Jan 17 - The Sermon On The Mount: Did Jesus Set The Bar Too High?

The Sermon On The Mount: Did Jesus Set The Bar Too High?

January 17, 2016

Matthew 5:2-12




Matthew 5:2-12; Luke 6:20-26

January 17th, 2016


In the Mosaic Law (Deut 28:1-68), there is a list of blessings that would come to those who obeyed it, as well as a list of curses that would befall those who didn’t obey it. 


The blessing consisted of very earth-bound things, like victory in battle, peace, good crops, healthy herds, prosperity and ownership of land.  Today, we might think of prosperity and longevity.


The wealthy, because they enjoyed a standard of living that appeared to put them out of reach of the cares of this life (money can buy happiness), and have the power and means to gratify their every desire.
b. It described a state of contentment and delight that was reserved for a very privileged minority.

This world and the Mosaic Law gives us the popular concept of happiness:
a. Blessed are the rich
b. Blessed are the famous
c. Blessed are the gifted
d. Blessed are the powerful

The curses are the very opposite.  They include losing battles, being oppressed by foreign forces, drought, failed crops, sick livestock, poverty and loss of the ownership of land.  Today, we might think of poverty, sickness and premature death.


In fact, Moses summarized the choice between being under God’s blessing or his curse, as the choice between life and death:


I have set before you today life and good against death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of YHWH your God , that I have commanded you today, by loving YHWH your God, by living according to his will, and by keeping his commandments, statues and rules, then you will live and multiply, and YWHW your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not obey, but turn away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you that you will surely perish.  You will not live long in the land …


This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, by loving YHWH your God, by obeying his voice and by holding fast to him, so that you and your children may live.                                                                                Deuteronomy 30:15-20a


So we can generally agree that when God blesses us, he gives us something in this life to make it easier, more enjoyable for us, and remove from us the kind of things that could be considered cursed … illness, suffering and poverty.


But Jesus seems to turn everything on its head.  For example, when Jesus taught what are now known as the beatitudes[1], found both in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, he radically redefined what it meant to be blessed or cursed by God here on earth. 


Jesus also seems to move away from the earthly and physical blessings to those that are more spiritual and heavenly … the blessings that are possible after death, rather than before it.  This is especially noticeable in the Matthew 5.


And Jesus not only redefines the whole concept of what it means to be blessed and cursed by God, he not only redefines what the blessings and curses actually consist of, but, as we move beyond the beatitudes to the remaining Sermon on the Mount, he also places more emphasis on the moral and ethical will of God when it comes to how humans are to treat each other rather than the detailed legal application of the individual commandments in the Law of Moses.


This was different from the Pharisees, with whom he often clashed.  They were interested in questions like, “What would God consider to be “work” on the Sabbath?”, and beyond, “how many steps can I take on the Sabbath before I have to sit down so it will not be considered to be ‘work’?”


Keep in mind, that the Pharisees, like Jesus, also tried to live out in their daily lives what they hoped was a complete reflection of God’s will in each and every way. 


Strangely enough, in a fundamental way, Jesus’ life and actions looked different from the lives and actions of the Pharisees. 


The Pharisees came up with a huge list of does and don’ts that were to keep them from even inadvertently transgress the OT Law.  Unfortunately, in the process, they seemed to became proud of their religious accomplishments, legalistic, and uncharitable toward those who did not follow their lead. 


In contrast, Jesus became less legalistic, more caring, and more charitable toward others.  


Fourth, it seems likely to me, that the beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount speak of the kind of ethic that Jesus himself lived out while here on earth. 


We are told that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are (Heb 4:15).  So Jesus had to face the temptations that came with his own sexuality and he had to face his desire to be married and have children.

Jesus had to face the temptation of envying those who had more than he and his family did. 

Jesus had to face the temptation of acting selfishly. 

He had to face the temptation of wanting more, of being greedy, of trying to look good in the eyes of others, and so on.


Yet, we are also told, that Jesus was without sin.  He was able to actually live out his convictions and his conscience perfectly – and his own life is actually a living example of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount.


If you think of Jesus’ life and character, you may be surprised to find that his was not an easy life.  He experienced, rejection, sorrow, persecution, distain, rejection, betrayal, torture and execution.


His attitude and actions were loving, merciful, and caring for those with physical and spiritual needs, the lepers, outcasts, tax-collectors, blind, the maimed and the lame.


He extended mercy to those who were considered the dregs of society, even mercy and forgiveness to those who were torturing and executing him.


Jesus was poor in spirit. Although He was Almighty God with all the rights and privileges of deity, He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Jesus mourned. He wept for Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Jesus was meek. He hungered and thirsted after righteousness. He was merciful.


