Life of Christ, Part 6: The Sermon on the Mount

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The Sermon on the Mount
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This is the sixth in a 12-part series looking at the life of Christ.

St. Augustine begins the first book of his treatise on the Sermon on the Mount by calling the sermon “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” He is hardly alone in this praise. For two millennia this compendium of the moral teaching of Jesus has been recognized as a soaring monument of moral wisdom.

But like many monuments, it has detractors, with Friedrich Nietzsche perhaps the most vocal. This 19th-century German thinker, whose best-known contribution to human enlightenment was to announce the death of God, denounced the Sermon on the Mount as a central text in the “slave morality” that he despised. The centerpiece of his own ethical reflections — the preeminence of the “will to power,” embodied in a superior being called the Übermensch (over-man) — later helped shape the thinking of Adolf Hitler and the ideology of Nazism.

The Sermon on the Mount, needless to say, has withstood Nietzsche’s assault and seems likely to weather other such assaults in the future.

Collection of teachings

Rather than being the text of a single discourse by Jesus, the sermon is a collection of his teachings. This is how Jesus Christ said men and women should organize and conduct their lives.

There are two versions of the sermon in the New Testament. One, sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain, is in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke (6:17-49). The site of its delivery is described as “a level place,” apparently to emphasize the universal outreach of Jesus’ teaching.

Pope St. John Paul II and the beatitudes
In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope St. John Paul II addresses the beatitudes and calls the Sermon on the Mount the Magna Carta of Gospel morality. He writes: “The beatitudes are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behavior. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the commandments (cf. Mt 5:20-48). At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation towards the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life” — (No. 16).

The second version of the sermon is in Matthew’s Gospel, where it covers three whole chapters (5-7). Here it is said to have been delivered “on the mountain,” the intent perhaps being to liken Christ to Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the tablets of the law and presenting them to the people. The sermon has two parts: first a statement of broad moral principles, the beatitudes, then their application to particular issues, together with a brief treatise on prayer that includes the Our Father.

The continuity between Moses and Jesus is crucial since Jesus’ moral doctrine by no means replaces the Ten Commandments. Rather, as Jesus himself says, he aimed “not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17).

The name “beatitude” comes from the Latin word beatus meaning “blessed.” Taken together, the beatitudes provide, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “a kind of veiled interior biography” of Jesus himself. As recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, they are:

  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
  • “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
  • “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:3-12).

Virtuous attitude

The beatitudes are often described as paradoxes since they turn worldly values upside down while declaring that those whom the world scorns are “blessed.” The first one — “blessed are the poor in spirit” — announces the underlying moral vision that embraces the other “blesseds” that follow.

In his classic “Introduction to the Devout Life,” St. Francis de Sales quotes the first beatitude and then immediately adds, “Cursed, then, are the rich in spirit, for the misery of hell is their portion.” Here is a surprisingly strong language for a saint famous for his kindliness and good humor. Its use illustrates how important St. Francis considered the virtuous attitude being commended here to be.

Traditionally this attitude has been called detachment. And St. Francis illustrates it when he writes, “Whatever portion of them [riches] you may possess, keep your heart free from the least affection toward them.”

St. John Henry Newman makes a similar point in a sermon that carries the forbidding title “The World Our Enemy.” While conceding that the “goods of life and the applause of men” really are good things as far as they go, Newman notes that they are necessarily “short-lived” and offers this note of caution: “As a traveler on serious business may be tempted to interrupt his trip to linger over a beautiful view, so this well-ordered and divinely governed world, with all its blessings of sense and knowledge, may lead us to neglect those interests which will endure when itself has passed away.”

Everyday applications

Having laid the groundwork with the beatitudes, Jesus next applies the principles that they embody to various situations in everyday life. In doing so, he systematically expands and enriches the commandments of the Torah, the Jewish Law, indicating as much by repeated use of the formula “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.”

So, for example, on anger: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21-22).

On the indissolubility of marriage: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32).

And on enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:43-45).

The Lord’s Prayer

The Our Father is preceded by a brief instruction on how Jesus’ followers are to pray — not like “hypocrites” who want to seen praying and admired for it, but in a modest manner and without multiplying words (Mt. 6:1-8). “When we pray the Our Father,” Pope Benedict remarks, “we are praying to God with words given by God.” Its first three petitions concern God and his place in the world, while the next four are about our hopes, needs, and hardships (Mt 6:9-13).

After the sermon, Matthew describes the impact that Jesus’ words had on his first hearers: “The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29). We, too, may be impressed by Christ’s lofty doctrine yet ask how we, with all our weaknesses and failings, can live up to such high demands. Here, the advice of St. Josemaría Escrivá can be a help: “Your interior life has to be just that: to begin … and to begin again.”

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.