May 6, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: What he taught (I)

See Matthew 5:1-7:29, Luke 6:20-49

So far in this series, we have seen Jesus performing miracles and making what the Jewish leaders thought were outlandish claims: that he could forgive sins, that he was greater than the temple, that he could modify the Torah, and that he was Lord of the Sabbath. But we have seen very little about what he taught to his disciples.

Most of those teachings are covered in what we’ve come to know as the Sermon on the Mount in three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. (Luke calls it the Sermon on the Plain.) Matthew’s Gospel is the best source for Jesus’ teaching. The setting is a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, not really a mountain, but the evangelist wants us to remember that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on a mountain, and here Jesus is giving us his authoritative teachings.

Even though Matthew uses three chapters for this sermon, it can be only a minuscule fraction of Jesus’ teachings. It undoubtedly covers things that he said repeatedly at various times (as every great teacher does). But even if he said it in one sermon, it would have taken him only about 20 minutes, and surely Jesus preached longer than that if multitudes came to listen to him “from Galilee, the Decapolis (10 cities), Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”

Consider how perfect Jesus’ words were. Even those who might never have read the Gospel know many of the quotations that came from the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Our Father and the Golden Rule. How about “Turn the other cheek,” “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be,” “You cannot serve both God and mammon” and “Stop judging, that you may not be judged”? I could list a dozen or more other short quotations that people are familiar with.

The sermon began with what we know as the Beatitudes—our rules for life: Blessed are the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. There are rewards for them all, if not in this world then in the next, “in the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus gives six examples of the conduct demanded of his disciples. Each deals with a commandment of the law, introduced with “You have heard it said to your ancestors” or its equivalent. That is followed by, “But I say to you,” and Jesus’ teaching in respect to that commandment.

He accepts the Jewish law in three of those six instances, but extends or deepens it: concerning anger and conflict, adultery and lust, and love of neighbor and enemy. He rejects the other three as a standard of conduct: divorce, swearing, and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

There’s much more in the Sermon on the Mount so I’ll say more about it next week. †


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