1. Relevance to the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49) is a significant passage for those interested in the Sermon on the Mount, for the two show distinct similarities. Indeed, they are similar enough for the footnote on Luke 6:17 NET to suggest that the Sermon on the Plain may be a summary of the the Sermon on the Mount. However, that footnote offers no comment on whether it was Jesus himself or Luke who produced the summary.
2. One occasion or two
There are those who suggest that the Sermon on the Plain and the Sermon on the Mount represent differing descriptions of the one event, a speech delivered from a level place, just below the summit of a hill (see background for the location of the Sermon on the Mount).
The majority of the Sermon on the Plain has parallel passages within the Sermon on the Mount and in most cases these fall in a similar order in both. This strongly suggests that the two are related, rather than independent collections of sayings composed by different authors. However, establishing the nature of that relationship from the sermons themselves is far from easy. Amongst the possibilities to be weighed are whether:
- the Sermon on the Plain is Luke’s summary of the Sermon on the Mount;
- the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew’s expansion of the Sermon on the Plain;
- the two sermons were given on different occasions but Jesus reused material.
Matthew’s version is much longer overall than Luke’s, though the latter nevertheless contains:
- the longer versions of some parallel passages(e.g. Luke 6:32-34, cf. Matt 5:46-47);
- material found in Matthew but not in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Luke 6:39, cf. Matt 15:14);
- some unique material (e.g. Luke 6:24-26).
Even where the two are superficially very similar, the underlying Greek can be quite different, with quite similar ideas expressed in a completely different fashion. If the two describe the same event, then they are paraphrasing Jesus’ words in very different ways. All of which suggests that the two sermons arose independently, rather than by simple copying, but from a common basis. Yet this observation alone provides no clue whether the envisaged proto-outline was in the mind of Jesus, or an extant record of some simpler sermon, circulating amongst his disciples.
Significantly, with the exception of the Golden Rule, the ordering of the common material is precisely that required to support the Sermon on the Mount’s exposition of the Ten Commandments, a situation unlikely to have arisen outside that context. Moreover, in terms of their relationship to the Matthean order, the re-ordering found in the Sermon on the Plain provides a chiastic framing for the Golden Rule, the only section significantly displaced from its Matthean order (see ‘Visual summary of parallel passages’ below)
At least in terms of the Beatitudes, Vermes (2004, 312), commenting on the suggestion that both sets originated in the same saying, concludes that “the more reasonable view is that at least in part Luke and Matthew may reflect two versions both of which originated with Jesus.”
Mark Matson (2004) notes how some of the more recent solutions to the synoptic problem require the independence of Matthew and Luke, whilst arguing that it is reasonable to consider that Luke may have been aware of both Matthew and Mark and that he chose to select material from both to meet his particular editorial requirements.
In comparing the Sermon on the Mount with the Sermon on the Plain one can sense that the latter addresses a more difficult situation. Talk of real physical problems replaces talk of their spiritual or abstract equivalents and those who would borrow from you have become those who steal from you (see notes below). Moreover, whilst the Sermon on the Mount deals with attitudes to enemies and generosity of spirit under the banner of obeying the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Plain makes these its main focus. Hence the Sermon on the Mount has the feel of being a presentation of foundational teaching, whilst the Sermon on the Plain feels much more like a context specific application of it.
In considering the differences between Matthew and Luke, the political implications should not be overlooked. The two Gospel writers addressed very different constituencies. With Matthew keen to play up the role of Jesus as Messiah the Sermon on the Mount was an ideal introduction to Jesus teaching that keyed into Jewish nationalistic aspirations. Luke, being astute enough to anticipate the potential impact of presenting Roman officialdom with such a subversive political statement, but wishing to avoid the charge of serious omission, had every reason to find an alternative way to present the Sermon on the Mount’s sayings. That he could reasonably have done by cherry-picking them from other, less politically charged, occasions on which Jesus re-used his material.