So let’s begin by taking a look at the Beatitudes as found in Matthew 5 and Luke 6.


In the parallel passage in Luke 6, the actual location where Jesus taught is somewhat different from Matthew. 


In Matthew, Jesus went up the mountain to escape the great crowd and there taught his disciples.


In Luke, Jesus came down from a mountain with his 12 closest disciples, after he had spent all night on the mountain in prayer.  He then stood on a level place and a great multitude of people came to him to be healed, which he was happy to do. 


Luke says nothing about Jesus and his disciples returning to the mountain, mind you, that detail may have seem insignificant to Luke.  All we are told by Luke is that, following the healing, Jesus looked at and then spoke to his disciples.


Luke also doesn’t list all of the beatitudes.  While Matthew has 9 beatitudes, Luke only has 4 beatitudes, but to each of these 4 he adds a corresponding “woe”, which indicates those individuals who are not blessed but cursed by God.


Matthew 5:2-12


Jesus said (to the disciples),

Blessed …*

Luke 6:20-26


Jesus said to the disciples,




* The Greek word that is translated as “blessed” is “makarios” from which we get makro – large;

Makarios itself speaks of being enlarged, or receiving something of benefit - often from God.  But it can also mean the sense of feeling blessed, that is, it speaks of the happiness and contentment that comes with being blessed.


Mind you, Jesus spoke Aramaic, so we do not know the exact term he used.[2] 



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

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. …

… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.


In Matthew 5, Jesus mentions the poor in spirit.  He may be referring back to what is found in Psalm 34 or Isaiah 66:2 –


YHWH is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.                                                           Psalm 34:18


This is the one to whom I will look (declares YHWH): he who is humble, contrite in spirit, and who trembles at my word.                                                          Isaiah 66:2[3]


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

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. …

… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.


The “poor in spirit” may be in reference to individuals who know that they are spiritually poor before God, who know that they come to God with nothing, and who are therefore completely dependent on God’s mercy and grace for their salvation, forgiveness, etc.


Or the “poor in spirit” may be referring to those who are crushed or poor because of the inordinate amount of hardship that they have been facing.  In either case, God is inclined toward those kind of people, rather than those who have it all.


In Luke, Jesus says that the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed.  This would have been in complete contradiction to what Jesus’ listeners would have thought when they read the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Law.  Wealth is thought to be a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a sign of being under God’s curse.


In Luke’s “woe”, was Jesus saying that simply because a person is wealthy, God’s curse is upon them?  Not likely.  Some of his own followers were people of means who financially supported him and his disciples. Jesus is much more likely to have said something about the rich who show no compassion. 


For example, James writes about the curse upon the wealthy who have used their position to cheat or oppressed the powerless:


Come now you rich, weep and wail because of the miseries that will come upon you. … You have laid up treasure in the last days … The wages … you have kept back by fraud are crying out against you. … You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. 

                                                                        James 5:1-5


So Jesus likely was commenting on those who are wealthy and corrupt or uncaring. 


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

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. …

… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.


So how did the differences between Luke and Matthew occur?  A number of explanations have been given.  We may have two separate events – one on the mountain and one on the flat spot - where Jesus taught something very similar, but not quite the same.[4] Or, the scribes who copied either Matthew or Luke may have gotten it wrong.  Or, the author of Luke gives the verbatim teaching and the author of Matthew correctly interprets Jesus words for his readers … accurately reflecting Jesus’ actual intent.   


For us it may be enough to note that 1., Jesus completely places the conception of blessing and cursing as found in the Mosaic Law on its head.  And 2., In the account in Matthew, Jesus thinks of the blessing as something that is not found on this earth, but something that is found in God’s kingdom, that is, when God’s reign is fully established. 


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


Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.,,,

… Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.


In the OT Law, those blessed by God were the ones who had nothing bad happen to them, who were wealthy, who owned land and livestock, and who, as a result, did not need to mourn. 


Jesus challenges this view in a number of ways in what he said. 


For one, those who mourn or weep, will eventually enter a time of comfort and laughter, likely in reference to the afterlife. 


For another, the mourning and weeping may not have been about some bad situation that people find themselves in:  the death of a loved one, for example. 


No, the mourning and weeping that Jesus is referring to is likely the kind that comes with deep sorrow at one’s own wrong actions and attitudes.  One could call it deep and heart-felt contrition.


But what about the woe pronounced on those who are laughing, as recorded in Luke?  Is Jesus saying, that his followers shouldn’t crack a smile or enjoy themselves, or rejoice over something good that has happened to them? 


