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Why is this chapter called great?
Since ancient times, this chapter has been known as the start of the "Sermon on the Mount." It has been valued as a summary of the teaching of Jesus. In this summary are the beautiful and enigmatic "beatitudes" and teachings that challenge people to the highest of ethical behaviors.
A key verse
"You have heard it said ... but I say to you ..." This formula appears six times in the chapter. With each occurrence it announces that Jesus is going to cut to the essence of a rule and show the real standard of righteousness.
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The Sermon on the Mount continues into chapters 6 and 7. In chapter 6 is the Lord's Prayer. Chapter 7 has the well known sayings about "taking the log out of your own eye" first before you criticize a neighbor, and the saying about "ask and you will receive."
If you want to read more of Jesus' teachings, there are four other lengthy teachings recorded in the gospel of Matthew. They start at 10.5, 13.1, 18.1 and 24.3
Much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount is also found in Luke starting at 6.20. This is sometimes called the "Sermon on the Plain" because (in verse 17) Luke reports that Jesus comes down out of the mountains before he speaks.
Where did the title come from? Well, Matthew does say that Jesus went "up on the side of a mountain" to teach. But, Jesus teaches at other times and places, why did this teaching get a title? As long ago as St. Augustine (who lived from 354 to 430 A.D.), people have thought these chapters form a sort of summary or introduction to what Jesus taught. Augustine called these chapters "the sermon on the mount" and wrote about them. Perhaps the name is even older than Augustine, but that is the first time we know it was used.
Always a significant work. We have a number of writings from the very earliest centuries of the church. Among those are writings or commentaries on this chapter, a sign of how it has always been regarded as significant. Early writers such as Irenaeus (died about 200) and Clement of Alexandria (died about 215) wrote on Matthew. Augustine is the earliest to write specifically on the sermon on the mount and that comes from about 400. Scattered writings on this sermon still exist from that point on up to the Reformation (started in 1517) when various leaders of that reform (such as Luther and Calvin) paid great attention to this sermon. As we reach the time of the Enlightenment and modern times, the amount of writing on the sermon, as on other parts of the Bible, turns into a torrent.
Section 1: 1-12: The Sermon begins with the Blessings
What does it mean to be blessed?
From how the word is used in other writings both in and out of the Bible, we can see that blessing is not just a random wish for good things, and it certainly isn't about being wealthy. It often is used (outside of the Bible) to connect someone with the gods or to suggest that the person will become like the gods or that the gods have smiled on this person.
The section of this chapter from verse 3 through 12 are often called "the Beatitudes." That is, as you might guess, from the word "blessed." In Latin, the word for "blessed" is beatitudo, and that is where we got the word.
There is no way we could even just list the various ideas people have had about each of these verses. That alone would take too much time. Instead, we will just offer one idea or comment. These are often chosen to provoke your thoughts or to help you see the verse in a new way.
verse 3: "depend only on him." Your translation may have said "poor in spirit." What may be spoken of here is not forced poverty, but a person who deliberately chooses to live in a simple manner. Such a person can live without wanting things because they depend on God.
Verse 4: "grieve." Some point out that grieving, or mourning can be for more than personal losses. One can mourn about being human: a creature who will die someday. To grieve in this way is to be aware of your limits and to know (as in the previous verse) that you are dependent on God.
Verse 5: "humble." The word "meek" is sometimes used, but the sense is more of living within one's limits, not claiming more than is appropriate.
Verse 6: "want to obey him." Often translated as "righteousness." This is a key concept in Matthew. Here are some places where righteousness appears: 1.19, (Joseph is a righteous man), 3.15 (at Jesus' baptism), in this chapter at verse 10 and 20, in the parable of the sower in 13.36-43, the story of two sons in 21.28-32 and also at 21.33, and 23.23.
Verse 7: "mercy." See how the concept of mercy is developed and used in these passages: 5.38-42, 43-48, 6.12, 14-15, and 7.10-11.
