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A Comparison of The Two Gospels. Sermon on The Plains and Sermon on The Mountains

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If you didn’t like the Sermon on the Mount presented in the gospel of Matthew, maybe you’ll like volume two, the Sermon on the Plain. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the best-known stories of Matthews’s gospel, and essentially contains the meat of Jesus’ earthly ministry and then some. Jesus perfectly demonstrated what it is to be poor in Spirit, to mourn, be meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, and be persecuted for righteousness. The only way we can live the life spoken of by Jesus in this sermon is by being united to Him through the Spirit so that we participate in the divine nature, and share in the life of God. As Jesus lives in us and we participate in that life, the Beatitudes will begin to shine through, and we will be “the blessed ones”.

Flipping ahead to Luke we find what seems to be a parallel story to the Sermon on the Mount, but this time taking place on a plain rather than a mountain. The Sermon on the Plain contains many of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, however also includes many key disparities. These disparities include a different setting and an extremely tapered version of the Sermon on the Mount that excludes key aspects of Matthew’s version such as prophecy and Jewish Law. These differences lend great evidence to ideas such as the timeline in which the gospels are believed to have been written as well as redaction and source criticism. We can attribute these differences largely to the different audiences the respective authors were writing their gospels for.

Before addressing the distinctions between Matthew and Luke’s version of this story, it’s important to take a look at the similarities as well. First, the crowd is very much the same in both versions. Jesus has just healed many people of unclean spirits, disease, etc. And now these people who have just seen his supernatural power are about to be taught by Jesus. Furthermore, though they are much different in length, almost everything found in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is also presented in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but not the other way around. Luke’s includes the beatitudes, loving your enemies, judging others, a tree and it’s fruit, and building your house on the rock. I find these similarities important as it pertains to source criticism. It seems that Matthew and Luke agree completely, in terms of language and content, on the things that Luke presents in his version of this story, which lends validity to the idea that they shared some source other than Mark. However, it’s in the differences between the sermons that we can get at even greater evidence for such New Testament ideas such as source and redaction criticism.

The first distinction that jumps right out is the difference in settings. In Matthew, Jesus removes himself from the crowd and climbs up a mountain before teaching them. However, in Luke it says that Jesus was on a flat surface in front of the crowd and then began to teach. What seems like a minute detail is in fact a significant distinction. In Matthew’s gospel we see a Jesus figure that is a lot more like a King than a servant. This a common theme throughout the entire gospel, as opposed to Luke’s representation of Jesus which is a bit more modest and appealing to a wider audience. This difference in setting is a prime example of this distinction between Jesus in Matthew vs. Jesus in Luke. In Matthew Jesus goes on a mountain, signifying his Lordship and authorities, while in Luke Jesus stays on the same level of the people as he teaches them. This also can be attributed to the audiences for which these gospels are written. Matthew, being a predominately Jewish text, is more appealing to Jews by putting Jesus on a mountain to show his authority. Luke on the other hand was written for Gentiles, who would be more likely to appreciate a savior figure that stays on the same level as them.

The start difference in content between these two versions of the sermon can be extremely telling. As mentioned before, almost all of Luke’s version can be found in Matthew’s as well. However, Luke greatly shortens the sermon to include what seems to be the more important material presented by Jesus, at least in Luke’s eyes. The main things excluded in Luke’s version of the sermon are prophecy and analysis of the Law. Where in Matthew, Jesus dives deep into obeying the Law and exactly how to obey it, this is nowhere to be found in Luke. We can look even deeper into the parts of the Law that Luke leaves out such as fasting, oaths, divorce, etc. Why would he exclude such key aspects? This leads us back to the argument of audience. It’s clear that Luke’s Gentile audience wouldn’t benefit from such sayings of Jesus in comparison to Matthew’s Jewish audience. Also, in light of redaction criticism, we can say that Luke made necessary cuts to Matthew’s story in order to make it flow better and be more appealing. Furthermore, in Matthew Jesus has more prophetic speech as he details that “Christ came to fulfill the Law.” This is another example of Matthew aiming to please his Jewish audience, while Luke didn’t see it necessary for his particular audience.

Whether analyzing the Birth Narrative, the Transfiguration, or the Resurrection, there are both similarities and differences in the presentation of these stories by Matthew and Luke. This fact is no different for the Sermon on the Mount. Both authors present eerily similar material on these particular teachings of Jesus that are not without key differences. Disparities such as setting and content between the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke can lead us to evidence of the historical facts we know about these two gospels. Facts such as when each gospel was written and who they were written for, namely Jews for Matthew and Gentiles for Luke, can help us explain disparities such as why does Luke not include prophetic speech or much talk about the Law?

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