are part of the Kingdom of God, and it would also be at odds with the concept that all believers are to be salt and light.

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