The Sermon on the Mount remains one of the most unique texts in the Bible. Though Jesus’s sermon simmers with deep theological truth that militates against the secular conscience, those living well outside the confines of the established church still find the treatise to be a wonderful source of inspiration and insight. After all, most souls who have languished under bad bosses, corrupt political systems, and cruel neighbors long for a world defined by love, peace, and justice. For example, both those who pray for hours in a state of heightened spirituality and those who stumble about the streets for hours in a state of inebriation can resonate with the golden rule found in Matthew 12:7: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
The fact that both atheists such as Richard Dawkins and that pastors such as John Stott can find much to praise in the Sermon on the Mount raises an important question: “Who is the Sermon on the Mount for?” In other words, can atheist live out Jesus’s message or is it a unique message for Jesus’s followers?
A Kingdom Ethic For A Kingdom People
According to Jesus and to the New Testament authors, the Sermon on the Mount is a Kingdom ethic for a Kingdom people. Both Matthew 5 and its sister passage in Luke 6 affirm that the Sermon was delivered to by Jesus to his disciples. Jesus’s message is not for the crowds of this world. It is for those who are willing to sit at the feet of Jesus to hear his words. To achieve the ethic of the kingdom, men and women must willingly submit to the full teaching of Jesus which stretches across all 66 books of the Bible. Jesus came to fulfill the law.
Listen to the Law
The Law, the spoken words of God, prove essential to our understanding of the kingdom of God. Humanity’s failure to heed God’s teaching necessitated Jesus’s famed sermon. He preaches it and seeks to reconstitute the kingdom of God because Adam and Eve had destroyed the kingdom of God thousands of years ago. In Genesis 3:1-7, the first royal couple eats the fruit of the tree “that is in the midst of the garden (3).” The first expression of pride comes about because Adam ceased to listen to the words of God, preferring the insights of his bride Eve to the wisdom from above. The failure to heed the voice of God led to humanities expulsion from the kingdom of God. To regain the kingdom of God, men and women must once again heed the voice of God. Jesus explicitly states this idea in Matthew 5:19: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Kingdom power resides in the words of God.
Jesus Says, “You Can’t Do It Alone”
Those who reject Jesus’s words cannot hope to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not applaud us for maintaining the generic level of goodness that society can attain at times. For example, in Matthew 7:27-30, Jesus does not pat husbands on the back because they had the self-control not to sleep with their secretary or a prostitute. The Son of God looks past external goodness. He says the law must control the hidden depths of the heart. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Instead of applauding the man for keeping his pants on, Jesus takes issues with all the times the man has looked at a woman other than his wife and thought about bedding her. As a coworker once noted, this standard of goodness is “impossible.” The liberal theologian Richard Niebuhr concurs writing that Jesus, “does not direct attention away from this world to another but from all worlds…to the one who creates all worlds, who is the other of all worlds (29).” No man or women in his or her own strength can live out the Sermon on the Mount. No one can reach the ethic of the kingdom apart for the ruler of that God for it is other worldly. The kingdom ethic is for a kingdom people.
Though humanity’s inability to live out the kingdom ethic should cast a shadow of despair over those who have refused to sit down with Jesus’s disciples atop the mountain, hope has not been vanquished. The path to hope runs through that despair. When men and women give up their aspirations of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth through human effort, then and only then will they be able to finally see the beauty of the cross and the empty tomb. They can finally realize that Jesus has done for them what they could never do for themselves. This poverty of spirit and mourning over sin leads the soul into the kingdom of heaven and to everlasting comfort. The kingdom ethic is for a kingdom people, a people who value the words of God. Stop working. Come sit at the feet of Jesus.