By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What do the phrases ‘salt of the earth’, ‘light of the world’, ‘God and mammon’, ‘blessed are the meek’, ‘turn the other cheek’, and ‘pearls before swine’ all have in common? Along with another now ubiquitous expressions, they all originate in the same place: the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teachings to his followers which is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew.
The Sermon on the Mount is widely regarded as representing a number of core aspects of Jesus’ teaching, so some analysis of this central passage from the Bible may help to shed light on why it is so important. Before we come to the textual analysis, here’s a summary of the chief content of the Sermon on the Mount.
Sermon on the Mount: summary
In chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had been baptised by John the Baptist. The Sermon on the Mount occupies three chapters shortly after this: chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel.
When a crowd of people have gathered around him, Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain and delivers his sermon. He begins with a serious of blessings or ‘beatitudes’, which include the famous statement ‘blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’ and ‘blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’.
Jesus’ point here is that those who follow him and are persecuted for it in this life will be repaid many times over in heaven when they die. He describes them as ‘the salt of the earth’: another famous phrase, whose origins lie in the high value of salt in Roman times (indeed, Roman soldiers were famously paid an allowance or ‘salary’, a word derived from the Latin for ‘salt’, to spend on food, including precious salt).
Jesus says that if the salt loses its flavour, however, it is cast out as good-for-nothing. His point is that they are good and honest people, and such people are often treated badly by others. But if they follow Jesus all will be all right in heaven.
In another now-famous phrase, Jesus calls his followers ‘the light of the world’ and – as if coining one quotable aphorism wasn’t enough – he then talks about how men don’t hide their light ‘under a bushel’ (a ‘bushel’ is a stack of wheat), but place it on a candlestick so that its light can be seen. So Jesus’ followers should not hide their good deeds but make sure people know about them.
Jesus then tells them that he has come not to destroy or overturn the laws from the Old Testament but to ‘fulfil’ them. Indeed, he will not change one ‘jot’ or ‘tittle’ (a very small mark in writing) of the law as it is written.
And Jesus proceeds to prove this by going through several of the ‘Ten Commandments’ from Mosaic or Jewish law, and showing how these laws (‘thou shalt not kill’, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’) are part of Jesus’ own teaching.
Indeed, he goes further than the Old Testament commandments, declaring, for instance, that a man lusting after another woman who is not his wife has ‘committed adultery with her already in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). Jesus highlights the importance of hellfire (something absent from Old Testament teaching) as a punishment for wrongdoers.
Next we get more now-famous expressions: Jesus tells his followers that if their right eye ‘offend’ them, they should pluck it out (e.g., if a man looks lustfully at another woman) because it is better to keep the rest of yourself pure and untainted by sin than to keep this corrupted part of yourself. Then Jesus extends the same point to hands: you should cut off your right hand if it ‘offend thee’, for the same reason.
However, when Jesus turns his attention to the famous Old Testament lex talionis system of retribution (‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’), that his followers should not seek to ‘resist’ evil but that if someone hits you on the right cheek, you should present your left cheek to him so that he can hit that too.
(This is the origin, of course, of ‘turn the other cheek’; contrary to popular belief, it means to turn your cheek towards your attacker rather than away from them in non-violent retreat. In other words, Jesus encourages his followers to egg their enemies on.)
Indeed, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who persecute you. In short, answer hate with love, and persecution with tolerance and forbearance. Strive to be perfect, just as God in heaven is perfect.
We then move to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus focuses on prayer here, telling his followers to pray in their closets, in secret, for God will hear their prayers and reward them publicly. Many hypocrites pray in places of public worship so they can be seen to be praying: the biblical equivalent of virtue signalling.
How should they pray? Not by using pointless repetitions, just for the sake of making lots of words and noises for God. God already knows what you’re going to ask of him, so be brief and to the point.
Next comes the Lord’s Prayer, which we have analysed in a separate post.
Jesus turns from prayer to fasting, making a similar point about those virtue-signallers who fast and make their faces look all gaunt and haggard, so that their friends and neighbours will see that they’re fasting. Don’t be like those guys. Just fast in private and present a normal countenance to the world, because God will know that you are observing your fast and reward you accordingly.
