“THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT” (Matthew 5-7) is the name given to the first of the five Discourses of Jesus in Mathew’s Gospel. The term – from its introductory phrase, “Seeing the multitudes He went up on a mountain” (Matthew 5:1) – was popularized by St Augustine’s commentary on Matthew 5-7, De Sermone Domini in Monte (c. AD 392-396).
Remember that Matthew was written for Greek-speaking Jewish believers in Syria, perhaps at Antioch. Their minds would immediately be drawn to another mountain, Sinai, where God gave the Hebrews the basics of their faith, the Law of Moses. They would find in Jesus’ teaching from this mountain the fundamental texts of their faith: the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) as well as Jesus’ interpretation of the Commandments and the precepts to pray, fast and give alms. They would see Jesus portrayed as the New Moses and more for, unlike Moses, He taught on His own authority: “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 38-39, 43-44).
“Seek First the Kingdom”
In our Byzantine typika the bulk of these chapters is read at the Divine Liturgy on the weekdays after Pentecost and the Sunday of All Saints. Matthew 6:22-34 is reserved for Sunday, however, for it provides the principle underlying the entire discourse: “Seek first the kingdom of God” (v. 33).
Commentators have often said that it is practically impossible to put the precepts in this discourse into action and they are right, if we see these instructions in isolation from their underlying motivation. If a person is truly seeking the kingdom of God, then keeping the radical nature of these precepts will come naturally. If someone is following the Lord wholeheartedly they will see Him accepting and supplying the strength for every sacrifice they make to keep His commandments.
If a person does not put the kingdom first then his “eye is bad” (v. 23). His outlook on life leads only to darkness, whether it is the dreariness of a life committed to unrighteous living or the shadowy world of one who seeks to serve two masters by doing “just enough” to get into heaven without commending one’s whole life to Christ. As St John Chrysostom observed, no further punishment is needed; having such a mindset is punishment in itself. “To have mammon for your master is already worse itself than any later punishment and enough retribution before the punishment for any one trapped in it. … Think of the lawsuits, the harassments, the strife and toil and blinding of the soul! More grievous, one falls away from the highest blessing – to be God’s servant” (Homily on Matthew, 21.2),
What holds people back from seeking the kingdom of God wholeheartedly? – a preoccupation with what we eat and drink and with what we put on (vv. 32). Can we afford the better cuts of meat and the best wines, or to be seen in the restaurants everyone is talking about? Can I afford the latest fashions? Do I have the right jewelry for this or that occasion? What about the right address, the furnishings everyone will admire, a more expensive car than my neighbor, a vacation to be envied, etc. etc.? Not that these things are sinful in themselves; the Lord said that we will have enough of these things to meet our needs (v. 32). We sin when we make acquiring them the aim and purpose of life. As St Augustine noted, there is a difference between seeing something as a goal and seeing something as a means. Those who claim to be believers and yet pursue the goods of the world as their first priority in life must listen carefully to the words which the Lord addressed at the end of the discourse: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Christ, the New Adam
Matthew, writing for Jewish Christians, stresses that Christ is the new Moses. St. Paul is writing to the Church at Rome, where there is at least a sizable number of Gentile believers – perhaps they were even the majority. Paul bypasses Moses altogether. He rather points to Abraham and to Adam, our universal ancestor, whom he calls “a type of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14). Both Adam and Abraham are figures who would be meaningful to both Jewish and Gentile believers.
Abraham, whose story is told in Genesis 11:26–25:10, is described there as blessed by God in a multi-cultural way, if you will: “I will make you the father of many nations and I will increase you very, very much. I will make you into nations and kings will come from you” (Genesis 17:5-6). In the Middle East, Abraham is still regarded as the ancestor of the Jews through his son Isaac and of the Arabs through his son Ishmael. St. Paul describes him as the father of all believers everywhere, because he trusted God to provide him an heir and to risk sacrificing that heir, Isaac, if God so willed.
Paul stressed that Abraham was not justified by God for keeping the Law of Moses (Abraham lived centuries before Moses), but for believing: trusting that God would fulfill His promises and provide for him. Rabbis after the first century AD, perhaps stung by Paul’s reasoning, began to teach that Abraham had in fact known and practiced the Law in its entirety, despite the lack of evidence in Genesis or anywhere else.
St. Paul portrays Adam as our common ancestor whose legacy is sin and death. Yet he says that Adam was “a type of Him who was to come,” that is, of Christ. In the thinking of the early Christians and their Jewish contemporaries, a type in the Old Testament prefigured or foreshadowed events or aspects of Christ in the New Testament. Thus the Patriarch Joseph, a favorite son of his father, rejected by his own, betrayed for silver, and saving the world from famine was a favorite figure of Christ.
Adam prefigures Christ in that he had a heritage that touches every person throughout history. As the fourth-century bishop of Tarsus, Diodoros, explained: “Adam was a type of Christ, not with respect to his sin or his righteousness – in this respect the two men were opposites – but with respect to the effects of what he did. For just as Adam’s sin spread to all men, so Christ’s life also spread to all men.” But where Adam’s heritage was death, Christ’s was new life. “If by the one man’s offence many died, much more has the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” (Romans 5:15). Both Jews and Gentiles had inherited death; both could inherit new life in Christ.
A New Moses for the Jews, a New Adam for the whole human race, Christ is truly “in all and for the sake of all” (Divine Liturgy).