Many have found themselves amazed by the beautiful ideals expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6). But few people wrestle with this important question: “How can Jesus claim such authority for himself?” For Jesus not only sets forth high ideals for human flourishing: he also claims an incredibly high position of authority.
For example, he presents himself as the one individual who fulfills the ancient law of Moses, as the arbiter of requests to enter heaven, and as the one whose words a person must obey in order to truly flourish as a human being.
No wonder, as Matthew reports, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:28-29).
How can Jesus claim such authority? To find out, we must see the Sermon on the Mount in light of Matthew’s gospel as a whole. For many of Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, we find a corresponding action on the part of Jesus. He taught people to pray in private, and he himself would go to a mountain by himself to pray (Matthew 14:23). He taught his followers to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and he did the same when facing the most difficult thing a human being would ever be told to do: “My Father,” he cried, “if this [cup] cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (26:42). “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus taught, and embodied this meekness by entering his own city, not on a battle steed, but on a lowly donkey. Jesus had said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39); the next time the word “slap” appears in Matthew’s gospel, it is in used with reference to Jesus’ trial when the religious leaders struck Jesus’ face and taunted, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:68). Jesus does not require anything that he himself did not do.
This is why one student of the Sermon has rightly said that Jesus is “the true content of his sayings,” and that “the single content of the Sermon is Jesus and confrontation with him.”
But now there’s something that should bother us even more deeply. So, Jesus did fulfill the law, so he does embody what he taught. Well, that only proves that it can be done! No longer can we say, “Well, away with such a high standard. It’s a biological, psychological impossibility. It’s a pipe dream. Forget it.” Jesus has come to say, “Here is the Law. Here is a recipe for a perfect humanity, and here’s what it looks like to actually fulfill it.”
With this question burning in our minds—how can I ever live this way?—let us return to the scene of Jesus ascending the mountain and teaching. Picture him, raising the expectations of the people so high. But what does he do next? He does not stay up on the mountain, nor does he demand that others ascend to the heights he has just described. We could find no comfort in the Sermon on the Mount if it were not for this statement: “He came down from the mountain” (8:1). And what did he do when he came down?
“Great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him”—a diseased, outcast; hopeless and helpless”—and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying ‘I will; be clean’” (Matthew 8:1-3).
There is a reason the story of Jesus’ encounter with the leper follows the great Sermon on the Mount. It is to show us how we are to respond to the Sermon.
“The crowds were astonished,” but that’s not the response Jesus had called for. He came to do more than astonish people. He came to save them. But among all those who were astonished, there was one who asked. Among all those who admired the high ideals, lauded them as the true expression of human flourishing, there was one who said, “I need help.” And Jesus touched him and healed him.
He could not climb the mountain to touch those ideals for human flourishing; but the true Fulfiller of those ideals could come down the mountain to touch him. And that’s exactly what Jesus did.
In light of this event, specific statements in the Sermon make more sense. “Blessed are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Here was a man who was poor in spirit. Here was a man who, no doubt, mourned because of his diseased condition. And yet he believed that Jesus could heal him. So he asked, and it was given him; he sought, and found; he knocked, and the door was opened.
The crowds represent those who were merely astonished by Jesus’ authority. The leper represents those who actually submit to Jesus authority.
Our response to the Sermon on the Mount must not be like the response of that leper. For the Sermon, as it stands in the flow of Matthew’s gospel, is not a call to clamber up to the King where he stands on the mountain. It is an encounter with the King as he descends from the mountain.
The Sermon on the Mount calls us to confess our spiritual poverty, to see our moral uncleanness, and to cry out for help. And for all who do, there is this promise. Jesus says, “I am willing. Be clean.”