3. The context
Attempting to produce a Gospel Harmony suggests Luke sets the Sermon on the Plain somewhat later than Matthew sets the Sermon on the Mount (for more on this see The Emmaus View).
As its customary title suggests, Luke’s Sermon was delivered after Jesus descended to a level place (Luke 6:16-17). However, the word τόπος (topos) more usually signifies a generic place, e.g. Matt 14:35; Luke 2:7; 14:22; John 11:48; Rom 9:26; John 20:25, or an isolated place, e.g. Matt 14:13, 15; Mark 1:35, 45; 6:31, 32, 35; Luke 4:42; 9:12 (Swanson 1997, GGK5536). Its translation as plain in this case is something of an inference from the fact that Jesus has just come down from an ὄρος (oros), the same word used in Matt 5.1.Jesus, having spent a night of prayer on a mountain, chooses twelve disciples (Luke 6:12-16, cf. Mark 3:13-19), after which -
(Luke 6:17-19 WEB)
6:17 “He came down with them, and stood on a level place, with a crowd of his disciples, and a great number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; 6:18 as well as those who were troubled by unclean spirits, and they were being healed. 6:19 All the multitude sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.”
It is notable that the Sermon on the Mount presents Jesus’ saying concerning those who call him Lord, Lord, but then don’t obey him (Matt 7:21) as a warning of a path not to pursue. In the Sermon on the Plain, the corresponding saying (Luke 6:46) is presented as an accusation against those who have already pursued such a path. This is in keeping both with the sense of conflict we find in Luke preceding the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 5:29, 6:11) and with that incident having a later setting.
4. Summary of parallel passages
The mappings of parallel passages between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are summarised visually below. This shows the associations 'in-situ' and, as the same information is effectively repeated in an alternate fashion later on, those with non-visual browsers may wish to skip this section. The colours are assigned uniquely, rather than in pairs, as below)
Sermon on the Mount
Ch 5: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39a, 39b, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48 Ch 6: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34 Ch 7: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27.
Sermon on the Plain
Ch 6:20a, 20b, 21a, 21b, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35a, 35b, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45a, 45b, 46, 47, 48, 49.
The relative locations of parallel passages in the two sermons are of great interest, for the re-organisation required to derive the shared material in the Sermon on the Plain from the Sermon on the Mount follows a chiastic pattern, except in the removal of the Golden Rule firmly to its centre.
A1, Matt 5:3
B1, Matt 5:4
C1, Matt 5:6
D1, Matt 5:11-12
E1, Matt 5:39-40, 42
F1, Matt 5:44
F2, Matt 5:45
E2, Matt 5:46-48
D2, Matt 7:1-5
GR, Matt 7:12
C2, Matt 7:16
B2, Matt 7:17
A2, Matt 7:18
H, Matt 7:21
I, Matt 7:24-27
A1, Luke 6:20b
C1, Luke 6:21a
B1, Luke 6:21b
D1, Luke 6:22-23
F1, Luke 6:27-28
E1, Luke 6:29-30
GR, Luke 6:31
E2, Luke 6:32-35a
F2, Luke 6:35b
D2, Luke 6:37-38, 41-42
B2, Luke 6:43
C2, Luke 6:44
A2, Luke 6:45a
H, Luke 6:46
I, Luke 6:47-49
This chiastic pattern of mappings may be summarised as follows:
- Luke 6:20-21 takes Matt 5:6 and inserts it amidst Matt 5:3-4
- Luke 6:22-23 is in the same order as Matt 5:11-12
- Luke 6:27-28, 29-30 reverses the order of Matt 5:39-42, 44
- Luke 6:31 completely relocates Matt 7:12
- Luke 6:32-35 reverses the order of Matt 5:45, 46-48
- Luke 6:37-8, 41-42 is in the same order as Matt 7:1-2, 3-5
- Luke 6:43-45 takes Matt 7:16 and inserts it amidst Matt 7:17-18
- Luke 6:46, 47-49 parallels Matt 7:21, 24-27
As the Sermon on the Plain contains relatively little material that has no parallel in the Sermon on the Mount, this chiastic pattern of derivation effectively defines the structure of the text in Luke. However, the derivation process is not commutative, the pattern of re-organisations required to arrive at the Sermon on the Mount from the Sermon on the Plain may start out following a chiastic pattern, but then fails to fulfill it, due both to the positioning of the Golden rule and the volume of additional unique material needed to ensure that all the latter five commandments are covered. It therefore seems extremely unlikely that the structure in Luke could, by coincidence and through such a tightly structured transformation, provide an appropriate framework for the complex and multi-layered structure of the Sermon on the Mount .
