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The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps one of the most well known passages in the Bible, among other famous passages like the apocalyptic visions in Revelation or the law-giving entries in the Decalogue. However, the Sermon on the Mount is more than just a cliché; it can be considered one of the major foundations of Christianity, along with the Gospel message preached in other parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The passage makes for a fascinating and insightful look at early Christianity, and more specifically gives insight into the ethics that Christ was speaking to at the time. In short, the Sermon on the Mount held profound ethical implications for the people Christ was preaching to and, subsequently, the formation of the early church. While the Sermon on the Mount certainly holds real-life principles and ethical implications for modern day Christianity, this discussion is more concerned with the historical impact of this part of Scripture. In short, this discussion shows that the Sermon on the Mount both challenges the ethical presuppositions of the Old Testament and provides a form of pedagogical and transformational instruction for early Christians who did not yet have the foundation of the epistles. Both of these insights from the Sermon on the Mount are tied together by Christ’s treatment of the concept of goodness; the passage essentially gives a new meaning to the word. While this is not an exhaustive discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and its ethical implications, these two conclusions provide a new, instructional way of viewing this passage in Scripture.
First and foremost, it is worthwhile to discuss how the Sermon on the Mount relates to the Old Testament, since this is where the passage finds most of its ethical import, particularly for those who listened to the sermon when Christ first preached it. As one source states, “Even a cursory reading will reveal that there is a relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the Law in the Old Testament” (Kearney n.p.). Another source clarifies this standpoint, stating that “Some even maintain that the Sermon represents the most concentrated teaching Christ gave in clarifying the meaning of the law…Jesus’ discourse is said to occupy in the New Testament the same place that the Decalogue occupied in the Old Testament” (Lioy 85). This discussion takes a middle ground on this perspective. More specifically, there are several ways to read the Sermon on the Mount from an ethical perspective. The passage either “presents a new Law, refines the Old Testament Law, or is something other than Law” (Kearney n.p.). Because Christ made it clear in His teachings that he did not come to abolish the Old Testament Law, but to fulfill it, one can safely rule out the first two options.
The passage certainly contains ethical teachings that supersede Old Testament law; for instance, Christ states that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister has committed murder, and anyone who lusts has already committed adultery (Matthew 5:22, 28). However, from an ethical and historical perspective is this truly meant to replace the Old Testament from which Christ was preaching? As one scholar asks, “Was it the purpose of Jesus merely to point out the correct meaning of the Law of Moses, or was He setting forth new principles, opposed to or higher than the principles of the Law, which were to become the constitution of the Kingdom?” (Kearney n.p.). While this question is certainly a good place to start, it arguably presents an unfair dichotomy that cannot be justified from an ethical perspective. Instead of presenting a completely new Law, or contradicting the Law of the Old Testament, it seems that Christ is simply presenting a new ethical perspective on what constitutes goodness. It is not perfection, since that cannot be achieved anyway (Matthew 5:20); instead, it is a new perspective of the heart, acting toward being the salt and the light on the earth.
This perspective on the passage is confirmed by the ethical perception of the Sermon on the Mount as both pedagogical instruction and transformational ethics. On the first front, many theologians have argued “that Jesus spoke to all people despite the fact that no human being can actually meet his demands…[and] highlights human sinfulness and weakness, continually calling Christians toward greater perfection in Christ and emphasizing the need for God’s mercy” (Prahlow n.p.). This is the new conception of what is meant by goodness discussed above. Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount as a form of transformational ethics simply expands the Law to include goodness as a whole, rather than a legalistic following of precepts. As the source quoted above goes on to state, “Jesus turns ethical conventions and interpretation on their heads, intensifies the heart of Torah (love of God and neighbor), and calls his followers to radical selflessness and sacrifice” (Prahlow n.p.). The clearest examples of this is the way Christ speaks to concepts like “an eye for an eye”, the “law and the prophets” and even the way He speaks to interpretation (“you have heard it said”). These teachings do not nullify the Old Testament, nor are they meant only for some people in a specific place. Instead, a combined transformational and pedagogical perspective on the Sermon on the Mount means that the passage gave a new ethical imperative to those listening; as a consequence, the sermon provided not only ethical guidelines for the early Church, but an entirely new ethical paradigm. Namely, the discussion above makes it clear that main ethical implication of the Sermon on the Mount at the time was a completely new ideation of goodness that spoke not only to how followers of God were to act, but on how God interacts with followers. It brought in the Kingdom perspective, rather than a holistically legalistic or else philosophically moralistic one. Of course, the passage is not limited to this perspective, but this is the clearest ethical implication for both the hearers of the sermon and the early church.
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