Jesus' Existential "Sermon on the Mount"

Two thousand years ago, the followers of Jesus had such a clear understanding of "The Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus did not need to define it for them. Even today, most Christians can quickly supply a definition for this term: The Kingdom of Heaven is the place where God dwells, a utopia of eternal peace, another world of blissful innocence. Jesus Himself might not take issue with any of these descriptions. But, ask any Christian when he hopes to encounter this Kingdom, and his answer might run counter to the message Jesus delivered in His Sermon on the Mount. The Kingdom of Heaven, the average Christian will likely tell you, is a place of reward he hopes to reach after death. But he may have missed Jesus' point that this Kingdom can be his right now, right here on Earth. The Sermon on the Mount is not so much an eschatological promise (a set of guidelines for securing a future place in heaven), as it is an invitation to live each day immersed in God's love.

Within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to men as the "children of your heavenly Father," equating the profundity of God's love with a parent's love for a child: instinctively selfless, and fully aware of the child's absolute value. He suggests that God expects us to think of our fellow man in this way, and to treat each other with the same profound care. But as we know, man can rarely achieve this level of regard for others. Instead, we view each other through a screen of relativity -- divided by perceptions of inequality, of haves and have-nots, of beauties and beasts, the righteous and the damned. These man-made separations of ignorance create feelings of jealousy, envy, hatred, lust, and other negative emotions that produce endless suffering for humanity. Throughout His Sermon, Jesus exhorts us to transcend these shallow perceptions, and free ourselves from suffering. Knowing this would be a monumental task for the solitary soul, He guides each of us with His first beatitude (Matthew 5:3*):

"How blest are these who know their need of God; the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs."

Quite simply, Jesus encourages us to recognize our absolute reliance on God. God, the creator, sustainer and destroyer of all things, because God is the source of everything there is. We need God as we need oxygen, food or human contact, and it is in fully knowing our need of God that we are able to transcend ourselves. As we begin to reach this understanding, we can no longer view others through that screen of relativity – we are all equally in need.

In this light, all of Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount become illuminated. Jesus' use of the future tense ("the Kingdom of Heaven shall be yours") is often interpreted as a reference to a future state of being, although it could just as easily be understood to speak of the present tense -- that this Kingdom is here for us now, if we would just see it. Each beatitude is a masterwork of "parallelism" -- a subtle coupling of exhortation and conclusion. Often, flipping the two elements of these "doublets" helps disclose their true message. For instance, reversing the beatitude quoted above would render the message "the Kingdom of Heaven is yours, to the extent that you know your need of God." The second beatitude, "How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation,” can be understood to mean that our sorrows are eased in direct proportion to the forgiveness we seek from others.

The Beatitudes, and all of Jesus' teachings which follow, consistently deliver instruction to abandon the self as the center of the universe, and replace it with God. With this understanding in mind, the theme of the entire Sermon is revealed. It starts to make sense that hateful thoughts are the same as hateful acts. We begin to understand that anyone who shows mercy to another is showing mercy to himself; anyone who struggles to make peace is a true child of the heavenly Father; anyone whose heart is pure is able to “see God.” Certainly, a life lived according to these ideals would ensure an eternity of joy, versus the endless misery that would result from a life of selfish disregard for the rest of God's creation. Thus, the Sermon’s "Lord's Prayer" eschews requests for personal gain, instead choosing to revere God and seek His guidance and the protection He grants to all living things.

By following Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, we grow to recognize each man as a divine expression of God's creation, experiencing an total respect for him, and seeing him in relation to God – seeing him as we see ourselves. In the fullest flowering of this regard, the "self” is replaced by a oneness with God and His creation, and our sufferings begin to dissolve. In the peace of genuine love for God and our fellow men, we fully realize the meaning of Jesus’ message: the Kingdom of Heaven is ours – right now, right here on earth.

* Bible verses quoted from the New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition. Oxford University Press, USA (March 12, 1992).

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