Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount for Lent
Those who follow the lectionary in both preaching and teaching may be hesitant to use the Sermon on the Mount as a primary or supplemental source for preaching or teaching during Lent. As one who has both preached from the lectionary and deviated from it, I would like to make a brief argument in favor of preaching from the Sermon on the Mount as a series and suggest that the season of Lent is an ideal time to do so.
The lectionary spreads out the teachings contained in the Sermon on the Mount over three years and never in consecutive weekly doses. There is an advantage, I suppose, in sharing these important teachings over such time in that one may thereby reach a varied audience and by such a method be able to give a sweep of each of the four gospels. The effect of such dissection, however, is to thereby separate the intentional grouping that both Matthew and Luke create.
In Matthew's case at least, the Sermon on the Mount is a gathering of teaching focused primarily on the nature of the Christian life. In this brief Lenten study I have chosen to concentrate on those sections of teaching that relate to this dominant theme, thus leaving out some familiar material such as the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer. In the sections that I do explore, Matthew shares what it means to be both righteous and Christian: such things as loving our enemies, practicing proper piety, tending to one's inner thoughts and motives, treating others with respect and love, rejecting self-righteousness, and understanding that the Christian life is more than believing -- it is also doing.
If the season of Lent is not an obvious choice for such teaching, let me simply share two elements I believe to be especially fitting for this holy season as we approach the events of the passion and anticipate the transforming event of the resurrection: attention to spiritual life and a focus on the ministry and teaching of Jesus. If one believes as I do, and as Matthew does, that the teachings of Jesus are absolutely essential to the Christian life, then care should be taken that the key elements of such teaching are presented to all those seeking discipleship.
I would argue that at some point in our teaching and preaching career that the teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount should be shared not piecemeal or spread out over years, but presented as Matthew presents it, in one block carefully tied together by theme and design. I offer therefore this series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount for any number of purposes: seeds for sermons during Lent or other times, a beginning place for a Lenten study, or as a study/devotional guide that is best undertaken not privately but among gathered Christians. I hope that this short series of reflections will serve as an invitation to preachers and teachers alike to "take on" this challenging body of Christ's teachings. I believe such careful attention by the church was Matthew's clear intent.
It is a difficult decision for most of us to choose a favorite gospel. I have, however, after years of Bible study and even more of human experience made my difficult choice. I was certainly tempted to side with Luke's gospel with its compassion for the least, last, and lost and its powerful parables of grace, like the Prodigal Son. Mark, too, had its appeal with its ongoing sense of urgency and its emphasis on the mighty and miraculous acts of Jesus. And as one with a philosophical bent, I was drawn to John's fascination with the divinity of Jesus and the theme of Jesus' oneness with the Father.
But it is Matthew's gospel that has become central in my own faith journey. It is Matthew who carefully preserves, collects, and elevates the teachings of Jesus, and holds them as absolutely crucial for the Christian life. For Matthew, Jesus is more than simply Messiah or one who performs mighty works. He is the one who "teaches with authority." Through Jesus' words we learn who God is, and how we are supposed to live. For Matthew, a Christian is to be more than believer; a Christian is nothing if not a follower. Jesus' teachings, therefore, become the manual for the Christian life, a "blueprint for living."
As a strong proponent of Matthew, it should not surprise anyone that I view the Sermon on the Mount as an essential kernel of Jesus' teaching. Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount is the largest uninterrupted block of Jesus' teaching in the New Testament. It is the first of five collections of teaching that Matthew strategically lays out for us as he proclaims the "good news." In the three chapters that comprise this collection of teaching, Matthew shares many of Jesus' essential elements for Christian living. For Matthew, Jesus' primary work is not his mighty acts, as in Mark. The trademark for Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is his transforming gift of teachings graciously offered to all who would be his disciples. It is the truth that can set one free.