Ten Tidbits about the Sermon on the Mount

Ten Tidbits about the Sermon on the Mount March 11, 2011

1. The Sermon on the Mount only appears in Matthew’s gospel. In Luke, the sermon is given not on a mountain, but a “level place” (6:17), and is frequently referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. These two sermons share some material, but diverge greatly. Attempts at harmonization argue that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, but most believe that the authors are working from shared sayings that have been put together in different ways. Most of what is in Matthew’s Sermon is found scattered about in different narrative contexts in Luke. Mark and John contain almost none of what is in Matthew’s sermon.

2. In Matthew, the location of the sermon on a mountain is significant for the typological parallel that he is drawing between Moses and Jesus. Luke is not making this parallel at all.

3. The Sermon is not a public address, but is rather given to the disciples away from the “crowds.”

4. The Beatitudes differ between Matthew and Luke in significant ways. In general, Luke’s versions are more concerned with social and political positions of powerlessness, eg., “blessed are you poor….Blessed are you that are hungry.” In contrast, Matthew is generally interested in more spiritualized versions of these sayings, eg., “blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Further, Luke’s version contains a set of “woes” along with the beatitudes that warn against the rich, the full, those who laugh, and the well esteemed (6:24-26).

5. Matthew’s Jesus’ attitude toward Torah/Law is extremely positive, and possibly explicitly anti-Pauline. When Matthew’s Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them,” (5:17), he seems to object to Christians who interpret Jesus’ message as the end of the Law. Matthew goes further with a Jesus who not only upholds the Law, but goes further with it by adding to it. This would certainly include observance of kosher and circumcision, the main issues under dispute in Pauline Christianity. “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)

6. One of the most controversial of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon is his uncompromising prohibition of divorce (Matt 5:31-32), a saying also known to Mark and Luke (Mk 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). Paul also knows this saying, and is one of the only sayings of Jesus he references, and provides a caveat which essentially nullifies the prohibtion, permitting divorce and providing instructions for those who do so (1 Cor 7:10).

7. The so-called Lord’s Prayer contains some key differences between Matthew and Luke, with Matthew generally expanding on the sayings that Luke records, as he had done with the beatitudes. The conclusion in the KJV of Matthew 6:13b, “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, amen” is most certainly a later addition to the text. Interestingly, 3 Nephi 13:13 includes this line.

8. The culimation to “be perfect” has been interpreted variously. Mormons, like others, have generally taken this commandment as a call to perfectionist legalism, where it is not only possible, but required, to perfectly observe the law. Others have seen it as a call to recognize the impossibility of perfection, even while retaining it as an impossible ideal. Such a view inspires one to an indebtedness to God. For many, the advantage of the latter over the former is a recognition for the necessity of the atonement. What this view lacks is any basis in the text of the Sermon.

9. The Kingdom of God is the central principle in many of the logia that belong to this text. What (and when) the Kingdom is remains a contested question among early Christians. In the briefest sense, for Matthew this is a coming kingdom not yet realized, a future eschatology. The whole sermon should be read in the light of an expected, and impending new order, one which fails to materialize as expected.

10. Many, and possibly all, of the teachings regarding the Law likely belonged to well-known contemporary Jewish thought about the Law. Indeed, many of the sayings of Jesus here are found in other Jewish writings, either apocryphal or Rabbinic. Jesus’ teachings are not unique in this respect, and belong to an internal Jewish debate about the Law and its intpretation. In this sense, Jesus belongs to an interpretive tradition within Judaism, not as a critic raising never before heard objections and regulations.

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