Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount was his first major teaching in public according to his biographer Matthew. In contemporary language, it was his debut, his launch party, his initial public offering.
Matthew tells us that Jesus had been healing “all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering from severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” (4:24). Jesus imbedded himself with the down and out, and he offered them liberation.
Unsurprisingly, then, Jesus was attracting “large crowds” from all over Syria, Israel, and the surrounding region (4:25). People were traveling to see him. The enthusiasm around Osho in the documentary Wild, Wild Country comes to mind. Jesus was quickly becoming a celebrity minister, a superstar.
So when Jesus goes on the public record, what does he say? What does Jesus consider most important for these “large crowds” to hear as his new ministry surges with success?
Perhaps we can reorient our priorities today around what is truly important based on Jesus’s message.
Interestingly, Jesus talks almost exclusively about ethics, about God’s will and how we should live, especially in our everyday relationships with others.
Jesus’s beginning is surprising. He proclaims God’s blessing on those the world often sees as losers like the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, and the justice-starved. God’s value system is upside-down. These people are on the path to true happiness.
He calls his people to be salt and light for the world, sources of preservation and illumination for others.
He intensifies Moses’s teaching and forbids attitudes and actions that come so easily to us: hatred, lust, broken relationships, lying, and revenge. He demands love for enemies and unpretentious generosity for the poor as requirements for salvation. If you want to be God’s kids, love like he loves, even when it’s totally undeserved. That’s who God really is and what God wants.
He rejects spiritual babbling and teaches a simple prayer focused on God’s kingdom coming to earth, our basic needs, and human reconciliation. He insists that God only forgives people who forgive others.
He promises God’s faithful provision for those who give to the poor and put God’s kingdom first. God loves us and won’t abandon us, so resist the urge to store up for yourself.
He fiercely condemns religious judgmentalism and hypocrisy. These are dead ends that help no one. Instead, he tells people to walk a new path and treat others the way they want to be treated. Swap self-privilege for other-love: that’s the way to live God’s will.
The climax of Jesus’s Sermon is most challenging to the “large crowds” gathered around him: he warns that the seekers of miracles, prophecies, and exorcisms will be rejected by God if they don’t practice his commands. Many will identify themselves as insiders and use the lingo like, “Lord, Lord,” but God isn’t looking for badges and slogans. Only those who build their house on Jesus’s ethics will stand firm in the tide of life.
What Is Truly Important?
I find Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount interesting and counter-intuitive. He’s riding a wave of massive popular success. The stadium is sold out. (Jesus never actually sold anything.) He knows that people are hanging on his words.
But he offers no tricks or gimmicks. There’s no flash or sleight-of-hand. Jesus speaks in plain language about what God’s upside-down kingdom values and how we should live our lives, including costly requirements like loving our enemies and putting others first. Jesus could have easily told the crowds what they wanted to hear, fanned his charismatic status, and built an even larger movement. But he doesn’t. His focus is elsewhere.
What is truly important? What is worth prioritizing in our lives and faith amid our swirling interests and emotions? Jesus’s Sermon offers a reorienting perspective, which I find grounding and liberating.
If you want to read it for yourself, it’s at the beginning of the New Testament in Matthew 5-7. Have a good week!