We’ve just finished a six-part series on the Sermon on the Mount at our church. No one told me how daunting it would be to scale the heights of Jesus’s words! But it’s been so good for my soul to chew on them these past weeks and to journey through them with our church family.
To prepare, I translated the passage from the Greek text, and read a few commentaries. The most helpful one was Jonathan Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (thanks to a fellow graduate who put me onto it).
For preachers, bible study leaders, keen readers, here’s a couple of exegetical gems in no particular order:
- We shouldn’t conflate the “Blessing” that begins each Beatitude (Mt 5:3-10) with “Blessing” from God, as they’re actually slightly different words/ideas in Greek (μακάριος vs. εὐλογητός). In fact, with how cheap and misunderstood the word #blessed is today, it may be better to present the Beatitudes as characteristics of “flourishing” or “thriving” followers (see also Psalm 1). Making this distinction also helps avoid the trap of preaching: “Be poor in spirit, then you will be blessed by God” (blessing by works), but instead allows us to stay closer to the idea of Jesus being a wisdom teacher who begins by observing the kinds of people who are flourishing, happy, and fulfilled: those poor in spirit / who mourn / are meek, etc. Jesus isn’t teaching works to attain righteousness, but wisdom that characterises deeper righteousness.
- The genre of Matthew 5-7 is closer to wisdom teaching like Proverbs, James and Ecclesiastes than an epistle like Romans or Ephesians. The idea is that Jesus is presented as a wise philosopher (appealing to the Greco-Roman worldview), but also a divine and authoritative one (appealing to the Jewish worldview). It fits in with Matthew’s wider goal of presenting him as the King we should follow, because a good King teaches and lives out God’s divine wisdom (in contrast, think of how a foolish world leader can plunge a whole nation into chaos…). Jesus is worth following because nobody is as wise as He is, or could ever live out His wisdom the way He did through his life, death and resurrection.
- There’s a bit of alliteration where the “poor in spirit”, “those who mourn”, “meek”, and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:3-6) all start with the same Greek letter π (akin to saying “flourishing are the poor, the penitent, the proudless, the parched for righteousness). It may be a stretch, but at the very least it forced me to ask how these four go together, until I saw that the Beatitudes seem to divide between attitudes to God (5:3-6, the first four starting with π) and attitudes towards our neighbour (5:7-12). That’ll preach.
- The way to unlock what Jesus means by coming to “fulfil the Law” (5:17) is to recognise that the word fulfil in Greek (πληρόω) means more than just making a prophecy come true (e.g. Messiah will be born in Bethlehem), it also means to complete or bring it to full expression. The rest of Matthew 5:21-47 then flows on as six examples of deeper righteousness from the heart in order to bring Old Testament instructions and practices to their full expression. God has always been most interested in our hearts, not just our external behaviour.
- Matthew 5:48 gets trotted out by cults as a prooftext that we should “Be ye perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect. Is it advocating salvation by works? No. We often think of the word perfect as flawless (like a diamond, or exam marks) but the original word τέλειός is better translated “whole” or “complete” (I discovered that the CUV actually gets this right by using 完全: complete, not 完美: perfect). This is crucial because it unlocks the wider theme of Jesus’s teaching on the Mount: wholeness. His followers should live out a kingdom lifestyle wholly, not just externally and for show like the Pharisees did. Jesus is not calling his followers to unattainable perfection, but to imitate our heavenly Father’s wholeness as we live out His words by His grace. All of Jesus’s counter-cultural wisdom on sexuality, money, anger, vengeance, loving enemies and so on is meant to make us whole again.
- The “evil eye” argument in Matthew 6:22 at first doesn’t seem to fit in a section about money and materialism, until we realise that that in Ancient Near Eastern cultures, an “evil eye” is a metaphor for greed, envy and stinginess. For example, Deuteronomy 15:9 warns Israel that when the seventh year comes, “that you do not show ill will [lit: let your eye be evil] towards your needy brother.” (See also Matthew 20:15 for a similar use of the “evil eye” for envy). So Matthew 6:19-24 is essentially Jesus’s three different ways to spot greed and materialism in our lives: where we store money, what we long for, and what we devote our time to.