Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

At What Elevation Is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount?

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

At What Elevation Is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount?

Article excerpt

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount has always held great fascination for me, and it continues to fascinate me, as it has countless Christians and non-Christians down through the ages. Much of what 1 have to say here will not be new, but 1 do want to share some of my own insights into this great piece of religious discourse, hoping that they will be both helpful and timely in a day when teachings embodied in this Sermon greatly need to be heard.

Our world today has trouble enough, and the Christian church is also in crisis. The daily newspapers and news on the television remind us without letup how impure the world and the church have become. What then should we do? Pray? Of course, but we need to do more than pray. Christians in other times like out own have returned to examine the foundations of our faith to see what they can teach us, and I can think of no more foundational teaching in Christianity than Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Matthew features it prominently at the beginning of his Gospel, where it appears to be nothing less than a "new covenant" presented to the nascent church.

The world many times has been transformed by this Sermon. It profoundly influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in their efforts to achieve freedom and social justice. For them, Jesus' Sermon embodied not simply lofty ideals but teachings capable of being put into practice and capable of bringing about substantive change. Gandhi was particularly impressed with the Sermon on the Mount, saying, "it went straight to my heart." Quoting Matthew 5:39-40 about not returning a smite on the cheek and giving up one's cloak along with his tunic, he said that renunciation was the highest form of religion, for which reason Jesus' Sermon appealed to him greatly. (2) He went on to say:' The message of Jesus, as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount ... It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me." But, he added: "The message, to my mind, has suffered distortion in the West ... Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount. (3) When Germany in the last century began experiencing deep crisis after Hitler came to power, one of its Lutheran pastors and theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a book titled The Cost of Discipleship, which was based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. (4) It was published in 1937, and had a great impact in its day as well as in the years subsequent to World War II.

Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), not long after his conversion to Christianity, wrote a commentary on the Sermon, which was the first of its kind. (5) He was also first to call this portion of Scripture de sermone Domini in monte ("The Lord's Sermon on the Mount"). Martin Luther did not write a commentary on the Sermon, or on Matthew, but his Weekly Sermons on Matthew 5-7, which were preached at Wittenberg between October 1530 and April 1532, contain a treasure of insights into the Sermon, such as we have come to expect from this extraordinary man. (6)

Beginning with Luther comes the idea that this Sermon preaches a way of life that is unattainable. Luther saw in the Sermon an impossible ethic designed to awaken us to our inadequacy and sinfulness, which would then drive us to seek God's mercy and help (Romans 5-7). (7) Luther is also recorded as saying that the Sermon on the Mount does not belong in city hall, for "one cannot govern" with it. (8)

Leo Tolstoy took the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, believing that these commands of Jesus had to be taken as obligatory in the most literal sense. (9) However, he could not live by them and ended his life tragically, abandoning his family to die at a railway station. (10) Fredrick Nietzsche was unimpressed with the Sermon, saying it taught a "slave morality." In its requirements of love and meekness he found a mood dangerous to the heroic temper. (11)

For many others, both believers and nonbelievers, the Sermon's teaching is too elevated. …

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