The Sermon on the Mount is about what is possible in life, not what it is impossible. It is about what we can do, not just things we should not do. It is about life change and transformation rather than guilt and condemnation.
In three short chapters (Matt 5-7), Jesus gives his most thorough teaching on how to live the Christian life. It is sometime read as an impossible set of standards to follow. Not only do not murder, but do not ill-treat anyone with our words (5:21-26). Not only do not commit adultery do not look at anyone else with sexual desire (5:27-30). Not only live a life of prayer and sacrifice, but make sure you do it with the right motive (6:5-8).
But Jesus is not condemning us with a higher standard, he is teaching us that our struggles with misplaced desires and motivations can draw us into a downward spiral of destructive behaviours. He then offers us a way of escape. In example after example, Jesus shows how to break out of vicious cycles of misdirected passions and wrong motivations through initiatives such as reconciliation, forgiveness, truth-telling, prayer and love for others.Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus longest teaching in the New Testament. It is a message that Jesus teaches to a crowd of people on a hill located in Israel's northern region, close to the Sea of Galilee. Like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, Jesus talks about some Old Testament laws and practices. But he is also saying something new. He is proclaiming a new way of living for God’s people.
The message is founded on and it is a fulfilment of the ancient traditions of the Jewish people; but Jesus goes further and provides practical guidance that points in the direction of life change. What he is teaching is a new way of living that brings freedom and hope. It is an intensely practical road map for walking with Jesus so we can live as God intended.
The Sermon begins with a series of blessings pronounced by Jesus. He is sharing the astonishing news that God has come to bless the poor, the mournful, the merciful and those who hunger for God’s justice. Jesus is both proclaiming the good news of God’s blessing, and calling us to be instrument of God’s blessing in the world. But how is this possible when we all struggle with drives and motivations that go against all that is best and blessed in God’s kingdom?
In the main body of the Sermon, Jesus shows us that living this God kind of life is possible. He provides a variety of confronting teachings on basic life issues. However, when read carefully, it is clear that these teachings are a set of practical guidelines on things we can do to participate in God’s new way of living. It is not a list of things we cannot do. It is practical teaching to inspire change and a new way of life that is centered on loving God and loving people as we would want them to love us.The Three-Fold Pattern of Teaching
Much of the body of the Sermon on the Mount reflects a three-fold basic structure that Jesus uses again and again to bring our focus back to practical things we can do to live the new way of life. The order in which the pattern is presented is not always consistent; but the focus is the same in fourteen short teachings on God’s way of living. Each time, Jesus directs us towards a focus on things we can do to find freedom and deliverance.1. Traditional Commands or Practices.
In the earlier parts of the Sermon, Jesus begins each new teaching with the statement “You have heard it said…” He then briefly mentions an Old Testament command from the Jewish law given by Moses. Later in the Sermon, he mentions Jewish traditions that were regularly practiced such as prayer, fasting and giving alms.2. Vicious Cycles of Behaviour.
The next part of each teaching sometimes begins with the phrase “But I say to you…” Here Jesus shows how our inner drives and desires can lead us into destructive and unproductive cycles of behaviour that violate the heart of these commands and traditions. We may not kill or do not commit adultery; but we do struggle with anger and difficult to control passions. We are driven by wrong motivations that can undermine the ultimate purpose of practices such as prayer, fasting and giving. Jesus’ teaching on these vicious cycles are not condemnatory accusations, but insightful statements of reality. They are an accurate diagnosis of the brokenness of our human condition.3. Transformative Initiatives.
However, Jesus does not finish with these destructive behaviour patterns. Instead, he completes each teaching with practical guidance on how to break out of these vicious cycles of inner drives that undermine what is best and good in life. As theologian and Christian ethicist Glen Stassen describes it: “The Sermon on the Mount is not some higher standards of behaviours for Christians but rather transformative initiatives that enable people to break free from destructive passions and behaviours and to follow a new pathway to deliverance and freedom.”
The following four studies highlight this positive and constructive way of reading the Sermon on the Mount. Choose two or three to discuss with your Life Group. For further interest, a summary of all the teachings on life issues in the Sermon is given at the end. The summary highlights Jesus positive teaching on things we can do to find freedom and deliverance. As we hear, read and practice the Sermon on the Mount over this season of Church life, our prayer is that we will all discover new possibilities for life change.STUDY ONE: What can we do about anger?
