Chapter 4: The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain
At this point Matthew inserts the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). the first of his five major discourses. Seeing the crowds that had gathered. he says. Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down, and his disciples came to him (5:1). "And he opened his mouth and taught them." The "sermon" is thus addressed to the disciples, not to the crowds. What we have here, however. is obviously not a stenographic record of a particular sermon, but a collection of sayings spoken on various occasions and transmitted separately or in other connections. Luke (6:17) presents some of the same material, with notable differences, as spoken when Jesus "came down" from the hills where he had appointed the twelve apostles, "and stood on a level place." Luke says that Jesus "healed them all," and then proceeds with the Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49), addressed, like Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, to the disciples. Both discourses are clearly compilations of materials from two or more sources. Luke’s is much shorter than Matthew’s and contains very little that is not in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew, however, has much that Luke uses in other connections, and much also that is found nowhere else and exhibits features characteristic of other unique material in Matthew.
In both Gospels the sermon begins with what are commonly called the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-23), short sayings that begin. "Blessed are . . ." The Greek adjective translated "blessed" represents a Hebrew word used often in the Old Testament, especially in Psalms and Proverbs. It means fortunate, well off, to be congratulated, or the like. The person pronounced blessed may not feel at all happy; in fact, those whom Jesus called blessed would appear to most people to be decidedly unhappy.
There are four striking differences between the Beatitudes given by Matthew and those given by Luke. First, Matthew has nine Beatitudes, Luke only four. The sayings concerning the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness are lacking in Luke. Second, whereas Matthew’s Beatitudes are stated more generally in the third person ("the poor in spirit," "those who mourn," and so on), shifting to the second person only in the last Beatitude, Luke’s are all addressed directly to the hearers in the second person ("you poor," "you that hunger now"). A third and very important difference is that Luke understands and phrases the Beatitudes in a more literal and material sense than Matthew does. It is not "the poor in spirit" who are called blessed in Luke but "you poor," not "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" but "you that hunger now." Instead of "those who mourn" Luke has "you that weep now", and instead of "they shall be comforted" he has "you shall laugh." The fourth difference is even more emphatic. Luke’s four Beatitudes are followed by four corresponding Woes (6:24-26): "But woe to you that are rich,. . .Woe to you that are full now, . . . Woe to you that laugh now, . . . Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, . . ."
In the last Beatitude Luke retains "your reward is great in heaven." If he is thinking of physical hardships in this life, the compensations he has in mind are not limited to this world. The contrast he stresses involves not merely a social revolution but the establishment of the kingdom of God. This is clear from Luke’s whole account of Jesus’ teaching.
Which version of the Beatitudes is correct, Matthew’s or Luke’s? What did Jesus really say and mean? Granted that he might have uttered similar sayings, with verbal variations, at different times and places, we have here a radical difference in points of view. The only way to resolve it is to compare these sayings with the rest of Jesus’ recorded teaching. Meanwhile a few observations can be made on these particular texts.
In some parts of the Bible, especially some of the Psalms, poverty and piety are considered practically inseparable. A more ancient view, still apparent at many points in the Old Testament, had been that righteousness was rewarded by prosperity and long life in this world, and misfortune was a punishment for sin; but as Israel suffered more and more adversity, and the most faithful individuals and groups were the most oppressed and afflicted, it came to be felt that the humble, the meek, the devout, the poor were the righteous people of God, and the mighty and prosperous were the proud, wicked oppressors. Only in humbly waiting for God to act was there any hope. The later portions of the Old Testament are full of this assurance. Psalm 37 for instance is echoed in the third Beatitude in Matthew (Ps 37:11; Mt 5:5). Matthew’s "poor in spirit" and Luke’s "you poor" were thus actually the same people.
It was to the poor, humble, oppressed common people that Jesus promised the blessings of the kingdom of God. But they were not only grieving and longing for righteousness. They were also merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They were Jesus’ disciples, reviled and persecuted for his sake. Clearly the people whom Jesus considered fortunate were not those commonly called successful, then or now.
The last Beatitude (Mt 5:11-12; Lk 6:22-23) must have been spoken at a later time in Jesus’ ministry, when the disciples had begun to encounter persecution. In fact, the experience of the church in the following generation or two has colored the tradition of this saying, especially in Luke’s expression, "when they exclude you . . . and cast out your name as evil." The later condemnation of Christians as heretics and the separation of church and synagogue are reflected here. Before the end of his life, however, Jesus, facing rejection and death himself, must have warned his followers of the violent opposition they would meet if they remained loyal to him. This final Beatitude, in short, is an instance of the dislocation of a saying through being combined editorially with others as though they had all been spoken at the same time. The sayings about salt and light that follow in Matthew (5:13-16) illustrate this further. In Mark and Luke they appear at other points; Luke gives one of them twice (Mk 4:21: 9:50; Lk 8:16; 14:34-35).
Another fact illustrated by the saying about salt is that the most familiar things in the Bible are not always the best understood. Only in Matthew is the salt identified with the disciples. In Mark the saying is preceded by the cryptic statement (9:49). "For every one will be salted with fire," which immediately follows the stern warning (vv 47-48) that it would be better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell. Matthew and Luke omit the sentence about being salted with fire. What does it mean? A tempting explanation was offered by a great scholar who perceived that in Aramaic the phrase "with fire" would be spelled and pronounced exactly like a word that meant "going bad" or "putrifying." He therefore read the verse, "Everything that is going bad is salted." After this Jesus says in Mark, "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." At least for Mark, the salt is not the disciples themselves but something they should have in or among themselves.
Luke attaches the whole saying about salt to the end of his section on renunciation as necessary for discipleship (14:25-33). Like Matthew, Luke says "lost its taste" instead of Mark’s "lost its saltness," suggesting that the ordinary use of salt for seasoning is in mind; but instead of Matthew’s "It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot" Luke has "It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away." How any salt could be good for soil or the manure pile is not clear. In Old Testament times land captured in war was sometimes sown with salt to make it useless (e.g., Judg 9:45; Deut 29:23; Jer 17:6; Zeph 2:9; cf. Ezek 47:6-12).
As often, we cannot tell just what Jesus said or what he meant by it. The saying about salt means at least that to render the service required of them Jesus’ disciples must be morally and spiritually qualified.
