The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way

Here continues chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship

3.1: Discipleship in the New Testament
3.2 The call of Jesus: Discipleship as a turn towards something new

3.3 The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way

The Gospel writers present Jesus as one who taught in a number of ways – through stories, by how he lived, and through a series of extended discourses. A central discourse is found in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus gathers a crowd and offers a fresh word to them. It is a scene that is all too reminiscent of Exodus 19-20, words spoken by God to Israel concerning how they were to live in the world; the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is not to be seen as a new teaching, but rather “as the recovery of what has been God’s will all along.”1 And that will was to call out a people through whom the world would know what God is like.

Jesus’ teaching in this discourse was based on “the proclamation of the inbreaking kingdom of God, which brought an end to other kingdoms.”2 As Jesus brings forth these words, the following becomes clear:

The kingdom of God belongs to those … who are poor in spirit, who are deeply aware of their own inadequacies, failings and rebellion; the kingdom belongs to those who are merciful in response to injustice; the kingdom belongs to those who love even enemies. The way of the kingdom of God stands in stark contrast to the way of the kingdoms of this world.3

Central to this intended contrast is the word of Jesus concerning the disciples as “the salt of the earth”, “the light to the world,” and “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5: 13-14). On one hand, these three metaphors were used to suggest that disciples of Jesus are “to be focused not only on heaven, but are reminded of their mission on earth.”4 At the same time, Jesus’ disciples were to be “a community living a righteous life of such visibility that others will be led to give glory to God;” they were “make visible the reality of God’s reign in the midst of the old order.”5 Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the reality that discipleship does indeed involve a turn from the old to a new way, and involvement within the present realities of the world.

One might read this section of Matthew and raise the question of whether or not these teachings of Jesus were meant to be applied within the scope of daily life. For Hauerwas and Willimon, to focus on this question is to miss the point altogether; rather, we are to ask, along the lines of what Keck has suggested, “what if all this is not new and more stringent rules for us to observe but rather a picture of the way God is?”6 The teachings of Jesus simply cannot be separated from who he was and is as God’s Son and the perfect embodiment of God’s kingdom come. For Jesus to speak and act in the way that he did was simply an expression of his identity as both human and divine; there was literally no other option. Therefore, “the basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is.”7

As Burridge argues, “Jesus’ ethical teaching is not a separate and discrete set of moral maxims, but part of his proclamation of the kingdom of God as God’s reign and sovereignty are recognized in the here and now.”8 Jesus’ words from the Mount, therefore, must be understood as part of “his whole preaching about the kingdom of God, to which a response is sought to his call to wholehearted discipleship in a life lived in community with others who also respond.”9 While, as Bonhoeffer rightly suggests, “there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount”, the reality is that “Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. Do not interpret or apply, but do it and obey. This is the only way that Jesus’ word is really heard.”10 In order to resist this hermeneutical trap and in so doing distance ourselves from these words spoken by Jesus, we are unmistakably called to follow the example that he left.

1 Leander E. Keck, “Ethics in the Gospel According to Matthew,” Iliff Review 41 (1984), 51.

2 Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 87.

3 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 55.

4 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 111.

5 Donaldson, “Guiding Readers – Making Disciples: Discipleship in Matthew’s Narrative Strategy,” 45, 48.

6 Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens, 85.

7 Ibid., 85.

8 Burridge, Imitating Jesus, 61.

9 Ibid., 76.

10 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 181.

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