For this discussion first read Matthew Chapter 5:21-26 which talks about the vicious cycle of anger that leads to violence. Ask the Life Group if they can identify the traditional command, the vicious cycle and the transformative initiatives? The notes below give some guidance.1. A traditional command – do not kill
The first teaching begins with a restatement of the Old Testament teaching on murder (see Exodus 20:13). “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 4:21) 2. A Vicious Cycle: Anger leading to abusive words and violence
Then starting with the phrase, “but I say to you…” Jesus explains the root problem behind humanity’s violence. He outlines how anger and ill spoken words can lead to judgement and condemnation. He identifies a vicious cycle that can lead to murder if left unchecked.“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 4:22)
What did you hear when you read this? What did you notice the most? Most people hear do not murder or do not be angry. They read this passage and focus on the things they should not do as a Christian or they view them as standards they need to live up to. Jesus intended this another way. Jesus in fact puts the focus on the following verses 23 and 24.3. Transformative Initiatives: Reconciliation and “making friends”
The grammatical structure of the passage shows that what is most important to Jesus is in fact verse 23 and 24. The focus is on the transformative initiative of being reconciled and the related initiative of settling matters or literally making friends.23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
The same pattern is repeated in the following verses25 “Settle matters [make friends] quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)
In these two illustrations or “mini-stories”, Jesus shows us that we can do something to overcome and break out of vicious cycles of anger, abusive words and even violence. Reconciliation and making friends are transformative initiatives that bring freedom. They are something we can do rather than something we cannot do.Discussion Questions
1. Where can you see this vicious cycle of abusive words leading to destructive relationship and even violence operating in our culture and society?
2. What practical steps do you think people can take towards reconciliation? In our families? In our church? At work?
3. If people feel safe with each other, encourage the group to share a time when they struggled with resentment or anger. How did they overcome this?
4. Some may wish to share a current struggle they are having in this area.STUDY TWO: What can do about inappropriate desire?
For the second study, read through Matthew 5:27-30. Ask the group if they you identify the traditional command, the vicious cycle and Jesus ‘proposed redemptive initiative? The notes below provide some guidance.1. A Traditional teaching: Adultery
Jesus second teaching on life issues begins with a restatement of the Old Testament teaching on improper sexual relations (see Exodus 20:14). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” (Matthew 5:27)2. A Vicious Cycle: Uncontrolled desire leading to sexual immorality.
Jesus then explains the root problem behind sexual relations outside marriage. Strong sexual desire creates heart motivations that eventually lead to adultery if unchecked.“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)
What did you notice most when you read this? Most people hear do not even look at a man or woman as this is sin! They focus on the higher standard and then feel condemned when they struggle. But again Jesus intended this another way. He has pointed out a vicious cycle. He is not condemning us, he is telling us how this can happen.3. A Transformative Initiative: Remove Temptation
Finally, Jesus focuses on transformative initiatives that can help us overcome inappropriate desire. The focus of the whole short teaching is on verses 29 and 30. With memorable and exaggerated language, Jesus shows the path to change.“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
This is the solution. Remove anything in your path that leads you to lust after another woman or man. Be drastic about this! Do take ‘serious’ action in this area of your life. It is about what to do! Don’t focus on what not to do!Discussion Questions
Sexual relations are a sensitive topic that needs to be handled with care. It can help to divide the Life Group by gender for the discussion. Here are some discussion questions:
1. Why is this vicious cycle of misplaced sexual desire so damaging?
2. What practical steps can people take to overcome temptations in this area?
3. If the group feels safe with each other, you can invite people to share a time when they struggled in this area. How did they overcome this?
4. Some may share transparently about a current struggling they are having. Handle this sensitively and pray for each other.STUDY THREE: What can do about worry?
For the third study read Matthew 6: 24-34 Ask the group if they you identify the traditional command, the vicious cycle and Jesus’ proposed redemptive initiative? The notes below provide some guidance.1. A Traditional teaching: You cannot serve two masters
The traditional teaching in these verses is contained in verse 24 which is in the form of a traditional wisdom proverb.24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.2. A Vicious Cycle: Worry and Anxiety.