Verse 8: "pure hearts." A focus on intention rather than external observance. Notice how this is also discussed in this chapter at 5.27-30 and latter in Matthew at 15.18-19.
Verse 9: "make peace." Look at the rest of this chapter in terms of how, in various situations, Jesus urges people to make peace.
Verse 10-12: "treated badly for doing right." To be a follower of Jesus does not mean to go from one victory to another. Being a follower can involve trouble and persecution. But, these verses suggest that the follower of Jesus should not regard such trouble as a problem, but a sign of fidelity to God.
Section 2: 13-16: Salt and Light
Salt. We might think of salt as something that causes high blood pressure, or something that -- when put in the soil -- might cause crops to fail. However, salt is a seasoning to give flavor to food and in ancient times it was also valued as a preservative. It is these uses of salt Jesus is using here.
In the world. To be salt for the earth, the believer must be in intimate contact with the world, affecting the world and doing work there. To be light for the world, the believer must be visible to the world. The life of the follower of Jesus cannot be one of complete withdrawal from the sinful world.
Light for the world. See Philippians 2.15 for another use of this.
Section 3:17-20: The Law of Moses
The Law and the Prophets. By "The Law" Jesus' hearers would have understood him to be referring to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis to Deuteronomy) that contain specific rules and points of law such as the Ten Commandments and the rules for sacrificing at the temple. These books also contain the larger perspective of God's covenant with the Israelite people. By "The Prophets" Jesus' hearers would have understood him to be referring to the books of the Old Testament such as Isaiah and Jeremiah that contain records of God's words to the people. Also included would be the books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, the "former prophets."
If the Law is sometimes reduced to a set of rules, then the Prophets directed people to the true meaning of the law. But it would be a horrible injustice to suggest that "Jews just thought you should obey a set of rules" or that "Jews were legalistic." In this chapter, Jesus echoes things that ancient rabbis such as Hillel were saying. Certainly, the Jews in Jesus' time were aware of the dangers of reducing the deep principals of the Law to a set of rules to be manipulated for your advantage. The Pharisees with their additional rules and debates about what was and wasn't a violation of the law were concerned to "build a fence around the law" so that people wouldn't violate God's will out of ignorance or carelessness.
In this section Jesus indicates that he will describe what true fulfillment of the Law is, rather than repealing the law.
Section 4: 21-26: Anger
You know ... but I tell you ... This phrase or formula introduces a number of Jesus' interpretations of the law. The "you know" part refers to what his hearers would have read in the Torah.
Three examples It is probably best not to try to separate three examples into distinct cases and argue about what sort of anger fits each case. They are all illustrations of the seriousness of anger.
You fool. Name calling in ancient times is even more serious than now because of the significance given to names as revealing the true nature of a person.
Ritual and reconciliation. Overcoming anger is so serious it can even take precedence over religious obligations.
Section 5: 27-32: Marriage and Divorce
True marriage Again, Jesus goes to the inner meaning of a practice. Marriage isn't a matter of convention and just being able to say, "I never had sex with that woman" but it goes to the reality of the heart: are you loyal to your partner above all else?
Pluck out your eye. Of course, this is a metaphor, a striking example. It isn't your physical eye that causes the sin, but the passion or lust in your soul. Jesus is saying that things that are dear to you that really cause you problems should be removed. Some things are just too tempting for us to resist, and so we should avoid them altogether.
Divorce. Divorce in this culture was a male action, a women couldn’t do it. A single adult woman was almost unimaginable, she would have no way to survive except by prostitution or slavery, so if her husband divorces her, she will have to get remarried quickly.
Sexual sin. The exception to the rule against divorce may not be much of an exception. The Greek word is porneia, from where we get the words pornography and prostitution. However, what exactly it refers to in the ancient world can be debated. It might be adultery specifically, any sexual act outside of marriage, or even an illegal marriage. But that isn't Jesus' point. He uses this example to show that even a divorce isn't a divorce. Marriage vows are intended to be permanent.