No one disputes that Jesus’ most important sermon, or at least the most famous and influential of his sermons, is the Sermon the Mount (or Plain) found in Matthew 5–7 and Luke 6:17-49. There are two basic options for this Great Sermon: it’s for us or it’s not. We can nuance this: it’s for us who are Jewish, but not for Gentile believers. Christian history defies narrowing the Sermon to Jewish believers only, but the odd thing is that many Christians are profoundly disquieted by the Sermon so they all but make it “not for now (at least as it is now written).”
When I was doing doctoral work and studying at Tyndale House in Cambridge England I met and spent regular breaks chatting with David Wenham who was at that time working on his book on the eschatological material of Jesus and editing one book or another. So when I saw that David had written an essay on preaching the Sermon on the Mount in Preaching the New Testament (ed. I. Paul, D. Wenham), I wanted to know what he had to say.
Here’s the question: What does Jesus mean when he says that those who hear these sayings of mine and don’t do them will be destroyed but those who hear them but do them will be established on rock? Does he think we have to “do” these things or not? Why doesn’t Jesus just come out and say, “You can’t do these things on your own. Trust in grace first.”?
David expresses typical disquiets about the Sermon, and he gives three:
1. It presents a legalistic works-based righteousness.
2. It presents an impossible set of demands.
3. It presents some demands that are hard to interpret.
David Wenham proposes some general observations, including reading the Sermon in its specific Gospel context. There is grace from the beginning and surrounding the Sermon. Further, he speculates Matthew was written against folks who accused Jesus of liberalism and so Matthew accentuated Jesus’ faithfulness to the Torah. “So Jesus in Matthew is not a Jewish legalist, even when he refers to the ‘least of these commandments’; rather he is emphasizing that with his kingdom preaching he is not chipping away at the law, subtracting bits and lowering the standards” (77). In the Sermon itself there is grace at work, including the beginning of the beatitudes. He then finds grace elsewhere.
So David Wenham moves to his proposal about how to read the Sermon on the Mount and preach it:
1. The Sermon is not about impossible legalism, but about kingdom living. [No one wants “impossible legalism” and everyone wants “kingdom living” but these terms don’t solve the problems David Wenham is seeking to resolve.]
2. How to live this way: (a) Kingdom living by (b) acknowledging they are poor in the spirit and (c) going with Jesus and (d) prayer to the heavenly Father.
3. How literal? Not completely literal. He means as laws. But he backs off into vagueness for me: “the preacher does not replace what Jesus said with harmless generalizations about loving other people” [which is not bad, after all, since that is the Golden Rule and the Jesus Creed, and the whole Torah … ].
So he gives some wisdom for preaching:
1. Grace and relationship, not legalism [a word that he uses for “rules” but it’s a clobber word with no content].
2. Grace, not works [he means human effort to justify ourselves, but that is not what works means in Matt 5:13-16 nor does it allow the words of Jesus to have their rugged severity].
3. Positive beauty: this is true wisdom.
4. Practicality: concrete stuff here.
5. Serious challenge: “different lifestyle” and “eternally important” … here he says the Sermon warns about cheap grace.
6. Preacher’s integrity: good.
When we are done with this chp the Sermon, in my view, is emasculated of its demand, a demand that is so obvious from beginning to end (I don’t read the Beatitudes as David does but as a manifesto of who is in and who is not and who is in shocks the listeners), and that points us to the King who utters these words from the Mount (as did Moses). Nor does he give sufficient attention to the conclusion to this Sermon, which is to do what Jesus has taught. I would ask Why did Jesus not say “Now you have to have grace at work to do these teachings of mine”? There is something fundamental to the Sermon in the form Jesus gave it: powerful kingdom demands for kingdom people. The demand is Jesus’ evangelistic confrontation with his audience to decide whether they want to come to him and follow him or not.
There is so much concern to cushion this Sermon in this chp that I wonder if the Sermon will be heard as Jesus intended it.