To answer that question, we need to keep in mind, that 29 of the 33 times when the terms “laugh” or “laughter” occur in the Old Testament, they are used to denote something negative, sometimes derision at God or those who hold to God’s will, sometimes the laughter that is associated with wild parties.   


For example, in Isaiah 22, we read:


In that day, Lord, YHWH of hosts, called for weeping and mourning … but instead, happiness and gladness, … gluttony and drunkeness.                            Isaiah 22:12-13


In other words, God called his people to repentance, but instead, they just wanted to have a good time. 


What about the third beatitude?


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



Only Matthew records this beatitude, this blessing.  The meek are those who do not use violence to further themselves or their cause. 


As most of you know, the prevailing Messianic idea in Jesus’ day was that the Messiah would come as a warrior king who would violently overthrow the Roman occupiers and defeat all of Israel’s enemies in battle.  Thus Israel would “inherit the earth”.


Again, Jesus turns this on its head.  It won’t be the aggressive and violent that will inherit the earth, instead it will be those who are non-violent who would inherit the blessing.


Just as an aside, Jesus teaching along these lines was one of the reasons why Mahatma Gandhi taught that non-violent civil disobedience was the way to bring about political change. 


India gained her independence.  But was political reform and physical land really what Jesus was speaking about here, or could this beatitude be in reference to the new earth we read about in Revelation?


Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.


Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. …



… Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.


This is the fourth beatitude.  Again, you can see that while Luke seems to speak of being physical hungry or full, Matthew seems to speak of a more spiritual or moral hunger and thirst … the desire for justice. 


“Justice” can also be translated as “righteousness,” which refers to, “right or just action.”  This kind of action arises from a deep desire for legal and social justice.    


In Luke, Jesus is unlikely to pronounce a “curse” or “woe” on those who can afford food for a full stomach at meal time.


Instead, he is referring to those who, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), fill their own bellies with little or no regard for the hungry.  Like the rich man in the parable, they will go hungry in God’s kingdom.[5]


In essence, Jesus’ words as recorded in both Matthew and Luke speak of not simply being concerned about filling one’s own desires, but being concerned enough about the poverty and social injustice in the world to do something about it.


By the way, the apostle Paul felt himself blessed by God, regardless of whether he had lots to eat or he had nothing to eat.  Most of us have literally experienced a situation where we genuinely did not have anything to eat.  But I digress.  Let’s move on to the 5th and 6th beatitudes.


Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.


Blessed are the pure in heart, [6] for they will see God.



Those who are merciful are those who extend forgiveness and help to others.  Jesus taught us to pray: Forgive us as we have forgiven others.  In other words, those who are not willing to extend mercy to their fellow human beings, should not count on the mercy of God at judgment day.  Jesus makes this very clear in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt 18:21-35).


A pure heart stands for undivided devotion to God as well as the kind of life that results from that undivided devotion.  A pure heart is also something that can be given by God during repentance and rededication. 


For example, king David prays in Psalm 51:10, which he may have written after his affair with Bathsheba,[7] for God to create (restore) such an undivided and steadfast heart within himself.


Wash me and I will be whiter than snow. … Create in me a pure (clean) heart, O God, and renew a right (steadfast) spirit within me.                  Psalm 51:7,10


Those with a pure heart will see God … another reference to being with God in God’s kingdom.  Moving on to the 7th and 8th of the beatitudes.


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


Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing right, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   



The next two beatitudes, also found only in Matthew, speak of those who spread peace, who try to be at peace with everyone, but who may not be left in peace themselves. 


The peacemakers (as opposed to those who create conflict), truly reflect God’s character and his will … not those, like the Zealots of Jesus’ day, who used violent means of resistance against the Roman occupational force.


Those who are persecuted, are not those who suffer the consequences of being evil or violent, in other words, Jesus is not speaking of individuals who deserve the wrath of others. 


Let me just say a few words here about how Christians sometimes deserve persecution. 


I have known individual professing Christians who simply didn’t know when not to speak, literally haranguing people who did not want to listen to them;

others who tried to hold non-believers to the moral standards that believers should live out, and so ended up being judgmental;

others who got caught up in so many do’s and don’ts that they ended up being legalistic about issues that in reality are matters of conscience;

and others again who beat the tar out of their children while quoting the Bible.


Those who Jesus is speaking about are those who suffer at the hands of those who don’t like the fact that they are doing what is right. 


So for example, this might be the person who is fired for refusing to do something illegal or reprehensible at work.  It might be those who are threatened with litigation or actually convicted and jailed because they tried to expose some truth.   It speaks of those who are ridiculed or abandoned by their friends because they no longer party hearty.  You get the idea.


