The mission of the Messiah, 1:5-9:50
4. The acts of the Messiah, 6:12-7:50
Introductory notes to the Great SermonIntroduction
The Great Sermon (The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel, or the Sermon on the Plain in Luke's gospel) is in the form of a covenantal agreement between God and his people. It follows the pattern of The Sinai covenant which was read to the people of Israel by Moses. This covenant agreement is recorded in the book of Deuteronomy and is summarised in the Ten Commandments. The Sinai covenant is but a restatement / renewal of the Abrahamic covenant, with Jesus' Great Sermon a restatement / renewal of the Sinai covenant.
The Sinai covenant contained the following elements:
•iPreamble - "I am the Lord your God". God declares that he has taken this people to himself. He has entered into a relationship with them.
•iHistorical prologue. God reminds them of what he has done. He has redeemed them from bondage. "Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." He saved them.
•iStipulations - The "Ten Words". These represent the response behaviour of a faithful child of God.
•iCovenant ratification - Blessings and Cursings. Old Testament law is usually followed up with blessings and cursings - the consequence of faithfulness, or unfaithfulness, Deut.27-28.
The Great Sermon, as a restatement / renewal of the covenant agreement between God and his people, follows this format. This time Jesus declares the agreement.
•iSetting: the people come to Jesus to hear him and be healed by him, v17-19
•iFirst, we have the who you are. The children of God are a redeemed people, saved, blessed, and this because they are in Christ by grace through faith in his faithfulness, v20-26.
•iSecond, we have the be what you are. The perfect law of love, v27-38.
•iThird, the good news, bad news. We are reminded that in ourselves we build our house on sand and our only security is found in the one who has built his house on rock - has heard and done / is faithful, v39-49.
The Sermon begins with a declaration that the disciples are blessed. When Jesus says to his disciples "blessed are you", he is certainly not suggesting they are blessed because their righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, ie., they pass the test of compassionate love. They are blessed because they are "poor", "hunger", "weep" and are rejected. They are blessed because they are this way, and they are this way in Christ.
It is interesting how Matthew identifies the spiritual nature of these qualities. They are the "poor in spirit" ie., humble broken ones, those hungering and thirsting after righteousness. They are the repentant sinner, broken before the Lord, and for this reason they are the blessed ones. Luke drops the descriptive qualifications, with some commentators arguing that this is in line with his more radical view of discipleship (or did Matthew add them?). Yet, this is unlikely; it is more likely that Luke is influenced by Pauline theology. Christ is all these things, and we are all these things when we are in Christ. It is then, by being in Christ, that we begin to become what we are. At any rate the "blessed" ones have nothing in common with the "woe to you" mob, those who have yet to recognise who they are. It is the "poor (in spirit)" who fulfil their duty toward God and thus stand approved before him, v20-26.
Following the declaration that the disciples are in a state of grace, Jesus explains the central demand of neighbourly law, namely, to love unreasonably, v27-38. In typical fashion, Jesus expounds the law of love in the terms of an ideal, and in so doing, he reveals the true function of the law, and this along with its ancillary function. Paul, the exegete of Jesus, will later expound in more detail these functions of the law, particularly in his letter to the Galatians and Romans.
The functions of the law are:
•iFirst, to expose sin and thus force the child of God to ground their life on God's mercy rather than their own impaired morality.
•iSecond, to serve as a guide to the life of faith - strive to be what you are. Some argue for a third function, namely, to restrain evil, but the law cannot serve this end as it tends to make sin more sinful.
Since the primary function of the law is to expose our corruption and fix us firmly to the foot of the cross, Jesus goes on to produce the evidence that we are all flawed, that our righteousness is but filthy rags, such that, apart from the righteousness of Christ, we stand under the curse of the law. He does this in three teaching parables:
• The tendency to judge others evidences a desire to hide our own sin and so affirm our own self-righteousness, v39-42.
• Like the fruit of a tree, our own sinful behaviour cannot be denied and thus, serves as an evidence of our natural state of corruption, v43-45.
• Finally, the reality is that day-by-day we build our house on the sand and so face disaster, we hear God's command to love, but rarely act on it, v46-49.
Thankfully, "O the bliss of you who are destitute, for the kingdom of God belongs to you", Barclay.
The prime purpose of the Law: Most commentators argue that the moral demands in the sermon serve as ethical requirements for discipleship. So for example, Leaney argues that the demands are tests of a disciple's true standing. They show us whether we are with the "blessed" crew, or the "cursed" crew, for how can we say "Lord, Lord", and not do what he tells us? Nolland sums up this position by describing the sermon as teaching "love of enemies and non-judgmental generosity" directed to those who "profess discipleship, but settle for less". Jeremias regards the ethic of the sermon as an invitation to manifest our faith in cross-bearing discipleship empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Yet, it is more than likely that the prime purpose of the ethical demands in this sermon serve to "fulfil / complete" the law in the sense of proclaiming it in all its purity. This perfect law then serves the purpose of exposing the human condition of loss (in that none can obey it) and thus driving us to God for mercy. Inevitably we find that mercy in the shadow of the cross, in Christ's righteous life. See Bill Dumbrell The Logic of the Role of the Law in Matthew 5:1-20, published as a pamphlet, but also to be found in Novum Testamentum 23/1, 1981.
This particular understanding of the function of the law, revealed by Christ in the Great Sermon, is taken up by Paul. As we know, Paul claims his gospel did not come to him via the other apostles, but rather directly from Christ. When it comes to the law, Paul makes the point that "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith", Gal.3:24.
So, Jesus is not into giving us a more demanding version of the law to obey so that our righteousness might exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, but rather he is into exposing the true nature of God's perfect demands so that the law might fix us firmly at the foot of the cross where we find a righteousness as a gift of grace through faith. It is only "in Christ" that our righteousness will exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees and so enable us to "enter the kingdom of heaven."
This is not to say that Jesus' teaching on the law does not serve a secondary ethical function; it does indeed push us toward the person we already are in Christ. It is at this point where the sermon is an invitation to manifest unconditional love and non-judgmental acceptance in the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, so Jeremias. The Great Sermon presents ideals that give direction to the renewing work of the Spirit within. Yet, this is only a secondary purpose; Jesus' prime purpose is to identify the true condition of our humanity, that left to ourselves we build a house doomed to destruction. To survive the great crash, our only hope lies in the rock-founded home of the one perfect man.
In passing, it is worth noting that, as with the Great Sermon, the function of law in the Sinai covenant primarily serves to expose Israel's sin and thus the nation's condition of being cursed under God. In so doing it forces Israel to recognise the basis of a relationship with God, namely by grace through faith - the basis upon which Abraham related to God, as spelled out in the Abrahamic covenant. The law forces a recognition of the primacy of divine mercy appropriated through faith for the establishment and maintenance of a covenant relationship with God. Of course, such does not in any way lesson the responsibility of a child of God to press toward the principles annunciated in the law.
The apostle Paul, as the exegete of Jesus, systematically explains the law-grace conundrum, but none-the-less, Jesus does have more to say on the issue. The episodes of the Rich Young Ruler, 18:18-30, and The Parable of the Good Samaritan, 10:25-37, are particularly insightful. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, the point of the story is not to encourage us to be "good Sams", but rather to show us that we aren't "good Sams." The lawyer thought that his attention to the law confirmed / maintained his status in the kingdom. If he was truly seeking, rather than just testing, then the parable clearly reveals where he stands with respect to righteousness. Who can be neighbourly as the good Samaritan was neighbourly? Of course, no one! The law reminds us, just in case we forget, that grace is all.