The Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon.

One of the most well-known passages in the New Testament, The Sermon on the Mount, is not a sermon.  Jesus speaks to four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, while a crowd of people seem to be listening in (Matthew 5:1).  The painting accompanying this post is a little misleading in this regard. In any case, both the content of the sermon and especially the ending reveal that it is intended for all who hear (Matthew 7:28-29).  Jesus often pretends that his teachings are restricted to disciples, which makes little sense, especially since they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer (Mark 4:10-12).

It would be a good idea to read Matthew’s version, chapters 5-7.  Luke has a condensed version, sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49).  I’m going to stick to Matthew.  Remember that the Sermon contains both the beatitudes (blessings) as well as the Lord’s Prayer.  Some people think it is the clearest and most concise statement of Christianity, so much so that it could stand alone.

It’s important to remember that Jesus is not a Christian talking to other Christians.  He is a Jew talking to other Jews.  Christianity wouldn’t be around for another thirty years.  One thing this means is that the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus talking.  It’s Matthew, writing about 50 years after the death of Jesus.  And Matthew has an agenda: to show that Jesus comes to fulfill Torah, not to sweep it away.  Or at least this is the diplomatic message of Matthew.  What he actually says is different.

Jesus says

Jesus says he is not challenging or changing the Law.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.  For I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)

But he does change the Law.

  • You have heard it said, “do not murder.” But I say to you do not get angry with your brother (Matt 5:21-22).
  • Or you have heard it said, “love your neighbor.” But I say to you “love your enemies.” (Matt 5:43-44)
  • Or you have heard it said an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matt. 38-39)

This is not just a change in emphasis.  It’s a change in content of the teachings of the Torah.  It’s not the Law that matters most.  It is the thinking of the one who follows the Law that matters.

Tension with the synagogue

To be in tension with the synagogue was not only a religious matter. It meant estrangement from one’s people and community. Matthew responds to Jewish charges that Christians abolished the Law, and therefore emphatically denies such charge in Matt 5:17-20, verses which are unique to Matthew.  (Viljoen, p141)

But of course, Matthew’s statement is misleading.  Matthew (5:18) assumes that Jesus is the Messiah.  From this perspective, everything has already been accomplished (πάντα γένηται).  From now on the fundamental teaching of the Bible resides not in Torah, but in Jesus himself.  Jesus has become the Word (John 1:1-5) and the Law.  Matthew may be reluctant to say so plainly, but he says it.

Jesus is not just internalizing the law; he is personalizing it

It is often argued that Jesus internalizes the Torah.  It’s not enough not to murder.  You must reign in your anger.  The Law says do not commit adultery; Jesus says do not even look at another woman with lust.  And so on.  This is true, but it neglects the many places in the Hebrew Bible where the heart rather than the Law is emphasized.

  • Deuteronomy 30:11-14: “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”
  • Psalm 37:31: “The Law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip.”
  • Psalm 40:8: “I desire to do your will, O my God; your Law is in your heart.”
  • Jeremiah 31:33 “I will put My Law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts.”

To be sure, Jesus puts the internalization of the Law at the center of its transformation.  This is the intention of such extravagant statements as “if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:29)  The emphasis of Jesus is different, but the real difference is that the Law becomes the Word.  Jesus is the Law.  To follow Jesus is to follow the Law.

In spite of Matthew’s attempt to smooth things over, the Sermon on the Mount is where the teachings of Judaism and Christianity depart.  Matthew interpreted the Messiah’s teaching as an eschatological Law against which the first Law is to be measured (Viljoen, p 146).  Jesus’ body is the temple, and his word is the Law.


Amy-Jill Levine has written a charming book on the Sermon on the Mount, arguing that when Jesus speaks of “fulfilling” the Torah he means drawing out its implications.  Focusing on the Beatitudes, she argues that they are a teaching of community.

There’s a civility to the community the Sermon on the Mount envisions, a civility frequently missing in the kingdoms on earth. At the same time, there is a boldness that the community members possess: they can express their needs to others, who will answer; the homeless will find a home, and the hungry will find food. (p 113)

We are members of a community who have both resources and needs. Some are healthy and well off, others are sick and poor. Respond to the needs of others and share your gifts. This too is the message of the Sermon on the Mount.

A contemporary version of the Beatitudes

In 2016, Pope Francis proposed a contemporary version of the Beatitudes.

Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart.

Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.

Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover him.

Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.

Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.

Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians.

About one thing is Pope Francis mistaken; or rather he misses an opportunity.  Matthews’s version of The Sermon on the Mount divides Jews and Christians over the locus of the Law.  But nothing in the Beatitudes divides Jews and Christians.  All who belong to the Abrahamic tradition could sign on to Francis’ version.  Others too.   If the Sermon on the Mount divides, it also unites.


Amy-Jill Levine, Sermon on the Mount.  Abingdon Press, 2020

“Pope offers new Beatitudes for saints of a new age”. Catholic news. 2016.

Francois P. Viljoen, “Jesus’ Teaching on the  `Torah’ on the Sermon on the Mount.”   Neotestamentica, 2006, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2006), pp 135-155.

5 thoughts on “The Sermon on the Mount is not a sermon”

  1. I think a lot of people try to live by these principles even though they are atheists,But it is not easy..I never knew what ” turning the other cheek” meant. Don’t do evil things even if people do evil things to you?I I suppose we have an urge to retaliate but we need to pause before we do to think about the escalating damage we may create

  2. However what I wrote above seems to have little connection to religion n;it might seem common sense except for turning the other cheek, and anyone who heard Jesus say these things would be more affected than I am reading them alone in self isolation and without a community.

  3. Better than what other “gods” have sggested as a way of life
    such as not killing gnats & flies or human sacrifice
    The human sacrifice of overwhelming people with adverts ad cheap credit in Western Society is something else again

  4. Dear tdw, A good point. I was giving a Bible dictionary definition of Beatitude as a blessing, but it would have helped to elaborate, and “principles of the kingdom of God” is a good elaboration. Fred

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