Sermon on the Mount – context and audience

This coming weekend is the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel is Matthew’s well known “Sermon on the Mount.” In today’s post we cover the context for the Sermon as well as some overarching views of the Sermon regarding its context and audience.

From the 4th through the 9th Sundays of Year A the Catholic Lectionary covers most of Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel according to Matthew – popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” These verses are the first, the longest and the most carefully structured discourse in Matthew’s narrative. Roughly 27 percent of Matthew’s discourse is shared with Luke 6:20-49, a further 33 percent has parallels elsewhere in Luke, and 5 percent in Mark, while the remaining 35 percent is unique to Matthew. In Matthew it is a lengthy collection of authoritative teaching with a parallel of authoritative deeds following in Matthew 8-9. But the Sermon does not simply appear. Matthew has established the groundwork for its message.

By way of preparation for the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has established Jesus’ superiority to John the Baptist (3:1–12), recounted the divine acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God (3:13–17), and shown what kind of Son of God Jesus is (4:1–11). The scene has been set: the Messiah had begun to preach in Galilee as Scripture foretold (4:12-17). The Son of God has begun to form a new messianic community via the calling of the four disciples (4:18-22).

Boring (The Gospel of Matthew, 169) notes that “The call of the first disciples is the beginning of the messianic community: the church. Jesus’ baptism and temptation were not merely individualistic religious experiences of a ‘great man,’ but the recapitulation of the birth of Israel in the Red Sea and the wilderness testing; they lead to the formation of a new community, the Messiah’s people (1:21).” In addition to the first disciples, large crowds are being drawn to his teaching (vv.23-25).  The Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:29) will reveal Jesus as the authoritative teacher and the manner in which “the Law and the prophets” are fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

Jesus has drawn large crowds, and because of them, has withdrawn with his disciples to a setting where he begins to instruct this intimate circle of followers on the nature of their new commitment to the kingdom of God (cf. 4:17).  The mountain is not a specific place, but a general term, as we might say ‘into the hills’ (cf. 14:23; 15:29; 28:16, none of which specifies the exact place; see Notes). It indicates the steeply rising ground to the west of the lake of Galilee. Such ‘retreats’ to the quiet of the hills, for prayer and teaching, are a regular feature of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus is depicted sitting (the correct posture for formal teaching: cf. 13:2; 23:2; 24:3; 26:55; Luke 4:20), with his disciples around him. The crowds, apparently here left behind, are found in 7:28–29 to have been also listening, but that can only be as a more remote audience, for passages like 5:11–16 are clearly addressed only to disciples. Perhaps a rigid distinction between disciples and crowd should not be pressed: there were varying degrees of commitment. But the primary audience is clearly the ‘insiders’.

The focus of the discourse is not the wider proclamation of the “good news of the kingdom of God” (v.23), but instruction for those who have already responded to the proclamation and now need to learn what constitutes life in the kingdom. The teaching will describe them as a special group set apart, and often persecuted by people of the world. They are those who have entered into a new relationship with “your Father in heaven” (6:9) and are called to a radical lifestyle distinct from the norms of society.

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) has these introductory comments about the entire sermon:

The focus of Jesus’ teaching concerns the “good news of God’s empire/reign” (4:17, 23; 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). The sermon is not, though, a comprehensive manual or rule book not a step-by-step “how to” book. Rather it offers a series of illustrations, or “for examples,” or “case studies” of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign. (p.128)

For those who belong to the minority and marginal community of disciples of Jesus, the sermon continues the gospel’s formational and envisioning work. It shapes and strengthens the community’s identity and lifestyle as a small community in a dominant culture that does not share that culture’s fundamental convictions. The community is reminded that the interactions with God, with one another, and with the surrounding society are important aspects of their existence which embraces all of life, present and future. Mission to, love for, and tension with the surrounding society mark their participation in this society. Integrity or wholeness defines their relationships with one another. Prayer, accountability, and the active doing of God’s will are features of their relationship with God and experience of God’s empire. (p.129)


Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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