In popular thought the Sermon on the Mount epitomizes Jesus' ethical teaching; it is the first of five discourses by Jesus in Matthew's gospel and is found in Matthew 5–7. Augustine first called this discourse the “Sermon on the Mount” because of its setting in Matthew 5.1. Matthew describes it as a speech or teaching (5.2; 7.28) given by Jesus while seated, the typical Jewish position for teaching (cf. 23.2).

The sermon shares a striking structural and material parallel with Luke 6.20–49, often called the “Sermon on the Plain” because of its setting. Each opens with a series of beatitudes (Matt. 5.3–12; Luke 6.20–23) followed by a series of demands for conduct (Matt. 5.21–7.12; Luke 6.27–42) and concludes with a series of alternatives, the last being a parable of two builders (Matt. 7.13–27; Luke 6.43–49). Although some have attributed these similarities to Jesus' use of the same “sermon” on more than one occasion, most explain them as the evangelists' use of a common tradition that had already taken its basic shape.

Why then the extensive differences between the two accounts, such as length (Matthew has over a hundred verses, Luke thirty)? Careful examination of the material indicates that some of the differences arose in the development of the tradition used by each evangelist respectively, and some, especially in wording, arose from the evangelists' adaptation of the tradition for their purposes. Much of Matthew's additional material, however, appears elsewhere in Luke's gospel (e.g., 7.7–11, 13–14, 22–23; Luke 11.2–4, 9–13, 34–36; 12.22–34; 13.23–27) and suggests that Matthew thematically combined other parts of the tradition common to Matthew and Luke (Q) to expand the “sermon” tradition. And if Matthew has drawn from the larger, common tradition with Luke, it is likely that he also drew from other traditions to fill out this discourse (e.g., 5.17–19, 21–24, 27–28, 33–37; 6.1–8, 9–13, 16–18). Consequently Matthew's Sermon on the Mount represents an underlying “sermon” tradition expanded by the use of other traditions.

Does then the Sermon on the Mount come from Jesus? If one precisely defines the Sermon as the discourse found in Matthew 5–7, the answer is no. Matthew 5–7 as it now stands is the evangelist's final product of an oral/literary process involving several traditions. Yet analysis of the traditions found in the Sermon indicates their strong claim to being rooted in Jesus' own ministry, and to represent his teaching faithfully.

Some have drawn a parallel between Matthew's structure with five discourses (5–7; 10; 13; 18; 23–25) and the five books of Moses (the Torah). Consequently, the mountain setting and the apparently ethical content of the Sermon have naturally led to interpreting the Sermon as a new law or the messianic Torah given by Jesus, the new Moses. This view, however, fails to do justice to Matthew's gospel as a whole by relegating the infancy, baptism, and temptation narratives (chaps. 1–4) to the status of a preamble and the passion narrative (chaps. 26–28) to that of an epilogue. It suffers from the lack of evidence that Jesus' role either in the Sermon or in the gospel was that of a new Moses.

Others have found the clue to Matthew's structure in the transitional statement, “From that time on, Jesus began …” (4.17; 16.21), which divides Matthew's portrait of Jesus into three parts, the first focused on the person of Jesus Messiah, the second on the presentation of Jesus Messiah, and the third on the passion of Jesus Messiah. In this schema, the Sermon comes as part of Jesus' presentation of himself and his summons to the Kingdom in 4.17–16.20. This reading concurs with Matthew's immediate setting for the Sermon. The discourse in 5–7 and the miraculous deeds in 8–9 are enclosed by the identical programmatic summary in 4.23 and transitional summary in 9.35. These summaries point to Jesus as the promised Messiah presenting the message of the Kingdom and effecting its work.

The audience of the Sermon is the disciples, a group that for Matthew has a dual significance. In the context of Jesus' ministry the disciples always refers to the twelve. But the disciples also represent a model or paradigm of the followers of Jesus in general (28.19; cf. 27.57). They are the community of the Messiah, who have responded to Jesus' message of the Kingdom, and in whose lives the Kingdom is at work. Therefore, the Sermon is also a statement about the identity of the new people of God (5.3–16; 7.13–27) and their conduct in relationship to each other (5.21–48) and to God (6.1–7.11).

