"I tell you, then, that you will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires." (Matthew 5.20)
The Mount of Beatitudes above the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee is famously linked with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
On the mount you’ll find the modern Church of the Beatitudes, as well as ruins of an earlier church going back to the fourth century. The slope on which the current place of worship was built offers enough space for a crowd to have gathered to listen to Jesus’ teachings.
Read the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5–7 and you’re likely to find it at once inspiring, disconcerting and humbling. It covers many subjects across the theological spectrum, from God’s love to his righteousness, from grace to judgment, from the way we tend to live to the way we ought to live. The Sermon also contains the Lord’s Prayer, in which Jesus teaches us to view God not just as holy, but as our heavenly Father.
In 1987, Viriginia Stem Owens, an English professor, asked her freshman class to write a paper reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount. She received a stream of angry, disdainful responses. One essay writer stated angrily that it made them feel ‘like I had to be perfect, and no one is.’
Owens, however, was encouraged. The students were reading the Sermon on the Mount the right way. Yes, it should inspire – in a sense, it is a beautiful piece of literature – but honest listeners should feel a bit intimidated. This is a portrait of life at its highest, a life of love and absolute integrity. Who can claim to live that sort of life? No one can – and that’s exactly the point.
Unlike the students, we don’t have to feel intimidated. We can grow towards living as Jesus would have us, but first we must be led to the preacher himself: Jesus. He lived the most exalted of lives, but humbled himself on a cross so that we can be lifted up. When we know the sermon’s author, then we can dare to apply its inspiring teachings.