The existence of this one-way chiastic pattern of derivation, from Matthew to Luke, argues for the Sermon on the Plain being a derivative of the Sermon on the Mount or at least some Sermon on the Mount like template. Assuming that to be the case, the Sermon on the Plain begins to look like a reduced version of the Sermon on the Mount, re-formulated by Jesus for use on a later occasion and under conditions of intensifying opposition.
5. Section by section comparison
The following sections provide a detailed comparison of Sermon on the Mount with Sermon on the Plain.
Luke 6:20, beginning to teach
Luke 6:20 and its parallel in Matt 5:2 begin with completely different introductions, for Luke has “He lifted up his eyes to his disciples, and said”(Luke 6:20a WEB) and Matthew “He opened his mouth and taught them, saying”(Matt 5:2 WEB).
Luke 6:21-26, blessings and woes
Of the beatitudes in Matthew, the Sermon on the Plain has three that concern hardship (poverty, hunger and mourning) and none of those that focussed on positive character attributes (gentle, merciful, pure in heart, peace-making). Moreover, the beatitudes in Luke emphasise the physical rather than the spiritual. Thus Matthew’s “poor in spirit”(Matt 5:3) and “hunger and thirst after righteousness”(Matt 5:6) in Luke are simply “poor”(Luke 6:20) and “hunger now”(Luke 6:21). Matthew’s abstract concepts of mourning and comfort (Matt 5:4) become Luke’s concrete actions of weeping and laughter (Luke 6:22). Whilst the recipients of the blessings in Matthew’s Beatitudes potentially include those beyond his immediate audience (c.f. the use of theirs, αυτων), in Luke the recipients are the audience (c.f. the use of your, ὑμετέρα). It is notable that when Luke’s Gospel describes Jesus reading from Isaiah (Luke 4:18, cf. Isa 61:1) it uses the Septuagint’s πτωχοῖς (the same word used in James 2:2 and Gal 4:9). Matt 5:3 uses the same word but qualifies it with “in spirit” so as to preserve the original meaning of Isaiah’s עָנָו. which carries the sense of humble as well as lowly and afflicted (as in Ps 10:12, Pr 16:19).
In Matthew the beatitudes are entirely in the third person, which is normal for Jewish beatitudes (Beasley-Murray 1987, 159). However, Luke uses an unusual structure for his first three, starting them in the third person and ending them in the second (Beasley-Murray 1987, 159). The fourth is then entirely in the second person (Beasley-Murray 1987, 159), as is its equivalent in Matthew. Beasley-Murray (1987, 159) observes that “the question of whether the beatitudes were originally delivered in the second person, as in Luke, or in the third person, as in Matthew, has been debated at length”, before reviewing a little of that discussion and concluding that Luke has adapted his first three beatitudes to agree with the final one, but that they are found in their original form in Matthew.
