The Radical Call of the Sermon on the Mount

By Edward Sri 

Dr. Edward Sri is professor of theology and Scripture and Vice President of Mission at the Augustine Institute, Vice President of Formation of FOCUS, and a St. Paul Center Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on Catholic theology and Scripture study.

The famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 5-7) is best known for its beautiful spiritual and moral teachings. Indeed, it would be hard to beat a sermon that had the Beatitudes, the Our Father, and the command to love your enemy all packed into one!  

One thing, however, which is not commonly noted about the Sermon on the Mount is how explosive its message was and how Jesus’ words would have shaken the world of many who were listening to Him on the Galilean hillside that day. 

“Love your enemy.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Turn the other cheek.” With these words, Jesus was not simply setting forth a brand new, lofty ethical standard. While Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount certainly have great moral applications for Christians of all ages, we must see how Jesus was giving a very specific challenge to the people of His day. Jesus was offering a new vision—a new vision for what it meant to be God’s people. 

The Jews in Jesus’ day were living in hard times. They were facing a national crisis. Roman rulers controlled their land, took their money, and raped their women. Many of the Jewish priests and local leaders were assassinated and replaced by handpicked appointments from Rome or Herod. Thousands of Jews who tried to resist Roman rule quickly paid the severe price of death.  

This oppressive environment created numerous challenges for those who were striving to remain loyal to God’s covenant. According to the Torah, God alone was king and He would rule His people through a descendant of King David. No foreigner was to rule over the Jews (Deut 17:15). So what was a good Jew to do? Was it okay to go along with the Roman authorities, or would submitting to Caesar, Pilate, and Herod betray Yahweh’s lordship?  

Then came the question of taxes and tithes. With the Romans imposing heavy tax burdens, it would be quite difficult for many Jews to pay both the taxes to Caesar and the tithe, which their own law required them to give to God. So should one be faithful to Rome or to Yahweh?  

From the beginning, Jesus’ public ministry took off like lightning. People from all over Galilee and beyond flocked to see Him. Why was He so popular? His message and His actions said it all: The long-awaited kingdom was now arriving (Matt 4:17, 23-25). Jesus was offering a message the Jews were longing to hear. With eager anticipation, many Jews began to place their hopes in Him to rescue them from their enemies and restore the kingdom to Israel. No wonder Jesus’ fame spread throughout the region so rapidly!  

After attracting this large following, Jesus decided to lead the crowds up a mountain in Galilee for a special discourse about the kingdom. This action itself could have led some of His followers to ponder what might happen next. In those days, the hill country of Galilee was a refuge for Jewish revolutionaries who were plotting their assaults against foreign oppressors. The caves in those hills made for good hiding places. Not too long before this, a group of bandits had hidden in the Galilean hills during a fierce conflict with King Herod.  

So when Jesus led His followers up a mountain in Galilee, perhaps a few may have been wondering whether He was going to start some type of revolt of His own—like Judas the Galilean had done in the Galilean hillside one generation earlier. Was Jesus going to make a claim to be Israel’s king and lead the people in a fight for the kingdom? The crowd waited for Him to speak. 

Jesus then began to address His band of followers on the mountainside with a startling message. He introduced an unexpected lineup of people who would be blessed in the kingdom He was building: “Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the peacemakers . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matt 5:7, 9-10).  

What a shock. What kind of kingdom movement was this? Jesus seemed to be blessing all the wrong people. The peacemakers, the merciful, and the persecuted were not the expected first-round draft choices for a kingdom-building team. Many would have preferred vengeance over mercy, vindication over persecution, and fighting for freedom over making peace.  

Consider a few other famous commands in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “love your enemy,” “pray for those who persecute you,” and the so-called “go the extra mile” (Matt 5:41, 44). Sometimes these teachings are misunderstood as practical instructions for becoming pushovers for Jesus. But in their first-century context, these challenges would have been much more intense. In these commands, Jesus was subverting the revolutionary and nationalistic tendencies which pervaded much of first-century Judaism. 

For example, “love your enemy” (Matt 5:44) was not simply an abstract principle to be applied when you had to face someone who wanted to do you harm. Rather this command had a specific, concrete meaning for the Jews who heard His teaching that day. For those original listeners, “love your enemy” would have sounded something like: “Love the Romans who persecute you. Love Herod and His illegitimate, violent monarchy. Do not join the revolt movements.”  

Similarly, the command “[I]f any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt 5:41) was not simply a lesson on being generous. Roman soldiers often forced civilians to carry their gear for one mile. Using this image, Jesus challenged the Jews to go above and beyond the call of duty and generously serve even their cruel Roman oppressors. He was exhorting them not to view their foreign enemies as adversaries to be overcome, but as brothers and sisters who are to be loved and won over for God.  

In fact, that was Israel’s mission from the very beginning: to be light to the world and salt of the earth (Matt 5:13-14; Isa 42:6, 49:6). Jesus challenged the people to return to their roots and to be what Israel was always meant to be—not an exclusive, nationalistic religion isolated from the other nations, but a priestly kingdom serving the Gentiles and leading them to worship the one true God (Ex 19:5-6). 

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