Does the Sermon on the Mount present impossible demands and harsh penalties?

Q. I’ve seen it written that the Sermon on the Mount can be thought of as a job description for Christians.  I’m thankful that God has given us one!  Yet I find some of its passages confusing at best and very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out.  It also seems that Jesus is outlining some harsh judgements for us when we fail, which it seems most of us will.  So I then question, “What about Gods grace?”

What’s known as the Sermon on the Mount is the first extended collection of Jesus’ teachings found in the gospel of Matthew.

Matthew divides his account of Jesus’ life into five thematic sections. Each one begins with a series of narrative episodes, followed by a discourse made up of Jesus’ collected teachings.  The narrative and the discourse explore a common theme in each case. The first section, whose discourse is the Sermon on the Mount, is about the foundations of the kingdom, which are in an inward righteousness, not in external conformity to the law.  The concept of “righteous/ness” is introduced in the preceding narrative episodes (“Joseph was a righteous man,” etc.), and the term appears in a key location in each section of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
And so forth.

Since this is a matter of inward character, rather than of outward conformity to rules of behavior, it’s something that we have to grow into.  Jesus is presenting the ideal to which we should constantly aspire.  We should be encouraged as we see ourselves making progress towards it.  We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about the extent to which we still fall short, but instead let that be a spur towards greater maturity.

The penalties Jesus describes are simply his way of saying that this is what the law is truly aiming at.  For example:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

This is, on one level, the rhetorical device of hyperbole or exaggeration, a favorite of rabbis and of Jesus himself.  No one is going to be sent to hell for speaking two particular words.  But we need to see the point behind this hyperbole. If we think of the law as something with stipulations and penalties, then we should let the penalties described help us recognize the stipulations that the law is really aiming at: love for others, rather than hatred for them.  You’re not okay with God just because you manage to avoid murdering someone whom you hate in your heart.

In the so-called “Beatitudes” at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we see the positive character qualities whose cultivation will enable us to fulfill the deepest intent of the law.  If we are merciful and peacemakers, for example, we won’t hate.  So this opening section is something of a key to all that follows.

I hope this is helpful.  And I’m glad you’re meditating on this material as a “job description”!  It really is meant to have the practical effect you’re envisioning.

Fra Angelico, “The Sermon on the Mount,” fresco, Friary of San Marco, Florence, mid-1400s

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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