Image credit: Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507)

This year I have been reading an edited volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s written works. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who joined the resistance against the Nazi regime during World War II and was eventually captured and executed for treason. Among other things, he wrote of his disapproval of the German Lutheran church for their support of the Nazis and his belief that the wider Christian church would need to be reformed to remain relevant in our postmodern age.

Throughout his writings, I have frequently been struck by Bonhoeffer’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount. To him, there was no higher encapsulation of Christian theology and ideals in all the Bible, nor a higher priority for Christian obedience.

Although I’ve of course read the Sermon many times before, I thought I’d go back and try to give it a “fresh look” in light of Bonhoeffer’s writing and perspectives. While there are many, many ways to study and interpret scripture, I opted to go for a broad view this time. Instead of digging deep into every word and phrase, I tried to discern “meta-themes” and broad generalizations from this collection of the sayings of Jesus. Of course, others more able than I have studied the Sermon on the Mount for centuries. I merely offer my own inadequate and amateur thoughts here.

This is what I came up with:

Matthew 5-7, NRSV:

[Matthew 5] The Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Above all, begin from a place of love and try to let that love guide your actions, values, and priorities as much as possible.

The disciple in the world

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Try to be a force for goodness and light in the world.

Jesus and the law

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus did not come to contradict the commandments, and yet he frequently disregarded prevailing authoritative/institutional interpretations of commandments, religious practices, and religious values. The motive of love described here, then, doesn’t contradict commandments, yet working from a place of love might put someone in conflict with prevailing authoritative interpretations of commandments. When this happens, the “higher law” is love and should be prioritized.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Try to be calm and do not react out of anger; act only after you’re calm, especially in interpersonal relationships.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

In questions of ethics and morality, the motives behind actions weigh as much as (if not more than) the consequences.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Be pure and genuine in your interpersonal interactions.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Love and wholeness

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Reciprocity is a less-mature ethical framework. Instead, try to let your actions exhibit love toward all, regardless of their actions toward you. 

[Matthew 6] On justice and prayer

1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The LORD’s Prayer

9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When determining the morality or ethics of an action, try to avoid as much as possible the motive of external approval (what other’s think of you). Rather, focus as much as possible on internal ethical imperatives and personal integrity.

Religion and possessions

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

What you love and desire drives your choices and actions. Where is your love? What actions will flow from the object of that love?

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Try to be mindfully present as much as possible in all that you do.

[Matthew 7] Making judgments within the community

1 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Again, try to let love be the primary motive of your actions and give others the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. 

6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

You are not obligated to explain yourself to others when they don’t understand you, and you can’t control what they think about you.

Concluding the Sermon on the Mount

7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

God desperately wants to be close to you. Don’t turn away God’s love for fear of unworthiness, insecurity, or self-doubt. God loves you infinitely: accept it, believe it, and embrace it.

12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 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. 26 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. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell — and great was its fall!”

In discerning what is good and what is from God, focus on its fruits. Does it bear good fruit (in particular: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control)? If so, you know it’s good and from God, whether or not it conforms to prevailing orthodoxies or authoritative paradigms.

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

God often works outside what are perceived to be the institutional power structures of authority.

From there, I collected these various meta-themes and tried to discern common patterns, threads, or themes among them. This is what I came up with to represent the essence of the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. One’s internal motive and frame of mind are the foundations of ethical action, which can be enhanced by calmness and mindful presence.
  2. The rightness/goodness/morality of actions/ideas is directly and positively correlated to the amount of pure love that is manifest in them. Pure love is the highest morality as it is the purest distillation of the essence of God.
  3. Motivations of external approval, reciprocity, and conformity to institutional/authoritative orthodoxy, while appropriate in some (perhaps many) circumstances, are less mature/praiseworthy motivations for ethical action than that of pure love.

Profound questions:

  • Is this a reasonable distillation of the essence of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount? Why or why not?
  • Is this a reasonable distillation of the essence of Christianity as a moral/ethical framework? Why or why not?
  • As discussed at the beginning of the post, Bonhoeffer believed the Sermon on the Mount to be the purest expression of Christian ideals and the highest guiding authority for Christian obedience. If one were to adopt the three points listed above as an ethical framework, would it be enough to qualify as “Christian”? Why or why not?
  • Is the “meta-theme” approach a useful way to interpret scripture? Why or why not? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What insights can a Mormon interpretive framework add to the effort to distill the essence of the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Many have observed core similarities between the essence of Christianity and the essence of Buddhism as moral and ethical philosophies (see here and here, e.g.). At its core, are Buddhism and the Sermon on the Mount teaching the same fundamental principles? Why or why not?
  • Regardless of whether or not you agree with my interpretation, do you agree with Bonhoeffer that the Sermon on the Mount is the highest expression of Christian ideals and morality? Why or why not?

Discuss.

 

 

Benjamin Knoll is a political science professor at a liberal arts college in central Kentucky who finds meaningful religious and spiritual expression in a variety of traditions, practices, and contexts. He's a married father of three girls.

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