Recently I have been engaging in conversations about whether or not the Sermon on the Mount was ever intended to be followed today by Christians. As my book, “The Cost of Community”, is entirely about doing just that, clearly I believe we are meant to. Yet I am not unfamiliar with ideas to the contrary, having cropped up in teachings I heard as a teenager. It was only when I heard my father question that thinking that I began to explore the idea that perhaps we are meant to follow the Sermon on the Mount. While this space is inadequate to fully explore why, I wanted to give a basic response.
It is important that I note up front that, while many sources helped me come to this position, it was a paper by German theologian, Joachim Jeremias, whose expertise in Hebrew Scriptures and Rabbinic texts bring stunning insight into New Testament writings, especially with respect to the person and teaching of Jesus.
The most common response I hear from those who suggest that we should not seek to live the Sermon on the Mount is that it was an unattainable ideal, expressed intentionally so by Jesus to demonstrate our need for Him. In fact, some suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is merely the Law on steroids, pushing us towards the despair in the face of the impossibility of the task, thus falling on our only hope- the grace of God that no person can hope to earn through obedience or good works. To be sure, my convictions about how we are to live out the Sermon on the Mount do not deny that no works, no adherence to law can earn us salvation.
One of the strongest indicators for me that Jesus intended (and intends) for His followers to obey the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount lie in the fact that there is no indication in the text that this is His intention. Some argue that the context- the people to whom He was speaking- makes that fact obvious. If this were the case, then the Sermon on the Mount would in no way point to Jesus. After all, if the point was to demonstrate that He was the only way to salvation through the despair of the impossible ideal, then you would either expect that Jesus would make no mention of salvation through Him alone, or if He did, that it would explicitly contrast with the surrounding “Law” texts. Looking at the text, however, you will find neither evidence.
Further, if His teachings were for those of that time in history who were still under the Law, then much of Matthew 7 is baffling. Jesus sums up the entirety of His teaching with the eschatological warning that, for those who hear what He is teaching, but do not do what He says, are fools who will not survive the final judgment before God- a judgment we all will face. In truth, few Christians who embrace the “Sermon as Law” idea are consistent with this idea. After all, which Christian does not look to the beauty and authority of the Lord’s Prayer; which Christians doesn’t teach the Golden Rule; which of us will shout to silence the children who sing about the man who builds his house on a rock? In fairness, not seeking to live the Sermon does not mean it has not value, but it is still an inconsistency to read it in whole as a means of producing despair, yet embracing bits and pieces are truth to be embraced.
Most often, I find that people cite the writings of the Apostle Paul, with his emphasis on our salvation by grace, through faith in Christ alone. However, as I suggested earlier, believing that we are to live the Sermon on the Mount in no way contradicts this truth. Again, this space is inadequate to fully explore the nuances, but I see this as an example of people reading Jesus through the lens of Paul, rather than Paul through the lens of Jesus. Doing the former wrongs both Jesus and Paul, muddying the waters of the truths they expressed and lived.
Finally, strongly supporting Jesus’ intention that we live His teachings in the Sermon is the fact that, from the very beginning of the life of the early Church, such an emphasis was explicit. The Epistle of James is in many ways the Sermon on the Mount set forward as community spiritual formation in a specific context. Throughout much of Paul’s writings, the themes of the Sermon are foundationally present- assumed practice. His emphasis against those seeking to live under the Law is important, but never explicitly or implicitly argue against the Sermon. Finally, the early Church explicitly practiced the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, evidenced in their earliest writings, such as the Didache. While not an explicit evidence, I am further convinced by the powerful impact made by people and groups throughout history who have practiced such a commitment- the Franciscans, the Anabaptists, Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and many more.
The best evidences that the Sermon on the Mount is meant to be lived out by Christians together are found in the text itself, something I do in much greater depth in my book. In the book, I make it very clear that I am not setting up the Sermon on the Mount as another set of rules to be followed. Rather, the Sermon on the Mount paints the picture of a people transformed by the work of Christ, united in His Spirit to build His kingdom for the glory of the Father. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it:
“The Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ ethics; the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus.”