Mark 3:7-19; Luke 6:12-49; & Matthew 5:1-7:29
Today we cover Jesus’ most famous preaching gig, the Sermon on the Plain.
That’s right, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (covered extensively by Matt) occurs on a plain. The intro verse even notes that Jesus came down off the mountain and stood ‘on a level place.’ What gives?
As usual, the ESV Study Bible folks offer three leading explanations for this discrepancy:
- Perhaps Matt and Luke are summarizing the same event differently. This is highly possible, but it doesn’t account for the plain/mount conflict.
- It could be that Matt or Luke or both of them assembled various sayings from Jesus’ ministry into a fabricated event for narrative purposes. This has troubling implications for the errancy of scripture, and it ignores what is (in Matt’s account, at least) a stylistic and thematic arc that ties the whole sermon together.
- The most likely explanation is that Jesus, on two different occasions and in two different locations, gave roughly the same sermon. It’s similar to a stand-up comedian who has a stock routine that he tweaks for different gigs. This makes sense, as it’s unlikely that Jesus wandered around Judea for three years without ever repeating Himself or having a message that He considered unworthy of sharing with more than one group of people.
The crucial goal of this sermon (whether it takes place on a mountainside, on a plain, or at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee), as I read it, is to correct a few millennia’s worth of accumulated misunderstanding about the law. While God’s law, as relayed by Moses, is robust enough to serve many different ends, the primary goal was never to create an ordered polity nor to provide a means to salvation through obedience nor to identify spiritual leaders through records of righteousness.
Rather, the primary purpose of the law was (and is) to condemn. It was meant to educate Israel on the difference between righteous and sinful, clean and unclean, good and bad and to demonstrate just how righteous and clean and good God is. As Paul will say later on, the law is what taught the people what greed was, what lust was, what hate was so that they could see it in themselves and learn the difference between them and God.
Remember, Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden in an attempt to be like God. The law is essentially a response to that drive within human nature (inherited from Adam), saying to us, ‘You want to be like Me? Look. This is how I am. This is how you are. You cannot get here from there. Stop striving to be Me, and just enjoy the benefits of being Mine.’
The people had read the law to be a list of things to do and to avoid. There were those, particularly Pharisees, who had developed the ability to at least seem like they were adhering to the law. They thus felt that the condemnation of the prophets was not for them and that they were not in need of God’s mercy.
This is whom Jesus is speaking to when He talks about coming to save the sick and the poor and the sinners, not the well and the rich and the righteous. It’s not that they were not in need of the saving work that Christ was about to do, but that’s what they thought. Jesus is saying, then, ‘If you don’t think this is for you, then good luck to you. But when you realize where you really stand, you’ll be ready to accept the healing of My grace.’
So in this sermon, with His ‘Golden Rule’ and statements about anger and lust and everything else, Jesus is explaining what they had failed to understand. The law is not a test which you can pass. It is a diagnosis of an inescapable human condition. Everyone needs God’s mercy. Everyone needs God’s grace.