Faith Matters

The Sermon on the Mount - Jesus' radical manifesto for real life

The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount might sound unrealistic but is in fact a radical manifesto which answers profound human questions, says Martin Henry

Danish painter Carl Bloch's depiction of The Sermon on the Mount from 1890 and his Life of Jesus series
Martin Henry

SOME of the advice Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount seems to be about as far from prudent thinking on life as it's possible, almost, to get.

Faced with the evangelical counsel of perfection not to be anxious about the business of living, can people really be expected to take such guidance literally?

It has been suggested that the early Christian belief in the imminent end of the world could account for the lack of anxiety Jesus recommends to his followers as the ideal attitude to life. But the world did not come to any abrupt end. So, does Jesus' teaching still remain valid?

And not only did the world not end, but in recent times circumstances within the world have also changed fairly dramatically. Whereas about 10 years ago there was still quite a lot of optimism in the air, with many thinking that life was getting better and better, suddenly things changed spectacularly with the arrival of the global financial crisis.

Optimism and confidence were replaced by gloom and a sense of doom and hopelessness about the future. And it's probably true to say that optimism and confidence about the future have not yet really returned in any robust sense.

In such a situation, the words of Jesus about how to live in this world sound nearly too breezy, not to say even irresponsible or lacking in seriousness.

That would seem to have been the perspective of a pragmatic statesman like the late former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt.

In his last book, published in 2015, the year he died, he was very critical precisely of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, finding talk about not caring about the practical demands and needs of life, not useful at all as a guide for a political leader.

Many others have also entertained doubts about the practicality of Jesus' teaching. It seems almost too good to be true, as if Jesus were living in some kind of fantasy world, as if he were a sort of dreamer.

How can he be apparently so carefree and serene in his teaching? Is he not aware of the difficulties people have in surviving in this world and providing for the future?

These are real and legitimate questions. And they relate to life, as people experience it. But whatever else you can deduce about Jesus from the gospels, you certainly can't say that he didn't know what life was really like.

The gospels show him in his healing and teaching ministry constantly attending to people's real needs of body, mind, and soul. So he's not indifferent to, or unaware of, human needs and human suffering.

But yet he chooses to put forward a teaching that seems to be not overly concerned about such serious questions as people's economic survival or their future.

This kind of relaxed, laid-back, seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to life in the midst of a world that - then, as now - is difficult and dangerous, may seem superficial or lacking in real appreciation of the true nature of life.

But, if we think about it for a moment, it is in fact an extremely radical teaching; it's not a superficial one.

And it's radical because it takes account of the ultimate, most fundamental truth of the human condition, which was and is and always will be God.

Not everyone, of course, will accept this. Jesus acknowledges as much specifically when he contrasts the attitude to life he is recommending with that of the pagans who, he says, "set their hearts on... things,' like wondering: "What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?"

And he doesn't even dismiss such things as insignificant; he is just more radical. He points out that these aren't the ultimate questions or realities for people, in fact.

The ultimate question, the ultimate reality is God. And without God, all these other things are lacking in final meaning.

So, in Jesus' teaching there is a real answer to profound human questions, hard though it may be for us to accept it.

Jesus tries to make the truth of his teaching easier to accept by pointing to the order, richness, and beauty of the natural world that God has created.

If God created the world, surely he can be relied on to look after it? But obviously, no-one can be forced to accept the Christian message.

Faith is like love, the philosopher Schopenhauer wrote; it can't be compelled.

But those who do accept the message of Jesus will be able to put many things in perspective, including the great crises of our times, as indeed of all times, which always occupy and always have occupied, understandably, so much of the attention space in our world.

And even if our hard-headed solutions or best guesses at dealing with life's genuine needs are ultimately found to be wanting - even that is finally less important for Christian faith than believing that God will not be found wanting, but can be trusted to finish the good work he began in creating us in the first place.

And that was so that we could share one day in the glory of the divine life for ever in heaven.

:: Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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