The next topic Jesus addresses is wealth, telling his followers not to accrue vast treasures in this life, because ‘Ye cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24), where ‘mammon’ is an untranslated Aramaic word for ‘wealth’.
Yet more world-famous phrases next: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin’ (6:28). The lily does not concern itself with being a lily, or work hard to make itself appear beautiful: it simply gets on with the business of being a lily, and doesn’t work hard at it because God has created it to be beautiful.
So Jesus’ followers shouldn’t concern themselves with this life, because it’s the life to come that matters, and God will take care of that. ‘Take therefore no thought for the morrow’ (6:34), Jesus tells them.
We then move into chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’, Jesus enjoins his listeners, because if you judge others harshly you can expect the same judgment to be used on you.
As with his earlier comments on prayer and fasting, Jesus is here addressing the subject of hypocrisy. Ask for what you need and it will be granted to you, seek it and you will find it, knock and the door will be opened.
This comes just after a rather baffling verse: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet’ (7:6). It has been suggested that this is a reference to the fact that Jesus (or Matthew, at least) is addressing his message specifically among Jews, and not among Gentiles or non-Jews.
In such an interpretation, Jesus is saying that the message of God would be wasted upon Gentiles, like giving pearls to pigs. This is a form of desecration, so Jesus’ disciplines shouldn’t just seek to spread the word to everyone: they should avoid trying to convert those who are likely to revile and reject it.
We also get a version of the much older Golden Rule: ‘There all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets’ (7:12).
Similarly, Jesus cautions his followers to ‘beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (7:15). This (rather than the fable often attributed to Aesop) is the true source of the phrase ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.
We will be judged on what we do, rather than what we pretend to do, or what we say. ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them’ (7:20). If you heed Jesus’ words, you are building your house upon a rock, whereas if you ignore him, you are building your house upon shaky foundations (sand). And this parable of the two men who built very different houses brings the sermon to an end.
Sermon on the Mount: analysis
As Isaac Asimov notes in his informative Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament: 002, the title ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is probably a bit of a misnomer, since the teachings which chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew present to us are probably derived from several different sermons rather than one event.
This is largely down to St Augustine, who wrote an analysis of ‘the Lord’s sermon in the mountain’, referring to it as a single speech rather than a collection of sayings. Some of the sayings which feature in chapters 5-7 of Matthew are also found in the Gospel of Luke (see 6:20-49), although that sermon is delivered on the ‘plain’ or ‘level place’.
So in short, Luke’s sermon wasn’t given on a mount, while Matthew’s sermon (probably) wasn’t one sermon but a collection of sermons.
Much of the Sermon on the Mount (as it is commonly known) sees Jesus referring back to Old Testament teachings such as the Ten Commandments.
Although most people know that Jesus says ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5), not as many people know that, in saying this, Jesus was echoing something from the Psalms: ‘But the meek shall inherit the earth’ (37:11). Jesus is showing that he is fulfilling or complementing Jewish law, rather than replacing it with a new one.
Several key themes are found in the Sermon on the Mount, but they might all be summed up with the word ‘humble’. One should pray and fast in humility, not showily; one should be humble in the number of possessions or amount of wealth one has; one should act humbly or meekly and give oneself over to God’s power completely.
All this is in stark contrast to the old teachings of the scribes and Pharisees: teachers of the established Mosaic Law, in other words. Although Jesus comes in fulfilment of the Law, his speech underscores the important ways in which his teaching goes beyond the established Law, so that, for instance, it is a sin to think about committing adultery, as well as actually going through with it.
However, as the authors of the Dictionary of the Bible observe, it is wrong to analyse the Sermon on the Mount as containing all of the key tenets of Christ’s teaching, or as Jesus’ legislation. It is not a summary of the entire gospel of Jesus, and the author of Matthew clearly didn’t view it as such: along with the Sermon on the Mount, we need to consider the Mission of the Disciplines (see chapters 9 and 10), the Hidden Teaching of the Parables (13:1-52), and several other passages.