The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus Christ, which emphasizes his moral teaching found in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Sermon on the Mount is the first of the Five Discourses of Matthew and takes place relatively early in the Ministry of Jesus after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, finished his fasting and meditation retreat in the desert, and begun to preach in Galilee. The name and location of the mountain are unstated; the Mount of Beatitudes is the traditional interpretation.
The Sermon is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus found in the New Testament and has been one of the most widely quoted elements of the Canonical Gospels.
It includes some of the best-known teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, and the widely recited Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount is generally considered to contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship.
While the issue of the exact theological structure and composition of the Sermon on the Mount is subject to debate among scholars, specific components within it, each associated with particular teachings, can be identified.
Matthew 5:3–12 discusses the Beatitudes. These describe the character of the people of the Kingdom of Heaven, expressed as “blessings“.
The Greek word most versions of the Gospel render as “blessed,” can also be translated “happy” (Matthew 5:3–12 of Young’s Literal Translation for an example). In Matthew, there are eight (or nine) blessings, while in Luke there are four, followed by four woes.
In almost all cases the phrases used in the Beatitudes are familiar from an Old Testament context, but in the sermon, Jesus gives them new meaning. Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and mastery; they echo the highest ideals of Jesus’ teachings on spirituality and compassion.
In Christian teachings, the Works of Mercy, which have corporal and spiritual components, have resonated with the theme of the Beatitude for mercy. These teachings emphasize that these acts of mercy provide both temporal and spiritual benefits.
Matthew 5:13–16 presents the metaphors of salt and light. This completes the profile of God’s people presented in the beatitudes and acts as the introduction to the next section.
There are two parts in this section, using the terms “salt of the earth” and Light of the World to refer to the disciples – implying their value. Elsewhere, in John 8:12, Jesus applies Light of the World to himself.
Jesus preaches about hell and what hell is like:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother “Raca (fool)” shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”
The longest discourse in the Sermon is Matthew 5:17–48, traditionally referred to as the Antitheses or Matthew’s Antitheses. In the discourse, Jesus fulfills and reinterprets the Old Covenant and in particular its Ten Commandments, contrasting with what “you have heard” from others.
For example, he advises turning the other cheek, and to love your enemies, in contrast to taking an eye for an eye. According to most interpretations of Matthew 5:17, 18, 19, and 20, and most Christian views of the Old Covenant, these new interpretations of the Law and Prophets are not opposed to the Old Testament, which was the position of Marcion, but form Jesus’ new teachings which bring about salvation, and hence must be adhered to, as emphasized in Matthew 7:24–27 towards the end of the sermon.
In Matthew 6 Jesus condemns doing what would normally be “good works” simply for recognition and not from the heart, such as those of alms, prayer, and fasting. The discourse goes on to condemn the superficiality of materialism and calls the disciples not to worry about material needs, but to “seek” God’s kingdom first.
The first part of Matthew 7, i.e. Matthew 7:1–6 deals with judging. Jesus condemns those who judge others before first judging themselves:
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
In the last part in Matthew 7:17–29 Jesus concludes the sermon by warning against false prophets.
The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount have been a key element of Christian ethics, and for centuries the sermon has acted as a fundamental recipe for the conduct of the followers of Jesus.
In the 5th century, Saint Augustine began his book Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount by stating:
If anyone will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life.
The last verse of chapter 5 of Matthew is a focal point of the sermon that summarizes its teachings by advising the disciples to seek perfection. The Greek word telios used to refer to perfection also implies an end, or destination, advising the disciples to seek the path towards perfection and the Kingdom of God. It teaches that God’s children are those who act like God.
The teachings of the sermon are often referred to as the Ethics of the Kingdom: they place a high level of emphasis on “purity of the heart” and embody the basic standard of Christian righteousness.
The issue of the theological structure and composition of the Sermon on the Mount remains unresolved.
One group of theologians ranging from Saint Augustine in the 5th century to Michael Goulder in the 20th century, see the Beatitudes as the central element of the Sermon.
Others such as Bornkamm see the Sermon arranged around the Lord’s prayer, while Daniel Patte, closely followed by Ulrich Luz, sees a chiastic structure in the sermon.
Dale Allison and Glen Stassen have proposed a structure based on triads. Jack Kingsbury and Hans Dieter Betz see the sermon as composed of theological themes, e.g. righteousness or way of life.
The high ethical standards of the Sermon have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways by different Christian groups and Craig S. Keener states that at least 36 different interpretations regarding the message of the Sermon exist, which he divides into 8 categories of views:
- The predominant medieval view, “reserving a higher ethic for clergy, especially in monastic orders”
- Luther’s view that it represents an impossible demand like the Law of Moses
- The Anabaptist a literal view which directly applies the teachings
- The Social Gospel view
- The Christian existentialism view
- Schweitzer’s view of an imminent eschatology referring to an interim ethic
- Dispensational eschatology which refers to the future Kingdom of God
- Inaugurated eschatology in which the Sermon’s ethics remain a goal to be approached, yet realized later
Comparison with the Sermon on the Plain
While Matthew groups Jesus’ teachings into sets of similar material, the same material is scattered when found in Luke.
The Sermon on the Mount may be compared with the similar but more succinct Sermon on the Plain as recounted by the Gospel of Luke (6:17–49), which occurs at the same moment in Luke’s narrative, and also features Jesus heading up a mountain, but giving the sermon on the way down at a level spot.
Some scholars believe that they are the same sermon, while others hold that Jesus frequently preached similar themes in different places.
Modern parallels with Buddhist teachings
Although modern parallels between the teachings of Jesus and Buddhist philosophy have been drawn (by the 14th Dalai Lama for example), these comparisons emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century, and there is no historically reliable evidence of contacts between Buddhism and Jesus during his life.
Modern scholarship has almost unanimously agreed that claims of the travels of Jesus to Tibet, Kashmir or India (see Unknown years of Jesus) and the influence of Buddhism on his teachings are without historical basis. The similarities between the teachings of Buddha and Jesus have been noted.
According to the Perennial Philosophy
According to perennialist author Frithjof Schuon, the message of the Sermon is a perfect synthesis of the whole Christian tradition.
The text has the largest number of perennial and universal doctrines and spiritual advice of all Scripture. Much of what Bible readers remember from Scripture derives from the Sermon. Source of spiritual and moral instructions, the Sermon on the Mount is regarded by the Perennial Philosophy “as the quintessence itself of religion“.
Perennialism considers the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount as belonging to the esoteric dimension of Christianity.