The lesson this week picks out the first part of a longer sermon. Matthew 5-7 give us Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Even if preparing for only the Sunday School lesson, it is probably best to read the entire sermon to see the context of this part.
At the time of Jesus there seems to have been considerable controversy over who was “in” and who was “out” when it came to being the children of God. This controversy had been on-going for some time, at least since the time of the return from exile. The Samaritan community was one of the earliest to be excluded, but they were not the only ones. We know of other groups, such as the Essenes who lived in Qumran and who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls. They thought of themselves as “in,” in other words as true to Israel’s covenant, and of everyone else as “out.”
The controversy centered on a number of things, but perhaps most prominent among them were who had the right to be the temple high priest, whether the temple ritual had been corrupted, and what lineage had to do with being one of God’s people. Besides the Essenes, this controversy had resulted in a several overlapping, more dominant groups (those supporting the temple priests, the Sadducees; the scribes, those who taught the Law; and the Pharisees, those who sought to reform Judaism by strict obedience to the Law and who rejected the Roman and Greek influences on Jewish culture). Though these groups were at odds with each other over such things as the resurrection and the importance of the temple, each claimed to be the authority on who would be saved and who would not.
According to the Gospels, Jesus seems most often to have found himself at odds with the Pharisees. Contrary to what we sometimes hear, the Pharisees were not, as such, the leaders of the Jews, though some of them were among the leaders of the Sanhedrin and other leaders. The Pharisees were more or less comparable to a modern political party or lobby group, influencing those who govern. There were other parties also influential in Palestinian life, particulalry the Sadducees. (The Anchor Bible Dictionary has excellent entries on the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin.) Many contemporary Jews consider the Pharisees to have been the forerunners of what became rabbinic Judaism, the kind of Judaism that most of us are most familiar with.
The Pharisees’s answer to “Who’s in?” was: “Those who have the right lineage and who keep the Law as we interpret it.” You can easily see why Jesus was often in conflict with these parties, particularly the Pharisees: he who had given the Law to Moses was now being told what it meant by the scribes and Pharisees. I think that this also makes more clear John the Baptist’s rebuke of the Pharisees: “Bring forth fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father” (Matthew 3:8-9). The Pharisees were preaching the Law and birthright rather than repentance. I think this also explains Jesus’ ministry to so many of those who were excluded: those the Pharisees had decreed to be sinners, Samaritans, etc.
Verse 1: In Matthew’s Gospel, mountains are places where important things happen. (See Matthew 4:8; 17:1; and 28:16.) As he tells the story, Jesus seems deliberately to give the Sermon on the Mount in a way that compares him to Moses: he goes up on a mountain and delivers a “new” law for a multitude who are gathered at the base of the mountain waiting for his return. In Matthew 4:23, Matthew tells us “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.” Matthew 5-7 is the gospel that he preached.
Joseph Smith’s inspired emendation of Matthew 5:1 adds an interesting prologue to the Sermon. (I’m indebted to Arthur Bassett for pointing out the significance of Joseph Smith’s addition.):
|1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: 2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,||1 And Jesus, seeing the multitudes, went up into a mountain; and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him; 2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying|
|3 Blessed are they who shall believe on me; and again, more blessed are they who shall believe on your words, when ye shall testify that ye have seen me and that I am.|
|4 Yea, blessed are they who shall believe on your words, and come down into the depth of humility, and be baptized in my name; for they shall be visited with fire, and the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins.|
|3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.||5 Yea blessed are the poor in spirit, who come unto me; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.|
Joseph Smith’s addition makes it even more clear that the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of the gospel. It also changes the way we can understand verse three: it becomes a summary of the gospel. Rather than the first in the list of beatitudes, it is the summary of the gospel, followed by the beatitudes.
Seeing the Sermon this way creates a chiasm, with verse 4 as the first beatitude and mercy at its center:
|A||They that mourn shall be comforted (verse 4)|
|B||The meek shall inherit the earth (verse 5)|
|C||Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled [with the Holy Ghost] (verse 6; compare 3 Nephi 12:6)|
|D||The merciful will obtain mercy (verse 7)|
|C’||The pure in heart will see God (verse 8)|
|B’||Peacemakers will be the children of God (verse 9)|
|A’||Those who are persecuted for righteousness will receive a great reward, the kingdom of heaven (verses 10-12)|
Why might the Beatitudes center on mercy? How is the theme of mercy related to the additions that Joseph Smith made to the beginning of the Sermon? How is Jesus’ message of mercy a challenge to the Pharisees and scribes? What would that message have meant to Jesus’ audience? What does it mean to us today?
