Gospel of Matthew
Sermon on the Mount
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Jesus must have had a good morning the day he climbed up on that mountain and began to preach the Sermon on the Mount. Two thousand years later, it's probably his most famous (and by many, most beloved) teaching sesh. Sure, the stuff about the mustard seed was pretty good, but we'll still take the Sermon on the Mount any day.
What's the Deal with This Sermon?
The Sermon on the Mount gets its name because (a) it's a sermon and (b) it takes place on a mountain. Simple enough, right? Luke actually has a similar section called "The Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:17-49), but it's obviously not as awesome. Come on—everyone knows mountains are a way better place to preach about God. Just ask Moses on Mount Sinai.
But the whole speech isn't just one long religious lecture. It's actually a bunch of mini teachings and ideas all rolled into one session. Sometimes Jesus is a bad English student and doesn't even use transitions, so you'll just have to imagine him saying, "Oh, and another thing…" between his points.
Jesus's Album Is Dropping
The teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are a little like Jesus's Greatest Hits. Here's the full track list (see how many you can sing along to):
- The Beatitudes (5:3-12)
- "You are the salt of the earth." (5:13)
- "You are the light of the world." (5:14-16)
- "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (5:17-20)
- A Higher Righteousness (5:21-26)
- On Adultery (5:27-30)
- On Divorce (5:31-32)
- On Oaths (5:33-37)
- "Turn the other cheek." (5:38-42)
- "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (5:43-48)
- On Giving Alms (6:1-4)
- On Prayer (6:5-8)
- The Our Father Prayer (6:9-15)
- On Fasting (6:16-18)
- Treasure in Heaven (6:19-23)
- "No one can serve two masters." (6:24)
- "Consider the lilies." (6:25-34)
- "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged." (7:1-6)
- Ask, Seek, Knock (7:7-11)
- "Enter through the narrow gate." (7:12-14)
- "Beware of false prophets." (7:15-20)
- "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom." (5:21-23)
- Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders (7:24-27)
Be prepared when you crack open this section of Matthew, because the Sermon on the Mount is pretty radical. Yes, we said radical. It's shocking, drastic, and extreme. Didn't think Jesus had it in him, did you?
Let's take a look at some of the things he says:
- "If you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire." (5:22)
- "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away." (5:29)
- "Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (5:32)
- "Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (5:42)
- "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear." (6:25)
- "The gate is narrow and the road is hard […] and there are few who find it." (7:14)
Think about these statements. They seem pretty extreme, don't they? Calling someone a name gets you sent to hell. Remarriage is adultery. Oh, and you should actually cut out your own eye.
What the heck is going on here?
Reach for the Stars
Jesus's teachings here are aspirational to say the least. There aren't many of us who could really live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus even sums up a whole section with the advice: "Be perfect."
Yeah, fat chance.
But does that mean we shouldn't try? No way. Matthew believes that the birth of Jesus has brought about a new world. The kingdom of heaven is coming and people best recognize. Part of that means behaving in a whole new way. That doesn't mean we should throw the old way (i.e., Torah law) out the window, though. Jesus just wants us to take it to the next level.
In each of his statements on what Jewish law says, Jesus both (a) affirms the law and then (b) requires believers to go above and beyond. For example: it's wrong to murder, right? Then, isn't it also wrong to get angry with someone? If anger can lead to murder, then shouldn't we try to shut that bad stuff down while we have the chance? Makes perfect sense…to God.
Reversal of Fortune
The Sermon on the Mount also overturns our expectations about the world. Take the Beatitudes for instance. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (5:5). This is classic Matthew. And classic Jesus for that matter.
Here you have the meek. The lowly. The downtrodden. But one day, the whole earth is going to be theirs. That doesn't make any sense in what we know of the world. Generally the meeker get meeker and the stronger get stronger, right?
But the kingdom of heaven reverses our typical way of doing things. God is going to fix our problems and right all the wrongs. In fact, the people we think are going to come out ahead (the rich, the powerful, the mighty) are in for a pretty big shock come Judgment Day. The lowly, the poor, the sorrowful—well, let's just say God totally has their backs.
Shout-Outs Are Mounting
References to the Sermon on the Mount are everywhere:
- Augustine called the Sermon on the Mount "a perfect standard of the Christian life" (source).
- Thomas Jefferson thought it was "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered" (source).
- Barack Obama has been known to sprinkle reference to these three chapters in Matthew throughout his speeches every now and then (source).
- Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the Sermon on the Mount when some religious leaders complained he was an extremist (source).
- The bishop in Les Misérables seems to have taken a cue from Jesus's words "Do not resist an evildoer" (5:39). When Val Jean steals from him, he gives him even more valuable items in return.
- The characters in Life of Brian can't quite hear the Sermon on the Mount. Did he say, "Blessed are the cheese makers?"
- And don't forget about Harry Potter. Dumbledore chooses Jesus's words from the Sermon on the Mount—"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also"—for his mother's and sister's graves (source).