Ethical Values of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount

To what extent was The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) intended to be a distinctive ethical teaching for all people

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is one of the 5 main blocks of teaching in the gospel- emulating Torah. ‘Without our noticing, faith can degenerate into religiosity...That is when the teaching of Jesus brings us up with a jerk.'[1] The sermon presents the reader with a radical teaching from Jesus, completely divergent to any preceding teaching in Judaism; it offers a stark contrast to the Old Testament.

The radical change is the shift between legalism and obstinate Jewish law to an emphasis on person and relationship with God and neighbour. It is important, firstly, to understand Matthew’s purpose in including the Sermon on the Mount; ‘For Mt, Jesus, not the law, stands as the decisive centre of his religious universe...the criterion of judgement, the norm to be taught.’

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes, which describe all types of people as ‘happy’: ‘happy are the poor in spirit.

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..gentle ...merciful...persecuted...’ (Mt 5: 13) These beatitudes include all people, they start the sermon as it means to go on; its intention is to provide ethical teaching to all people. In this essay I will explore and aim to decipher the extent of which the sermon presents a distinct ethical teaching with the aid of diverse and important viewpoints. The first view, of the sermon’s ethical teaching, is the ‘Absolutist View.’ This view rejects compromise; ‘all the precepts in the Sermon must be taken literally and applied universally.

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..If obeying the scripture costs the welfare of the believer, then that is a reasonable sacrifice for salvation.’ [2] The last part of the quote almost replicates Mt 5:30

‘...if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.’ There are traces of absolutism within the sermon; a deontological undertone to it. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would argue that: ‘The principles, it was said, were there laid down as to how life should be lived by men, and all we have to do is apply the Sermon on the Mount.’ [3]‘ John P. Meier states that ‘Mt has spiritualised and generalised the beatitudes, making them applicable to the spiritual needs and moral endeavour of every member of his church.[4]’ It is through this that he indirectly suggests that they should/must be applied by every member of Matthew’s church. These two scholars would appear to support the ‘absolute view’ that the sermon was greatly intended to be a distinct ethical teaching for all people.

In ‘Salt of the Earth and Light of the World’ and ‘The Fulfilment of the Law’ the reader may feel a strong sense of personal witness; the need to stand up for what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong: ‘...your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in Heaven’ (Mt 5:16) There is an element of prescriptivism in this text; Jesus was confirming a place for the law and a clear sense of absolute right and wrong in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

His intentions were not to ‘abolish the Law...but to complete them’ (Mt 5:17-18) His teaching was an invitation to behave in a certain way. ‘...the man who infringes even the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Mt 5:19)

There is also an absolute message in ‘The Golden Rule’: ‘So always treat others as you would like them to treat you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.’ (Mt 7:12) Jesus’ words are direct to his people and it is hard to argue that this is not a distinctive ethical teaching to all people because of the absolute and universal qualities held in words like ‘So always treat…’ his instructions account for all time, people and place. Jerome’s biblical commentary on ‘The True Disciple’ could be seen to uphold literal living out of the sermon: ‘The words of Jesus are a call and a challenge to action; they are not mere teaching, and understanding them is an insufficient response. The challenge is serious; failure to meet it is followed by catastrophe.’[5]

Some would argue that the absolute view of the Sermon on the Mount is ridiculous, that people cannot be expected to literally live out the strenuous commands of the sermon. This is supported by a view, which is more common, the ‘Hyperbole View.’ It ‘contends that Jesus deliberately overstated His demands. Jesus demonstrated this kind of teaching technique outside the Sermon’’ [6] If readers are to live out the sermon’s ethics they need to be toned-down to modern society standards. Keith Ward appears to support this in his book, where he maintains that ‘The sermon is used properly when it is taken as a guide for meditation and for moral self-examination.’[7] It is clear to see why some of the examples given by Jesus are seen as hyperbole, because of the extreme solutions Jesus provides to problems of moral actions:

  • ‘If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away...’ (Mt 5:30)
  • ‘...if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Mt 5:28-29 It would be a ridiculous idea to take these two teachings literally, instead the Hyperbole view would suggest that these are exaggerations that carry a message. The message of the first is the severity of sinning and not to let evil and sin encompass you, if you sin once, cut yourself off from that experience, do not keep sinning. If the second quotation was to be ‘toned down’ to modern day society the message would not be that you shouldn’t look at any woman (who is not your wife) in any way that could be seen as lustfully, rather one should devote their attention, loyalty and lust to their wife. This eschatological view, by major German thinker, Martin Dibelius, suggests that: whilst the ethics within the Sermon are absolute, the current fallen state of the present day makes it impossible to live up to them.

Their failure to live up to them is inevitable According to dispensationalism, this is the period of ‘grace’ meaning that failure to live up to the sermon is justified, but a period in the future will see mankind able to live up to Jesus’ teaching. ‘You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect.’ (Mt 5:48) Rob Warner quotes: ‘The Sermon on the Mount is an ethic of extremism. Jesus’ demands are positively mountainous and his idealism may appear naive and unworkable.’ [8]This may be due to the lack of emotions involved when examples of moral decisions are given:

‘Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on your way to court with him...’ (Mt 5:25) ‘ your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ (Mt 5:44-45)

It is not only your actions that are scrutinized, but your thoughts too. Again, emotions and human nature are not taken into account which makes the commands appear unattainable:

‘...if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Mt 5:28-29) The Unconditional Divine Will view is linked to the ‘Repentance View’, the view which sees ‘the Sermon as basically Law in nature and is therefore designed, as Paul described in Galatians 3:24, to lead unto Christ; to repent of their sins and believe on Christ.’ The final view, of the extent of ethical teaching in the sermon, is the ‘General Principle’ view: it ‘argues that Jesus was not giving specific instructions, but general principles of how one should behave.

