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Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount [E]

Of the five discourses of Jesus in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5-7) is the first, the longest, and the most prominent. Following Matthew's introduction to the person of Jesus (1:1-4:25), the sermon comprises the first words of Jesus to confront the reader and because of the arrangement of the canon, it holds the place of honor in the New Testament. Since the postapostolic age it has attracted more attention than any other section of the Bible and was considered the quintessential expression of Jesus' teachings. The study of its interpretations is the history of the development of theology. Luke's parallel, the Sermon on the Plain ( 6:17-49 ), with its 33 verses compared to Matthew's 107 or 109, does not match its detail, organization, complexity of interpretation, and unequivocal demands. Luke locates many parallels to Matthew's Sermon in other episodes of Jesus' life and not his Sermon on the Plain. Where Matthew's Sermon has the Lord's Prayer as part of a general instruction given by Jesus to the disciples ( 6:9 ), Luke has the disciples asking Jesus to follow the example of John the Baptist who taught his disciples to pray ( 11:1 ). Mark has no similar discourse and his parallels are few ( Mark 4:21 Mark 4:24-25 ; 9:43-48 ; 11:25 ).

Matthew and His Sermon on the Mount. Matthew's Sermon on the Mount must be interpreted within the totality of his Gospel and not as an isolated discourse. His penchant for order is evident in the division of the genealogy into three parts each with fourteen persons ( 1:2-17 ), the five discourses, and the division of the Gospel into two parts ( 4:17 ; 16:21 ); this indicates that he is arranging and editing preexisting material spoken by Jesus on more than one occasion, a suggestion put forth by Calvin and supported recently by Joachim Jeremias. Such divisions concluding with repetitions (e.g., "when Jesus had finished [ 7:28 ; 11:1 ]), aided the reader's memory. Matthew is more the editor of sayings collected in the Sermon on the Mount than he is their author.

The dating of the Gospel affects the sermon's interpretation and its place of origin. A date after 70 a.d. means that the evangelist was not an eyewitness but dependent on oral tradition. Indications within the sermon challenge this. Laying gifts before the altar ( 5:23-24 ) and swearing by Jerusalem ( 5:35 ) reflect a time when Christians were still involved in Jewish cultic life (cf. Acts 3:1 ). Recent attempts to place the composition of the Sermon on the Mount after 85 to correspond with the Council of Jamnia are unconvincing, as the temple's destruction made its rituals inoperative. Disparaging remarks about Gentiles praying empty phrases ( 6:7 ) would hardly fit a situation where they had become the majority (cf. Acts 15:1-29 ). The world reflected in the Sermon on the Mount was that of Jerusalem in the first half of the first century. Matthew's retention of such severely cruel commands as plucking out one's eye and cutting off one's hand ( 5:28-29 ) can only be adequately explained if they originated with Jesus. Such common oriental paradoxical exaggeration, rarely taken literally even by absolutist interpretations, requiring total commitment to the kingdom might escape or offend converts from a non-Jewish background. It is more likely that Luke passed over these sayings than that a later writer like Matthew added them. The sermon most likely was transmitted first orally, as were rabbinic teachings, with repetition devices to aid memory. This oral transmission developed into a fixed body of tradition that Matthew, apart from what he knew directly and remembered, also had at his disposal. References in the list of the apostles to Matthew as a tax collector ( 10:3 ), missing in the synoptic parallels ( Mark 3:18 ; Luke 6:15 ), suggest that the author had heard Jesus. As Jesus with his "but I tell you" ( Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:28 Matthew 5:32 Matthew 5:34 Matthew 5:39 Matthew 5:44 ) puts himself in the place of God and makes his words the standard for the judgment ( 7:24-27 ), it is possible these sayings were gathered into written collections before being placed into Matthew's Gospel. Behind Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is probably one delivered near Capernaum. References to the temple could reflect discourses given in Judea ( 5:24 ; 6:35 ).

The Place of the Sermon within Matthew's Gospel. Matthew's fivefold division for the sayings of Jesus suggests that the Sermon on the Mount should be interpreted within the totality of the Gospel. All five discourses are directed to the disciples and end with Matthew's characteristic "and when Jesus had finished" ( 7:28 ; 11:1 ; 13:53 ; 19:1 ; 26:1 ), with the last bringing them together with "all these things" ( 26:1 ). These further are assumed into 28:20 with Jesus' command to his disciples to teach the Gentiles everything he commanded. Items raised in the sermon appear elsewhere, specifically in Matthew's four other discourses: the apostles and their authority (chap. 10); the kingdom explained in parables (chap. 13); humility as a mark of the community (18:1-19:1); and the end-times (chaps. 24-25).

