“When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them saying…”(Matthew 5:1-2)
So begins The Sermon on the Mount. It is still very early in Jesus’ ministry but already we see a difference among those who “follow” him. On the one hand there are the “crowds”, on the other are “his disciples”. The crowds are fans, the disciples are those who hear him and follow in obedience. They follow because they are coming to believe he is “the way, the truth and the life” whether he has used these words about himself as yet or not.
Throughout the next three chapters (5-7), Jesus presents himself as the New Moses (who climbed Mt. Sinai, there received the law from God, and delivered it to the people) proclaiming from the mountain the New Law of life in the Kingdom of God, the law that was to govern his disciples in every age. What Jesus teaches is not a supplanting of the law of Moses, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets”. Rather it is a deepening, a fulfilling of that law with expectations going far beyond everything previously known: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. How much must it exceed? One verse summarizes it all, “You, therefore must be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect”(5:48)
Perfect? Impossible! And yet one has done it. The Man on the Mount embodies the Sermon on the Mount. Everything he demands, he has lived himself . Think of the first beatitude, “blessed are the poor in spirit” and remember “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”(Phillipians 2: 6-7). Or the third, “blessed are the meek” and remember he said, “Come to me , all you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.. for I am gentle (meek) and humble of heart “ (Matthew 11:29). Or the last, “blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you” and remember “they spat on him and took a reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him… they led him away to crucify him” (Matthew 27:30-31). He not only teaches, but he leads the way. He is, as the writer of Hebrews says, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2)
Perfect? Imposssible! And yet with God all things are possible! These three chapters are filled the details of a life to which we are to aspire and for which we are to strive, but with the knowledge we shall only succeed by his help, which he is delighted to give. Our task is to aspire, strive, trust. His is to accomplish. St. Augustine’s prayer is perfect, “Lord, demand of me what you will but, O Lord, give to me what you demand”.