To What Extent Was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Intended to Be a Distinctive Ethical Teaching for All People?

Topics: Ethics, Morality, Virtue Pages: 7 (2516 words) Published: November 15, 2008
To what extent was The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) intended to be a distinctive ethical teaching for all people?

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is one of the 5 main blocks of teaching in the gospel- emulating Torah. ‘Without our noticing, faith can degenerate into religiosity...That is when the teaching of Jesus brings us up with a jerk.'[1] The sermon presents the reader with a radical teaching from Jesus, completely divergent to any preceding teaching in Judaism; it offers a stark contrast to the Old Testament. The radical change is the shift between legalism and obstinate Jewish law to an emphasis on person and relationship with God and neighbour. It is important, firstly, to understand Matthew’s purpose in including the Sermon on the Mount; ‘For Mt, Jesus, not the law, stands as the decisive centre of his religious universe...the criterion of judgement, the norm to be taught.’ The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes, which describe all types of people as ‘happy’: ‘happy are the poor in spirit...gentle ...merciful...persecuted...’ (Mt 5: 13) These beatitudes include all people, they start the sermon as it means to go on; its intention is to provide ethical teaching to all people. In this essay I will explore and aim to decipher the extent of which the sermon presents a distinct ethical teaching with the aid of diverse and important viewpoints. The first view, of the sermon’s ethical teaching, is the ‘Absolutist View.’ This view rejects compromise; ‘all the precepts in the Sermon must be taken literally and applied universally...If obeying the scripture costs the welfare of the believer, then that is a reasonable sacrifice for salvation.’ [2] The last part of the quote almost replicates Mt 5:30

‘...if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.’ There are traces of absolutism within the sermon; a deontological undertone to it. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would argue that: ‘The principles, it was said, were there laid down as to how life should be lived by men, and all we have to do is apply the Sermon on the Mount.’ [3]‘ John P. Meier states that ‘Mt has spiritualised and generalised the beatitudes, making them applicable to the spiritual needs and moral endeavour of every member of his church.[4]’ It is through this that he indirectly suggests that they should/must be applied by every member of Matthew’s church. These two scholars would appear to support the ‘absolute view’ that the sermon was greatly intended to be a distinct ethical teaching for all people. In ‘Salt of the Earth and Light of the World’ and ‘The Fulfilment of the Law’ the reader may feel a strong sense of personal witness; the need to stand up for what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong: ‘...your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in Heaven’ (Mt 5:16) There is an element of prescriptivism in this text; Jesus was confirming a place for the law and a clear sense of absolute right and wrong in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. His intentions were not to ‘abolish the Law...but to complete them’ (Mt 5:17-18) His teaching was an invitation to behave in a certain way. ‘...the man who infringes even the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Mt 5:19)

There is also an absolute message in ‘The Golden Rule’:
‘So always treat others as you would like them to treat you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.’ (Mt 7:12) Jesus’ words are direct to his people and it is hard to argue that this is not a distinctive ethical teaching to all people because of the absolute and universal qualities held in words like ‘So always treat…’ his instructions...
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