The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most written about speech in history. Scholars debate the finer points of what Jesus said, as you might assume, but there has been plenty of ink and pixels spent simply discussing the context and setting in which Jesus gave this sermon. It is helpful, of course, to know something about life in first century Palestine. It is helpful to know that agriculture was the prevailing occupation, that land ownership was difficult for many, and that the Law had been heavily interpreted by the leaders of 2nd Temple Judaism. It is equally helpful, though often impossible to really know, to think about to whom Jesus was actually speaking. This is one of the main sources of controversy around the Sermon on Mount. To whom was Jesus speaking?
It has been a few weeks since we heard Matthew set the scene for this sermon. If you’ll recall, Jesus has been surrounded by large crowds who have been drawn to his ministry of healing. As chapter five opens, Matthew tells us that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:…” Most scholars read this to say that Jesus and his disciples took leave of the large crowd in order that Jesus might lay the foundation for the work ahead. As his popularity grew, Jesus thought it important to take a moment, before things got way out of control, to make clear what this kingdom he was proclaiming was all about. Some scholars find this reading to be difficult. The idea that Jesus could be surrounded by such a large crowd and somehow find some space away from them seems hard to believe. In their mind, it is more likely that Jesus did attempt to step away from the crowd with his disciples, but the crowd, at least the closest few hundred folks, were able to eavesdrop on the conversation.
I’ve probably been in the minority camp for most of my years of Biblical study, but that seems to be changing. For some reason this morning, as I read the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses, I found myself really struggling to believe that the crowd could have heard all of this difficult teaching and stuck around. I turned to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and found chapter 8 opening with these words, “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…” I just can’t imagine the Sermon on the Mount as a church growth technique. It seems impossible that the crowd would have heard Jesus say, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” or “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and not have at least considered turning around and walking away. As we prepare to hear more difficult teaching from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, to whom is it now speaking? How do these hard words ring in the ears of the faithful? The waffling? Those on the margins? How do we take these words and make them real in our context?