For this entry, you are going to be reading two of Jesus' Sermons, Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:1-49. But don't do it yet.
These are two collections of Jesus' teachings that will seem very similar. But I want you to read closely because they have some subtle differences. These two “sermons” come with a host of questions that cannot be answered definitively. Is this the same sermon remembered differently? Did Jesus teach this to different groups and tweak it each time? Regardless, I want you to look for the ways they are different. Before you read, consider a couple of things.
I asked you in the two earlier chapters, when we were considering Jesus as a healer, what he did for a living. Again, most of us have a mental picture of him as a carpenter because that is what Joseph did. No doubt he was familiar with the craft, but it is most likely that Jesus chose to study to become a Rabbi or a teacher of Jewish spirituality. And like schools for young adults today there were various levels of respected schools back then also; There were the “ivy league” type rabbinical schools that existed in Jerusalem and the larger town centers. Most likely Jesus studied with a local Rabbi in the rural synagogue near Nazareth, or in the larger nearby town Sepphoris.
The various Gospel accounts describe Jesus as a “different” kind of teacher, as one who taught with authority and not as the scribes and pharisees. As you can imagine, many of the teachings of Moses had multiple ways of understanding and applying them. What tends to happen in churches (and schools) is that people end up arguing about ideas rather than than what the ideas mean for their life. Knowledge becomes a game that you are trying to win. Jesus apparently cut through those games and got to the heart of the matter. People noticed.
We don’t have time in our class to read and discuss all of Jesus teachings, though I think in many ways that would be more what Jesus would want us to being doing, rather than the birds-eye view we’ve been taking. The parables and sermons of Jesus would be an important class all by itself. So after this brief introduction, I hope you’ll feel you have the context to focus more on Jesus teachings about God and day to day life.
Now go settle in and read these two sermons. The first is Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. The second is shorter but has some similarities, Luke 6:1-49, the Sermon in the Valley. Then come back and finish this chapter.
The first part of the Sermon on the Mount is the best known teachings of Jesus. They are often called “the Beatitudes” because of the litany that repeats itself at the beginning of each line--blessed are (the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for right-living, etc.) Each of these have the potential of generating important discussions. What does Jesus mean when he says that those who have a poor spirit are blessed? Shouldn’t we have a rich spirit?
Also in the Sermon on the Mount, do you notice that Jesus may be contradicting himself when he tells them to perform works of goodness so others can see and praise God, but then later excoriates those who practice their spirituality to be seen by others. Obviously Jesus wants us to parse out the specific internal complexity of both. It IS good to share examples of goodness, but it is also true that people can easily do those things for reasons that make them worse people and not more loving. But that is what good spiritual discussions will do, ask us to grapple with these types of questions. Jesus wants you to have those discussions.
Did you notice any differences between the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Sermon in the Valley (Luke 6:1-49)? The beatitude phrasing is slightly different, isn’t it? In Matthew he says the “poor in spirit” are blessed, whereas in Luke he says “the poor.” What is the difference and why? In Matthew 5 he encourages those who are struggling with their life in God, but in Luke he excoriates those who are rich, as well as those who laugh in this life. It is harsher. Why?
A couple of questions I want you to wrestle with; Some think this is the same sermon remembered or written down differently. Some would say those who recorded it altered it to fit the version of Jesus they preferred. This practice is called redaction. The Gospels are generally believed to be collections of stories that were passed around verbally and in scrolls to the various groups of followers that cropped up after the resurrection of Jesus. So you see why people could see that happening. But I want you to consider something else.
Do you remember early on in our study of Jesus the background I gave you to the different ways the Jewish culture responded to and dealt with Roman occupation? Look at them again:
Sadducees: This was the ruling class of the Jewish society. They could be called the sell-outs in that they often did anything they could to compromise with the Roman government and still hold onto their Jewish identity. Because of this, they tended to be wealthy and well connected economically.
Pharisees. The way they coped with Roman occupation was to lean heavily into their Jewish religious practice and culture, being as non-Roman as possible. So they created a complex series of rules and practices that accentuated their faith. They are often depicted as the villains of the New Testament because some of the rules were extreme (a modern example of this would be families who never let their kids watch TV, go to any movies, or listen to any music but Christian music). But Pharisees were not villains, they were sincerely trying to embrace their faith in hopes that it would encourage the coming of the Messiah.
Essenes. I call these the “hippies” or monks of the time. They disconnected from the Roman society altogether, set up tent cities, lived in caves in separated Jewish communes. The Romans generally cared less about these groups, save for the fact that they didn’t pay any taxes, but at least they weren’t being a problem. They, too, waited for the Messiah.
Zealots. These were the revolutionaries who hated the Roman occupation and wanted to overthrow them. The planned insurgent attacks on the Romans (and in some historical accounts snuck up on Sadducees and cut their throats) and attempted to raise small armed forces that would be ready to fight when the Messiah arrived.
When you read the teachings of Jesus try always to keep in mind these four different types of listeners. Recognize that if you had been alive back then you likely would have been sympathetic to one of these groups over the others. As I said when I first introduced this, it wasn’t a clear-cut sort of arrangement. You could be be a Sadducee and hate that you were such a sell-out. You could be a Essene and have doubts about living your life so separate from the struggle of society. You could be a Pharisee and think maybe you were too over-the-top with your expression of your Jewish faith. It would be like being a Republican but knowing full-well that you appreciate much of the government regulation safety-nets that it provides, you just wish it weren’t so unmanageable. And vice versa. Most of us a complicated mixtures of a variety of cultural expressions. We manage our lives from a variety of vantage points.
These two sermons seems to have different audiences, and that is partly what I like about Jesus as a teacher. He loved and was concerned about everybody; religious, secular, rich, poor, angry, cynical, sell-outs. And his message wants to penetrate to the heart of who you are in all its complexity. When people say that Jesus “saves” that doesn’t only mean you are saved from hell after this life and go to heaven, it means you are saved from your own self-destructive tendencies to make yourself the God of your own life, and all the negative and hurtful fallout from that it breeds.
Your next reading will be a sampling of some of the other of Jesus’ more well-known teachings, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Sower and the Seed.