The Sermon on the Mount is a lengthy section of Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7, that includes some important and familiar sayings and teachings of Jesus. The Beatitudes, the images of salt and light, teachings on the law, how to pray (the Lord’s Prayer’s here, too), judging others and more - it’s a highlight reel of ethical and healthy living, not just for individuals but for community, for bringing the kingdom of heaven here.
It’s called the Sermon on the Mount because the author of Matthew presents it as one continuous piece of preaching. One very long continuous piece of preaching, certainly much longer than you’d want to sit through in a church pew on a sunny Sunday morning.
Some biblical scholars have suggested that it was likely that Matthew collected sayings and teachings from a variety of places and assembled them into this “sermon.” That’s an interesting thought and one that would certainly make sense if your experience of a sermon was what most people experience each week. You sit, someone talks at you, you listen, someone talks some more. And there’s a lot of stuff here to remember. You’d best take notes.
What if it was a sermon, but it wasn’t that kind of sermon? Maybe even just the first half hour or so. What if it was something more engaging, something more authentic, something that went kind of like this.
Jesus sees there’s a crowd. He steps up a little higher on the hillside to get a better view of their faces. That’s Jesus for you, always wanting to know his audience. He sees how desperate they are for a word of hope, some encouragement that things will be better, some direction that might help them feel closer to God. He sits down as they gather round, but instantly realizes that’s not what they need. They need connection. He stands up again and he steps into the crowd. He begins to talk.
He looks people in the eye and he says you are blessed. Just as they are, broken and hurting, needy, eager for encouragement, each one is blessed. As he moves through the crowd, he reminds them all that we begin in blessing. We don’t earn it or seek it out, it’s already who we are: blessed by God. He’s passionate about it, he speaks from the heart, he’s authentic and they hear him.
He might pick up a handful of dirt when he tells us we are salt or point out how the sun casts shadows behind what it illuminates when he tells us we are light, just to make the point that it’s real, that we are already impacting the world around us. He gestures at the top of the mountain when he mentions the city on a hill where everyone can see it. He's on a roll now, moving through the crowd. The disciples hustle to keep up.
But hang on, says someone in the crowd - Jesus would have welcomed questions - what about the law? Jesus grabs one or two of them - his hands on their shoulders - as he explains how he came to fulfil the law. And he gives them three huge examples, and he might go one on one with them as they question him about them: the point is, it's not just "don't murder," he says boldly, it's hold in your heart love and respect for all life. Begin there. And adultery's more than a word, what it really means is to not lust after others as if they're some kind of object. Respect them. Begin there. And divorce? The real problem isn't the legality of it, the real problem is the brokenness of all our relationships. Begin there. Begin with what’s at the heart of the law, not the letter.
Be sincere, Jesus would say, be authentic to what’s in your heart and engage each other with that. That’s what’s at the heart of the law, too. The law is a way to loving God, yourself and your neighbour. From your heart.