A Hermeneutical Procedure To Best Interpret The Sermon on the Mount
by Ed Vasicek
The average Christian finds it impossible to live both by The Sermon on the Mount and the other commands of Scripture. They often seem to contradict one another.
The problem is clearly not one of contradiction, but seeming contradiction. Whereas all sorts of hermeneutical systems have tackled The Sermon on the Mount and essentially diluted the teachings of Christ in that sermon while fortifying other commands to try to find a happy medium, the averaging of extremes is at best unethical.
For example, if I take the command of Christ, "Give to everyone who asks of you" (Luke 6:30) and 2 Thessalonians 3:10, "if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either" we can see a clear contrast. Which do we do? Do we give to all (but not necessarily give them what they ask for), or do we refrain from giving food to fellow Christians who are lazy but give help to unsaved people who are lazy...on and on we go.
But the contradiction is cleared up if Christ's command to "Give to everyone who asks of you" is stated within its larger context because Jesus is applying a passage of the Torah.
And that is where the nature of The Sermon on the Mount needs to be understood. The Sermon on the Mount is the application of the Torah (Books of Moses, the Law) to the contemporary challenges of the Jews in the first century under Roman occupation. (See my other article on The Sermon on the Mount for further details.) The "you have heard it said...but I say" formula makes this clear.
The purpose of this paper is to enumerate the hermeneutical process for interpreting The Sermon on the Mount, as it would have been understood by the original audience, an audience well schooled in the Torah, and an audience who, unlike us, knew the Torah portions Christ was applying.
Categories of Teaching
Jesus teachings can be divided into three categories, and the interpreter must determine which of these best fits a particular verse under study:
Category one: Jesus takes a Torah principle and applies it to a controversial issue of that day ("Walking That Extra Mile: A Slightly Different Twist on Matthew 5:38-48" and "Interpreting The Sermon on the Mount: Special Considerations" by yours truly for examples).
Category two: Jesus engages in the traditional Rabbinic practice of putting a "fence" around one of the 613 commands of the Torah. Rabbis offered many rulings to help keep people far away from a possible violation. Since Jesus is the Messiah, His fences now become new commands. (They are no longer fences.) Jesus' command not to lust after a woman is a fence built around the command not to commit adultery; His command not to hate one's brother at heart is a fence built around the command to not commit murder.
Category three: Jesus adds new but related subject matter to the Torah.
Most of Jesus teachings have been assumed to be in category 3, but perhaps most of the Sermon on the Mount falls under categories 1 and 2. But even many of these are applications of Torah principles. For example, building one's house upon a rock is very much like heeding and obeying Torah.
Determine the category of the teaching.
Locate the Torah portion under discussion. This is often the neglected key to properly interpreting The Sermon on the Mount. In fact, if one is not fluent in the Torah, he should be very careful about drawing conclusions from The Sermon on the Mount because he is groping in the dark. I am convinced much of The Sermon on the Mount is an application of Leviticus 19:11-18.
Determine the issue of the day being addressed. This takes research into Jewish roots literature, the Talmud, etc., although many issues are near the surface. For example, one obvious issue was, "should we help carry items for Roman soldiers beyond the required mile?" Christ answered with the concept of going the extra-mile, a concept He also applies toward insult (turning the other cheek--once).
Remember we have perhaps 10% of the Sermon at most; be careful formulating dogma when we are also in great ignorance of what has NOT been recorded.
Ask the important question of all good Bible interpretation: How the original audience would have understood the teaching.
Ask why Matthew (or Luke) included such a portion in his Gospel and how his original readers would have understood it.
Remember, Christ spoke Hebrew or Aramaic; a portion of The Sermon on the Mount might become more clear if we discover the meaning of the original spoken (as opposed to written) word.
Remember, Christ spoke as a Jewish Rabbi to a Jewish crowd. Whatever insights you can glean from Messianic Judaism, the Talmud, or Hebraica can affect the meaning.
You may also like to see Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount: Special Considerations as well as Walking That Extra Mile: A Slightly Different Twist on Matthew 5:38-48.
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