The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics
Questions of an ethical nature dominate headlines, classrooms, and pulpits across the world. In an era where formulations of morality often spring from what “feels right” rather than any sort of foundational principles, many commentators have rightly noted the necessity of carefully considered ethics.1 For contemporary Christians, ethical thought remains clouded by ongoing disagreements about from where our moral systems arise and how authoritative those sources are in a technologically advanced world of complexity and disagreement. One relatively common location for ethical source material comes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,2 that famous stretch of material which begins with the Beatitudes and includes the Lord’s Prayer.
Yet even the practices within this collection of the Savior’s sayings remain highly contested: to whom was Jesus speaking these words and how applicable are they to modern life? Many readers of the Bible have concluded that these are not simple questions with easy answers. For the duration of this article I will trace the five primary ways in which Christians have interpreted and utilized the ethical imperatives found in the Sermon on the Mount, arguing that one of these interpretations offers a fruitful basis for formulating Christian ethics in today’s world.
For the Perfect
One of the oldest interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount suggests that the words of Jesus found therein are applicable only for those who have vowed lives of perfection. Such was the perspective of Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160-240 CE) and Origen of Alexandria (182-254 CE). This view proved highly influential throughout the medieval period, when the words of the Lord were understood as applicable for members of monastic communities and among the clergy. Not surprisingly, this interpretation convinces few readers of Matthew’s Gospel today, often for the simple reason that Jesus appears to be speaking to a large number of people (Matt. 5:1-2; Matt. 7:28-9), not just a select few whom he called to be perfect.
In response to the view that the ethics commands of the Sermon on the Mount applied only to the perfect, the Protestant Reformers (and many of their theological heirs) argued that Jesus spoke to all people despite the fact that no human being can actually meet his demands. In this view, the Sermon—in much the same way as Old Testament law—highlights human sinfulness and weakness, continually calling Christians toward greater perfection in Christ and emphasizing the need for God’s mercy. While this view speaks to one aspect of ethical systems existing in a fallen world—that no one will ever fully satisfy the requirements of perfection—this too remains an unsatisfactory reading of the Matthew 5–7. Jesus admonishes his listeners to hear and obey, to be wise doers. Jesus speaks without qualification or hesitation about the morality he expects his followers to exhibit. There is more going on here than claims of human imperfection.
Some readers of Matthew’s Gospel—most notably Johannes Weiss (1863-1914)—argue that Matthew wrote down Jesus’ commands for a short interim period (the time between his ascension and Second Coming). In this view, Matthew expected Jesus-Followers to heroically adhere to these ethical parameters for a brief period of missional activity. And in light of the fact that Jesus did not return shortly after his ascension to usher in the messianic kingdom, contemporary Christians may rightly modify or update these teachings in order to comfortably live in a non-eschatological age. There are problems with this interpretation as well, not the least of which is the slippery-slope suggestion of the mutability of Jesus’ teachings. Additionally, even within an early dating scheme, Matthew’s Gospel was clearly written late enough to already be dealing with the problematic of Jesus’ “delayed” return. Thus, an interim ethic perspective fails to adequately explain Matthew’s inclusion of this material in his gospel.
Interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount which emphasize its place as New Torah situate Jesus’ ethical imperatives as the only adequate bases for the construction of Christian ethical systems. In short, Jesus’ ethic is the only ethic. The Lord’s words in the Sermon represent the guidelines for Christian piety and practice, with all other biblical sources either rendered antiquated or inaccurately interpreted. Appropriate Christian ethics, therefore, start and end with the Sermon on the Mount. Yet there are problems with this interpretation as well, foremost of which involves the fact that this view makes the vast majority of the Bible ethically useless. By over-emphasizing these three chapters, the New Torah approach becomes functionally Marcionite—rejecting the theological value of the Old Testament—and truncates even other New Testament ethical sources (such as the Pauline epistles or book of James).
The fifth major way to utilize the ethical imperatives found in the Sermon on the Mount is to interpret this passage as the transformational foundation for Christian ethics. In this view, the ethical imperatives of the Sermon neither supersede the rest of scripture nor do they exist only for limited persons or purposes. Rather, Jesus’ words stand as a source of radical transformation anticipating the kingdom of God. Here, Jesus turns ethical conventions (“an eye for an eye”) and interpretation (“you have heard it said”) on their heads, intensifies the heart of Torah (love of God and neighbor), and calls his followers to radical selflessness and sacrifice (“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”). Torah has not passed away, but has been transformed into a condition of the heart.
Of course, this reading offers a more complicated situation for the formation of Christian ethics than the other viewpoints we have examined, requiring prayerful and faithful integration of other canonical sources rather than “one size fits all” interpretations. Consider the example of a woman being abused by her husband. A transformational reading of the Sermon on the Mount encourages her to pray for her husband (acting here as her enemy), but by no means requires her to simply “turn the other cheek.” Instead, she rightly seeks the protection of her community (Deut. 10:18) and the governing authorities (Rom. 13:2-4) in order to rectify the wrongs that her husband commits.
Sorting through difficult ethical issues is no easy task and Christians do themselves no favors by presuming otherwise. The Sermon on the Mount has long been—and should remain—an important source for Christian reflection upon and formation of ethics and morality. In utilizing this important section of Jesus’ teaching, we would do well to take a balanced approach, one which recognizes the importance of Jesus’ words without rejecting the rest of the scriptures while at the same time taking seriously the transformational nature of what the Lord says. In this way, we may become wise followers of Christ, for
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall! (Matt. 7: 24-27)