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The Sermon on the Mount: Rules of Life in the Kingdom | Frank Sheed | From To Know Christ Jesus | Ignatius Insight

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Our Lord's baptism by John had taken place in January, a cold month, even in the Jordan valley, for total immersion. The definite call of the Twelve was perhaps in June. We shall now be looking at the nine or ten months which still remained of his ministry in Galilee, ending with the vast double explosion—the feeding of the five thousand, and the sermon on the Bread of Life which cost him most of his followers.

So far his teaching seems to have followed the line of the Baptist's—that the Kingdom was at hand, and that the preparation for entry into it must be a change of soul. These last weeks had brought something new—his claim to forgive sins, to be greater than the Temple, to be Lord of the Sabbath. The Baptist had never talked like that. Nor did his hearers grasp what such talk actually meant, for he had still not said who and what he himself was. About that, they might argue and grow confused. The one thing quite clear was that he worked miracles, and that was enough to bring crowds thronging.

We learn that they had come from Judea and Galilee, Jerusalem and Herod's ancestral home Idumea, from countries away on the other side of the Jordan, from Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. They were all trying to touch him, thrusting in on him, so much so that he told the disciples to have a small boat standing by. But this time he did not use the boat. Instead he went up onto the hillside. And there he preached.

Saint Luke gives a short account of the sermon in his chapter 6, Saint Matthew a longer account in his chapters 5, 6, and 7. It would be good to read them both before proceeding further with this chapter. Most people, I fancy, think of the Sermon on the Mount as nine verses, each beginning with the word blessed: if only all sermons were as short as that! In fact it takes three chapters of Saint Matthew. Even so it could be delivered at my own speaking pace in under twenty minutes, and the most sermon-resistant Catholic would hardly begin to complain so soon.

This very brevity helps us to answer one problem. There are things in one account not in the other, things in Matthew which Mark and Luke show as being said on quite other occasions. We may be quite certain that our Lord did not dismiss people who had come so far with a twenty-minute sermon. Even Matthew's account is only a tiny proportion of what he must have said; and it may have included relevant things Jesus said at other times. Of course, as we have already noted, he would have uttered the same great truths again and again, every teacher does—and very often in the same words, because when one has found the best form of words, it would be eccentric to change it.

How perfect were the words he found. Think of some of the things that everybody knows, even if he doesn't know that they are in the Sermon on the Mount—"Consider the lilies of the field", "You cannot serve God and Mammon", "By their fruits you shall know them", "Turn the other cheek", "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you", the Our Father, the Golden Rule. Golden Rule? It was a golden sermon.

It is not quite clear whether the crowds were there for all of it. Certainly some of it could hardly have been meant for them but only for the Twelve: "You are the salt of the earth", "You are the light of the world." Much of it was of application to everyone, to everyone there, to everyone everywhere. But the whole of it is the equivalent of a special training course for the men upon whom he was going to build his Kingdom. They were not simply to be rulers wielding authority. They were to be "light", both to the darkness of the pagan world and to the dimness of the chosen people. They were to be "salt", bringing a new tang and savor to a world insipid, to a life grown dreary. The whole sermon was a commentary on the "repentance", metanoia, change of soul, that was at the heart of the forerunner's message. And of Christ's.

The Sermon begins with the rules of life in the Kingdom. It is blessed to be poor, provided one does not resent one's state but offers it to God; to be patient; to be hungry for justice and sorrowful; to be merciful and clean of heart; to be lovers of peace and makers of peace; to be persecuted for justice's sake, still more to be persecuted and reviled and slandered for our Lord's. It is a remarkable way of life, or program of life, here sketched. Most of these things had been spoken of, and right endurance of them praised, in the Old Testament. But they had hardly been described as adding up to blessedness, a kind of fundamental bliss, so that one would be diminished by not having them. Mercy and cleanness of heart, yes. But sorrow, persecution, reviling, and slander? Jesus is wholly uncompromising about these.