After this saying Matthew has one about light (5:14): "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid." Many of the oldest towns in Palestine are situated on hilltops and visible from a distance. The disciples must not hide themselves from the world. The next saying (v 15) points out that to do so would defeat the purpose for which they were chosen: "Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house." In Mark and Luke this appears later as a question (Mk 4:21; Lk 8:16). In another connection Luke repeats the saying. but reads (11:33). "puts it in a cellar or under a bushel." Mark adds the phrase, "under a bed," a vivid touch that enhances the absurdity of the picture. This illustrates a characteristic feature of Jesus’ teaching. He could gently disparage or sometimes scathingly denounce an idea or activity by making it appear ludicrous.
Matthew reports next (5:16) a sentence of exhortation, which points the moral of the saying about salt and light: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." The disciples’ ability to do good is to be so used that those who see the good works will praise not the doers but God.
Now comes the first extended section of Matthew’s unique teaching material (Mt 5:17-48; 6:1-8). It includes several sayings found also in Luke and one in both Mark and Luke, but so much of it is peculiar to Matthew and distinctive in content and language that the use of a special written source seems probable if not certain. Wherever he got this material, however. Matthew has manifestly arranged and edited it to bring out his understanding of Jesus’ relation to the law.
The section is introduced by Jesus’ statement that he has come not to abolish but to fulfil the law and the prophets (5:17). The coming together of law and prophets is characteristic of the first Gospel. It does not appear in Mark; Luke has it in this form only once (16:16; cf. Mt 11:13), but in the last chapter of his Gospel the risen Christ speaks of "the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms" (Lk 24:44). This way of referring to the Scriptures reflects the stage in the formation of the Old Testament canon that had then been reached. The five books of the law had been accepted as sacred Scripture for four or five centuries, and for two or three centuries the books of the prophets had been recognized as a second body of sacred literature; but the rest of the Old Testament (known to this day simply as Writings or Scriptures) had not yet been "canonized." It was therefore natural to speak of the Law and the prophets as comprising the whole body of revealed literature, with the Psalms and other writings still on a somewhat lower plane. Jesus would naturally follow current usage in this respect; this item of Matthew’s Jewish coloring is thus probably an authentic reflection of Jesus’ practice.
The Gospels are full of references to the fulfillment of prophecy by Jesus. Relatively few direct quotations of prophecies are attributed to Jesus himself, but there are many allusions to the prophetic books in his sayings. There are also references to unspecified prophecies by such expressions as "what is written," "as it is written," or "as it was said."
In using prophecy as he did, Jesus did not necessarily imply that the prophets had consciously referred to him in particular. As he read Isaiah 53 (Lk 22:37) or Zechariah 13 (Mk 14:27; Mt 26:31) he might have thought. "This is just what is happening to me," or "This is what my Father has sent me to do," without assuming that the prophet was thinking specifically of him. The way similar references are made in contemporary documents leaves one wondering sometimes how far those who quoted prophetic texts meant that the precise fulfillments they saw or expected were intended by the prophets themselves. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the commentary on Habakkuk. says, "And God told Habakkuk to write the things that were to come upon the last generation, but the consummation of the period he did not make known to him" (1 Q Hab vii. 1-2). In other words, what was spoken by the prophets meant more than they themselves knew.
It was not long, of course, before the church came to believe that the prophets and Moses (and also David) were speaking directly and specifically about Jesus. If he thought so himself, he would be interpreting Scriptures in a way that would not have seemed strange to his hearers. We cannot determine whether this was what he believed. He was clearly convinced that he was carrying out God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures (Mk 14:21, etc.).
The major emphasis in the paragraph about fulfillment in the Sermon on the Mount is not on prophecy but on the law. "For truly, I say to you," Jesus continues (Mt 5:18), "till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." This is the only sentence in the paragraph that has a parallel in one of the other Gospels. Luke gives it (16:17) in connection with a saying that contrasts the law and the prophets with the gospel. The iota (KJV jot) and the dot (KJV tittle) represent the smallest details. Iota is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, corresponding to yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabet. The dot (literally "horn") is the tiny projection that in the Hebrew alphabet distinguishes a d from an r or a b from a k.
The idea of fulfillment, in the sense that something that has been predicted happens, is applied to the law in the post-Resurrection saying in Luke (Lk 24:44) which has already been quoted. So here in Matthew (5:18) Jesus says, "until all is accomplished," or more literally, "until everything happens." There is a predictive element in the books of the law. It consists largely of conditional promises and warnings, but there are also unconditioned predictions.
With reference to the law, however, fulfillment had also another meaning. The law is fulfilled when it is fully obeyed, when what it demands is fully carried out. The next verse brings this out (v 19): "Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven." This seems to imply that a person who breaks the law and teaches others to do so may nevertheless be in the kingdom of heaven. Here and elsewhere Matthew evidently regards the kingdom as practically the equivalent of the church.
The disciples must have been as puzzled as Christians are today by the demand that they be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20). We have met the scribes in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mk 1:22). The Pharisees have not hitherto been mentioned, except that Matthew includes them (3:7) among those whom John the Baptist denounced as a brood of vipers. The expression "scribes and Pharisees" is very common. Once Mark speaks of "the scribes of the Pharisees," and Luke uses the same expression once in Acts (Mk 2:16; cf. Acts 23:9). In general, with a rough oversimplification, it may be said that the Pharisees were a movement or an unorganized party; the scribes were more like a profession though not paid. Apparently most of the scribes, but not all, were Pharisees.
The Pharisees were the successors of the Hasidim, the loyal devotees of the law who had resisted the encroachment of Greek ideas and customs in the second century B.C. They developed their own interpretations of the law, which were passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. This oral tradition was supposed to have been inspired on Mt. Sinai together with the written law, though it often actually adjusted the requirements of the ancient laws to new circumstances and customs by rather free interpretations. Its purpose was to work out precisely what the law required, so that one could be sure he was doing the revealed will of God. This was no burden; it was an expression of joyful devotion.
Inevitably, however, the Pharisees’ method of interpretation tended to produce a legalistic emphasis on the letter of the law. Their elaborate casuistry was the very opposite of Jesus’ direct penetration to the basic spirit and principle of the law. He repudiated the tendency of the scribes and Pharisees to become absorbed in trifles, their failure to put first things first.
In the Gospels the Pharisees are often called hypocrites. That charge we shall consider later. Here they appear as models of rectitude and respectability. What is called in question is their whole approach to the interpretation of the law. Jesus was no less devoted to the law of Moses than they were. He rejected the oral law, however, as a mere "tradition of men" (Mk 7:8-9; Mt 15:3). The Pharisees and scribes were actually, he told them, "making void the word of God" by their tradition (Mk 7:13; Mt 15:6).
