This Sunday, we will turn to perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached: the “Sermon on the Mount.” Actually, it would be more accurate to say we are continuing to turn to this passage in Matthew, as the Lord’s Prayer is right in the middle of it. But now we get to look at the surrounding sections.
And what a lot there is to consider! Jesus’ instructions are so forceful, so intense, that readers have struggled to know what to do with them.
How literally should we take Jesus’ words? One of the church fathers, Origen, reading Jesus’ statement that “it is better to lose one part of your body than for all of it to be thrown into hell” actually castrated himself in response. Less dramatically, Anabaptists have understood Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek” as a requirement for Christians to be pacifists. At the other end of the interpretive spectrum, some have argued that this sermon is merely meant to wake us up to action, to provoke us, but it is not meant to be taken literally at all.
Also, how does this sermon relate to the gospel? Some (theologically liberal) have seen this sermon to be the summation of the gospel, since Jesus came to earth simply to call us to a new way of living and loving. Others (most frequently Lutherans) see this sermon as “law,” not gospel. Its point is to humble us so that we recognize our need for the forgiveness of Christ.
There is no easy resolution to these questions: Jesus is intentionally challenging us to think about what he is saying. But a good place to begin to find the answers is at the end, because it is there that Jesus specifically tells us how we should hear his sermon. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.” Jesus’ instructions here are not meant simply to inspire us or even simply to humble us. They are meant to be the foundation of our lives, a bedrock of righteousness upon which we build all our decisions, desires, and dreams. Those who do, Jesus says, will stand firm when the storm of judgment comes. They will find themselves “blessed.”