Similar to previous teachings, the vicious cycle begins with the words “Therefore I say to you …” Jesus is telling us that a continued focus on material things leads to a vicious cycle of worry and the impossible task for trying to serve two masters.25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” (Matthew 6:25-28)
What did you hear when you read this? What did you notice the most? Most people hear do not serve two masters, or do not serve God and money, or do not worry. Jesus goes deeper and identifies how we can become too focused on material things like what we will eat and wear. This then creates worry and anxiety and a persistent drive to acquire more. Our loyalties become divided and impossible to handle. We end up serving money and ignoring or even despising God even if this was not our original intent.3. Transformative Initiatives: Seek first the Kingdom of God
Step by step in this passage, Jesus shifts our focus away from money and worry towards God’s provision and God’s purposes. Rather than worrying about the material things we acquire, he encourages us to focus on what God already provides. The birds of the air and lilies of the field are beautiful illustrations. Finally, Jesus highlights a transformative initiative that has the powerful potential to break the vicious cycle of acquisition and worry. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:33-34)
He calls us to focus on the Kingdom of God. If we put our focus on material things our heart follows. Once you are invested in something you take particular note of it….your heart is there. If I invest my money in the stock market, I keep an eye on it, my focus goes there. Jesus has given us a key to keep our heart in the right place. He is not saying we cannot have money and we cannot have material things, we need them to survive. But he is asking us to get our priorities right. Make seeking Gods kingdom our number one priority. We can only serve one master. So seek first the kingdom of God.Discussion Questions
1. In what ways have you experienced divided loyalties in a society that pulls us in different directions?
2. What personal challenges do we face in overcoming worry and seeking the kingdom of God?
3. What does it mean to seek the God’s Kingdom and his righteousness/justice first?
4. How can we address our societies drive towards acquisition and the worry and anxiety that creates?
5. How can we encourage justice for the poor, the powerless, and the vulnerable?
6. How do we show compassion towards people in need?
7. How do we work toward a world that promotes peace? Between countries, between people, in families, in schools, and in workplaces.Study FOUR: What we can do about Prayer
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches on prayer (Matthew 6:9-15). This teaching is central to all the other teachings of the Sermon. Jesus is describing a key practice that empowers us to walk in the new way of life. He instructs his disciples in prayer and provides a foundational pattern for a life rhythm of prayer. The teaching follows a similar three part pattern to the other teachings in the Sermon.1. A Traditional practice: When you pray …
Jesus assumes that the people he is addressing are regularly following the traditional Jewish practice of prayer. “When you pray….” (Matthew 6:5a). Devout Jews would spend three times a day in prayer.2. A Vicious Cycle: Wrong motivations for prayer.
The negative behaviours that Jesus addresses are praying to be seen by others, and praying repetitively without fully engaging our mind and heart. Both these go against the heart of prayer which is first about our relationship with God.5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8)3. A Transformative Initiative: Pray in Private, A Pattern of Prayer
To address the misplaced desire to be recognized by others, Jesus encourages his disciples to pray in private. This does not mean public praying is wrong. However, when we develop a habit of private prayer, our prayers in public are more likely to come from a right motivation. Private prayer is the powerful foundation for any public ministry.
Jesus then provides us with a profound template for prayer. In the context of the passage, it is clear he is not asking his disciples to repeat this prayer as a rote formula. Rather he is encouraging them to use it as a pattern, or a template, from which they can craft for their own heartfelt personal prayers.9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “ ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”
This prayer can act as a pattern to transform our prayer life. For example, the prayer begins and ends with God. It leads us to a place of alignment with God’s purposes. It does not reject our personal needs, but it shapes the prayer in such way that our needs are placed within a wider framework of God’s purposes. It involves a confession and recognition of both our faults and our frailties. It focuses on the world and the faith community not just our own personal needs. Rather than simply repeating the words, we can follow some of these patterns using our own words and speaking to God about our own life circumstances.Discussion Questions
1. Share about the challenges you find with prayer.
2. What rhythms of prayer do you follow personally and in your family?
3. How can we revitalize our prayer life in private and public spaces?
4. What patterns and principles of prayer can you see in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples?
5. What other patterns of prayer have you used?
6. How can we encourage each other in prayer?
7. Spend some time praying together using the Lord’s prayer as a template.