What Jesus meant by a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20) was a thoroughgoing effort to obey the revealed will of God according to its inmost intent, not because every item was explicitly commanded or could be logically deduced from the sacred text, but because one’s own conscience and judgment responded to the underlying principle of it all. The paragraphs that follow this verse in Matthew illustrate the implications of such radical obedience.
The principle is first applied (Mt 5:21-22) to the sixth commandment of the Mosaic decalogue (Ex 20:13; Deut 5:17), "You shall not kill." The clause, "and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment," is not part of the commandment, but may have been familiar as an inference added when the commandment was quoted. At any rate, it affords a link with what follows about anger and insults. Even presenting an offering at the altar, Jesus says (Mt 5:23-24), must be postponed until any unforgiven offense against a fellow man has been made right.
The saying about being quickly reconciled with an accuser (vv 25-26) sounds like a bit of prudent advice. It appears in a different light in the context in which Luke reports it (12:54-57). There Jesus asks the multitude why they cannot interpret the signs of the times for themselves, and why they cannot decide for themselves what is right. The advice to seek speedy reconciliation with an accuser means then, "Do what is right on your own volition; don’t wait until you are compelled to do it." That goes well with what comes a few verses later in Matthew (5:38-42): turning the other cheek, giving up the cloak when deprived of the coat, going the second mile. Thus the saying about the accuser is an illustration of the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
The same principle is next applied (vv 27-28) to the seventh commandment, "You shall not commit adultery"; and again Jesus goes back of the overt act to the inner desire of the heart. These two verses, like the previous treatment of the sixth commandment, are recorded by Matthew only; but nothing could be more characteristic or more true to the spirit of Jesus’ whole life.
The next two verses (vv 29-30; cf. 18:8-9; Mk 9:43-48) enforce the strict demand just made with a saying found at a later point in Mark, where Matthew repeats it. It is the stern saying about plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand that causes one to sin. Such a sacrifice, Jesus says, is better than being cast into hell. The word here translated "hell" is not, as in some places in the KJV (Mt 11:23; 16:18; Lk 10:15; 16:23), "Hades." That name corresponds to Hebrew "Sheol," denoting a shadowy underworld to which all the dead went, righteous and wicked alike (cf., e.g.. Ps 16:10; Acts 2:27, 31). The word used here is "Gehenna," a Hebrew name taken over bodily into Greek. Originally the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem where child-sacrifice to the god Moloch was practiced (2 Kings 23:10; cf. Jer 7:31-32; 32:35), by the time of Jesus it had come to symbolize what our word "hell" signifies. In this sense it is used in Jewish literature. Elsewhere in the New Testament it occurs only in James 3:6.
There is no reason to question the authenticity of these sayings, or to doubt that Jesus accepted the current belief in the punishment of the wicked by everlasting fire in Gehenna. It need not be supposed, of course, that the worm and fire were understood literally, or that Jesus thought of the dead as suffering bodily torment (Mk 9:48, quoting Is 66:24).
The third of Matthew’s six antitheses (Mt 5:31-32) contrasts the Mosaic law of divorce with Jesus’ unequivocal condemnation of divorce and remarriage as amounting to adultery. This appears in Mark and is repeated by Matthew in a fuller context, where it can be more adequately discussed (Mk 10:11; Mt 19:9). Luke (16:18) has it at still another point without any connection with its context. Matthew includes it here with the other items in the series to show how Jesus’ requirements go beyond those of the Pharisees.
Next the contrast, "You have heard . . . but I say to you," is applied to taking oaths to confirm statements or promises (Mt 5:33-37). What was said formerly is in Leviticus (19:12), "And you shall not swear by my name falsely." Its positive counterpart is added in an abridged quotation from Deuteronomy (23:23), "You shall be careful to perform what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth." Jesus forbids his disciples to use oaths to confirm what they say. The unsupported statement, yes or no. is sufficient. Jesus was not prescribing a legal procedure but describing the speech and conduct to be expected of his disciples.
The incidental reference to Jerusalem as the city of the great King (v 35) is the only place in Jesus’ recorded teaching where the noun "king" is applied to God, and it is a quotation from Psalm 48:2. If Jesus ever used the expression common in Jewish prayers, "King of the universe" (or "of eternity"), there is no record of it. God’s sovereignty is of course involved in the idea of the kingdom of God, and it is implied here in the designation of heaven as his throne, an echo of the last chapter of Isaiah (66:1).
Some of the most widely quoted sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, and the ones most consistently violated, are the commands (Mt 5:38-42) to turn the other cheek, to give the cloak when deprived of the coat, to go two miles when compelled to go one, to refuse no request for a gift or a loan, to offer no resistance to an evil man, as recent translations read where the KJV says "resist not evil." Luke’s version of this group of sayings (6:29-30) is shorter than Matthew’s, and there are differences that do not affect the meaning of the paragraph as a whole. What Jesus had in mind was clearly a personal insult or slight. The specific mention of the right rather than the left cheek should not be unduly stressed, but a right-handed person striking a heavy blow with his fist would hit not the right cheek but the left. A blow on the right cheek would ordinarily be a slap with the back of the hand. an insult rather than an injury.
How far Jesus himself would have extended this to wrongs done to others, to violence against others, or to political, economic, and social injustice is debatable. Any effort to prevent violence or harm, to heal or prevent disease, to alleviate poverty and misery, any protest against wrongs of any kind, is resistance to evil. But he who healed the sick, who denounced in scathing language injustice and oppression, who drove the money changers from the temple, certainly did not mean that his followers should do nothing and say nothing against wrong. He did mean that hatred and violence are not the way to deal effectively with evil men or evil institutions.
For the people of Palestine, suffering under the Roman regime, it must have been as hard to believe this as it is today in the United States of America for people struggling to achieve economic and political equality of opportunity, or as it is for the native people of Palestine or Vietnam who are exiled from their homes and dependent upon the scanty bounty of the United Nations and charitable organizations. But if Jesus was right in his attitude to the evil in the world and in people, the only way that in the long run can overcome evil is the way of nonviolence and love, followed intelligently.
What love means and what it does not mean in this connection must be considered in light of the next paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount, with its parallel in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Mt 5:43-48 Lk 6:27-28. 32-36). Once more we find considerable verbal differences along with an identity of major content that shows that both Gospels depend ultimately on the same original material. Similar variations may have existed already in Jesus’ own repeated utterance of these sayings.