Excepting the differences mentioned above, the Sermon on the Plain’s first beatitude, “Blessed are you who are poor,for yours is the Kingdom of God”(Luke 6:20b WEB), is very similar to the first in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3). Luke then has two further beatitudes, their closest equivalents in Matthew being the fourth (Matt 5:6) and the second (Matt 5:4), in that order. Luke’s second beatitude, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be filled”(Luke 6:21a WEB) is again very similar to Matthew’s version except as mentioned above. The same is true for Luke’s third, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”(Luke 6:21b WEB), although in this case, whilst the sentiments may be similar, the words are quite different. Weeping is a common enough Biblical synonym for mourning and laughter is the natural opposite suggested by Eccl 3:4. Moreover, when the captives return to Zion and those who sow in tears reap in joy (Ps 126:5), then, for those who marked their departure with tears (Jer 13:17), it is time for laughter (Ps 126:2).
Luke’s next two verses are
6:22 “Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall exclude and mock you, and throw out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake.(Luke 6:22-23 WEB)
6:23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets.”’
They carry similar sentiments in a similar order to Matt 5:11-12, but the underlying Greek is significantly different.
Luke follows his beatitudes with an equivalent set of woes, for which there is no equivalent in the Sermon on the Mount.
6:24 “But woe to you who are rich!(Luke 6:17-19 WEB)
For you have received your consolation.
6:25 Woe to you, you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
6:26 Woe, when men speak well of you,
for their fathers did the same thing to the false prophets.”
Luke 6:27-30, love for enemies
The next section of the Sermon on the Plain again reverses the order of two passages as found in Matthew, for here the teaching on not resisting evil occurs after that on loving your neighbour. This is significant, for in Matthew it is important that the teaching on “eye for eye”(Matt 5:38-42) comes first, in order to establish the link between this teaching and the ninth commandment (Ex 20:16).
Unlike the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain is not trying to relate its teaching to the Law of Moses. Thus, Matthew’s “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’”(Matt 5:43 WEB) is missing. However, Luke’s phrase, “But I tell you who hear: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you”(Luke 6:27-28 WEB), is very close to Matt 5:44, except Luke adds “who hear” and omits Matthew’s final “and persecute you.”
The Sermon on the Plain’s reversal of the antitheses’ order sees it move on to parallel part of Matt 5:38-41. Again the introductory link to the law, in this case “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil”(Matt 5:38-39a WEB), is missing. The two then fall into line with “To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also”(Luke 6:29 WEB, cf. Matt 5:39b-40). Matthew then has “Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two”(Matt 5:41), which is missing from Luke. It is worth noting that a Roman soldier had the authority to compel a civilian to carry goods in such a manner. Thus, through this verse, the Sermon on the Mount explicitly recognises Rome as Israel’s persecutor. Luke, writing for a Roman audience, had good reason to omit this.
Both Luke 6:30 and Matt 5:42 start out in much the same fashion with
“Give to him who asks you”(Matt 5:42 WEB) gaining a couple of initial words to become
“Give to everyone who asks you”(Luke 6:30 WEB). However, The two verses then have different but similar conclusions. Matthew has “and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you”(WEB), whilst Luke has “and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again”(WEB). The borrower of Matthew, has been replaced by the one who takes away.
Vermes (2004, 353) suggests that, whilst both passages stress modeling oneself on God, the emphasis in Matthew is on God’s active goodness and kindness to all humanity and the stress in Luke is on God’s disinterested love. I would prefer to see the contrast in emphasis as being between generosity in giving with compassion in judgement.
Luke 6:31, the Golden Rule
After paralleling extracts from Matt 5:38-44 one might expect the Sermon on the Plain to move on to parallel parts of Matt 5:45-48. However, it only does so after inserting an equivalent of the Golden Rule.
Luke’s “As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them”(Luke 6:31 WEB) is a close equivalent of Matthew’s “therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them”(Matt 7:12 WEB). The verse in Matthew, which functions as a concluding summary of Jesus’ teaching on the Ten Commandments, adds “for this is the Torah and the Prophets”(WEB), thereby clarifying its purpose. In the Sermon on the Plain the Golden Rule is not functioning as a summary but as a teaching point in its own right, so no such clarification is appropriate.
