The Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is one of the most famous sections of all of Scripture, and it is a favorite of a lot of people who aren’t even Christians, because it shows Jesus’ brilliance as a teacher, and establishes the highest moral and ethical standards known anywhere. And for those of us who are Christians, the values and theology taught in Jesus’ Sermon should be absolutely central to our lives.
Despite that, I think the SOTM is one of the most neglected and ignored parts of Scripture, and I think the reason it is so neglected and ignored is because it is so challenging: time after time, Jesus calls His disciples to live in ways that are completely at odds with the way the world “works,” and because of that, a lot of readers have decided that the SOTM is meant to be an impossibly high standard, “attractive to imagine, but impossible to fulfill.”
Contrary to that notion, I want to suggest what might be a controversial idea: Jesus teaches His followers to live in a way that is counter to the culture at large, and He actually expects us to do what He says. It is not the impressive teaching that Jesus gives which is controversial, but the fact that He plans to disrupt our lives by actually having us follow His teachings. For those of us (like me) who have come to be pretty comfortable living in 21st century America, this is certainly controversial, and if we pay attention to what Jesus says and actually try to do what He says, it will change our lives. And that’s the way it should be: as Christians, we study Scripture not primarily for information, but for transformation, and the SOTM offers an excellent platform for transformation.
Fundamentally, in the SOTM, Jesus is describing what His kingdom looks like, and when He does that, over and over again, He casts a vision of an alternative community. Jesus’ kingdom is “alternative” in the sense that He does not intend that its citizens will live by the same rules and values as everyone else; they will be distinctly different from the world. Jesus’ kingdom is a “community” because He is speaking to His disciples as a group, and He expects to see the values He expounds played out in communal living; we are not called to be holy hermits, but a community of salt and light in a desperate world.
Over the next several weeks, I’d like to take a closer look at the Sermon on the Mount, and while we won’t look at every verse in detail, we will examine what Jesus says about how we are to live as members of His alternative community.
John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, 1978), 26.
Randy Harris, Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount (Abilene, TX, Leafwood, 2012), 21: “…At the end of the sermon Jesus places no emphasis on understanding and all the emphasis on doing. The sermon is not a body of material to be cognitively mastered. It’s a life to be lived.”