Again Matthew begins, "You have heard that it has been said"; but what follows occurs nowhere in the Old Testament or in the intertestamental or rabbinic literature. The Old Testament says (Lev 19:18), "You shall love your neighbor." It does not say, "and hate your enemy," though there are such protestations as "I hate the company of evildoers" (Ps 26:5) in the Psalms. Initiates into the Qumran community undertook to love all the sons of light and hate all the sons of darkness (IQS i. 9-10). The Old Testament commandment in Leviticus is what Jesus called the second greatest commandment in the law (Mk 12:31; Mt 22:39; cf. Lk 10:27). Here he even goes beyond it. "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44). Luke has a somewhat fuller version of this saying (6:27-28). This is like what has been said about turning the other cheek; in fact it simply carries the same theme a little further. Loving your enemies means praying for them, blessing them, doing good to them; in short, returning good for evil. It is the positive, active aspect of the attitude that finds negative expression in nonresistance.
Conscientious Christians often wonder how love can be a matter of voluntary obedience to a command. If we do not spontaneously love our neighbors, to say nothing of our enemies, can we make ourselves love them by an act of the will? Evidently the love of which Jesus speaks (and Leviticus too, for that matter) is not falling in love with a person. It is not even necessarily liking him. It is not primarily a way of feeling about a person at all, but a way of treating him. Sympathy, liking, even affection and devotion may lead to the action or follow it. They may grow out of gratitude. The feeling, however, is of secondary importance.
In the rest of the paragraph in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives a reason for loving enemies and persecutors (Mt 5:45-46): "so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?" Luke has this a little later (6:32-33) and in a slightly different form. The reference to rewards here and elsewhere seems at first sight to be inconsistent with disinterested goodness for the sake of God’s kingdom, but the problem is more apparent than real. Jesus, like the great rabbis of his time, taught that men should do right not because it pays (Lk 6:35) but because it is God’s will; but at the same time he recognized, as the rabbis did, that righteousness has incidental, secondary rewards. The best, most direct reward is in being sons of God.
The New Testament abounds in references to Christians as sons or children of God. Some of them reflect a theological development that goes beyond the meaning of the saying quoted by Matthew and Luke. Since Jesus’ disciples are taught to pray to God as their Father (Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2), they are already his sons; one does not have to become a son of his own father. What Jesus must mean here is therefore, "that you may be true sons of him who is your Father," or in other words, "that you may be worthy to be called God’s sons" (cf. Lk 15:21; 1 in 3:1).
The idea of being sons of God recalls the ancient Semitic idiom used in the Old Testament to indicate belonging to a particular species or group of any kind (Ps 8:4; 90:3). Just as a human being is a son or daughter of man, so a divine being is a son of God or of the gods (Gen 6:4; Ps 82:6). When Jesus, however, speaks of his disciples as sons of God, he neither affirms nor denies that man as such is divine. He is not speaking of human nature or of men in general. He implies rather a special kind of sonship by adoption, more like the divine sonship of the Hebrew kings already referred to in connection with Jesus’ baptism. The relationship, in short, is one of voluntary consecration on man’s part and acceptance on the part of God. In this sense it is a disciple’s first and highest aim to be a son of his Father in heaven.
Being God’s child means being like him. That is the reason for loving one’s enemies: "for he makes his sun shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." For Jesus the equal treatment of good and evil did not cast doubt on God’s goodness but confirmed it. To me this is one of the most extraordinary points in Jesus’ teaching. Many people still regard life from an early Old Testament point of view. If they are good, they expect to be prosperous and happy; if misfortune strikes them they say, "What have I done to deserve this?" Seeing sunshine and rain meted out to good and bad alike, they take this as evidence that God is unfair or indifferent. To Jesus the same facts demonstrated God’s goodness.
But what amazing spiritual audacity! If Jesus was right, this is no less than a revelation of the deepest reality of our existence. If not, he was a tragically deluded wishful thinker. There is no more searching criterion of faith in him than our decision on that question. Early one morning many years ago I was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and Whittier’s familiar lines kept running through my head:
O sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!
Suddenly the full impact of the last two lines struck me with the force of a revelation. Eternity, I thought, is indeed silent to man’s deepest questions. With our finest and most powerful instruments we may search in vain for the meaning of existence. There is good in the world and also evil; there is love and there is hate, beauty and ugliness. Trying to see life steadily and see it whole, we have to select those facts that seem to us decisive, and interpret the whole in the light of them. Jesus interpreted it by love. We cannot know that his interpretation is true; we can only commit ourselves to it and live by it. He lived and died by it, "endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb 12:2). In that life and death Christians see a sublime demonstration of God’s love (Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:18-19), breaking down our indifference and estrangement and impelling us to commit ourselves to the way of the cross.
If we fail to love our enemies, Jesus continues (Mt 5:46-47; Lk 6:32-35), we are no better than the tax collectors and the Gentiles, the two kinds of people most despised by his hearers. Anybody can love those who love him. Luke’s Sermon on the Plain presents this idea at greater length. The command to love one’s enemies undoubtedly looks like a counsel of perfection; and indeed in Matthew the paragraph ends (5:48), "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Instead of this, however, Luke has (6:36), "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." There is only one other place in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of being perfect, and this too is in Matthew. In the account of the rich man who expresses dissatisfaction with obeying the commandments as the way to eternal life, Jesus says, according to Mark and Luke, "You lack one thing"; in Matthew he says, "If you would be perfect" (Mk 10:21; Lk 18:22; Mt 19:2 1).
A Hebrew word sometimes translated "perfect" in the KJV ("blameless" in the RSV) is applied in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen 6:9; 17:1; Deut 18:13) to righteous men without any implication of absolute perfection. Jesus could have used the Aramaic equivalent of this word. If he did it would mean in this connection something like thoroughgoing, unbounded, not limited by prejudice or personal interest; that is, the sentence must mean, "Your love must be all-inclusive, as God’s is." That is quite possible.
The fact that only Matthew uses the word "perfect," however, and he uses it twice, makes it more probable that he altered the saying that Mark and Luke report correctly. Whatever the decision should be concerning this word, the demand for a righteousness that goes beyond strict obedience to precepts, and includes love of enemies, is an essential and distinctive element of Jesus’ own teaching. It is most prominent and explicit in Matthew, but it underlies and pervades all the Gospels and is expressed in many ways. It was by no means unknown, for that matter, in Judaism.
The nearest approach in the Old Testament to the saying about being perfect or merciful is the basic principle of the Holiness Code of Leviticus (19:2 etc.): "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." The word "holy" is never applied to God in Jesus’ recorded sayings, and the noun "holiness" does not occur at all; but the holiness of God is everywhere presupposed. It is implied in the petition (Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2), "Hallowed be thy name," and in the passage (Mt 5:34-36; 23:16-22) about things by which one must not take oath.