Verse 3: The word translated “blessed” is a poetic word that can also be translated “happy.” In Greek literature, it was used to describe the happy state in which the gods lived. What word in the Book of Mormon might be equivalent to blessed? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It cannot mean that one has a spirit that is poor or wanting, so what does it mean? Compare this verse to Isaiah 61:1. Does that comparison give you any ideas about how to understand this beatitude? The Greek of this verse is usually translated as the King James translator’s have translated it: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” However, it could also be translated “for the kingdom of heaven is made up of them.” Does this different translation add any meaning?
Verse 5: Notice the footnote in your Bible for the word “meek.” The meek and the poor in spirit seem to me to be the same people. Later in the Sermon, Jesus will give examples of meekness. (See Matthew 5:39-42.) Note, too, that this verse is a quotation of Psalms 37:11 (in the Greek version of first-century Judaism). Why would Jesus quote from the Old Testament so much in this explication of his gospel?
Verse 6: The word translated “righteousness” could also have been translated “justice.” One way to think about what it means to be righteous is to ask, “What would it mean for me to be just?” How does changing the question in that way change our thinking? As the word translated “righteousness” is used in Greek, it most often refers to one who has right relations with God. What did the Pharisees believe was required for righteousness? What does Jesus teach about righteousness?
Verse 7: Is it significant that the previous beatitudes had focused on something like attitude and that this beatitude begins a focus that is more on action? What does “mercy” mean? What does it take to be merciful? How are the requirement to desire justice (verse 6) and the requirement to be merciful related to each other?
Verse 8: The word translated “pure” could also have been translated “cleansed.” What does it mean to have a heart that has been cleansed? Is Jesus contrasting the cleansing of the heart with the various kinds of cleansing that the Pharisees required? How do the two differ? What does it mean to see God?
Verse 9: Who do you think that Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the peacemakers? Do verses 23-26 give us an idea of what he means? What does it mean that the peacemakers will be called the children of God? Aren’t we already his children? Why might Jesus have associated being a peacemaker with being a child of God? In what senses is God the peacemaker?
Verses 10-12: Verse 10 speaks of being persecuted “for righteousness’ sake.” Verse 11 speaks of being persecuted “for my sake.” What do you make of the identification of righteousness and Jesus, a person? How does that contrast with the Pharisaic understanding of righteousness as obedience? Is the beginning of verse 12, “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad” parallel to “Blessed are [. . .]” in the previous beatitudes? Does it help us understand what it means to be blessed?
We can see a division in the Sermon at verse 11: The Beatitudes give us the general description of the gospel and the verses that follow expand on that general description.
Verses 17-20: What does it mean to say that Jesus did not come to annul the Law? What does it mean to say that he came to fulfill it, to bring it to perfection? How does Jesus’ understanding of perfect obedience to the Law differ from the Pharisees’ understanding? Verses 21-48 seem to be illustrations of the point that Jesus is making in verse 20: he gives concrete illustrations of how our righteousness ought to go beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees. How are we tempted to be Pharisaical? How can we go beyond, exceed, or overflow our own Pharisaism?
Verses 21-26: Jesus seems to me to be giving examples of what he meant when he spoke of peacemakers in verse 9. The word translated “judgment” in verse 21 means “to be cast off.” Notice that the Book of Mormon and the JST omit “without a cause” in verse 22—as do almost all Greek manuscripts. How does that change our understanding of the verse? In verse 22, the word raca means the same thing as the Greek word translated “fool” at the end of the verse. It isn’t any stronger than the kinds of things we sometimes say to each other when we are angry, such as “You idiot!” What does Jesus mean, then, when he says, paraphrasing, “Whoever calls his brother a fool is in danger of the community’s judgment, but whoever says “You fool” is in danger of hell fire”? Does it make a difference that the first case is about anger towards a brother and no one is specified in the second? What is the point of verses 21-22? To a Jew of Jesus’ day, worship was the most sacred duty that one could have. So, what is Jesus saying about reconciliation in verses 23-24? Notice that we begin with the prohibition of murder in verse 21, move to the prohibition of anger in verse 22, and in verse 23 we find a prohibition of hard feelings. Can you think of particular adversaries that Jesus might have in mind in verses 25-26? How do these examples apply to us?
