This part of the gospel of Matthew, which is known as "The Sermon on the Mount," is unique to this gospel. Some of these teachings are present in the gospel of Mark and many of them are scattered throughout the gospel of Luke, but only in this gospel are these teachings gathered together and presented as a single sermon. The gospel tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds "he went up a mountain." His disciples follow and after they are seated around him, Jesus gives them this "teaching." As in the gospel of Mark, Jesus explains to his disciples what he has said to the people who are coming to hear him.
We have come to know this sermon as "the beatitudes” due to the repitition of the Latin word that has traditionally be translated as “ lessed." The blessings of Jesus turn the world upside down, for the "poor in spirit" and "the gentle" and "the meek" rarely seem in this life to be "blessed." As the first eight blessings (before Jesus blesses his disciples) begin and end with a blessing that mentions "the kingdom of heaven," we might well conclude that they all describe this kingdom, which is utterly unlike the kingdoms of the world. The Jesus, who began his ministry calling for repentance because the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is now explaining what this really means.
"Do not suppose," he says, "that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets." This should come as a surprise to those who have read the letters of Paul. Moreover, the gospel of Mark reports that Jesus said all foods were clean, which certainly is not what Jewish law says. "I did not come to abolish," Jesus repeats in the gospel of Matthew, "but to complete." (5:17) This means that, "so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot, will disappear from the [Jewish] law." This statement is evidence that the gospel was written for Jews to encourage them to see Jesus as the awaited Messiah. There is no statement like this in the gospel of Mark or in the other two gospels of the New Testament.
"Anyone," Jesus continues, "who sets aside even the least of the law's demands, and teaches others to do the same, will have the lowest place in the kingdom of heaven, whereas anyone who keeps the law, and teaches others to do so, will rank high in the kingdom of heaven." Is the author of this gospel criticizing the preaching of Paul? We cannot know. It is clear, however, that he does not share Paul's view of the Jewish law as bondage and a curse. Yet, he is critical of the scribes and Pharisees for in this gospel Jesus says to his disciples: "Unless you show yourselves far better than the scribes and Pharisees, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven." This gospel argues that the scribes and Pharisees are wrong not because they demand obedience to the Jewish law, but because they fail to live up to it.
What does this mean in practice? Jesus explains that his disciples must live by a higher standard than Jewish law requires in order to "complete" or fulfill it. Not only are they to avoid murder, but also they are not to nurse a grudge or to insult each other. Certainly, as Jewish law requires, they are not to commit adultery; but also they are to avoid looking at a woman with desire. A man is not to divorce his wife except for unchastity, nor is he to take an oath. And they are not to resist anyone who wrongs them. They have been taught to love their neighbor, but now they must also love their enemy. "There must be no limit to your goodness," Jesus tells them, "as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds."
Are these instructions only for the disciples? Are the disciples to be held to a higher standard of morality than can be expected of the crowds at the foot of the mountain? Jesus begins speaking about conflicts between "brothers," and that might be understood to mean only the disciples. And Jesus repeatedly says, "you have heard . . . [but] I say to you," which seems to make his message very particular and not a set of general laws for everyone. Yet, the gospel of Matthew was not written for the disciples, but instead for Jewish Christians and for Jews questioning the claims of the church. It seems likely, therefore, that the author thought that the Jewish Christian church, and not only the disciples of Jesus, should take to heart these teachings about the law.
The sermon then turns to religious practice and condemns hypocrites who act piously in public so they can be seen and admired. Jesus says good deeds, giving alms, fasting, and praying must be done "in secret" but will be rewarded by "your Father who sees what is done in secret." He tells them not to "go babbling on like the heathen" (Gentiles) in their prayers and teaches them the prayer that is now known in the church by Protestants as the "Lord's Prayer" or by Catholics as the "Our Father." Protestants will notice that the last part of the prayer they pray is missing in the gospel of Matthew, but Catholics will not share this surprise because they have always used these “concluding words" as a separate part of the Catholic liturgy. We will see that a somewhat different version of this prayer appears in the gospel of Luke, but the prayer is not in the gospels attributed to Mark and John.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains: "if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs that you have done." (I suspect most Christians do not draw this same conclusion from the words they pray.) Then Jesus presents an equally difficult teaching: "You cannot serve God and Money." (This teaching is also in 1 Timothy.) He continues by telling his disciples not to be anxious about what they need to live, promising that their heavenly Father will care for them as he cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. At this point in the sermon, Jesus seems to be chastising his disciples: "How little faith you have!" he says. Like the gospel of Mark, this gospel also portrays the disciples as lacking in their faith.
The Fruits of Faith
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged," Jesus teaches. "Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you." The Golden Rule is here, too. "Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the law and the prophets." Jesus tells them to watch out for "false prophets, who come to you dressed up as sheep while underneath they are savage wolves." As we do not hear of any false prophets during the ministry of Jesus, this seems to be a reference to false teachers in the life of the church, which has been written back into the gospel account. How is one to determine a false prophet? Jesus says, "You will recognize them by their fruit."
To emphasize this point, Jesus reminds the disciples: "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father." Repentance and faith are to be measured by justice, mercy, and love. Jesus concludes, "Whoever hears these words of mine and does not act on them" is like a man who built his house on sand and had it washed away when the floods came. The sermon ends with a statement that the people were "amazed at his teaching" because "he taught with a note of authority."
The Gospel as Literature
The sermon ends with the transitional statement, "When Jesus had finished." The author will use this same phrase four more times at the end of other sermons in the gospel of Matthew. This is additional evidence that the author is not merely reporting events but organizing materials into a story that has a definite structure.
The Hebrew scriptures record that Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive from God the law of the covenant. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus takes the place of God. He gives a new interpretation of the law to his disciples. Jesus is not a new Moses. The gospel does not report that he has conversations with God, as Moses does in the Jewish scriptures. Nor does Jesus claim to be delivering God's commandments to the people. He prays to God, but his words to those following him are his own. Jesus commands his disciples and teaches them the true meaning of Jewish law.
Although the gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy, Jesus is not even the last of the prophets. Jesus does not do what prophets do. He does not speak for God; instead, in his own words, he teaches the will of God. The Sermon on the Mount may be all about Jewish law, and it clearly says that those who follow Jesus are to keep the law. Nonetheless, the gospel of Matthew proclaims a kingdom of heaven that is new. Jesus in this gospel does not call the people to renew their obedience to the Torah, but instead to go beyond the commandments of Jewish law. The gospel of Matthew announces the coming of a king of the Jews who will rule as no other king ever has — who has already opened up the kingdom of heaven to all those who repent and live righteously.