The practical implications and specific applications of the law of love cannot be reduced to rules and precepts. They must be decided in particular situations and relationships by each individual for himself. According to Luke (12:57). Jesus once said, "And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" The insistence on independent personal decision is closely related to Jesus’ determination of God’s will by a few basic principles rather than detailed rules.
The next section of the Sermon (Mt 6:1-8) consists of warnings, found only in Matthew, against ostentatious piety. The first sentence contains a slight textual difficulty. Most of the best manuscripts read, literally, "Take care not to practise your righteousness before men"; but instead of "righteousness" some excellent manuscripts have "charity" (KJV "alms"), while the famous Codex Sinaiticus and a few of the ancient versions have "giving." This may very well be an instance of variant translations of the same Aramaic word. In the Jewish literature of that time the common Hebrew and Aramaic word for righteousness was coming to be used in the special sense of charity. It could have been understood by a translator in either way. The interpretation as charity would be encouraged by the fact that the next few sentences (vv 2-4) deal with almsgiving. The more general meaning fits the sayings about prayer that follow (vv 5-8). The point throughout is that acting to be seen forfeits the reward given by God to sincere, unheralded action and prayer.
People who do this are called hypocrites. This is the first appearance of a word frequently applied to those whom Jesus condemned, especially in Matthew. We have noted its application to the Pharisees. It occurs in the New Testament only in the Synoptic Gospels, and always in sayings of Jesus. The Greek word, of which "hypocrisy" is a transcription rather than a translation, means playing a part; and a "hypocrite" is an actor. Theaters had become familiar to the Jews in the Greek and Roman settlements in Palestine, but they were regarded as centers of pagan pollution. To call a man a hypocrite, therefore, was like calling a minister an actor in a Puritan community.
That there were people in Jesus’ day who literally sounded a trumpet before them in the streets and synagogues may be questioned. The expression is probably a case of Jesus’ characteristic use of hyperbole. Public praying at street corners or in the synagogues, however, may not have been unknown. One recalls the public praying of Muslims wherever the established time of prayer finds them. Such a practice may become mechanical but it often expresses an entirely sincere devotion quite devoid of self-consciousness. The instruction to go into one’s room and shut the door (v 6) is not to be taken literally. The concrete way of speaking emphasizes the necessity of inner privacy, but the most intense and most personal prayer may be made silently in the midst of a crowd.
Sincerity in prayer requires that it be direct and simple. God is not impressed by verbosity (vv 7-8). Nor is the purpose of prayer to give him information. Prayer is a child’s expression of his hopes, fears, and aspirations to his Father, who already knows what the child needs, but wants the communion of spirit with spirit.
Matthew gives here (6:9-15; cf. Lk 11:2-4) what we call the Lord’s Prayer, introduced with the simple direction, "Pray then like this." Luke puts it after the story of Mary and Martha. Both settings may be artificial; it is the prayer itself that matters. Mark does not report it at all.
It begins in Matthew. "Our Father who art in heaven." Luke has simply, "Father.’’ Matthew (or his special source) favors the expression "Father who is heaven" or its equivalent "heavenly Father," both in prayer and in speaking of God (e.g., Mt 16:17; 18:10, 19). It is a Jewish form of address that Jesus himself may very well have used. In one form or another, Jesus’ most characteristic word for God was "Father." With the possessive pronoun "my" or "his" or only the definite article (Mk 8:38 and parallels; 13:32 and parallels) it refers to God as the Father of Jesus himself or of the coming Son of Man or Messiah. According to Luke. Jesus even as a boy spoke of God as "my Father" (2:49). It is Luke also who reports that Jesus twice called upon God as Father from the cross (23:34, 46), and after his resurrection spoke to the troubled disciples of "the promise of my Father" (24:49). But Jesus spoke not only of God as his own Father; he spoke also of "your Father" (Mt 6:15 and often) and taught the disciples to address God as "our Father" or simply "Father."
In Judaism it was by no means unusual to speak of God and to him as Father, both of individuals and of the whole people of Israel. Some prayers in the Jewish Prayer Book begin, "Our Father, our King." A famous rabbinic saying is, "Who is there for us to lean on? On our Father who is in heaven." A prayer in the apocryphal book of Sirach begins, "O Lord. Father and Ruler of my life" (Sir 23:1); and in another place (51:10) the reading of the Greek text. ‘‘the Father of my lord," represents a Hebrew text that was probably intended to be read, "my Father, my Lord."
For Jesus the term "Father" meant not only Creator, though that was a part of the meaning. It meant not only the supreme authority whom we must obey, though it did mean that. It meant also Provider, Protector, loving Parent, with all that human parenthood at its best implies. It meant far more, indeed, than the most perfect human parenthood could mean. "If you then, who are evil," Jesus said (Mt 7:11; cf. Lk 11:13), "know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him."
In Matthew the Lord’s Prayer consists of seven petitions, of which Luke has five. The first three are requests not for anything for ourselves but for God’s glory and his purposes on earth. The first petition is typically Jewish: "Hallowed be thy name." The idea of the hallowing of the name has a long history behind it. Among the early Semites the name represented fame or reputation; indeed it expressed and embodied the very existence and identity of a person. So God’s gracious acts were said to be done for his name’s sake (e.g.. Ps 23:3); blasphemy or any speech or conduct reflecting discredit upon him was said to profane his name (e.g., Lev 22:32); while reverence for him as holy. praising him as holy, and so acting as to reflect credit upon him were called (e.g. Is 29:23) hallowing or sanctifying his name (literally, making it holy). This must be the first concern of Jesus’ disciples.
The second petition in both Matthew and Luke is "Thy kingdom come"(Mt 6:10; Lk 11:2). Jesus had proclaimed when he first came back into Galilee after his baptism (Mk 1:15 and parallels): "The kingdom of God is at hand."Near as it was, it had obviously not yet arrived when he gave the disciples this prayer. It still has not come. Its coming depends upon God.
"Thy will be done," whether or not it corresponds to our own desires, is the ultimate wish of every dedicated heart. It was the prayer of Jesus himself in Gethsemane. What God’s will requires must be accepted with sincere submission. This is the passive aspect of the petition. Actively it means that he who prays wishes to do God’s will himself, and wants every group of which he is a member to do God’s will.
