The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn
Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 1: The Sermon On The Mount Today
Anyone approaching the Sermon on the Mount is wise to remember a saying from Mark Twain, who was more honest about his troubles than most of us are about ours. He had heard people complain that the Bible is hard to understand. But he said he was bothered more by the parts of the Bible that he could understand than by the parts he could not understand.
This statement fits the Sermon on the Mount. Occasionally, as we study it, we find ourselves bothered by the first problem. We do not understand, and we wish we might know with certainty exactly what Jesus meant. But more often the words are so clear that we can have no doubt about their meaning. Then the real trouble comes, because we know what a change they call for in our lives, and we hesitate to make that change. We feel uneasy when we face a description of ourselves as God would have us be.
Christ Speaks to Us
Throughout the centuries since these words were first recorded, people have responded in many ways to the Sermon on the Mount. Probably you have often heard two common opinions about it. The first opinion is all approval. We might expect that in the church. But curiously, skeptics outside the church will frequently say something like this: "I have my arguments with the churches and their beliefs, but when it comes to the religion of the Sermon on the Mount, I'm all for that."
The second Opinion is negative. We find it often among the doubters and non-Christians. Frequently it appears within the church. It uses words like these: "The Sermon on the Mount is a lot of beautiful idealism, but it isn't practical. It won't work in this kind of world."
It is strange that one document can provoke such completely contrary interpretations. Perhaps the reason is that few people are able to come to the Sermon on the Mount and to consider
without prejudice what it says. Those who are able to do this, face both of Mark Twain's problems. First they must try honestly to understand it. Then they must come to terms with what they find.
For Christians the Bible is a living book through which the living God speaks to persons today. We cannot assign the Bible -- especially we cannot assign Jesus -- to some past century and let the matter rest there. Christ is addressing us as truly as he addressed his disciples in Palestine.
The purpose of this book is to interpret the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount for us today. There are other valid purposes for studying the Bible. Many books of magnificent scholarship examine historical and literary questions about the New Testament. We can understand Jesus' teachings more accurately because archaeologists and historians have probed into the past and other specialists have analyzed the biblical documents in their original languages. This book, though it often echoes the conclusions of such studies, has a different purpose. It concentrates on the question that all Christians must face: what does Jesus' teaching mean for our faith and living today?
Using the Bible
The Bible is more important than all the comments about the Bible. The most important part of getting at the Sermon on the Mount is to go directly to the Sermon on the Mount. It is short -- shorter than the average Sunday morning sermon. Three and a half columns of a newspaper will hold it all. In the New Testament it is printed in chapters 5 -- 7 of the Gospel according to Matthew.
Some of the same teachings of Jesus appear in Luke 6:2-49, in what has been called "The Sermon on the Plain." Also, many of the sayings in Matthew are found scattered through Luke in various settings.
These and other similar facts lead most biblical scholars to say that Matthew, who likes to organize his materials topically, gives us more than a single sermon. He and Luke started with the same core of materials -- a set of teachings, mostly in poetry, which the disciples memorized as Jesus taught. To this core Matthew frequently added other related sayings of Jesus. Sometimes when a sentence in Matthew is not entirely clear, a look at the wording and the setting in Luke will bring out the meaning.
In this book each of the remaining chapters takes up a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Immediately following the chapter heading is the reference to Matthew. Look it up and read it carefully, because everything else in the chapter depends on it. The second reference is to the parallel passage in Luke. Sometimes this is very important; sometimes it adds nothing to what
Matthew reports. Then comes a third reference that shows how other parts of the Bible take up the same theme.
For Further Study
If you can do more reading on the Sermon on the Mount, the following books will be helpful.
Archibald M. Hunter, A Pattern for Life (Westminster Press, 1953). This is a short and helpful book, entirely on the Sermon on the Mount.
The Interpreter's Bible, Volume VII (Abingdon Press, 1951), offers two helps. Amos N. Wilder's article, "The Sermon on the Mount," is a masterpiece. The commentary on Matthew 5-7, written by Sherman E. Johnson and George A. Buttrick, gives excellent guidance.
Martin Dibelius, The Sermon on the Mount (Scribner's, 1940). This is the work of a great German scholar of the New Testament. It is most helpful to readers who have some technical training in biblical studies.