The Sermon on the Plain AKA The Sermon on the Mount
An atheist challenged a vicar saying, “I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but I live by the Sermon on the Mount. “Excellent,” replied the vicar, “how are you getting on with loving your enemies?” The atheist spluttered a bit and walked away. Many people say they admire the teaching of Jesus, without ever having read it. When you look closely, you can’t do what he teaches unless you believe that he has the godlike power to help you to. But wait, Matthew wrote: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain….” and then continues into what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount – but, and here’s the problem with that, there aren’t any mountains close to Lake Galilee! So, which mountain did Matthew mean?
St Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, says that Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place,” so we call Luke’s version, the version we have just heard, the Sermon on the Plain. It contains a lot of the teaching found in Matthew’s more familiar version, often called the Beatitudes, only Luke’s version seems more personal because instead of “Blessed are those who mourn,” which we hear in Matthew’s version, Luke writes, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. He makes it more challenging too: instead of the poor in spirit and those who hunger after righteousness, Luke has, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you when people hate you…” Luke also highlights the opposites, which are a real challenge to social inequality: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you….” Like Matthew, Luke shows that the outcome of all this is a command to love, but it’s even more challenging even than we find in Matthew’s version. Luke reports that Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is a well-nigh impossible target to aim at and I’m sure none of us could boast that we live our lives in this way at all times.
So, why the difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions? Well, I believe it is do with the audience for which they were writing. Luke, a Greek physician, wrote a non-Jewish readership; he mentions that Gentiles were amongst those listening to Jesus, and he doesn’t assume that his readers will be familiar with Jewish Scriptures. Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jewish tax-collector, and he quotes repeatedly from the OT, and according to Matthew Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Just what a Jewish audience wanted to hear; but it wasn’t what Luke’s mentor Paul was teaching his Greek listeners, because he knew that it would put them right off wanting to become a Christian.
Luke and Matthew probably heard or read some the words that Jesus actually spoke on that day by Lake Galilee, over two thousand years ago, then selected and translated them in such a way to be most helpful to the people they were writing for. The answer to our question then, “Which mountain?” is that Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, standing on Mt Sinai to define for Jews a new law – whereas Luke wanted to challenge non-Jews with the highest standards of personal love and social justice to aim at. Read Luke chapter 6 again when you get home and realise just how much further you need to go before you come anywhere near this impossible standard. Then ask Jesus for his Holy Spirit to inspire you, because that’s the only way we can rise to the challenge.