The phrase "on earth as it is in heaven" applies not only to the third petition but to all three. Critical editions of the Greek text make this clear by their arrangement of the lines, but our English translations obscure or ignore it. Literally the phrase reads, "as in heaven, also on earth." In heaven, this implies, God’s name is hallowed, his kingdom is present and manifest, his will is done. But what does "in heaven" mean? Jesus, as a child of his time, may have thought of heaven in simple terms of time and space. Rabbinic Judaism believed in several heavens, sometimes three, sometimes as many as seven. How much meaning such ideas had for Jesus we cannot tell. His statement that those who participated in the resurrection of the dead would be like angels, not marrying or giving in marriage (Mk 12:25 and parallels), implies a kind of incorporeal existence. All we can be sure of is that he believed in a real world in which was already realized what could only be hoped and prayed for here. However that may be, there can be no getting away from the plain meaning of "also on earth."
Luke’s shorter form of the Lord’s Prayer omits both "Thy will be done" and "as in heaven, also on earth." Possibly’ this omission merely reflects the liturgical practice of a different group of churches. Possibly Luke has preserved the original prayer. and Matthew presents a liturgical expansion. The same question applies to the form of address at the beginning of the prayer. There is no way to determine the right answer to it. What the disciples are to pray for is not vitally affected. Matthew’s form has a clear structure, but this may be a result of the use of the prayer in public worship.
The four remaining petitions are for our own benefit, but only the first has to do with bodily needs. "Give us this day our daily bread’’ (Mt 6:11; Lk 11:3) is a request for physical sustenance, perhaps intended to cover not only food but all the necessities of everyday life. Instead of "this day" Luke has "each day"; in either case provision is asked only for one day at a time. Whether "daily bread" is the right translation is a question on which scholars disagree. The Greek adjective occurs nowhere else. To me "our bread for the coming day" seems the best translation. In the morning this would refer to the day just beginning; in the evening it would mean the following day. That the petition has anything to do with the Messianic banquet of the coming age seems to me improbable.
In the next petition the words "debts" and "debtors" bother some people, who prefer "trespasses’’ and "those who trespass against us." The latter reading goes back all the way to the pioneer work of Tyndale (1535). The English Prayer Book perpetuated this rendering, which is still used in many churches. All the standard English versions after Tyndale. however, have "debts" and "debtors"; and this is what the Greek actually says. In Aramaic, sins are regularly called debts and sinners are called debtors. Luke reads "sins" instead of "debts" (11:4). Probably this is simply a different translation of the same Aramaic word. The idea of debt is preserved in Luke’s "every one who is indebted to us" where Matthew has "our debtors." Several recent translations read "the wrong we have done" and "those who have wronged us" or the like.
The petition (Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4), "And lead us not into temptation," has troubled sincere Christians perhaps more than anything else in the Lord’s Prayer. It seems unworthy and cowardly to ask to be spared temptation, and the idea that God would ever tempt anyone to sin seems incongruous (cf. James 1:13). The word "temptation." however, was not always so limited in meaning as it is for us now. The Bible refers often to tempting God (cf. Mt 4:7) in the sense of putting him to the test. The Greek word translated "temptation" means testing or trial of any kind, including persecution.
"But deliver us from evil." Perhaps, with recent versions (lB, NEB, TEV, NAB), we should translate "from the evil one." The Greek is ambiguous (cf. Mt 5:39). The connection with the preceding clause suggests a special reference to the temptation or trial from which the disciples ask to be spared. Thus the double petition may mean. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Tempter"; or, since "evil" in the Bible has a wide range of meanings, "Do not cause us to be tried too severely, but deliver us from harm." Since we cannot tell precisely what Jesus had in mind, it would seem justifiable to use the prayer in any of these senses.
The whole prayer is couched in the plural. Even if Luke’s simple "Father" is more authentic than Matthew’s "Our Father," both Luke and Matthew read "give us our daily bread, "forgive us our debts," and "our debtors," "Lead us not ... but deliver us." Even in the privacy of his own room with the door shut, a Christian cannot leave his brother out of his prayers.
Obviously this model prayer was not meant to exhaust all the things for which the disciples might pray. Everything in the Gospels bearing on the subject warrants the assumption that anything worth asking for or desiring would be a worthy object of prayer, subject always to Jesus’ "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Mt 26:39).
At the end of the prayer in Matthew (6:13) some manuscripts have, "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever. Amen." The parallel in Luke (11:4) and some manuscripts of Matthew omit this. It seems clearly to have been added in the liturgical use of the prayer in some churches. There is a tendency in liturgy to multiply words (cf. Mt 6:7-8), though in this instance the language is by no means redundant or inappropriate. It is less prolix than the prayer of David (I Chron 29:10-111), which probably afforded a pattern for it.
After the prayer, Jesus adds in Matthew (6:14). "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." This is one of only three sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (5:29-30. 312-33) that have parallels in Mark (9:43-48; 10:11-12; 11:25-26). In all three instances Matthew has a doublet later.
Now the Sermon on the Mount moves on to the subject of fasting (Mt 6:16-18). Apparently it is assumed that the disciples do fast, the only question being how they should do it. An incident, however, which comes a little later and is related by all the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 2:18-20; Mt 9:14-15; Lk 5:33-35), raises the question whether this was so. That Jesus would have instructed his disciples about something that they did not do until after his death is possible but unlikely. It is possible that this is not an authentic saying of Jesus’ but a later pronouncement, uttered perhaps by a prophet who believed that he was speaking under the inspiration of the spirit of Jesus. But if Matthew himself put the Lord’s Prayer in its present position, and what are now verses 16-18 immediately followed verse 8 in Matthew’s source, the saying about fasting is probably authentic but addressed to a general audience. Like almsgiving and prayer, fasting must not be done to attract attention and make an impression.
The futility of laying up treasures on earth is the next subject in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:19-21; Lk 12:33-34). Here Matthew uses a group of sayings that appears in a quite different form in Luke and in a somewhat more logical connection. The section on anxiety which comes a few verses later in Matthew, immediately precedes these sayings in Luke (Lk 12:22-32). After them, Luke has the ones about constant watchfulness, which are given near the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Lk 12:35-46; Mt 24:43-51; 25:1-13).
The difference in arrangement corresponds to a difference in tone. In Matthew the sayings sound like wise advice for the ordinary conditions of life: earthly treasures are subject to destruction by moth and rust or to loss by theft; but treasures in heaven are indestructible, and where one’s treasure is his heart will be also. Luke begins the paragraph with a direct command and seems to have a note of more immediate urgency: "Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys," ending with the comment about heart and treasure. One gets the impression here that the situation is overshadowed by the expectation of the end of the age, whereas in Matthew what is contemplated is the certainty of the individual’s death sooner or later. There is no room for doubt about Jesus’ attitude toward the pursuit of wealth. How far it was affected by the impending crisis is hard to define. but material possessions did not stand high in his scale of values.