And the rewards? They practically all seem to be in a world to come. And if his followers fail? If the salt lose its savor—surely it lost a lot of its savor on the night of Gethsemane—it is fit only to be thrown out and trodden under foot. Thank God, he also will forgive unto seventy times seven. Yet for the hardened in failure, there is hell. Jesus says it again and again in these chapters.

It is an exacting standard he is setting them, reaching its climax in a phrase approached in Jewish teaching but not reached—"Be ye also perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Their rigor for themselves, however, must be balanced by a total forbearance toward others. Indeed "forbearance" is too pale a word for what is demanded of them. They must not even judge others, for if they do, they will be calling upon God to judge themselves: they must be charitable, that is, not only in external act, but in judgment as well. They must treat others as they would want others to treat them.

Here again we have a phrase his hearers had never heard before. The Old Testament does teach negatively (Tob 4:16) that we should not treat others as we should not want to be treated by them. But phrased positively by Jesus, the Golden Rule is dazzling and dazzlingly difficult to live up to. Which of us could keep it up for a week? To make quite clear that he means the word "others" do unto others-in its fullness, he applies it at the extremest point: we must love our enemies, we must do good to those that hate us.

As well as drawing up a rule of life for his followers, he states his position with regard to the teaching already given to the Jews in the Old Testament. "Do not think that I am come to destroy the Law, or the Prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." Upon murder, adultery, retaliation for evil, he completes and perfects the Law given by God through Moses, always with the formula: "It was said to them of old, but I say to you".

His respect for the Law—which, as second Person of the Trinity, he himself had given through Moses and the prophets—is not extended to the teaching of the scribes: "I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of heaven." He applies this particularly to the teaching he found in possession upon the matter of oaths. False swearing, he says, is false swearing, no matter what you swear by: you cannot evade the commandment by using some other name than God's.

What did his hearers make of all this? Some things they would have understood, and perhaps reacted against instantly—such, for example, as being told not to resent having their face slapped, but to offer the other cheek for slapping. Only slowly, perhaps, did they make their own the essence of what he was saying—namely, that no external act, however splendid, can save us; no external act, however appalling, can damn us, either. All is in the state—knowledge, will, intention—of the soul. A man is saved or damned by what he loves: God, or himself as against God. But, of course, what a man loves will tend to show itself in what he does.

At the end of the sermon Jesus had still not described the Kingdom whose founding he had already begun. Nor had he told them who he was himself. But upon this second point he had added to the claims which had already been quite sufficient to set so many of them thinking of blasphemy. Not only had he completed the law of God with a casual, unexplained "but I say unto you". Worse than that, he had referred (Mt 7:24) to the commands he had been giving them simply as "mine".

Related Ignatius Insight Essays and Book Excerpts:

The Blessings & Curses of the Beatitudes | Mark Brumley
St. John the Baptist, Forerunner | Frank Sheed
The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
The Problem of Life's Purpose | Frank Sheed

Frank Sheed (1897-1981) was an Australian of Irish descent. A law student, he graduated from Sydney University in Arts and Law, then moved in 1926, with his wife Maisie Ward, to London. There they founded the well-known Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward in 1926, which published some of the finest Catholic literature of the first half of the twentieth century.

Known for his sharp mind and clarity of expression, Sheed became one of the most famous Catholic apologists of the century. He was an outstanding street-corner speaker who popularized the Catholic Evidence Guild in both England and America (where he later resided). In 1957 he received a doctorate of Sacred Theology honoris causa authorized by the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities in Rome.

Although he was a cradle Catholic, Sheed was a central figure in what he called the "Catholic Intellectual Revival," an influential and loosely knit group of converts to the Catholic Faith, including authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Arnold Lunn, and Ronald Knox.

Sheed wrote several books, the best known being Theology and Sanity, A Map of Life, Theology for Beginners and To Know Christ Jesus. He and Maise also compiled the Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, which included his notes for training outdoor speakers and apologists and is still a valuable tool for Catholic apologists and catechists (and is available through the Catholic Evidence Guild).

For more about Sheed, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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