How to interpret the Sermon on the Mount has been one of the most debated questions in all of church history. The content and tone shift so dramatically – from the comforting assurance that “your Father in heaven gives good things to those who ask him,” to the simple faith of the Lord’s prayer, to the frightening declaration that it would be better to gouge out an eye or cut off a hand “than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” – it is hard to believe these words belong to the same person, much less the same speech. (Martin Luther was so perplexed by the seemingly contradictory ideas that he developed two competing interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount.)
But with the gift of modern scholarship (see the work of folks like N.T. Wright, esp. his Jesus and the Victory of God) we have access to first century history in a way that generations before us did not. And with that understanding, we can place the Sermon on the Mount far better into its religious and cultural context. What we discover is something of an “inaugural address” – a declaration of the new rules that govern life when Jesus reigns. What Jesus offers is not a speech to Christians about how to escape hell and receive eternal life, nor a random assortment of universal truths (“Blessed are the meek….”), but rather a call to Israel to see that the Kingdom of God is emerging in their midst. In Jesus, God is acting out the covenant promise of salvation, and that means there is a new way of being to which Israel must conform – a new way of being human that will affect all creation.
It turns out that the Sermon on the Mount is a vision of life lived in love. And as we progress through the gospels, Jesus will be first to embody it.
(This is a sermon that was originally presented at Canvas [a Presbyterian church in Irvine, CA], 26 January 2014. To learn more about Canvas, click here!)
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