The Sermon on the Mount is an extended look at the teachings of Jesus in the Book of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, and is one of the most famous texts in the Gospels. Many of the most well known and most often quoted sayings of Jesus are lifted from this passage, including the Beatitudes, and the frequent repetition of “You have heard it said. . . but I tell you. . .”
One of the most fascinating aspects of this story (yes, it is as story) to me is the context in which this machine gun burst of teaching appears.
Huge crowds were following Jesus at this time. Everywhere he went, from city to city, he and his students had an entourage of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.
(As an aside: in this light, it’s easy to understand why Jesus enemies felt threatened by him, and why the general belief that he was the Messiah who would topple the Roman regime in Palestine held legitimate weight. This guy literally had armies of people following him around!)
People have come from every corner of the nation to hear him speak. In less than a year he’s become a rallying point for Jewish unity; the common folk love him…he goes around performing miracles, healing their sicknesses and disabilities. Not just the common cold or the stomach flu, not just back aches and rheumatism like some traveling hack selling magic potions, no… This man’s loogies cure blindness. He touches people who’s bodies are being slowly devoured by flesh-eating bacteria, and molecules rearrange themselves into healthy tissue. He tells people who were born crippled to get up and walk and they get up and walk. He casts out demons with nothing but a word. There are rumors…rumors that he even raises the dead back to life, and up and down the country people whisper, “There has never been anyone like this man.”
They call him Rabbi. It’s a Hebrew word that means ‘Teacher.’ Rabbis teach in the Jewish synagogues. They preserve the lessons of Moses and the prophets. They’re comparable to the philosophers of ancient Greece, or the gurus of far away India. They gather cohorts of students around themselves, in order to pass on the torch, so to speak, to prepare them to go out and live what they’re being taught, and right now he’s about to drop some serious teaching on all of them.
He veers off the main road suddenly and makes his way up into the hills. It’s a strategic move: from that elevated position, the crowds will be able to see him but more importantly they’ll be able to hear him. He gathers his twelve students around him. They need to hear what he’s about to say… He’s about to turn everything they’ve ever thought about their culture, their religion, on its head, and the crowds of thousands are going to hear it, too.
It’s. . . It’s like a Master Class.
The doctor is in. Class is in session. And the audience has no idea just how radical this lecture is going to be.
The entire focus of this lesson is holiness. Jesus tells his students, “Be perfect!”
…You know, I think I went to that lecture when I was in college…
But he doesn’t just tell them to be perfect, he also tells them why: “…because your heavenly Father, your God, is perfect!”
See, Jesus is quoting the Law. In the book of Leviticus – that’s Part 3 of their Torah, the third book in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus – Moses records the words of God. He says (James Earl Jones voice): “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
That word holy is probably a better translation… it was what God had wanted for his chosen people all through the Old Testament: to be different, to live differently, to be set apart from the other nations. God’s people were supposed to be a different kind of people because God was a different kind of God. Jesus goes all the way back to that foundation to show his students, “This is how you live!”
God gave Israel the Law so that they would show the rest of the world what God was like.
(ANOTHER SIDE NOTE: Do you see what’s happening here? Where did God give his people the Law? On Mount Sinai. And here we see the Son of God bringing his people back to the Law on a mountain.)
Now here’s what sets Jesus apart from all the other teachers of the Law: When Jesus is all done speaking, it says that the people were amazed. Why? Because he spoke as one with authority. That word authority literally means author-ity, as in, he spoke as if he was the one who established all these things in the first place. When the Rabbis taught in the synagogues, they would say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Over and over and over again, we hear Jesus say, “You were taught this…but I tell you that this is how it is.”
Kind of brings a whole new meaning to “sitting at the feet of the Master,” doesn’t it?
In the future I’ll dig more into the things Jesus actually taught here, but for now I just want to pause and reflect on the story, the story of this Teacher, the Teacher, this simple but extraordinary classroom moment. I know it would have been amazing to see all those miracles… but man, I wish that I could have sat in on that Master Class…