The next saying is obscure: light within a person depends on the soundness of his eye, which is the lamp of the body (Mt 6:22-23; Lk 11:34-36). Luke’s version agrees closely with Matthew’s, but he adds another sentence: "If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light." It can hardly be said that this makes the meaning clearer. Instead of "sound" and "not sound’’ the KJV reads "single" and "evil." These are the literal meanings of the Greek adjectives but they make no sense here. The word meaning "single" was sometimes used at that time in the sense of "generous, and an evil eye signified stinginess (cf. James 1:5). These meanings also, however, do not fit here. The rendering of the RSV is no doubt correct, or as the NAB puts it even more plainly. "If your eyes are good" and "if your eyes are bad."
Having the body full of light obviously means a spiritual state of inner light, that is, clear perception and true understanding, right ideas and attitudes. Such an inner light depends on sound organs of vision. The unhealthy or injured eye then indicates such spiritual conditions as prevent the perception of truth in general or the gospel in particular.
Next Matthew has the familiar saying about serving two masters (Mt 6:24; Lk 16:13. cf. vv 9. II’). Luke gives this in exactly the same words along with other sayings on the same subject following the parable of the Unjust Steward. This time the moral is explicitly stated: "You cannot serve God and mammon." The word "mammon" is a common Aramaic word for wealth found often in the Jewish literature of the period, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Wealth is a jealous master, and so is God (Ex 20:3-6). Mammon can be enslaved and made to serve the will of God, but it has many subtle ways of making itself the master instead of the slave. This subject comes up so often in the sayings of Jesus that he must have considered it of crucial importance. Only wholehearted devotion to God, uncorrupted by "the deceitfulness of riches" (Mk 4:19; Mt 13:22 KJV), could satisfy him.
What is perhaps the most beautiful portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and the hardest to believe, now follows in Matthew (Mt 6:25-34; Lk 12:22-31). In Luke it comes after the parable of the Rich Fool and is followed by the saying about treasure in heaven. "Do not be anxious," Jesus says. As God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, he will feed and clothe you. "For the Gentiles seek all these things — for us this means, "These things are what the world seeks" — but your Father knows your needs and will supply them if you "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness." What is meant by seeking the kingdom of God depends on what is meant by the kingdom. If it is thought of as God’s sovereignty, seeking it means accepting and obeying him as Ruler of one’s own life. If the kingdom is thought of as still to come, seeking it means being prepared for it and fulfilling the conditions for admission to it.
According to Matthew but not Luke, Jesus adds, "and his righteousness." What is meant by seeking God’s righteousness? It is endeavoring to do his will and please him. The word for righteousness often means justice. Seeking God’s justice should include trying to promote justice in social and civic as well as personal relations, though how far Jesus had this in mind, if he used these words, is open to question. The same word also, as we have seen (ef. Mt 6:1), may mean "charity." This too, as an expression of love, is involved in seeking the righteousness of God.
Both Matthew and Luke have the concluding clause: "and all these things shall be yours as well." Jesus can hardly have meant that one who puts God’s kingdom first can expect to be exempt from the troubles and trials that others suffer. Jesus himself was put to death as a criminal. He foresaw that it would be so; and he said that no one unwilling to sacrifice everything that life offered, or even life itself, could be his disciple (Lk 14:26-27).
For humanity at large it is certain that devotion to the kingdom and righteousness of God would bring about a vast amelioration of our lot. Natural catastrophes would still occur, though eventually some kind of protection even from them might be found. The conquest of disease, the prevention of tragic accidents, the adequate production and distribution of food and other necessities, and the solution of the problem of overpopulation would be very much easier and more rapid if all people sincerely and unselfishly sought the good of others. All these things might indeed be ours if we sought together God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
For most individuals, however, Jesus’ assurance can be accepted only in the sense that God gives his children all it is possible to give them as members of the whole interdependent body of mankind in this world of very limited possibilities; that strength to endure what cannot be avoided is available; but that happiness, prosperity, health, safety, and life itself are not guaranteed.
At the end of the paragraph Matthew has a verse that does not appear in Luke: "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day." There is enough trouble to bear each day as we go along without augmenting it by anxiety about what has not happened. The KJV translates the first clause, "Take therefore no thought for the morrow"; but the Greek word does not refer to forethought and planning. Jesus did not encourage a casual irresponsibility that makes one a burden to others. The story of Mary and Martha has no such implication, as we shall see when we come to it (Lk 10:38-42). What Jesus disparaged was worrying about one’s own welfare or security.
Luke too has in this context a verse (12:32) not found elsewhere: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom." This combines the three major images by which Jesus conveyed his understanding of God: Shepherd, Father, and King. As a corollary of this conception of God, the disciples were given an exalted idea of what they were themselves. They were helpless sheep, tenderly cared for and protected; but they were also subjects of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe; indeed they were the King’s sons, with whom it was his sovereign will and fatherly pleasure to share his own royal authority and power.
In this sublime assurance Jesus lived and died. Was he right, or was he pathetically and tragically mistaken? However much we admire his moral grandeur and accept the way of life he presented, are we in the last analysis merely temporary inhabitants of a world that offers us much that helps and much that hurts, but a world that cares nothing about us one way or the other? Or are we truly sons of the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth, and heirs of his kingdom?
"Judge not, that you be not judged," the next paragraph in the Sermon on the Mount begins (Mt 7:1-5; Lk 6:37-38, 41-42). Luke includes the same material in the Sermon on the Plain, combined with other sayings given elsewhere in Matthew (Lk 6:39-40; Mt 15:14; 10:24-25). Here we are again in the atmosphere of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, the atmosphere of wise counsel for daily living. These and many other sayings of Jesus resemble proverbs; in fact, some of them may have been popular proverbs that he simply quoted. The art of salting one’s discourse with appropriate proverbs, often with a touch of humor, is still hugely appreciated by the Arabs of Palestine. Nothing could better promote real communication with such people as those to whom Jesus spoke. But, alas, how many otherwise good Christians are guilty of uncharitably judging others! No sin is more prevalent, and it causes untold suffering and harm.
The next saying, about giving what is holy to dogs and casting pearls before swine (Mt 7:6), has the same tone of popular wisdom and the same crisp, concise quality. Charitable judgment of others need not be exercised to the point of blindly entrusting to them what they are unable to appreciate or respect. The reference to dogs recalls Jesus’ remark to the Syrophoenician woman about throwing the children’s bread to the dogs (Mk 7:24-30; Mt 15:22-28). That the dogs represent Gentiles here as they do there is possible but unlikely.
