The Sermon on the Mount is one of the many teachings delivered by Jesus, a Judean prophet whom Christians consider as the son of God. Despite the fact that it is intriguing as well as enriching, the Sermon has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and has also been the subject of a lot of criticism. It sought to address earlier laws, more so the laws of Moses, and settle fears whether what Jesus was teaching was in accordance to these laws. Scholars and researchers have tirelessly studied these teachings in an attempt to discern Jesus’ intended meaning from various perspectives. Resultantly, over the years, there has been a burgeoning wealth of literature that dissects the Sermon. Just after Jesus had been baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist, he began his ministry in Galilee. The Sermon is one of the longest and most quoted teachings, which are regarded as the first Mathew’s five discourses.1It includes popular excerpts such as the Lord’s Prayer and the beatitudes. Therefore, the Sermon is indispensable and contributes immensely towards the Christian principles. This research paper shall investigate various schools of thoughts and analyze these perspectives as documented over the years and seek to establish the underlying message and principles that Jesus intended to pass on to His followers.
When a scholar chooses to study the Sermon on the Mount, one must derive several conclusions based on the context and the intended meaning. This forms the basis for all believers who feel that they must live in accordance with Jesus’ teachings as well as critics who aim at identifying weaknesses and generalities. The scholar must answer questions such as how this Sermon can be applied in one’s everyday life. Did Jesus imply that the masses should not resist all disciples in all situations? Should believers surrender all their belongings to those who have the intention of suing them? Christians must answer these questions and generate a basis via which they can contextualize as well as apply Jesus’ teachings without integrating two widely accepted extremes: isolating quotes and sayings in the Sermon and misinterpreting them due consideration of their broader context and having presumptive views that Jesus’ teachings are obsolete and cannot be applied in the 21st century. In order to understand Jesus’ message to the masses, it is crucial that a study has been conducted on how different schools of thought interpreted the Sermon on the Mount.
The Church and the Founding Fathers
Before the advent of the medieval period, Christians were of the opinion that the Sermon on the Mount signified the ethics and morals that Christ intended to see in His followers. These teachings were representative of the laid-down benchmark that Christ demanded of His disciples, and focused on His relationship with the Old Testament principles. Although different exegetical methods have been applied, such as Origen’s Alexandrian allegory and Chrysostom’s Antiochene approach, there is no implication that the Sermon on the Mount was intended for future generations or that its application was unrealistic.2
The Medieval Period
The Summa Theologica is a popular treatise written by Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian, and presented a different interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Aquinas states that, Jesus applied a two-tier approach whereby some teachings were intended for all and sundry whereas other teachings were targeted at particular followers. This has provided a distinction between Jesus’ precepts (commandments), which must be followed to the letter if an individual is to inherit everlasting life, and His evangelical counsels which served as additional rules of observance aimed at ensuring that the disciples attained near-perfection and, therefore, imitated Christ. Precepts primarily covered three perspectives: chastity, poverty and obedience. Hence, Christians were classified into two groups: ‘general’ Christians and those who involved in the pursuance of monastic or priestly achievements. Therefore, the Sermon was intended partly for the average Christians and partly for those who chose to advance in matters concerning religion.
During this period, three schools of thought emerged into investigation. First, the Anabaptist movement interpreted and applied the Sermon on the Mount literally. It was regarded as believers’ central teachings. Therefore, followers of this school of thought regarded themselves as citizens of God’s kingdom and consequently withdrew from participating in all activities instigated by the civil government and rejected the formulation of a state church. Absolution and near-perfect practice could only be achieved amongst fellow saints, since only then can one practice literal principles such as those advocated by loving one’s enemies and not to judge in case one is judged too. Therefore, Anabaptist believers chose not to participate in worldly practices altogether.
Secondly, Martin Luther developed concepts that split Christianity and its associated principles into two kingdoms: God’s kingdom and the worldly kingdom. Christians are bound to live in both. However, a Christian cannot live by his/her personal convictions alone; rather, an individual must live under a morally upright and ethically correct rule of law established here on earth. Luther’s perspective presented a different view from earlier schools of thoughts on two major fronts. First, his principles were in contrast to the Aquinas school of thought, since Luther felt that the Sermon on the Mount was equally relevant to all Christians. No one was exempt from parts of the Sermon, since Christ intended that His message would be received by the Church at large. In addition, Luther insisted that no believer should feel exempt from parts of the Sermon due to the fact that there was no hierarchy of salvation; rather, all Christians were saved by the grace of God. Secondly, Luther was in opposition to the literal application of the Sermon’s teachings as applied by Anabaptist groups. This enthusiasm to implement all literal facets of Jesus’ teachings excluded some believers from participating in some practices carried out by the church. Luther felt that not only these groups were misunderstanding Jesus’ intention, but they were also abdicating their Christian duties and responsibility. He was of the opinion that teachings from the Sermon on the Mount were directly applicable in every believer’s life as far as the believer had the love of Christ and the willingness to obey. However, Martin Luther realized that a believer’s worldly responsibilities may at times conflict with the principles laid down by God’s kingdom. However, such conflicts are apparently superficial and a believer, filled with a heart of love, has the capability to fulfill his duties to God and to fellow man. For instance, a judge may be bound to punish a criminal (rather than forgive) once he/she is found guilty. However, through God’s love, the judge fulfills his or her obligation to man and to God.3
The third school of thought was advocated by John Calvin in Geneva and Huldreich Zwingli in Zurich. This approach dictated that all aspects of a believer’s life must be in accordance to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon of the Mount. Therefore, all state or civil authority was to be under Christ’s domain. Earlier schools of thought, such as those presented by Anabaptists as well as Martin Luther were rejected in favor of one kingdom: Christ’s. Therefore, all perspectives and practices, be it in personal life, business or government, were to be carried out according to the Sermon’s teachings. However, literal application of the Sermon on the Mount was in conflict to government practices, more so in law enforcement. The Sermon’s teachings on non-violence, forgiveness, passing judgment, non-resistance and swearing on oath received increasing criticism or were inapplicable. In such cases, the approach modified or moderated the Sermon’s teachings.
