I’ve spent my academic life teaching the Sermon on the Mount in one way or another. Most of those who read the Sermon the Mount (=SoM) see it as the Ethics (or Morals) of Jesus or they classify it as the Discipleship teachings of Jesus. Since redemption and discipleship are often seen as two distinct dimensions to our Christian existence, the SoM becomes the second thing taught and not the first thing taught. Jesus is not obligated to go along with our perceptions.
Thus, we might put the SoM in context by looking at the so-called Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), where Jesus calls his disciples to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching them. Some see the baptizing as the “conversion” part and the “teaching” as the “discipleship” part. I doubt it.
Here’s the point for my post today. The SoM has to be understood as Matthew’s presentation of who Jesus is, what he teaches, and what he calls people to be and to do. This is not secondary teaching for the fully committed after they have chosen to “accept” Jesus, but it is what must be understood as the very summons of Jesus itself. In other words, this is Jesus’ evangelistic summons. Some of you may think I’ve hopped the rails, but I ask you to consider the following:
First, the SoM falls within Matthew’s literary strategy of presenting the ministry of Jesus. That literary strategy can be found in Matthew 4:23 and 9:35, where Matthew tells us that Jesus’ ministry involved three things: (1) teaching in their synagogues, (2) preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and (3) healing all sorts of diseases. This is repeated, in nearly identical forms, in both 4:23 and 9:35 (you have to look at it to see it with force). This repetition clasps the entire unit (from 4:23 to 9:35) as a presentation of Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing. In other words, this section is a “Here’s Jesus!” section. This is what he was all about; this is what he teaches; this is what he preaches; this is a summary of all his healings.
Second, the SoM is the teaching/preaching part of this unit. Chp 8–9 are the healing part. So, if you would know what Jesus teaches and preaches, the place to find it is the SoM.
Third, this means that the SoM is a summary of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. Which means, the SoM is where one goes to hear what Jesus taught and what he preached if one wants to make up her or his mind about following Jesus.
Fourth, the conclusion to the SoM make this abundantly clear. Here is a consummate evangelistic invitation. “Now that you’ve heard what I believe in and what I am summoning you to be and do,” I hear Jesus saying, “let me summons you to follow along.” The whole SoM comes down to being Foolish or Wise. The foolish person hears the words of Jesus and fails to practice them; the wise person hears the words of Jesus and practices them.
The SoM is more than the ethics that follow conversion: the SoM is the summons of Jesus himself for those who want to follow him. This is not second-layer stuff but entry stuff; this is not a lesson in ethics but a radical summons to surrender. Indeed, it is ethics and discipleship, but that is because one cannot have conversion or following Jesus without ethics and discipleship.
If you are interesting in reading through the SoM with me, I suggest Dale Allison’s little exposition: The Sermon on the Mount.