Does the Sermon on the Mount Say Anything New?

by David Crabtree


Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, everyone would say, is extremely important for understanding him and his mission. Jesus seems to be saying something new, but scholars have found examples of rabbinic teaching from the same time period that said similar things. How, then, is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount new?

The Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 5-7, begins with the Beatitudes (5:3-12). Jesus then goes on to comment on each of the beatitudes in reverse order; that is, he comments first on the last beatitude—“Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me”—by talking about persecution in Matthew 5:13-20.1 When Jesus likens his hearers to “salt” and “light” and admonishes them to retain their saltiness and to let their light shine (5:13-16), he is saying this to people who he knows will be threatened with persecution for living out their lives in conformity with his definition of righteousness. He is urging them not to capitulate to the fear of persecution. Then, still on the topic of persecution, Jesus gives his perspective on the Old Testament Law and Prophets (5:17-20), and it is when we understand his perspective that we see how his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount differed from the rabbis of his time.

The leading figures of Judaism would have claimed high regard for the Old Testament. Jesus is assuring his listeners that he, too, holds the Old Testament in very high esteem. He foresees that the Jewish establishment will interpret his teaching to be taking the Old Testament and its commandments lightly or dismissing them, and so they will charge him and his followers with not valuing the laws of Moses. And this is exactly what happened. The first man to be martyred for his devotion to Jesus, Stephen, was accused of speaking “against this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13). Later, those who seized Paul in the temple claimed, “This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place…” (Acts 21:28). So the biblical record indicates that this was indeed the charge leveled against the followers of Jesus.

So then, anticipating that his teaching will be perceived by many Jews to be running roughshod over the Law of Moses and will therefore be the basis on which the Jews will marginalize and even persecute his followers, Jesus is making clear that such charges are unwarranted. In fact, Jesus is taking the Law deadly seriously. In the Sermon on the Mount, he is stating categorically that his regard for the Law is second to none: the Law is authoritative and always will be.

The tension, then, between Jesus’ teaching and the prevailing sentiment in Jewish culture is not about whether the Law is authoritative. Rather, the tension lies in how Jesus and the Jews interpret the Law. What does the Law mean? In what way ought it inform our values and priorities?

The Old Testament, and the Mosaic Law in particular, is difficult to figure out. Much is difficult to understand, much unclear, much appears to contradict other parts of the Old Testament. But this much does seem clear: God did not intend to be straightforward.

At the time of Jesus, Jewish culture was interested in figuring out the Law. Before the Babylonian exile, as we can see in the Old Testament, the Israelites had a difficult time embracing the idea that Yahweh had an exclusive right to their loyalty. After they returned from exile, however, Jewish culture seems to have become convinced of its need to take God and His commandments seriously. This posed a significant problem: What does it mean to keep God’s commandments? How one answers this question is largely dictated by the assumptions one brings to the task. Therefore, understanding the assumptions the Israelites would have held is important for understanding how they viewed keeping the Law.

Although the religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were quite varied, they shared a general understanding of what a god was and what his or her relationship to human beings was—namely, that of a master to slaves. They believed human beings were created by the gods to serve the gods’ needs. The sacrifices and offerings that mankind was commanded to offer were primarily for the benefit of the gods; and if the people were faithful in performing the rites and rituals as prescribed, they could expect the gods’ favor. The gods were only peripherally interested in the moral behavior of their worshippers; moral behavior was valuable only in so far as it contributed to the smooth functioning of the community, thus allowing the community to better serve the god.

These cultural assumptions, then, would likely have influenced the Israelites. Surrounded as they were by people who had received commandments from their gods and were expected to obey those commandments with meticulous care, as a slave would obey a master, it is understandable that the Jews would adopt a similar approach. Furthermore, one can find some support for this perspective in the Old Testament, where there is more law regarding ritual than law regarding morality, where God refers to the people of Israel as his “slaves” (or “servants”; the Hebrew word has both meanings), and where there are instances of God severely punishing people for what appear to be minor or technical violations of the ceremonial law (Numbers 15:32-36; II Samuel 6:6-7). All this would have seemed to justify the common assumptions.