The last (9th) of the beatitudes is again found in both Matthew and Luke:


Blessed are you when others revile you, persecute you, and falsely accuse you of evil on my account. 

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets….





… Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.


Both Matthew and Luke record what Jesus said in similar terms, even though in Luke Jesus does pronounce another woe on those of whom everyone, and by that, Jesus means in particular that evil people, speak well of. 


Persecution here is somewhat different from the previous beatitude.  Here it is the result of being associated with Jesus.  A follower of Jesus who is persecuted because of this will receive a great reward in heaven … even beyond those of:


Being God’s children (7),

receiving mercy from God at the judgment day (5),

entering God’s kingdom (1,8),

inheriting the earth (new earth? 3),

seeing God there face to face (6),

being satisfied there (4),

receiving comfort there (2).


So let’s recap briefly.  Those who are blessed by God, who can experience joy, are not necessarily those who seemed to be the blessed in the OT.


They are individuals who are literally or spiritually poor.

They are those who mourn and weep.

They are those who are literally or spiritually hungry.

They are those who are persecuted and reviled.


Their life situation doesn’t seem to be great.  Yet despite of this they are blessed by God even thought they do not fit the profile of one blessed by God … someone who goes into battle confident of his win, someone who is able to impose his will on others.


No, those who are blessed by God are individuals who are meek, merciful toward others, focused on making and retaining peace, and fully dedicated to reflect God’s will, God’s purity, in his or her life.


If the beatitudes were true of us, then the Spirit of Christ would guide us, Jesus would shine through us. 


Or perhaps, to use another metaphor, his light, his life, would be reflect in our lives.  Have you ever had a small mirror as a child and tried to reflect the sun’s light into all kinds of nooks and crannies that otherwise would be in the shadows?


If we reflect Jesus then we can reflect his light into the dark places of this world, into black places in the hearts of ourselves and others, and change some things in some people.  


But keep in mind, no one can be like Jesus like Jesus can.  We cannot be God on earth.  All we can do is mirror imperfectly his example because of his Spirit within us, can we meet the needs of the hurting humanity that surrounds us. 


So, why should we study the beatitudes today?  The answer is the first word of the first verse, and almost every verse: ‘Blessed’.  Jesus got our attention from the get-go. We want to be blessed by God, to be joyful!

This is the first sermon recorded in the New Testament as having been preached by Jesus Christ.  It begins with a promise of happiness – in this life perhaps, but more importantly, happiness in the next. Nine times the voice of Jesus reached out to his disciples seated on that hillside – all of them individuals who were oppressed politically, socially, and economically – with the offer of genuine happiness.

To the disciples, who had endured a lifetime of verbal assaults by the Pharisees, telling them that they were unworthy of God’s blessings and of happiness, because they lacked power (influence), prosperity and popularity, Jesus’ teaching must have been such a breath of fresh air.

Jesus teaching did not describe a special class of "Super Christians", of those who floated above all others.  He spoke of his average follower who struggled with all kinds of adversities, but keeps focused on God despite of them all.


The beatitudes speak of the evidence of a yielded life, that does not have to be proud and pushy.


The happiest people in the world are those who yield themselves to experience the grace of God every day. Why? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they are comforted, they inherit the earth, they are filled, they obtain mercy, they see God – and others see God in them, for they are called "the children of God." They also lead the most fulfilling lives – because God makes them into a complete person.


When others look at me, do they see someone who truly is happy and content because I am “blessed” by God, regardless of the things that may be happening in my life at this time?


Imagine being a single mother with AIDS?  If this can be true of her, can it be true of me?


[1] From the Latin translation which begins each line with “beati”;  Beati pauperes spiritu … beati mites … beati qui lugent, etc

[2] It may have been “Tuvihon,” which has the Semitic root “tov”, meaning good or beneficial, but that is just a guess.

[3] The MT uses the term Nekeh-Ruach, from nakah, which means “smitten” and ruach which means spirit.  Literally applied, nakah refers to someone who is maimed, figuratively applied, someone who is contrite, dejected.  The LXX uses the terms “tapeinos” (humble, lowly in position or attitude/spirit) and “hesuchios” (peaceful, tranquil, quiet).  It seems unusual for Jesus to use the MT instead of the LXX, with which he seemed more familiar with.

[4] Problem:  further teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount follow the passage in Luke 6

[5] The rich man “feasted sumptuously” while ignoring the starving Lazarus at his doorstep, who was only hoping for table scraps.

[6] Katharos in Greek, meaning clean, blameless, unstained by sin.

[7] See the late introductory comment at the beginning of the Psalm.