One of the most influential teaching sessions in history took place on a mountainside – possibly because of the acoustics – and is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is not a sermon in the modern sense of the word, and most contemporary churchgoers would not recognize it as such. While it imparts information, it was not Jesus’s goal to fill his student’s heads with data but to change their lives for the better.
When Jesus first gave the Sermon on the Mount, none of his hearers took notes and many of them did not know how to write. So, Jesus, like other teachers of the time, used words, images, and ideas intended for hearers rather than note-takers. The images Jesus used – the narrow way and the wide way, the house on sand, daily bread, treasures in heaven, the beam in the eye, and many more – are so memorable that they have long lived in popular culture.
The profundity of the teaching – the way it is organized, the brilliance of its insights, the unforgettable conclusion – can hardly be overstated. What contemporary readers, as opposed to first century hearers, might miss is that the sermon is intensely practical. Jesus intended this teaching to help people flourish under God’s rule and live richly satisfying lives with each other.
The way many readers now approach the sermon, including some well-known scholars, obscures its purpose. Indeed, for many years scholars approached the sermon as if it were a compilation of disparate instructions, sewn together by early editors, offering tidbits of insight and inspiration. Fortunately, the tide of scholarship has now turned, and academics are again valuing the sermon as a unit, and so appreciating its structure and flow.
Well-meaning people can approach the sermon in a way that is equally unhelpful. Wanting to be right, they focus on the things people are told to do but fail to notice the beliefs and values that make the doing of them possible. So, they try to pray for their enemies – because Jesus tells them to do so – without loving them. They recite the Lord’s prayer, but do not desire his kingdom to come. They give to people in need, as Jesus taught, but then resent them for it.
If we approach the Sermon this way, there is a good chance that we will either become disgruntled, hypocritical legalists or sophists who explain away any Scripture that doesn’t fit our practices. It is important to see what Jesus told people to do, but it is also important to understand why he told them to do it. It is also helpful to see what all this has to do with faith, which is important throughout the Sermon.
One of the governing directives within the Sermon is Jesus’s insistence that his followers eschew any use of religion to increase their standing among their peers. He says, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” He then offers three real life examples of how this might happen.
The reason for the strong warning is that this will happen unless steps are taken to preclude it. Jesus is talking about one of the great obstacles to a genuine and fulfilling life of faith. The minute one starts using religion (and all the things that go with it, like Bible knowledge, giving, praying, fasting, church attendance – even “soul-winning”) to impress people, genuine faith goes out the window.
Jesus knew that everyone must choose their audience. They cannot play to two audiences at once—not if one of them is God. Trying to do so will simply make faith impossible. Jesus, on another occasion, asked some religious leaders: “How can you believe” – and the implication is that they could not – “since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
The issue here is faith. It cannot be sustained when people do what they do – especially when what they do is religious in nature – to receive people’s approval and the rewards that go with it. Many religious people live in a state of low and diminishing faith because they have chosen the wrong audience.