The beatitudes (Matt. 5.3–12) bear witness to Jesus and identify the people of the Kingdom. Although Matthew appears to have spiritualized or ethicized the beatitudes to the poor, the hungry, and the weeping (cf. Luke 6.20b–23), his first four beatitudes reflect a deliberate alignment in wording and order with Isaiah 61 to show Jesus to be the fulfillment of Isaiah's promised messenger anointed by the Spirit (Matt. 3.16) to proclaim the good news of God's deliverance (cf. Matt. 4.23; Luke 4.18–21).

At the same time the beatitudes identify the people of the Kingdom as those who stand before God empty‐handed, vulnerable, seeking a right relationship with him and others, open to receive and express his mercy and forgiveness with integrity, ready to experience and to establish peace. These are the people of the Kingdom who find themselves at odds with this world. Yet they are the “salt of the earth” (5.13) and the “light of the world” (5.14–15) whose “good works” bring glory to God (5.16).

The demands of the Sermon (5.17–7.12) set forth the “greater righteousness” (5.20) of the followers of Jesus. But Matthew prefaces these demands by noting again that Jesus' coming meant the fulfillment of biblical promises, “the law and the prophets” (5.17).

The first set of demands (5.21–48), often referred to as the “antitheses,” assumes a new relationship between individuals that issues in conduct that supersedes the Law. These six demands, like much biblical law as well as other teachings of Jesus, are more illustrative than comprehensive.

The second set of demands (6.1–7.11) reflects a right relationship with God. These demands fall into two groups, the first of which has three illustrations of traditional Jewish piety (6.1–18). The second group consists of a series of apparently miscellaneous exhortations (6.19–7.11). The connecting link between these two groups of demands may lie in the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, which was inserted (6.8–15) into the first group (6.1–18) as an example of how to pray. Each exhortation corresponds to a petition of the Lord's Prayer (6.9b–10 = 6.19–24; 6.11 = 6.25–34; 6.12 = 7.1–4; 6.13 = 7.6), and the series concludes with a promise for answered prayer (7.7–11).

Matthew rounds off the demands of the Sermon (5.21–7.11) with the Golden Rule (7.12). Drawn most likely from the context of love for one's enemy (5.43–48; cf. Luke 6.27–35), this demand, now located after the second set of demands pertaining to one's relationship with God (6.1–7.11), resumes the first set of demands regarding one's relationship with others (5.21–48). Therefore, the heart of the Sermon defines the life of the Kingdom in terms of horizontal (5.21–28) and vertical relationships (6.1–7.11).

The Sermon concludes with three sets of alternatives—two ways, two trees, and two builders (7.13–27). One alternative offers life, the other death or destruction. Jesus' way, followed by few, is the more difficult (7.13–14) but is productive (7.16–17) and capable of weathering the storm of judgment (7.24–25).

But can one really “hear” and “do” Jesus' words as the Sermon suggests? Apart from the beatitudes that appear to bless conduct contrary to what it takes to survive in the real world, can one today love the enemy and live with anger (5.22), evil thoughts (5.28), the guarantee of one's word (5.34–37), the recourse to legal justice (5.29–40), or even divorce (5.32)? To understand the Sermon, one must read it in its biblical context woven into the fabric of Matthew's gospel as a statement, above all, about who Jesus is. In this initial discourse, one “hears” Jesus whose words support his preaching about the presence of the Kingdom and point to his person in whom God is acting in keeping with the promise of Isaiah 61. With these words, Jesus declares that a new day has dawned in human relationships because God is offering new relationships with those who are willing to let God be sovereign in their lives (5.3–10). Thus the Sermon is the message of the “good news,” the “gospel of the kingdom,” that declares “blessed” those who have nothing to claim or cling to before God.

At the same time, the Sermon does offer, in a sense, the ethic of the Kingdom. It sets forth how the people of the Kingdom live in relationship with God and others. When accepting Jesus' words of God's gracious acceptance in the beatitudes, one does not “perform” to achieve God's reward (6.1–18), but, placing one's life in God's hands (6.19–7.6), one responds to God out of gratitude and love. Furthermore, in light of the recognition of God's rule, one is free to leave one's best interest in God's hands and to respond to others out of love rather than self‐interest. Only then does the prohibition of anger, lust, and use of legal justice and divorce, or the demand for total honesty and love for the enemy (5.21–48) avoid being utopian.

Robert A. Guelich