A more ‘reformed’ approach was necessary in order to present a general consensus on the implication of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. This approach is based on the view that Jesus came to reinforce the laws of Moses as dictated in the Old Testament. All persons who took Jesus’ teachings seriously were convinced of their status as sinners and consequently sought repentance. This was likened to the fact that the grace of salvation was far much greater under the New Testament in comparison to the Old Testament. Hence, the Sermon on the Mount was a reinforcement of the Mosaic Law.
This approach sought to illustrate that Jesus, via the Sermon on the Mount, was teaching His disciples about God’s eternal fatherhood and brotherhood. Therefore, the Sermon is not a legalism as presented in other approaches. Rather, it represents the idea that a believer must love both God and man alike.
An Analysis of Basic Principles
Evidently, no particular approach adequately interprets Jesus’ intended meaning. A detailed study of various schools of thoughts presents a scholar with a myriad of questions. First, does the Sermon on the Mount dictate the requirements that each and every believer must meet in order to receive eternal life? In addition, was the Sermon intended for the disciples as guidance on how to overcome various adversities or did Christ intend the Sermon to be a means via which someone seeking salvation may attain it?
Secondly, how does the Sermon on the Mount relate to grace? Does it stipulate the law/reinforce existing laws or does it focus on forgiveness? Did Jesus intend the Sermon to be a major driving factor towards repentance for all sinners? Finally, is the Sermon relevant in our world today? Can it be applied in the society or does it only apply to believers? How can it be enforced upon non-believers? Should the application of the Sermon be distinctly different in private life in comparison to public life?
In order to answer these questions, it is mandatory for scholars to understand who the Sermon was initially intended for. Christ delivered the Sermon of the Mount in Galilee and it entailed guidelines and instructions to His disciples. These were people who had already committed themselves wholly to His mission. Therefore, the teachings were not for non-believers and individuals must commit themselves wholly to Christ, if they are to realize the inherent benefits. This observation is supported by various aspects as stated in the bible. First, in Mathew 5:1, it is discernible that Jesus was talking to His disciples and He was issuing instructions on how they should live. However, the masses who had gathered were benefiting too. Nonetheless, His message was intended for those who were totally committed to His cause. Secondly, Mathew 5:3-10 details the beatitudes. These are principles that stipulate how one can enter God’s kingdom, the desirable attitudes and the resultant blessings. These beatitudes give a clear description that sinners are only accepted through His grace. No one deserves anything from God. However, by humbling oneself, individuals acknowledge the fact that they are spiritually weak and are in need of God’s salvation. Thirdly, Jesus used various present tense clichés that are loaded with promises in Mathew 5:3, 10 and 16.4 Clearly, Jesus refers to those who have already repented and become the children of God.
Therefore, having established this vital basis, various questions can be answered. First, this answers the question as to whether the Sermon was a new law and that the Mosaic Law was no longer valid. Jesus came to reinforce Mosaic Law and not to obliterate it. Moreover, Jesus did not intend the Sermon of the Mount to be a way of attaining salvation, since no one deserves it; rather it is only by His grace that sinners are accepted. Therefore, the evangelical counsels proposed by Aquinas hold no water. Moreover, the Sermon was intended at establishing a new way of living in contrast to the reformed scholasticism school of thought who perceived the Sermon as condemnatory.
Secondly, the application of teachings derived from the Sermon on the Mount cannot be deferred. They are meant for all believers as illustrated in Mathew 7:21-30. Obedience and observance of Christian principles must be upheld in present times and not in the future.5
Finally, the Sermon on the Mount was meant for Jesus’ followers. Therefore, it cannot be applied as a universal ethic for all and sundry or as a blueprint for the formulation of new laws towards political, civil or economic reforms. When one repents and becomes a true believer, he or she experiences God’s grace. Admittedly, if each and every person was to experience His grace, then these teachings could be applicable. However, salvation is a personal encounter that cannot be legislated. It is virtually impossible to formulate laws that cater for emotions or dispositions such as lust. Moreover, adopting changes where people feel that the Sermon’s teachings do not fully cater for these situations is hypocritical and misrepresentative of Jesus’ intention. Therefore, Christians must endeavor to uphold Jesus’ teachings at all times.