But as natural as it was for the Jews to adopt the common cultural perspective with respect to their relationship to God, God did not want a master-slave relationship with His people. A master-slave relationship is not a person-to-person relationship. A master and a slave play a limited role in each other’s lives, and there is little to motivate the master to reveal to the slave all that he values and desires; it is enough for the slave to know what the master wants done with respect to that limited role.2 In the Old Testament, despite references to slaves/servants, God typically represents his relationship to the Jews as a husband-wife or father-child relationship, relationships in which it is critical that both parties work to understand the values and desires of the other. Unlike the master-slave relationship, both husband-wife and father-child relationships are persons relating to one another.

The analogy one uses to envision the relationship between God and man is very significant, and I have manufactured a little scenario to help clarify the significance. Imagine a situation in which a very good man who has two sons dies. His sons, who did not particularly appreciate their father when he was alive, subsequently decide to devote themselves to living their lives in a way that brings honor to their father.

To this end, the first son decides to work hard to obey his father’s wishes. He reflects on his childhood, trying to remember every command his father ever gave him, and finally makes a long list that includes statements such as “Be nice to your brother,” “Close the door behind you,” “Do your school work every night before you go to bed,” and “Eat everything on your plate.” Next, he begins to analyze his list, parsing each command to clarify what he needs to do to comply. So for instance, he analyzes “Eat everything on your plate” by deciding what it means to “eat”: Does eating necessitate chewing? Does it necessitate swallowing? If one swallows and then vomits it back up, has he “eaten?” He also analyzes “everything”: Does “everything” just refer to food, or does it mean everything? Do bones need to be eaten? How about forks “on your plate”? Furthermore, what constitutes a “plate”? Is a paper plate a “plate”? If a cookie is placed on a napkin and served, is the napkin a “plate”? And so forth.

This approach necessarily results in an emphasis on behaviors. The first son is trying to answer the question “What should I do?” This is the implicit goal of such an approach, and therefore honoring the father becomes equivalent to conforming one’s behavior to the commands. This approach may also push one who is truly committed to this goal to error on the safe side whenever there is uncertainty. For example, if one is uncertain as to whether a napkin constitutes a plate or not, one can just apply the command to napkins and thereby not risk violating the command. One’s willingness to live within narrower and narrower confines becomes the mark of one’s dedication to the father’s commands.

Unquestionably, the first son’s endeavor entails genuine fervor. He is making a great sacrifice by being willing to place so many restrictions on his life. It could be justifiably said that he is taking his father’s commands seriously.

The first son’s approach approximates, in exaggerated form, the attitude that pervades the rabbinic tradition, which sees God as both different from us and indifferent to us. He is so “other,” so mysterious, that we cannot understand why He gave us the particular commandments that He did. And He is so aloof from us that He delights in catching us in violation. We just have to accept the fact that we must meticulously obey the commandments that God gave us. When any question arises as to what exactly a given commandment requires, rabbinic tradition tends to err on the side of the most restrictive option. So for instance, the Mosaic law prohibits work on the Sabbath. “But what,” ask the rabbis, “does the concept of ‘work’ include?” Just to be safe, anything that might be “work” is prohibited, and so Orthodox Jews do not turn lights on or off on the Sabbath because doing so might be considered “work.” In rabbinic tradition, this “just to be safe” practice is known as “putting a hedge around the law.” Insofar as this approach assumes that the commands should be understood in isolation from the giver of the commands, it approximates the master-slave analogy.

The second son illustrates an entirely different approach. He, too, reflects on what he heard his father say, including the commands that he gave his sons. But the second son subjects the commands to an entirely different kind of analysis. He understands that every command that his father uttered arose from the values and worldview that the father brought to bear on particular circumstances. So, for instance, when the son was six years old, his father told him, “Don’t cross the street alone.” Disobeying this rule would have been a serious matter, and the father would have taken disciplinary measures had the son disobeyed. But now the son is thirty-six, and he no longer obeys his father’s command because he understands that it is no longer appropriate. The son’s different responses do not reflect a change in his father’s worldview or values; rather, the son has grown and learned how to look out for himself and use his own judgment about safely crossing the street.

The second son, then, looks at each command as a clue to help him reconstruct an understanding of his father’s worldview. By inspecting every command, every statement, every action of his father, each in its particular context, he works to figure out the worldview that gives coherence to them all. So then, when he analyzes the command “Eat everything on your plate,” he concludes that this was a specific command that expressed, in a concrete circumstance, his father’s value that it is good for one to take care of one’s physical body and that nutrition is an important aspect of that. Any action the son does that retains this value will be an act of obedience to his father.