The specific instances cited in the Sermon are simply examples of these general principles’[9] My interpretation of the sermon is in accordance with the General Principles view, a lot of the text can be seen to offer general codes of behaviour and description of character, the examples are not to be taken as literal actions, they put forward general principles that should be used when making moral judgements and actions.

‘But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing.’ (Mt 6:3-4)

‘...go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place’ (Mt 6:6)

These are prime examples of ethical teaching by Jesus which should not necessarily be taken literally; they merely provide general principles. The general ethical principle provided is that prayer, fasting and almsgiving should be prompted by right motive and good will, not something to be done overtly in order to be hailed as a virtuous person. ‘To be hailed as a virtuous man is a sufficient award for those who seek recognition; they obtain what they seek and that is all they obtain.’[10] There are various ethical theories that arise throughout the sermon that portray its distinct ethical teachings. Motive and good will are general principles of Kantian ethics; utilitarianism and situation ethics also come up within the sermon, the general principles of these theories constitute the ethics that Jesus- in his teaching- and Matthew- in his recording- intended for all people to take away with them. Utilitarianism is raised by the emphasis on reward in Mt 5 and situation ethics arises within the text in talk about purity of heart and eyes:

  • ‘...if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be all darkness.’ (Mt 6:23)
  • ‘Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.’ (Mt 7:5)
  • ‘Jesus warned the Pharisees not to become absorbed in questions of external cleanliness.’[11] For Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven, it is inner cleanliness, of the heart and mind, which matter: ‘For Mt, purity of the heart involves a simple directness in one’s intentions and attitudes, an undivided heart’ [12] This quotation from Meier sums up the sermon’s structure; I associate the simple directness with the lower, working class audience of which the sermon is directed to: ‘...teaching which (unlike the entire moral tradition of antiquity) was addressed to the lower strata of society. Jesus demonstrated the ‘blessedness’ of the poor by showing that actions of profound moral import lay within their power.’ [13]

The simple directness of ‘intentions and attitudes’ transpires in Jesus’ emphasis on right motive and good will. The question of an ‘undivided heart’ is raised in Matthew 6- ‘God and Money’: ‘No one can be a slave to two masters...You cannot be the slave of both God and money’ (Mt 6:24) Again, money could be meant in the literal sense (material goods coming between the relationship with God) but it also serves as a symbol for anything which becomes a barrier to God; Jesus’ ethical teaching, the general principle, is that you cannot serve God with a divided heart.

‘In the sermon, Christ does not really give us precise and detailed commands to be obeyed. He draws from us the inner resources of moral discernment which enables us to see what love is and should be.’[14] I think perhaps that the general principles link into the idea that the sermon was not intended as a distinct ethical teaching in the sense that they direct moral actions because one cannot base their actions around scripture alone. ‘Christian ethical thinking remains a mixture of the application of human reason, the understanding of scripture, reflection on tradition and obedience to the magisterium of the Church.’ [15] Rather, it is a teaching that inspires man to practice his virtuous religious actions. Thomas Aquinas maintains that every moral question can be reduced to the consideration of the virtues[16].

According to J.F Keenan, the real question of ethics is not ‘What should I do?’ but ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who ought I to become?’ and ‘How am I to get there?’ Aristotle advocates that one reveals their true nature when one acts in spontaneous situations, in the unplanned and ordinary life. The sermon appears to support this; Jesus presented his teachings by giving examples of ordinary people acting morally in everyday circumstances. In practicing the seven cardinal virtues (temperance, fortitude, prudence, justice, charity, hope and faith), right moral action comes naturally through clear judgement, good reason and a pure heart; all the principles that propounded by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Plato juxtaposed each cardinal virtue with the social classes. Temperance was associated with the working/producing classes i.e. the farmers and craftsmen, fortitude with the warrior class, prudence with the reasoned rulers and Justice did not form part of the class system; it governs the relationship among the three classes.

  1. Keith Ward- ‘The Rule of Love- Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount’
  2. Chp. 4 ‘The Sermon and Ethics (Part 1)’ ‘Twelve Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount
  3. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones- ‘Studies in the Sermon on the Mount’
  4. John P. Meier- ‘Matthew’ – The Sermon on the Mount, pg 41
  5. Jerome Biblical Commentary
  6. A.E Harvey, ‘Strenuous Commands’ , pg. 76
  7. Rev. Patrick Allsop, M.A- ‘Ethical Theory And New Testament Ethics’
  8. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Summa Theologiae’ Prologue, II-II
  9. Rob Warner- ‘The Sermon on the Mount’
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Ethical Values of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. (2016, Jun 04). Retrieved from

Ethical Values of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount
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