Most people, whether Christian or not, know something about Jesus and at least some of the details of His life—a life that, according to the biblical account, culminated in a death for the forgiveness of all sins and a resurrection to eternal life. But many may know little about Jesus’ character or unique teachings.
Even in a predominantly Christian Western world, the principles delineated in His most famous address—in the words of the late American writer William Safire “the single most important discourse on Christian law and living”—are often considered irrelevant in a 21st-century context. This address was, of course, the Sermon on the Mount. It contains universal truths recognized by appreciators as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kurt Vonnegut.
If we want to know how Jesus thought, the Gospel of Matthew is the place to go. Not all of the teachings are easy. In fact, the whole sermon challenges us to recognize our individual responsibility. The teaching is a great equalizer. The spotlight is on us. And in this extended message we find examples of what some have referred to as the “difficult sayings of Jesus.”
“Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.”
At a time when wars are raging in Gaza and Ukraine, when civilians of all ages are being brutally destroyed, some of Jesus’ principles are searingly relevant. One of them is the need to show mercy or compassion to all people. He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7, New American Standard Bible). Another translation says, “Blessed are the compassionate, because they shall obtain compassion” (The Scriptures). Jesus also taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, English Standard Version). This is very difficult and challenging, because most of us retaliate when we’re attacked. Jesus addressed this in another part of the same message: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:38–39, New King James Version). These are indeed some of Jesus’ hardest sayings—the most difficult to accept and put into practice.
Did He say these things because He was a liberal or a conservative? A sectarian, a scribe, a Pharisee, or a Herodian? Was He radical or reactionary? Or had it nothing to do with party politics or human prejudice? Was He different because He was godlike in His thinking—coming from outside the human realm and the human way of seeing things? I put it to you that He operated from the perspective of divine values. His words and actions were values-based.
He also said that His teaching was not His own but His Father’s (John 14:24). With the Spirit of God working in Him, He acted according to the law of divine love. This made Him hard to predict at times. What He did and said was often a surprise, because it was outside the human norm. Matthew says that at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28–29, NKJV).
Some would say that the sermon sets laudable but impossible goals, that no one can live up to such high standards. Humanly speaking, this is undoubtedly true. Left to ourselves, we will not live up to the standard. But Jesus also showed the way ahead. In principle He said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, NKJV).
If you would like to read more about the instruction and encouragement found in this vital message, check out the articles “A Platform of Truth” and “Face to Face.” Both are part of the Vision article series The Gospels for the 21st Century. You can request a copy of the series in book form, free of charge, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (please include your name and mailing address), or you can read the entire series, also free of charge, here.