Luke 6:32-35, on loving your enemies
After the Golden rule, the Sermon on the Plain again parallels part of the Sermon on the mount, but reversing the order found in the antitheses. Thus, the equivalent to Matt 5:46-48 occurs before the equivalent to Matt 5:45a.
Whilst the sentiments expressed and the form of individual statements are clearly similar to one another, the overall form of the Luke version of this teaching is quite different from that in Matthew. Luke has -
6:32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.(Luke 6:32-34 WEB)
6:33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
6:34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive back as much.
A three-fold repetition on loving, doing good and lending, with comparison against sinners. By contrast Matthew has
5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?(Matt 5:46-47 WEB)
5:47 If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
A two-fold repetition based on loving and greeting, with comparison against tax collectors.
In Luke’s Sermon Jesus then summarises his points “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great”(Luke 6:35a WEB), whereas in Matthew’s Jesus qualifies what this will achieve; “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”(Matt 5:48 WEB).
The two then resort to a closer parallel, thanks to the reversal in order already mentioned. Thus, Luke has “and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil”(Luke 6:35b WEB). With Matthew giving “that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust”(Matt 5:45 WEB).
Once again the sentiment is consistent, but this time Luke’s is the more concise expression.
Luke 36-37, on judgement
After this third reversal of the the Matthean order, the order in Luke reverts again to agree with that in Matthew. Luke has
6:36 Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful.(Luke 6:36-37 WEB)
6:37 Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged.
Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned.
Set free, and you will be set free
Whilst Matthew, lacking the reference to mercy, has
7:1 “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.(Matt 7:1-2a WEB)
7:2a For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged”
Luke 6:38a, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you”(WEB), has no equivalent in the Sermon on the Mount. However, it introduces Luke 6:38b, “For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you.”(WEB) which equates to Matt 7:2b, “and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you”(WEB).
Luke 6:39, ‘He spoke a parable to them. “Can the blind guide the blind? Won’t they both fall into a pit?”’(WEB), and Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher”(WEB), have no equivalents in the Sermon on the Mount (though they find their parallels in Matt 15:14 and Matt 10:24-25 respectively)
Luke 6:41-42, the beam in the eye
This saying concerning the speck and the beam takes a form in Luke, that is very close to that in Matt 7:3-5. Luke has:
6:41 “Why do you see the speck of chaff that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye? 6:42 Or how can you tell your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck of chaff that is in your eye,’ when you yourself don’t see the beam that is in your own eye? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck of chaff that is in your brother’s eye.”(Luke 6:41-42 WEB)
Whilst Matthew has:
7:3 “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye? 7:4 Or how will you tell your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye;’ and behold, the beam is in your own eye? 7:5 You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.”(Matt 7:3-5 WEB)
Luke 6:43-45, by their fruit
Luke 6:43’s “For there is no good tree that brings forth rotten fruit; nor again a rotten tree that brings forth good fruit”(WEB) is directly comparable to Matt 7:17’s “Even so, every good tree produces good fruit; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit”(WEB).
In another minor reversal of order, Luke 6:44, “For each tree is known by its own fruit. For people don’t gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush”(WEB), is then close to Matt 7:16, “By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather, grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?”(WEB). The sentiments of Luke 6:45a,“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good, and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil”(WEB), then echo those of Matt 7:18, “A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit”(WEB), though a closer parallel with Luke’s full verse, including “for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks”(Luke 6:45b WEB), is found with Matt 12:35, 34.
Luke 6:46’s “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things which I say?”(WEB) is then a more succinct equivalent of Matt 7:21’s “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”(WEB).
Luke 7:47-49, houses on rock and sand
The Sermon on the Plain finishes with the parable of two houses, i.e.
