All Saints’ Day • Matthew 5:1–12 • November 6, 2011
By Bruce M. Hartung
Edward Blair suggested that Matthew’s understanding of salvation centered on “knowing, believing, being, and doing.”1 I have found that center point to be very helpful in meditating on, studying, and preaching on Matthean texts.
Expounding on this, Blair states, “The disciple must be inwardly good, not externally correct . . . But inner goodness is not enough. It must lead to loving acts of service.”2 Furthermore, “The higher righteousness and perfection, about which Matthew talks, mean simply being and acting like Jesus.”3
In the case of the Sermon on the Mount, the gift Christ brings is salvation; the challenge is that the gift is received and made the central core and basis of the life that is lived. As disciples of Christ, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we work to orient our lives more to the life of Christ, our faith more to a lived faith patterned in the life of Christ, our inner hearts molded more and more by the heart of Christ and evidenced in ways-of-being that are, in fact, different from that experienced in the ordinary of life apart from Christ. Thus, these represent Jesus’s teachings about what a faith that is alive looks like, or, perhaps better said, what the follower of Christ looks like. A follower of Christ looks like this because this is what Christ looks like, and a believer conforms his or her life to his.
Moving in this direction avoids a number of other possible directions for a sermon. One of them is that the Sermon on the Mount is law in the law and gospel sense, and as such, it shows us how much we are in need of a Savior. That is, it is an impossible picture to fulfill, and therefore its function is to drive us to the foot of the cross. This is true, at least in part. The gospel of Christ’s forgiveness should be proclaimed as people look at this and understand that they fall short. But this may not be the central reason for and context in which Jesus spoke these words.
Another direction is that this is Jesus’s Torah and, thus, is what he requires of any disciple. This is why some interpreters stretch to find ten beatitudes as Jesus’s new ten commandments. This may be a vision of Jesus’s picture of a disciple that beckons us, but to set the Sermon on the Mount as the condition for being a follower of Jesus would likely mean that there would be few followers. I, for instance, could not fully live up to this picture.
Another direction is that each saying represents one kind or type of person. In this direction, a sermon would encourage people to discern their gift from among the list and point to the list as a catalogue of talents and attitudes that together should make up the corporate diversity of all those who follow Christ. In this direction, the “happy (blessed) are you who . . .” becomes a call to identify which of the many characteristics are spiritual gifts given and therefore in need of strengthening. The assumption is not a holistic one, but rather an individual descriptive one. In the light of the teachings that follow—“you are the salt of the earth” and “your light must shine before others” (see Mt 5:13, 16)—this direction would seem quite a stretch.
The direction suggested here is to orient all the sayings in Matthew 5:1–12 to the life of Christ. There is, therefore, little polemic here against an opponent, even though the Pharisees and Sadducees may have taken considerable offense at some of these sayings. Rather, Jesus was not only drawing a picture of what one of his disciples would look like (imperfectly, of course), but was also drawing all things to himself. He was challenging his disciples and all his hearers to live life as he did.
The preacher would then develop the nine beatitudes with how Christ was in his ministry, life, and teachings. In this way, it is Christ who leads the way, and we mold ourselves to him as his followers. The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, are rooted in the life of Christ rather than simply teachings from Christ about how to live life. A theme of Christ walking the talk so that we can walk it as well could help capture this.
The focus of the sermon becomes the life of Christ as perfectly embodying the characteristics expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, and we, as his baptized disciples, conform our life, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, more and more closely with his.
1 Edward Blair, Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Abingdon Press, 1960), 135.
2 Ibid., 136.
3 Ibid., 137.