Jesus of Galilee
SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Coming down from the top of the mountain with his newly appointed apostles, Jesus proceeded to instruct them. On the plain below, there awaited a large crowd of people who had followed them from the town. It is believed that this mountain was actually a hill about 500 feet high on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and about two miles out from Capernaum.
In order to address them it was necessary to go back up a short distance to find a level plateau from which all could hear his voice. This resolves any imagined discrepancy between what Biblical scholars call the Sermon on the Mount as described by Matthew, and the very similar Sermon on the Plain related in the Gospel of Luke.
The Gospel of Matthew says: "Seeing the crowd, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them." The public choosing of the Twelve would have availed very little had it not been followed by a spiritual vocation with fuller directives and instructions in Jesus' teachings.
The people, too, needed an exposition of the basic principles of his teaching, for the crowds that had occasionally heard him preach until then had somewhat vague and inaccurate notions regarding his stand. The increasing hostility of the scribes and Pharisees also called for the laying down of a definite program, so his position and theirs might be more clearly defined. The people had noticed that he was teaching them "not as the scribes....."
The way of life of these people was free and open enough so that they could walk away from their trades and their homes for a day or longer to follow and gather about a leader or teacher.
Climate was no problem, and religious matters held a respected priority. Great crowds had gathered from every part of the Holy Land to hear his teaching, for many recognized in him a leader of God's people.
The throng was made up of those from all walks of life -- scribes and Pharisees, rich and poor, crippled, blind, and other unfortunates. Many were fishermen who struggled with the fury of the sea for a livelihood, and others were farmers who wrested a living from the soil, who when they had succeeded in winning bare sustenance for themselves, found a great part of it taken in tithes and taxes.
The more educated scholars looked upon these as the rabble, but they, too, were present in numbers, for his words gave food for long discussions of theory and law. After hearing this Sermon, however, these religious and political leaders must have dismissed Jesus from all consideration as their Messiah.
Before the invention of printing, verbal memory was much stronger than it is today. People pondered and discussed the teachings which were heard and told them to their children. Moving about as Jesus did and having a constantly changing audience, he did not deliver long discourses, but taught by brief, pithy utterances on many subjects, frequently repeating certain points.
Matthew wrote his gospel for the instruction of Jewish converts, who would gather in study-circles. The instruction was so arranged as to adapt to that end, and to be orally used by the instructors, first in Palestine, and then in world centers. So he grouped the teachings in a way which would make them easier to remember. The gospel writers had to depend on word of mouth for their records. They put together what was remembered, and it may be that Matthew used parts of more than one discourse here, or that Luke's source of information was more terse. For Matthew devoted three chapters (5, 6 and 7) to this Sermon, while Luke used only the one (chapter 6).
It was said by Maldonatus in the 16th century: "We must not search too insistently for consecutive order in the writings of the evangelists, for they did not intend to set things down in the order in which they were done or said. This is particularly true of his discourses, in which they neither report all that he said, nor quote him in the order in which he spoke, being satisfied to cite the principal elements of his teaching."
St. Matthew and St. Luke present two versions of the Sermon, but they have the same beginning, the same conclusion and develop the subject matter in the same way. St. Matthew covers more of the teachings, but these same lessons are found scattered through Luke. He must have taught the substance of these things many times, but the Gospels have preserved it especially on this day because of the solemnity of the occasion as indicated by the phrase "opening his mouth." He was only now to start revealing the true teachings.
The Sermon on the Mount may be compared to a majestic symphony, whose clear basic themes are resolutely and immediately proclaimed with full orchestra in the very first measures. And they are the most unexpected, the most unheard of themes in all the world. Until then all man's symphonies had proclaimed that blessedness for man meant good fortune, that satisfaction came with satiety, that pleasure was the satisfaction of desire, and honor the product of esteem. But the Sermon announces that man's blessedness can be found through misfortune, satiety in famished hunger, pleasure in unfulfillment, and honor in disesteem -- all ultimately to resolve into the reward that awaits him in the future.
The Sermon is a paradox, a reversal of what had always been thought of as good. It proclaimed one of the greatest revolutions man has ever accomplished, all spoken in a tone of crisp, concise command, justified by the authority of the speaker alone. The new order of things had no human sanctions, only divine ones. They are true because he tells us so.
The Mosaic law is not abolished, but kept as a kind of first floor to which an upper story is added. The chief concern is for the moral and spiritual more than for the physical act itself.
God is not a distant despotic monarch, but a near and loving Father. And all who are Children of the Supernatural Father are brothers of one another, having the same spiritual blood.
Happiness can only be found by participation in the Kingdom of God. He who looks elsewhere looks in vain. The only road whereby we can enter the kingdom is by renunciation of the things of the world, choosing poverty and humility, holding fast to nothing, having no other Will than that of the Father.
The theme of the sermon is the justice of the kingdom, the moral perfection required of members of the kingdom. It is neither a summation of doctrine, nor a moral treatise, but rather a rule of perfection proposed for those who would belong to Christ's kingdom. Hence Jesus contrasts his teaching with Judaism. He compares the Christian spirit with the Old Testament and with the pharisaical ideal of perfection, which was so widely accepted.
The disciples had already taken the first steps, having left all to follow their Master, and now they were learning from him gentleness and goodness. They would be persecuted for righteousness' sake. Jesus spoke no longer as a man, but as the Son of God. His very life is righteousness; to suffer for his sake was to suffer for righteousness' sake and to win back their own souls for God.