The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached

The Sermon on the Mount (aka the Great Sermon) is undoubtedly Matthew’s greatest composition. The Sermon is a harmonious masterpiece of ethical and religious admonitions, containing such well-known items as the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13), and the Golden Rule (7:12). The Sermon has had an enormous impact on Western civilization. Politicians often quote the beatitudes as a kind of platform. Many expressions from the sermon have entered our language at a popular level, such that even non-Christians are aware of “the salt of the earth,” “turning the other cheek,” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, a self-styled deist, nonetheless identified the Sermon, along with the Ten Commandments, as expressive of the moral principles on which the United States should be founded.

My primary focus is on the nine beatitudes as found in Matthew 5:3-12 (Luke’s Sermon on the Plain has four beatitudes [6:20-23], John’s Gospel has one [20:29], while the book of Revelation has seven in the form of isolated sayings [1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14]). The term “beatitude” is derived from the Latin beati (meaning “blessed” or “happy”). Technically known as macarisms, the term comes from the Greek makarios (also “blessed” or “happy”).

More than any other instructor on morality, Jesus teaches with divine power and authority (exousia), and by this empowerment makes possible a new existence. The beatitudes are not mere words. Rather, they express succinctly the values on which Jesus placed priority: (1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (2) Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (3) Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (4) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (5) Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (6) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (7) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (8) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (9) Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5: 3-12 NRSV).

The first beatitude exhibits a number of parallels with Isaiah 61:1-2 where the prophet spoke of future blessings that the Lord’s anointed would bestow on those on the margins of society. Jesus quoted Isaiah’s prophecyin order to bless the poor and promise them participation in God’s kingdom. God has never been impressed with human strength or self-sufficiency. Rather, He is drawn to people who are weak and admit it. According to Jesus, this is the number one attitude that God blesses. Being poor in spirit is a tacit recognition of our need to depend on God; it humbles us and prevents arrogance.

The second beatitude is a variation on the first. “Those who mourn” recognize their need of God’s help (see Isa 61:3). God alone is able to bring lasting comfort to those who mourn when death is finally destroyed (Rev 21:4). However, Jesus has already brought good tidings to the poor and consolation to the sorrowful in His ministry.

The third beatitude, influenced by Psalm 37:11 and Isaiah 60:21; 61:7, extols the virtue of humility. Jesus Himself was gentle, humble, and meek, and He called on His followers to imitate Him as they prepare to inherit the kingdom (Matt 11:28-30; 25:34).

Behind the fourth beatitude stands the idea of God’s faithfulness to the covenant with His people. A person is said to be righteous if that individual is “right with God”; that is, if that person lives out the covenant relationship with God and neighbor. God blesses those who receive His gift of a right relationship with Him and do His will.

The fifth beatitude describes a quality of God. The biblical concept of mercy has two components: pardon granted to the guilty (e.g. Exod 34:6, 7) and help for those in need (Exod 22:27). In this beatitude, however, Matthew emphasizes forgiveness as the primary ingredient (see Matt 6:14-15; 18:21-35). The more we extend mercy to others, the more we become complete in God as we receive His mercy (5:48; Luke 6:36).

The sixth beatitude recalls Psalm 24:3-6. The beatitude links purity of heart with the prospect of access to God. The contrast between ritual purity and purity of heart that brings forth just and merciful behavior is of special interest for Matthew (5:21-48; 9:13; 12:7). Jesus summons us to actions rooted in pure motives, such as reconciliation, gentleness, and mercy.

The seventh beatitude refers to the establishment of peace and concord in human society (cf. Isa 2:1-4). Peace comes from God, the prime peacemaker. Jesus, the incarnate God, is our peace, uniting Jews and Gentiles by His death (Eph 2:14). This beatitude promises that peacemakers somehow participate in Jesus’ obedient sonship and become part of the new community (Matt 3:17; 4:3, 6).

The eighth beatitude reminds us that the essence of Christianity is countercultural. The followers of Christ will endure physical, emotional, and spiritual distress in their quest to honor God and His kingdom.

The final beatitude, the only one expressed in the second-person plural (“blessed are you”), makes explicit the theme of discipleship, which lies at the heart of the entire Sermon. The beatitude juxtaposes a warning about the imminent rejection of Jesus’ followers and the promise of a rich reward in the coming kingdom.

In this election season of charged political rhetoric, the beatitudes beckon us to an alternative manifesto. The beatitudes distill the message of the kingdom of God, which Jesus, the “new Moses,” presents to the people of God. While the ethical and moral thrust of the beatitudes cannot be denied, they also function as consolation and promise for those who remain true to their discipleship and the cause of the kingdom of God. Theologically speaking, in the beatitudes we are confronted with the demand of God in its starkest form and bidden to obey.

Divine Grace

There is a form of human compassion that can evoke wonder, which I believe the Catholics call a “special grace.” This form is recounted by Ray Gaita, the well-known Australian philosopher, in his book, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice.  The wonder of which I speak, Gaita experiences when as a young man he is working as an assistant in a psychiatric hospital.  While at the hospital he witnesses a nun who in her interactions with the hospital’s patients (and these patients are persons who have lost much of what passes for the prima facie dignity of human beings) conducts herself in a manner that evokes in Gaita a special kind of wonder and awe.  The nun, as Gaita describes her, interacts with her patients in the absence of any condescension whatsoever.  Her love is so pure that it compels Gaita to affirm, as he puts it, “its rightness.” Gaita isolates this experience because for him its singularity forces a kind of recognition upon reflection that must acknowledge that in this person, this nun, virtue, in a sense, shows itself as beyond virtue – a goodness that is not merely good, but Goodness itself.  Other expressions for it may be: supererogatory action, infinite goodness, divine goodness, etc.

I would like to say that such experiences or epiphanies are the kind of recognitions that set a limit to our moral reflection.  And when they are so recognized, we are left with the distinct impression that their application is not susceptible to replication.  There is no sense in which I or anyone else can decide to try and improve on our Goodness.  We can try to be more good than bad. We can seek to be good in certain circumstances.  But to achieve moral purity or perfection is a kind of non-sense.  “I think I will be infinitely Good today”.  In fact, that anyone should strive to be good is a sure indication that the Goodness of which I speak is not in him or her.

And yet Jesus says to his followers, “Be ye perfect, as your Father is heaven is perfect.”  Sounds like Jesus has just uttered complete nonsense.  And in one sense he has.  As a prescription for future action, no sense can be given to what the Lord has declared.  (OK, this morning I am going to embody the Truth, exemplify Goodness, and in all things act in perfect Love).  But must all moral interests be considered as prescriptions for “right living”?

What if that to which Jesus has alerted his disciples is not a radical prescription for the sake of serious moral endeavor, but a description of the astonishing contours of divine goodness when reflected in some corner of the created order.  What if our Lord is giving a nod to how Goodness, Truth, Love, Purity, Honesty, Sincerity, etc., might look if recognized in someone who says they belong to God.  It is one thing to avoid killing someone who deserves it.  It is quite another to call someone a “fool” and thereby kill him anyway.   Perhaps, because these astonishing virtues are said to be in Jesus is why we see that awe and wonder are so natural to the believer’s experience.  Perhaps it is part of what believers mean when they speak of Jesus as “God”.  Perhaps, it is part of what we mean by the word “God” — theologically speaking.

by: Dr. Jeffrey G. Willetts

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