Understanding Jesus' Sermons

Even if Jesus never performed a single miracle, his teachings would have secured his place as one of the greatest moral philosophers who ever lived. In fact, Jesus is a moral philosopher in the true sense: He intends that his teachings be not only contemplated but also acted upon. As Jesus himself says, "He who hears my words and does not do them is like a foolish man who builds his house on the sand."

So what did Jesus teach? In short, a lot. It's from Jesus that we get such famous statements as "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39), "go the extra mile" (Matthew 5:41), "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44), and the so-called Golden Rule, "Do to others what you want them to do to you" (Luke 6:31).

Yet, Jesus' teachings are not entirely new. The Golden Rule, for example, could be found in Greco-Roman and eastern philosophical traditions (though usually posed in the negative), and much of what Jesus says had already been expressed in the Hebrew Bible, as Jesus himself admits. Still, Jesus' teachings are unrivaled for their penetrating simplicity and enduring appeal.

The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus gives lectures, or sermons, on a variety of subjects. His most famous is the Sermon on the Mount (so named because, in Matthew, Jesus stands on a mountain when delivering this message). A brief look at this sermon gives us a good idea of what Jesus is all about.

The Sermon on the Mount is, in short, a body of moral teaching characterized by an emphasis on sincere devotion to God, and a corresponding heartfelt benevolence toward others. The emphasis, as this definition suggests, is on the heart. And, therefore, it is to the heart that Jesus directs his teaching.

The Beatitudes or Blessings ("Blessed are . . .") make up the first part of Jesus' sermon. Although scholars speculate that the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of Jesus' teaching, brought together only later into one message, the Beatitudes' emphasis on personal righteousness and patience in affliction serves as a fitting introduction. Among its teachings you find:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, for they shall be filled.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus attempts to change people's attitude toward Moses' Law from external obedience (that is, "I haven't killed anyone today") to internal obedience (that is, "I have forgiven everyone today").

For example, Jesus says,

You have heard it said long ago, "Do not murder". . . But I say that if anyone is angry with his brother, he will be worthy of judgment. And if anyone says to his brother, "Empty-headed," he will be answerable to the Sanhedrin [the Jewish high court]. But if anyone says, "You fool," he will be in danger of the fire of hell.

-Matthew 5:21-22

Note the progression of Jesus' teaching.

  • Don't murder.
  • Don't even remain angry.
  • Furthermore, don't devalue others by considering them fools.

According to Jesus, when Moses said, "Do not murder," he didn't only mean, "Try to make it through the day without killing anyone," but he also meant, "Don't devalue others by thinking yourself superior to them or harboring anger toward them." For Jesus, devaluing others is akin to (and ultimately the source of) murder.

Jesus goes through the same process with other commands, including adultery ("If you lust over another you've already committed adultery in your heart"), oath taking ("Don't swear oaths," but "Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no"), retaliation ("If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well"), and hating your enemies ("Love your enemies" and "pray for those who persecute you"). In case you weren't feeling under the pile already, Jesus concludes this part of his sermon by saying,

Be perfect, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

-Matthew 5:48

Jesus' point in saying "be perfect" is not to make people overachievers or type-A personalities. Rather, Jesus wants people to stop comparing themselves with others, because this leads to a false sense of righteousness. You can always find someone more "morally challenged" than you are, but everyone has room for improvement when compared to God's perfection.

The tendency toward self-righteousness explains why Jesus then moves to a discussion of religious showmanship, which he describes as those who "practice their righteousness before others to be noticed by them." The word Jesus uses to describe this false piety is hypocrisy, which was a word used to describe actors in a play. To Jesus, those who practice their piety for public consumption are like actors, pretending to be someone they're not.

The Lord's Prayer

It is in the context of Jesus' teaching against hypocrisy, and in particular hypocrisy when praying (for example, saying words you don't mean, or saying long prayers just to impress others) that Jesus prays his well-known Lord's Prayer. Although it appears in slightly different forms in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the overall thrust is the same. It is a prayer of simple devotion to God, expressing the speaker's longing for God's righteous rule on earth, as well as God's daily provision for food, forgiveness, and protection.

Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Amen comes from a Hebrew word meaning "trustworthy" or "true." Therefore, saying amen means that you agree with what was prayed and that God is trustworthy to answer the prayer. Sometimes Jesus even begins his teaching by saying, "Amen, amen," which means, in essence, "You can take what I'm about to say to the bank."

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