John Stott seems to have had it right when he put it this way: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do” (John Stott).
Although undoubtedly familiar to regular church goers, at least by its title, I suspect most of the population would only have the haziest notion of what the Sermon on the Mount was really about, and I guess in a way for many of us, we would also have to confess much of the sermon teachings get attention only in passing. In my rather limited experience I can’t for example recall any time when the main principles from the Sermon on the Mount were used as a way of sorting out Church action plans for the year. Offering lip service to the teachings is of course much easier for most Church congregations than acting as if Jesus’ teaching is still central to their core business.
Best known set of teachings or not, one Gallup poll on the sermon stated that in the US sample, less than half of those sampled even knew that Jesus had delivered the famous sermon. I must also confess to smiling when I heard a significant number of those surveyed about the Sermon on the Mount thought Jesus was mounted on a horse when he delivered it.
Whatever the sermon represents, it would probably be a mistake to treat it as a verbatim record. We need to admit at the outset that there is every sign that Matthew has collected these particular sayings of Jesus from a number of sources and in any event it seems most unlikely that the sermon which would have only taken ten minutes at the most to deliver in its recorded form would have been the sum total of teaching offered by Jesus in front of a crowd who had come onto that hillside to hear him. In case there happen to be any scholars present today, just for the record, we might note in passing, the Gospel of Mark and the even earlier Gospel of Thomas, which never made it into the final version of the Bible, contain a number of parallels as does the Gospel of Luke. Part of verse 13 appears in Mark 9: 50, for example. The part about the “city on the hill” passage (5:14) also turns up in the Gospel of Thomas (32) as does the lamp hid under a bushel (33), also found in Mark 4:21 and Luke 8:16 and 11:33. Verse 18–“not one letter”–has a parallel in Luke 16:17.
Some of the nuances of the sermon are probably lost on a modern Western congregation.
Jesus starts by telling the disciples (and presumably the crowd) that they are the salt of the land, and then that they will be of no value if the salt loses its taste. Most of us I guess are familiar with the expression about being “the salt of the Earth” even if we are unfamiliar with its derivation, but salt losing its flavour seems odd at first hearing to say the least.
Here a brief historical reminder mightn’t go amiss.
Salt in the days of Jesus was absolutely critical for survival for any community. Valuable for its unique preservative property in days before refrigeration, salt was even used for trade and barter. This incidentally was the case over much of the civilised world for many hundreds of years, and those for example who have been lucky enough to have done a river cruise on the Danube may well have done a side trip to Salzburg (the salt trading capital of the area at a time when many of the castles built along the Danube were there expressly for controlling and taxing the passage of salt down the river.) Paying for a slave who turned out to be lazy or useless gave rise to the expression, “not being worth his salt”, and paying soldiers and servants in small bags of salt was the origin of the word “salary”. Salt losing its flavour was actually a much more local experience for those in Palestine because salt from the Dead Sea contains a mixture of substances together with the salt, some of which would change over time which could indeed cause a change of the original flavour.
Salt of course is only of value if used appropriately and when Jesus says we are the salt of the world and then follows it up with a suggestion that we might become a salt that loses its flavour, shows he does not award his followers the title salt of the world with the presumption the title is theirs for ever as of right or that it will remain theirs without some appropriate response.
Then he does the same with the title “Light of the World”. The thought of being the light of the world, which many would believe to be the rightful description of Jesus himself, should make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. While the thought at least stirs the imagination, when he goes further and says how the light has to be displayed before it is of use to anyone else, we should at least be beginning to understand.
Remember last week’s reading about the Beatitudes. Living out these according to their spirit is in effect to be the light shining on the hill, or to put it the other way is to be the salt on which the good food depends, and is likewise to be a metaphorical part of the City of God. Certainly we are right to remember Matthew talking earlier of Jesus as the light of the world, because after-all hadn’t he specifically quoted Isaiah as talking about the Messiah with the words: the People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light? Yet we can’t leave it there. When Jesus tells his disciples and other listeners, you are light of the world, this is critical because in effect it says by implication: “My mission has just become your mission”.
The seemingly attractive cop-out alternative is to assume it is only Jesus who carries the light, in which case we have an excuse to be spectators to the faith.
If we are thinking first and foremost of ourselves it is true we are unlikely to want to set our light in the open on the hill. Thinking selfishly we are much safer if we don’t venture out, and unfortunately – or if we are among the timid – perhaps we might even say “fortunately”, we may feel safer with our light under the bushel so to speak. On the other hand to stay with the gist of Jesus argument which he follows through in much of the rest of the sermon, if we are thinking first and foremost of others, we would be anxious to place the light where it would be most helpful to others.
In passing it is fair to wonder, in the eyes of other people, which of the two alternatives would characterise us first as individuals and second as a faith community.
Matthew appears very fond of the illustrations which relate Jesus (and the Church he inspires) to Israel both in its history and in its symbolism. The language of light and city and mountainside is standard symbolism for Israel. The city on the hill is of course Zion, and the prophets traditionally chose the mountainside as a means of having as many people hearing their message as possible.
I suggested earlier that many are reluctant to see themselves as required to live out Jesus’ teaching. On the other hand to fail to see that Jesus message depends on how his followers respond in effect getting out there in both word and action is to ignore what he teaches about placing the light.
And rather than let us escape the full force of what Jesus is reported as saying Matthew goes on to tell us Jesus is not providing any sort of escape from the essence of the law. Perhaps Matthew is aware that here he is setting his writing at variance with the teaching recorded in Mark and from Paul. We may need reminding that by the time Jesus was on the scene the excessive teachings of the law were appearing so confining and even awkward to live that even some of the Rabbis were beginning to shift direction. The Hillel school of Rabbis were for example teaching that there were some practical situations which would permit a relaxation of the laws of divorce. Mark is prepared to choose Jesus words which suggest that circumstances allow us to set aside some laws which discriminate against people and no longer make sense, particularly some laws relating to food. Likewise Paul suggests that with Jesus we might now look beyond rules about circumcision.
So what then do we make of Matthew recording Jesus saying he did not come to replace the law? In a way it could be argued that Matthew is the most conservative of the New Testament writers, yet don’t forget he also records Jesus as setting priorities within the law. What sounds like legalism, where every jot and tittle of the law needs to be taken into account, turns out to be an exercise in which perspective arrives when we put the emphasis on the laws relating to love and compassion. The law is interpreted not on the basis of slavish attention to which acts are permitted but rather on how the law is interpreted in the attitudes to people and situations – or if you like, the Beatitudes attitudes.
The cartoonist Michael Leunig in his book entitled the Lot in Words, starts one of his chapters with a brief account of a fellow cartoonist’s offering as follows.
“A Bruce Petty cartoon from the 1970s shows two children wearing shepherd outfits, dawdling their way home from school, where they have just taken part in the nativity play. As they move through traffic and the crazy pre-Christmas rush, one child says to the other. “Actually, I never have trouble with the meaning of Christmas – it’s the rest of the year that I don’t understand.”…….”
Christmas is now more than a month behind us and the world has well and truly settled back to its usual confusing dilemmas. Here in today’s reading, at least for those who would follow Christ, there is an implied radical approach to this confusion, but whether or not we can show we trust his challenge as still being relevant for our present circumstances, and where we in effect will come to place the light we are invited to hold up for others may not yet be decided.