The next paragraph (Mt 7:7-Il; Lk 11:9-13) returns to the subjects of prayer and providence. He who asks, Jesus says, will receive; he who seeks will find; the door will be opened to him who knocks. This is supported by the analogy of a human father, who would not give his son a stone if asked for bread, or a serpent if asked for a fish, or (Luke adds) a scorpion if asked for an egg. If men, who are evil, give their children good gifts, their heavenly Father, who is good, will surely do no less. This "how much more" argument is a recognized form of reasoning in the rabbinical literature, where it is known as "light and heavy, i.e., arguing from the less to the more important. Other examples appear in Jesus’ sayings and parables.
In Matthew it is said that God will give "good things." In Luke he will give "the Holy Spirit." To some this appears more probably authentic than Matthew’s reading, because it makes the promise more spiritual; but for that very reason others consider it a change made to prevent unjustified confidence that anything prayed for will automatically be received. A much broader assurance is implied by the preceding sentences. The Holy Spirit, moreover, is a subject in which Luke is especially interested. Jesus was confident of God’s concern for all human needs, and he was not given to cautiously guarded and qualified statements.
The Golden Rule, which Matthew gives here, is placed by Luke with the sayings about nonresistance and love for enemies (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31). In Matthew Jesus adds, "for this is the law and the prophets"(cf. Mt 5:17; 22:40). Neither the principle nor its use as a summary of the law was new. The Talmud relates that the great rabbi Hillel (who was still living during Jesus’ boyhood) was once challenged by a pagan to teach him the whole law while he stood on one foot. Hillel replied, "What is odious to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; everything else is commentary. Go and learn it." Similar statements are attributed to Confucius and other teachers.
In the last division of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:13-14; Lk 13:23-24) practical instruction gives way to warnings of the dangers and difficulties of the path to the kingdom of heaven. Over against the wide gate and easy way to destruction, followed by many, Jesus points to the narrow gate and hard way to life, which few find. Luke’s condensed version of this saying presents a somewhat different picture. Being asked whether those who were saved would be few, Jesus replied, "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." Here, instead of careless throngs passing down the broad way to destruction, we see the narrow door besieged in vain by an anxious, pushing crowd. The setting given by Luke for the saying seems artificial. Both evangelists probably received the saying without context or framework, but Jesus may have expressed the same idea on various occasions.
Both forms of the saying indicate that the way to the kingdom is not easy, and not many find and follow it. This is not a doctrinal pronouncement, but a statement of observed fact: Jesus is pointing out the way to life, but few of his hearers heed his counsel.
Now he warns the disciples against false prophets, whom he describes as ravenous wolves disguised as sheep (Mt 7:15). Only Matthew preserves this saying. That there were men in Palestine in Jesus’ day and later who claimed the gift of prophecy and led many astray is shown not only by the Gospels (cf. Mk 13:22; Mt 24:24) but also by the works of the historian Josephus. These false prophets can be recognized by their fruit, for a bad tree bears bad fruit (Mt 7:16-20; Lk 6:43-45). Jesus must have used this comparison often. It appears in other connections in the Gospels (cf. Mt 12:33). According to both Matthew and Luke it was used also by John the Baptist (Mt 3:8, 10; Lk 3:8).
The Sermon on the Mount ends with stern warnings of the difference between profession and performance (Mt 7:21-23; Lk 6:46; 13:26-27). Saying to Jesus "Lord, Lord." is not enough to gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven; what is essential is doing the will of the heavenly Father. This is the first place where Jesus speaks of God as "my Father" instead of "the Father" or "your Father." The expression appears nineteen times in Matthew, only four times in Luke, and never in Mark.
This is also the first reference in Matthew to the use of the word "Lord" in addressing Jesus. Luke has reported it (5:8) in his account of the calling of the first disciples, and again in the question (13:23), "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" Mark has it only once (7:28), in the story of the Syrophoenician woman. The wide-ranging meanings and implications of this word must be examined when we have more instances before us. The repetition, "Lord, Lord," seems to express urgent entreaty, if not protest, as also in the parable of the foolish bridesmaids (Mt 25:11).
Jesus says that many will so address him "on that day," which can only mean the day of judgment. That the judge will be Jesus himself is obviously presupposed. We are now in the realm of things to come at the end of the present age. Doing the will of God now is bound up with being accepted then and entering the kingdom of heaven.
As the ground of their hope of acceptance, the protestors urge, according to Matthew, that they have prophesied and done mighty works in Jesus’ name. In Luke they say that they have eaten and drunk in his presence, and he has taught in their streets. Which of these is what Jesus said can only be guessed. Both are suggestive. Neither conspicuous religious activities nor a superficial knowledge of Jesus and his teaching will be accepted on the day of judgment. Those who depend on such qualifications will not be recognized. Their rejection will be sealed with words from a psalm: "Depart from me, all you workers of evil" (Ps 6:8).
Both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain end with what may be called the parable of the two builders (Mt 7:24-27; Lk 6:47-49). Its point is not affected by an interesting difference between the pictures drawn by Matthew and Luke. In Matthew one house is founded directly on rock and the other on sand; and the test to which they are subjected consists of rain, floods, and wind. In Luke the wise builder digs deep and lays a foundation on the rock; the foolish one builds on the ground without a foundation; and what causes the second house to fall is that a flood rises and the stream breaks against the house. Somewhere along the line of tradition the story was apparently not copied or repeated word for word, but retold as a whole. The details were thus adapted, perhaps unconsciously, to the type of soil and mode of building familiar in the speaker’s and hearers environment. It is possible that the adaptation was made deliberately, but this seems less likely. Jesus would not have been concerned about the details of the story. He was interested only in driving home the necessity of putting his teaching into practice.
What Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount is not doctrine; it is a way of life. Is it a practical, possible way of life in the world as it is? Was it intended as a program for individuals and society in this world, or was it a pattern only for the short time that might elapse before the coming of the kingdom of God? These questions cannot be answered here, but three brief statements may be made. First, the atmosphere of the Sermon on the Mount is not that of feverish apocalyptic expectation. The situation presupposed is that of ongoing everyday life. Second, Jesus was not legislating for a body politic and all its citizens. He was teaching how people must live to be eligible for the kingdom of God. Third, this way of life will not accomplish ends for which it was not intended. It is the way of those who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Matthew marks the conclusions of the discourse (7:28-29) with his usual formula ("And when Jesus finished these sayings"), completing the sentence with the statement made by Mark and Luke about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum (cf. Mk 1:22; Lk 4:32): "the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."