Verse 28: What does this teach us about going beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees?
Verses 29-30: Jesus is obviously speaking hyperbolically. What is the point of his hyperbole?
Verses 31-32: The scripture to which Jesus refers (Deuteronomy 24:1) is unclear about the grounds for divorce. It says that a man can put away his wife if he finds something shameful in her (“some uncleanness” in the King James translation). The rabbis debated that phrase, some arguing that it meant only adultery, others arguing that could be something as trivial as bad cooking. It also isn’t easy to know how to understand the exception that Jesus allows here because it isn’t clear what Matthew means by the word translated “fornication.” The Greek word that he uses literally means “prostitution.” How do you understand these verses? Are they a higher standard than we presently are required to live, or has the standard changed?
Verses 33-37: The part of the Law that Jesus has in mind here seems to be that found in places such as Exodus 20:7, Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:3, and Deuteronomy 23:22. How does the teaching in these verses go beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees? How does the teaching of these verses apply to us?
Verses 38-42: It appears that the Mosaic Law, “an eye for an eye,” was not a directive as to how much punishment to inflict, but a limitation on the retribution one could seek: if someone puts out your eye, you have no right to demand more than the recompense for that eye. A more accurate translation of the first part of verse 39 might be “resist not the one who troubles you (or ‘the one who defies you’).” What do these verses teach us about how we are to respond to physical violence? How does this teaching compare to what we find in D&C 98:16-48? How does it compare to the way that the Book of Mormon prophets dealt with violence? What do these verses teach us about how we should deal with others in legal contention? The demand of verse 41 is one dictated by Roman law: a Roman soldier could compel others to carry his baggage a mile, so the general topic seems to be something like “the demands of the government.” How would people in Jesus’ day have understood this part of his message? What does these verses teach us about how we should respond to the demands of government? Compare verse 42 to Mosiah 4:16-23. What obligation is Jesus giving us in verse 42?
Verses 43-47: The Old Testament teaches that we must love our neighbor. (See Leviticus 19:18.) But nowhere does it teach that we should hate our enemies. However, it is not difficult to imagine that many believed that the command to love our neighbors (those close to us) implies the need to hate our enemies. What particular enemies does verse 44 suggest that Jesus may have had in mind? What reason does verse 45 give for loving our enemies? What does verse 45 suggest that it means to be one of God’s children?
Verse 48: This verse marks a significant break in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the culmination of the Sermon to this point. As such perhaps we should understand it as a restatement of verse 3—as well as a followup to verses 43-47. Can you think of ways in which those verses mean the same? How does the commandment in the final sentence of this verse sum up the teaching that we should love our enemies?
Notice the footnote that explains what “perfect” means: whole, complete, finished, developed. Is the perfection of which Jesus speaks here a perfection of love? A better translation of the verse might be: “Be ye therefore whole, even as your Father in heaven is whole.” I wonder whether Jesus is quoting or paraphrasing Leviticus 19:2 here: “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.” What does it mean to be holy? The Hebrew word in Leviticus means “sacred” or “set apart.” What does that suggest about what it means for us to be holy? For us to be whole? How has Jesus been teaching the answer to that question in the preceding verses? (In my column at Patheos, I’ve written more on the question of what it means to be perfect.)
James speaks of the double-minded person (James 1:8). What does it mean to be double-minded? In contrast, what does it mean to be whole? Can we be whole in this life? If not, then why has Jesus commanded us to be whole? Is wholeness something that pertains only to myself—I must be undivided—or is it something that also pertains to my relation with others, including God—my relations with others must be whole? What would it mean for a relation not to be whole?
How does the Sermon on the Mount as a whole teach us to be perfect? Does the chiasm that centers on verse 7 suggest anything about how we are to be perfect, about what constitutes our wholeness? Is it possible to use the concept of mercy to restate or rethink each of the specific discussions that we saw in verses 11-47?
To comment on these notes, go to Feast upon the Word.