Summing up the Sermon on the Mount
Now when Jesus had finished saying these words, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.
The two verses printed above show how the gospel writer sums up the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon which has been the focus of these Monday reflections in recent days. There are two things I notice about this summation.
First, I notice that the gospel says that there were crowds that had been listening to Jesus’ astounding teaching. When the sermon was introduced (Matthew 5:1), it seems that Jesus had left those crowds to go to the mountaintop. It was just the disciples that he was teaching in this sermon. By the end of the sermon, the crowds were listening too. Does this matter? Maybe it’s not all that significant, but I take it to mean that the good news has a way of spreading to an ever growing audience. In fact, that is what it’s supposed to do.
I think of the great effect this sermon has had on the world in the time since Jesus first spoke on that mountain. Just one more indication that scripture has transformative power in helping people grow spiritually. Case in point: Leo Tolstoy read the sermon and it changed his life, causing him to take on a life of poverty. Mahatma Gandhi read what Tolstoy had said about the sermon, and it became a key part of his strategy of non-violence, which had liberating impact on the Indian sub-continent. Martin Luther King noted the ways that Gandhi had incorporated the sermon into his political strategy and applied those insights to the non-violent civil rights movement in this country. Again, transformation.
All of that points to the widening influence of this sermon, as it moved from the small audience of 12 disciples on the top of a middle-eastern mountain to change our world. My intent in spending recent months reflecting on this sermon is to see how that sermon can continue to shape our world, shape our individual lives, shape our church. My hope and prayer is that attention paid to each verse in these three chapters (Matthew 5-7) can help us grow, can help us share the good news of God’s love known to us in Jesus, our teacher.
The second thing I notice is the amazement of the crowd, their surprise at the authority Jesus exhibits (much more powerful than the clergy of the day). In many places in the gospels, people listen to Jesus, scratch their heads and say: “Where did he get all this? Where did he come from? How does he speak with such authority?” It raises the question of what we regard as authoritative. These days, we hear a lot about a rise in authoritarianism in our world. But as we note that rise, we may be facing a decline in an appreciation for authority. All kinds of authorities are faced with questioning.
When the gospel says that people thought Jesus was speaking with authority, I imagine them thinking: “This guy knows what he’s talking about.” I imagine them perceiving that Jesus is someone they could trust, someone worth following. I mean, what was it about Jesus that he could walk up to busy fishermen or tax collectors and say “Follow me” and they would get up and do it?
As I reflect on the Sermon on the Mount, there are a number of things that surprise me. Some things strike me as mysterious, border-line baffling. But as I read these words, I pick up on the authority with which Jesus teaches. It makes me inclined to say that the way of Jesus is the way I want to go. As the old hymn goes, I may not know what the future holds but I know who holds the future.
It’s been a gift to spend time reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, bit by bit. I hope that there have been edifying moments. Truth be told, a main reason for doing it was for my own edification, to see how I can draw closer to understanding what Jesus has to say to me today. I’m not entirely sure what comes next for Monday Matters. I’m thinking I’m going to take a few weeks off to think about that. But I trust that we can all continue to see how the way of love, the Jesus movement, intersects with our daily lives.