Introducing the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) #1

Tim Chester, February 2008
Reading the Sermon on the Mount

We just coming to the end of a series in church looking at the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve already posted my contributions to the series which looked the breaking the cycles of conflict and breaking the cycles of greed. I’m going to post some thoughts on how we should read the Sermon on the Mount today.

Two common questions that people ask of the Sermon in different ways are:

1. Is it practical? Or is it designed for a future era or to make us realise our need of Christ?

2. Does it offer a personal ethic or a social ethic? Should I, for example, just renounce violence in my personal interactions or also take a pacifist stance in my social involvement?

Wrestling with such questions has given rise to a number of unhelpful ways of reading the Sermon on the Mount:

  • An interim reading: the Sermon offered a temporary way of living before an imminent end of history which did no materialise so it does not tell us how to live long-term.
  • A dispensational reading: the Sermon tells us how to live in the coming millennial age, but is not an ethic for the present.
  • An existential reading: the Sermon is not a literal code of conduct, but a summons to decide.
  • A Lutheran reading: the Sermon presents an impossible ethic that drives us to Christ as our righteousness.
  • A liberal reading: the Sermon presents a recipe for the advance of civilisation.

I want to suggest the Sermon does two things. The Sermon presents:

1. An ethic for the new people of God.

2. A critique of self-righteousness.

These two purposes intersect because Jesus is repeatedly saying, ‘Don’t be like this … instead be like this …’