6:47 “Everyone who comes to me, and hears my words, and does them, I will show you who he is like. 6:48 He is like a man building a house, who dug and went deep, and laid a foundation on the rock. When a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it was founded on the rock. 6:49 But he who hears, and doesn’t do, is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”(Luke 6:47-49 WEB)
Matthew has an equivalent, though differently worded, parable, as follows:
7:24 “Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock. 7:25 The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. 7:26 Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man, who built his house on the sand. 7:27 The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”(Matt 7:24-27 WEB)
Works specifically cited on this page are as follows:
Beasley-Murray, George R. Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987.
Matson, Mark A. "Luke’s Rewriting of the Sermon on the Mount." Pages 43-70 in Questioning Q. Edited by Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin, London: SPCK, 2004.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament). Electronic ed.; Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.
Vermes, Geza. The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. London: Penguin, 2004.
Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Dowers Grove, Illinois:InterVarsity Press, 2000; electronic ed.
In the last essay we studied Luke 6:12-26, which included the call of the twelve apostles and the first part of the Sermon on the Plain. In this essay we are studying Luke 6:27-49, which will complete our study of the Sermon on the Plain. Here we come to the heart of the sermon, and we immediately see the main theme, love. In verses 27-42, Jesus lays out several manifestations of love, which sets forth love as the main theme of the sermon.
In verses 27-28 Jesus teaches his disciples to love with an active love. They are to love those who would hate and persecute them with actions, bless them with words, and pray for them. Of course prayer includes both action and words (vv. 27-28).
In verses 29-30 Jesus broadens his teaching about love. If someone strikes us on the cheek, we should turn the other, rather than strike back. If someone tries to steal our coat, we should give him our shirt as well. Frederic Godet calls this expression of love passive love, because it sacrifices our rights to the rights to others. The idea is that love has no limits.
Now we can debate how literally Jesus meant for us to take this kind of teaching. It may be that he was more concerned with the spirit of the teaching than with an absolutely literal performance. But the idea of sacrificing one’s rights for the rights of others is quite clear.
Then Jesus caps off the segment with golden rule love. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This teaching was known before Jesus in its negative form. That is, others had taught that one ought not do anything to others that one didn’t want done to oneself. That was a matter of prudence. It protected oneself from retaliation. Jesus put it in a positive form, which is quite different. We are to treat others well without regard for how they might treat us.
In the next segment, Jesus teaches unconditional love. Verses 32-35a explain how golden rule love works out in life. It is an unconditional love. Loving those who love us, doing good things for those who do good things for us, and lending to those from whom we expect a return is conditional love. Sinners do as much for one another. Instead we are to love, do good to, and lend to even our enemies, expecting nothing in return.
In verses 35b-36 we see divine love. Jesus declares that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” and he is merciful. Moreover Jesus says that those who love unconditionally in the ways he has taught will receive a great reward, including being “children of the Most High.” Clearly, Jesus expects God’s children to show the character of their heavenly Father.
In verses 37-42 Jesus explains further what it means to be merciful with love. The first principle, seen in verses 37-38, is to not be judgmental. Frequently, people misinterpret this statement, “Do not judge,” to mean that we should never make judgments about others. Jesus certainly did not mean that. It would contradict other scriptures. We are taught many times in the Bible to make judgments about sin, both ours and others. For example, Jesus told us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. We cannot do that without making judgments about the righteousness of the Pharisees. It is the judgmental attitude that refuses to be merciful that is under attack here, not the use of discernment. Paul harshly criticized the Corinthians for failing to judge the sinful activities of one of their church members (1 Cor. 5:1-2). Jesus’ point is that those who judgmentally condemn others will themselves come under the judgment of God. The Pharisees in Jesus’ audience that day may have been Jesus’ primary targets for the remark about inappropriate judging. In any case, Jesus wants his followers instead to forgive, and give. Then we will be forgiven and blessed by God. It isn’t that we will escape the judgment, but that we will receive mercy in the judgment.