The second son’s approach to honoring his father has no equivalent to “putting a hedge around the law”; there is no virtue in interpreting the commands in their strictest possible sense. To understand a command more strictly than the father intended is just as wrong as understanding it less strictly than he intended. Because the goal of the second son’s approach is to use the commands as a means by which to accurately reconstruct the father’s worldview, a heightened level of commitment would not manifest itself in the strictest interpretation of commands but would, rather, manifest itself in a humility and willingness to keep working to make his worldview match most closely to his father’s.

Unquestionably, the second son’s endeavor entails genuine fervor, just as the first son’s did. Like the first son, the second son is taking the father’s commands seriously; but unlike the first son, he analyzes them in order to understand his father’s worldview. From this perspective, to think that one can act on a command that has been floated up from its context and is suspended in air is just silly. One can only be obedient to a fully developed worldview.

Now, which son’s approach was right? Imagine that you are the father: Which of the sons is acting in a way that honors you more? Is it not, without a doubt, the second son? The first son is acting in a way that is wrongheaded and even sad. Although the first son intended to honor his father, his approach to the commands gives them a life of their own quite apart from the father; the father becomes rather irrelevant to the whole process.3 The second son’s approach, however, makes the father central to the process: the goal is to recover and embrace the worldview that the father had.

The second son’s approach takes the father and all that he stood for seriously, and it makes a subtle but very important shift in emphasis from the first son’s approach. Whereas the first son focused on behaviors, the second son focused on understanding his father’s entire perspective (including what he valued and what he did not value and why), thereby emphasizing what kind of person he would need to be to please his father. So rather than focusing on what he should do, the second son was focused on what he should be.

Keeping our analogy in mind, then, let us return to the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon highlights Jesus’ shift in emphasis. Unlike the Jews, Jesus is not focused on answering the question “What should one do?” (which necessarily emphasizes the commandments themselves). Rather, Jesus is focused on answering the question “What kind of person should one be?” (which necessarily emphasizes a more comprehensive understanding of who God is and what He values). Jesus demonstrates that he takes the Old Testament commandments seriously; but rather than focusing on the commands in and of themselves, he is more interested in describing what kind of internal architecture of the soul is necessary to be in compliance with the commands. To those who view the commands as having an independent existence (as both the first son in analogy and the Pharisees did), it would look like Jesus is playing fast and loose with the Old Testament. To the Pharisees, therefore, Jesus’ description of righteousness looks like blasphemy. But even when Jesus understands the import of a commandment in much the same way as the Jewish rabbis, his understanding arises from a very different conception of what it means to be obedient to God. In this respect, then, what Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount is very “new”—and to the Jewish establishment, offensive.

_________

Endnotes:

1 An attendee at a recent Bible study on Matthew suggested the chiastic organization of the Sermon on the Mount, and after considerable thought, I agree; but regardless of whether the sermon is organized chiastically, I am convinced that the context of Matthew 5:13-20 is the persecution of the followers of Jesus and his teaching.

2 With respect to the relationship between man and God, historian Thorkild Jacobsen writes, “Just as the serf rarely has intimate relations with the lord of the manor, so the individual in Mesopotamia looked upon the great gods as remote forces to whom he could appeal only in some crisis and then only through intermediaries” (as quoted in Heschel, The Prophets, p. 315).

3 I find it interesting that this very thing seems to have happened in some streams of Jewish tradition. The Talmud, a collection of notes on the Old Testament law that was written by scores of rabbis over a period of several centuries, has long been held in generally high esteem by Jewish culture. In an essay written as an introduction to the Talmud (a very good essay in a very good book of essays, by the way), I found this striking observation: “All things considered, the Talmud for a ‘religious’ text pays remarkably little attention to God…” (Robert Goldenberg, “Talmud,” in Back to the Sources, Barry W. Holtz ed., p. 171).

Other streams of Jewish thought do not share this fault. I have been reading books by Rabbi Abraham Heschel which are stunning in their emphasis on God’s approachability and our need to know him.

Copyright March 2012 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree