Good morning! Today we read the three chapters of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here he sets forth his main teachings on everything, it seems. Reading all these “greatest hits” of Jesus as a teacher can feel like drinking from a firehose! Throughout, we’ll see that Jesus calls those who follow him to uphold the Hebrew law and prophetic teachings, applying them strictly to the self but extending mercy to others who fall short. He suggests that in following this ethic, God will have mercy on the self as well.
First up in chapter 5, we read the famous Beatitudes, declarative sentences that espouse countercultural values, lifting up conditions that are reviled or ignored by others. The final “Blessed are” addresses those who are on the margins of society, the unacceptables. I’m not sure that Jesus is telling people to strive to fit into these categories, but he extends to them a conviction that there’s hope and divine favor on the side of any who do end up there. If you can find it, there’s a marvelous musical setting of the Beatitudes by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
The rest of chapter 5 focuses on effective and visible “good works” done by the faithful in society. He contends that these are perfected extensions of the Jewish law and prophets, upholding and intensifying them beyond the conventional understanding of scribes and Pharisees. (I find it heartening to read that those who break these commandments “will be called least”, but they will still be in the kingdom of heaven.) Through Jesus’ interpretation, “do not murder” means not to be angry either. Reconciliation with an estranged community member is to be sought before offering sacrifices. (This is what many Christians symbolize in worship with the “Passing of the Peace”.) The commandment against adultery becomes also a prohibition on lush, followed by grotesque examples of self-mutilation for the sake of righteousness. The ban on divorces has caused all sorts of challenges for people who seem to be happier as ex-spouses than spouses. Recall that in the time of Jesus and before, divorce meant a man could throw a woman out of the house and leave her destitute if she had no family to return to. Hence, Jesus’ command here could be interpreted as a form of protection, and not one that applies in the same way today. The counsel against retaliation and in favor of bottomless generosity reveal the eternal ethics of Jesus, living out what seems profoundly counter cultural. I’m not sure Jesus cared about how well something could be practiced, but there’s extensive scholarship available on what these commands might have literally involved in Jesus’ own time.
The rest of the passage contains further exhortations and instructions. Regarding almsgiving, prayer and fasting, Jesus counsels discretion and modesty. Note that this “Lord’s Prayer” (and other gospel versions) don’t have the closing line, “for the kingdom, the power, and the glory…”, since that was added later by leaders who thought it unseemly for such a central prayer to end with reference to “the evil one”. Matthew’s Jesus also continues to show the black and white, law-focused perspective on other topics including the pursuit of worldly gain and maintaining a prudent custody of the eyes. The paragraph on worry at the end of chapter 6 could profitably be placed at the bedside of every person who loses sleep over worries. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Matthew 8-11. Thanks for reading!