The Radical Message Of The Sermon On The Mount

It is the year 3757 from Creation as measured by the Hebrew calendar, a brutal time, with Rome exerting their might all over the province of Palestine, appointing despots and tyrants in positions of power to ensure compliance with the Empire.  All over Israel (let only the Romans and their puppets call it Palestine) wilderness prophets and miracle workers ply their trade, preaching about the upcoming battle between the Light and the Dark, the time when the Messiah would arrive triumphantly to lead the children of Jacob to victory, performing miracles in the sight of the people to ease their burdens and glorify the name of God. The people, however, suffer under the Imperial boot more and more each day. Though they know God will help them, many lose faith as pious and learned rabbis grow more detached from their flocks as they focus more on theological schisms and politics. The land itself seems to groan in desperation calling for salvation, and out of the humble, workaday northern hills of Galilee a man emerges ready to take on, and change, the world.

The young man from the podunk town of Nazareth, the one called the “carpenter’s son” as an insult by those who couldn’t have known the righteousness and humility of his earthly father, walked up the path to the top of the hill greeting everyone along the way, smiling, making all feel at ease. His new disciples, still struggling to fully understand their teacher, looked at each other nervously as they followed, wondering what exactly was about to happen. The trusted their rabbi, they gave up their livelihood and posessions to follow him, but they still didn’t quite grasped who he was or what his message meant. They had no idea they were about to get the most important lesson of their lives.

The sun shone bright, the breeze rolled in from the sea of Kinneret, and as soon as the rabbi from Nazareth reached the top of the hill, a hush fell among the crowds gathered. When the rabbi spoke, his voice carried strongly down the hill, all the way to those seated the furthest.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 5:3, NIV)

It wasn’t that small miracle that astounded the folk gathered, but the words being said by this teacher. It all fit within the Law, but no one had taught it this way before, not all these lessons together, certainly not to the simple folk who would never attend yeshiva. The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been waiting for a warrior savior, an annointed, a Messiah, but little did they know that it was not swords but words that would end their oppression and change the world.

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It’s hard for us in modern times to understand the setting in which the Sermon on the Mount was delivered, let alone the paradigm shift that it represents in terms of people’s relationship to God. In a very real sense, the Sermon represents Jesus’ manifesto for his ministry, the blueprint for the kingdom of heaven which would come soon. For us in 2018, the Sermon might be such a quoted (and misquoted, and overquoted) piece of scripture that it has lost all meaning, like a word repeated over and over until it falls apart at the tongue. But when Jesus walked atop that Galileean hill, turned to see the throngs of people that had followed to hear his teachings, saw the hunger for connection with the divine and the need for hope in their eyes, his words were like lightning and thunder, and all who listened knew the world would never be the same.

Some welcomed that change with open arms as it gave them something to look forward to, a lamp to give light during their dark night of the soul, while others feared this change as it threatened their monopoly over salvation and some very cushy jobs. It was inevitable that there would be a confrontation, but then again avoiding one was never part of the plan. Instead Jesus used the short time he had on this world to the best of his ability, spreading his teachings to as many people as possible, creating disciples that would take up the labor after he was gone. And it all started with the Sermon on the Mount.

I look forward to studying the message of the sermon fresh and anew, focusing primarily on Jesus’ actual words, and seeing what lessons he can teach from atop the Galileean hill to those of us gathered around the mount in 2018.

Photo: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) by James Tissot, Public Domain.