The picture that comes to my mind in verse 38 is that of a large bag of movie popcorn. Sometimes the counter person will simply fill it close to the top and let it go at that. At other times the counter person generously shakes the bag and tamps down the popcorn in order to get as much as possible into it and then throws a final scoop of popcorn onto the top so that it overflows. I like that kind of counter person. Jesus is saying that God will reward us with that kind of “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,” if we give with that kind of measure.
In verse 39 Jesus tells “a parable.” The term that is translated “parable” has a broader range of meanings than many Christians realize. In this case, it basically means a proverb, because the idea of the blind leading the blind was proverbial. In this context, Jesus was using it in connection with the idea of not being judgmental in verses 37-38. The Pharisees, and any followers of Jesus who were judgmental like the Pharisees, were spiritually blind and thus were unable to lead others who were blind. Jesus used almost this exact same language when speaking about the Pharisees in Matt. 15:14.
Verse 40 expresses a truth about that culture. There were few books available to students in those days. Therefore they were dependent upon their teachers for all their learning. Thus they literally could not be superior to their teacher in knowledge. The disciples of the Pharisees, therefore, could only fall into the pit with their leaders.
In verses 41-42 Jesus turns again to parabolic material. He asks two questions. First, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? And then second, “How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?’” The idea is that people like the Pharisees seek to correct others without correcting themselves first. Indeed they are so arrogant they presumptuously take on the moral education of others when they are not moral themselves. Jesus continues, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” This teaching is crystal clear. God will not tolerate judgmental hypocrisy, or any other form of hypocrisy for that matter.
Verses 43-45 turn to the positive side of the issue. Instead of trying to influence our neighbors in a hypocritical, judgmental way, we are to influence them by being good ourselves. Jesus gives here two parables about trees. In the first, he offers the truism that a good tree will not bear bad fruit, and a bad tree will not bear good fruit. In other words, good trees are useful, because they produce usable fruit; and bad trees are essentially useless, because they produce “bad,” or useless, fruit. With the second parable Jesus declares that one has to have the right kind of tree, or vine, in order to get the right kind of fruit. One does not get figs from thorns or grapes from bramble bushes.
With the analogy of a tree and its fruit Jesus is saying that a person of bad character cannot produce good words or deeds. On the one hand, good people have a “good treasure” in their hearts; and from that treasure, they produce good words and deeds. On the other hand, evil people have an evil treasure in their hearts; and evil words and deeds are the result. The last clause of verse 45 indicates that Jesus had words primarily in mind, but the same is true for deeds. In other words, the kind of “fruit” we produce depends on the kind of heart we have.
In the closing three verses of the sermon, Jesus appeals to his listeners to obey the teachings he just gave them. A good person such as he described in the previous verses will obey the teachings, not simply listen to them. The apostle James said the same thing even more clearly. He commanded those to whom he wrote; quote, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). We are to hear and obey our Lord. Indeed, verse 46 implies that it is dangerous to do otherwise: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you. The implication is that Jesus is not really our Lord unless we obey him.
In order to nail down his point, Jesus tells the parable of two houses, one built on a rock foundation and the other built right on the ground without a foundation. The house built on the rock represents believers who hear the words of Jesus and obeys them. The house built on the ground represents followers who hear Jesus’ words but fail to obey them. Thus persons who hear and obey are like houses built on a rock foundation. Those persons keep standing when the floods of life come against them. But persons who hear and do not obey are like houses built on the ground without a foundation. When the floods of life come against them, they collapse.
Study of this sermon demands that we ask certain questions of ourselves. Are we disciples who have a good heart, who produce good words and deeds? Do we obey Jesus in all things? In other words, are we like a house built on a rock foundation, or like one built on the ground without a foundation? As we learned from earlier parts of the sermon, do we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us? Do we do good things for our enemies and lend to them expecting nothing in return? Are we merciful, as God is merciful? Do we legalistically condemn others, or do we, with God’s help, freely forgive? Do we try to remove specks from the eyes of others while having a log in our own? All of these are important and serious questions.