Sermon on the Mount

At the end of a bracing year of racing through Catholic doctrine with my Form III students, I always bring it back around to something as basic as possible: what is the Gospel?  The amount of time I have to do this varies from year to year and is, of course, never enough.  But my hyper-intelligent little skeptics need to have the Gospel proposed to them in a way other than what they see on TV or got in CCD.  The simplest way to do that is to read the Sermon on the Mount (I would link to the RSV at Bibliaclerus but you’d have to internally navigate and I’m all about convenience in my hyperlinks!).

I’ve complained before that my students have the most appalling ignorance about the Sermon.  It’s ironic that our cliches about Christianity come from here, and “everyone knows” that the Sermon on the Mount is the basic message of Jesus Christ.  Actually, I think even that is becoming less true–we’re sliding closer to an era in which not even that much is known.

So we make our way through the text at an ambling, observational pace and I try to get them to see what the Gospel is about.  Here’s the rough framework that emerges:

5:1-12 (Beatitudes) The Gospel is a program for happiness.  First item in the Sermon = Most important point.

5:13-16 (Salt and Light) The Gospel has a public/social dimension in which disciples change the world and make God manifest in it.

5:17-48 (The Law) The Gospel involves an extremely far-reaching moral component: a set of laws over our behavior.  But most importantly, the New Law contains NO NEW LAWS.  Nice Jesus exposes the inner ratio of the Old Law, applies it to our inner acts of the will, and cranks it up to eleven. The final verse of the chapter sums it all up for us: be perfect like God.  That’s impossible.

(Quaeritur: What’s so new about the new law?  Grace: the power to do it.  More on that in St. Paul)

6:1-16 (The Three Acts) The Gospel involves a simple three-fold praxis or way of life: almsgiving, prayer, fasting.  Jesus does not list them as neat optional exercises.  There are several explicit links back to chapter five.

6:17-34 (Priorities) The Gospel requires a purity of devotion to God and our pursuit of heaven.  Anything less than this will end in shipwreck.  Done properly, anxiety is excluded.

7:1-27 (Judgment) The Gospel exhorts us to await and prepare for the day on which the work of our lives will be judged.  Probably worth noting that this warning makes up 1/3 of the Sermon.

In each section I have some starter questions to get the kids talking.  How many beatitudes are there (I revisit this in Form V with my juniors)?  Are we replacing the Old Law with a new law to “be nice?”  What do the “You have heard” passages all have in common?  How does 6:1-4 make sense in light of 5:14-16?

There are some head-scratcher passages that require assistance from the near context to figure out.  Walking them through the process on, say, 6:22-23 models for them sound biblical (really, just literary) exegesis and critical thinking.  The number of beatitudes is not just an goofy exercise to arrive at a magical number: it teaches them to pay close attention to details and to respect the author’s decisions when repetition and variation is in play.

It takes about two days of class just to get through chapter five, especially once the ice breaks and student questions come pouring out.  And do they ever, like a glacial reservoir on a warm Arctic century.  A lot of the questions point ahead to Form V Ethics, but I do some tap dancing to attempt to satisfy them with simplified answers.  It’s a pretty fun stretch of classes.

What I always want to do next, but almost never have time for, is a comparison to St. Paul.  One of the dumb cliches about Christianity (again, fading as all knowledge of the Gospel melts away) is that Mean Paul overwrites Nice Jesus.  So we dial up St. Paul’s moral exhortations and run a simple exercise: which of Paul’s words trace back to the Sermon, which are new, and which contradict?  A second phase is philological, getting out of the English and talking about what the Greek words mean.  Finally we toss up some Leviticus to show that, when Paul isn’t drawing from the Sermon, he’s drawing directly from and commenting on Leviticus.  And so we come full circle to Jesus talking about the Law in Matthew 5.

To do all this at a suitable pace would take three weeks.  I have never, nor will I ever, have that much time at the end of an academic year.  But it puts me in mind of a Form VI senior elective in Scripture…and always reminds me to go home and read the Bible with my kids.

I have years and years with them.  So do you.  Don’t waste them.

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