The Beatitudes with their initiatory "blessed" ( 5:3-11 ) prepare for this title given first to the apostles as those who have heard and understood the parables ( 13:16 ) and then to Peter who confesses Jesus as Christ ( 16:17 ). The sermon's parable of the two houses ( 7:24-27 ), a brief apocalypse in its own right, sets the literary tone for the second discourse with its parables (chap. 13), the last of which deals also with the judgment ( 13:47-50 ) and anticipates "the little apocalypse" ( 25:31-46 ). With the words of Jesus as the basis for the final judgment, the Sermon on the Mount looks ahead to the Gospel's conclusion, which obligates the disciples to teach its words ( 28:20 ). The transfiguration with God's command to listen to Jesus ( 17:5 ) makes his words superior to those of Moses and Elijah and thus in him the law and the prophets reach their conclusion ( 5:28 ). Disciples who are only partially named at the sermon's beginning ( Matthew 4:18 Matthew 4:20 ; 5:1 ) are all named in 10:2-4 and appear at the end of the Gospel as the guardians of Jesus' words. Persecution promised in 5:11-12 is spelled out in 10:17-18 and is actualized in Jesus' own suffering (chaps. 26-27). The demand for unalloyed faith ( 6:25-33 , esp. v. 30) is explicated in the discourse on the humility and faith of children ( 18:1-5 ). The necessity of forgiveness ( 18:15-35 ) is presupposed in loving the enemy ( 5:38-48 ). The sermon is a self-contained unit introducing the remainder of Matthew where its themes are further developed.

The Sermon's Speaker, Order, and Message. The sermon introduces Jesus sitting on the mountain ( 5:1-2 ), reminding the reader of Moses' giving of the law at Sinai. Jesus opens up his mouth ( 5:2 ), assuming the law and prophets into his words and mission ( 5:17 ).

The Beatitudes, as the sermon's first words, come not with threats, but describe the new community in christological terms to identify believers with Jesus ( 5:3-11 ). They are God's law fulfilled in Jesus and applied to Christians. The community in Christ described in the Beatitudes is a continuation of Israel in which the prophetic word is not annulled but fulfilled and remains in force in him and not as separate legislation ( 5:17-20 ). Jesus' coming transformed the Old Testament. Each beatitude describes the new community in Jesus from a different perspective: the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers, those persecuted for his sake and those persecuted because of righteousness. The Beatitudes anticipate specific behavioral standards for the community ( 5:21-46 ). Reconciliation with the estranged brother is required ( 5:21-26 ); adultery even of the heart brings condemnation ( 5:27-30 ); divorce carries severe consequences ( 5:31-32 ); oaths about future undertakings are disallowed ( 5:33-37 ); retaliation for alleged wrongs is renounced ( 5:38-42 ); and love is extended to one's enemies ( 5:43-48 ). Directives for the worshiping community are set down ( 6:1-18 ): giving to the needy is to be done in secret ( 6:1-4 ); rubrics on prayer include reciting the Lord's Prayer and avoiding long repetitions ( 6:5-15 ); and fasting remains part of Christian piety, but must be unannounced ( 6:16-18 ). Then follow general directives (6:19-7:12): treasures are to be laid up in heaven ( 6:19-21 ); the eye as the body's organ of light must remain uncontaminated ( 6:22-23 ); anxiety, the enemy of faith, must be avoided ( 6:25-34 ); condemnation of the brother is forbidden ( 7:1-5 ); faith believes God answers prayers ( 7:7-11 ); and the "Golden Rule" requires the same behavior one desires from others ( 7:12 ). The sermon closes with warnings. Those not following the "way, " set forth in the sermon, are destined for damnation ( 7:13-14 ). False teachers will deceive believers ( 7:15-20 ). The parable of the houses describes the final judgment ( 7:24-27 ). At the end of the sermon the superior authority of Jesus is recognized by the crowds (7:28-8:1), and later confirmed by the resurrection ( 28:18 ). Although the sermon has the form of directives, its central message is that the community of Jesus is reconciled with those within and without. Thus, like God, it renounces retribution ( 5:43-48 ).

The Sermon's Audience. The Sermon on the Mount is best understood as instruction (didache [ 7:28 ; 28:20 ]) for believers. Matthew's discourses are intended for the community of baptized believers and individuals as members of this community. Even when the believer prays alone ( 6:6 ), he does so as a member of the community in saying "Our Father" ( 6:9 ). Reconciliation is important for the sake of the community. The Sermon on the Mount defines the church and then describes how it appears in Christ.

Matthew's Sermon on the Mount continues to inform and shape the church's life. It joins believers with Christ and gives unity to his teachings. Its Beatitudes ( 5:3-11 ), Lord's Prayer ( 6:9-13 ), and Golden Rule ( 7:12 ), along with other sections belong to common Christian piety. Differing interpretations have not robbed the Sermon on the Mount of its continued influence.

David P. Scaer

See also Beatitudes; Ethics; Golden Rule; Jesus Christ

Bibliography. W. D. Davies, The Setting on the Sermon on the Mount; W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew; idem, SJT 44: 283-309; H. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount; R. A. Guelich, Sermon on the Mount; J. Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount; W. S. Kissenger, The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography; I. A. Massey, Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Jewish Tradition as Evidenced in the Palestinian Targums of the Pentateuch.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Sermon on the Mount'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.