It was probably on one of those mountain-ranges, which stretch to the north of Capernaum, that Jesus had spent the night of lonely prayer, which preceded the designation of the twelve to the Apostolate. As the soft spring morning broke, He called up those who had learned to follow Him, and from among them chose the twelve, who were to be His Ambassadors and Representatives. But already the early light had guided the eager multitude which, from all parts, had come to the broad level plateau beneath to bring to Him their need of soul or body. To them He now descended with words of comfort and power of healing. But better yet had He to say, and to do for them, and for us all. As they pressed around Him for that touch which brought virtue of healing to all, He retired again to the mountain-height, and through the clear air of the bright spring day spake, what has ever since been known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from the place where He sat, or as that ‘in the plain’ (Luk_6:17), from the place where He had first met the multitude, and which so many must have continue to occupy while He taught.
The first and most obvious, perhaps, also, most superficial thought, is that which brings this teaching of Christ into comparison, we shall not say with that of His contemporaries – since scarcely any who lived in the time of Jesus said aught that can be compared with it – but with the best of the wisdom and piety of the Jewish sages, as preserved in Rabbinic writings. Its essential difference, or rather contrariety, in spirit and substance, not only when viewed as a whole, but in almost each of its individual parts, will be briefly shown in the sequel. For the present we only express this as deepest conviction, that it were difficult to say which brings greater astonishment (though of opposite kind): a first reading of the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ or that of any section of the Talmud. The general reader is here at a disadvantage. From his upbringing in an atmosphere which Christ’s Words have filled with heaven’s music, he knows not, and cannot know, the nameless feeling which steals over a receptive soul when, in the silence of our moral wilderness, those voices first break on the ear, that had never before been wakened to them. How they hold the soul entranced, calling up echoes of inmost yet unrealised aspiration, itself the outcome of the God-born and God-tending within us, and which renders us capable of new birth into the Kingdom; call up, also, visions and longings of that world of heavenly song, so far away and yet so near us; and till the soul with subduedness, expectancy, and ecstasy! So the travel-stained wanderer flings him down on the nearest height, to feast his eyes with the first sight of home in the still valley beneath; so the far-off exile sees in his dreams visions of his child-life, all transfigured; so the weary prodigal leans his head in silent musing of mingled longing and rest on a mother’s knee. So, and much more; for, it is the Voice of God Which speaks to us in the cool of the evening, amidst the trees of the lost Garden; to us who, in very shame and sorrow, hide, and yet even so hear, not words of judgment but of mercy, not concerning an irrevocable, and impossible past, but concerning a real and to us possible future, which is that past, only better, nearer, dearer, – for, that it is not the human which has now to rise to the Divine, but the Divine which has come down to the human.
Or else, turn from this to a first reading of the wisdom of the Jewish Fathers in their Talmud. It little matters, what part be chosen for the purpose. Here, also, the reader is at disadvantage, since his instructors present to him too frequently broken sentences, extracts torn from their connection, words often mistranslated as regards their real meaning, or misapplied as regards their bearing and spirit; at best, only isolated sentences. Take these in their connection and real meaning, and what a terrible awakening Who, that has read half-a-dozen pages successively of any part of the Talmud, can feel otherwise than by turns shocked, pained, amused, or astounded? There is here wit and logic; quickness and readiness, earnestness and zeal, but by the side of it terrible profanity, uncleanness, superstition, and folly. Taken as a whole, it is not only utterly unspiritual, but anti-spiritual. Not that the Talmud is worse than might be expected of such writings in such times and circumstances, perhaps in many respects much better – always bearing in mind the particular standpoint of narrow nationalism, without which Talmudism itself could not have existed, and which therefore is not an accretion, but an essential part of it. But, taken not in abrupt sentences and quotations, but as a whole, it is so utterly and immeasurably unlike the New Testament, that it is not easy to determine which, as the case may be, is greater, the ignorance or the presumption of those who put them side by side. Even where spiritual life pulsates, it seems propelled through valves that are diseased, and to send the lifeblood gurgling back upon the heart, or along ossified arteries that quiver not with life at its touch. And to the reader of such disjointed Rabbinic quotations there is this further source of misunderstanding, that the form and sound of words is so often the same as that of the sayings of Jesus, however different their spirit. For, necessarily, the wine – be it new or old – made in Judaea, comes to us in Palistinian vessels. The new teaching, to be historically true, must have employed the old forms and spoken the old language. But the ideas underlying terms equally employed by Jesus and the teachers of Israel are, in everything that concerns the relation of souls to God, so absolutely different as not to bear comparison. Whence otherwise the enmity and opposition to Jesus from the first, and not only after His Divine claim had been pronounced? These two, starting from principles alien and hostile, follow opposite directions, and lead to other goals. He who has thirsted and quenched his thirst at the living fount of Christ’s Teaching, can never again stoop to seek drink at the broken cisterns of Rabbinism.
We take here our standpoint on Matthew’s account of the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ to which we can scarcely doubt that by Luke is parallel. Not that it is easy, or perhaps even possible, to determine, whether all that is now grouped in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was really spoken by Jesus on this one occasion. From the plan and structure of Matthew’s Gospel, the presumption seems rather to the contrary. For, isolated parts of it are introduced by Luke in other connections, yet quite fitly. On the other hand, even in accordance with the traditional characterisation of Matthew’s narrative, we expect in it the fullest account of our Lord’s Discourses, while we also notice that His Galilean Ministry forms the main subject of the First Gospel. And there is one characteristic of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ which, indeed, throws light on the plan of Matthew’s work in its apparent chronological inversion of events, such as in its placing the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ before the calling of the Apostles. We will not designate the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as the promulgation of the New Law, since that would be a far too narrow, if not erroneous, view of it. But it certainly seems to correspond to the Divine Revelation in the ‘Ten Words’ from Mount Sinai. Accordingly, it seems appropriate that the Genesis-part of Matthew’s Gospel should be immediately followed by the Exodus-part, in which the new Revelation is placed in the forefront, to the seeming breach of historical order, leaving it afterwards to be followed by an appropriate grouping of miracles and events, which we know to have really preceded the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’
Very many-sided is that ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ so that different writers, each viewing it from his standpoint, have differently sketched its general outline, and yet carried to our minds the feeling that thus far they had correctly understood it. We also might attempt humble contribution towards the same end. Viewing it in the light of the time, we might mark in it alike advancement on the Old Testament (or rather, unfolding of its inmost, yet hidden meaning), and contrast to contemporary Jewish teaching. And here we would regard it as presenting the full delineation of the ideal man of God, of prayer, and of righteousness – in short, of the inward and outward manifestation of discipleship. Or else, keeping before us the different standpoint of His hearers, we might in this ‘Sermon’ follow up this contrast to its underlying ideas as regards: First, the right relationship between man and God, or true righteousness – what inward graces characterise and what prospects attach to it, in opposition to Jewish views of merit and of reward. Secondly, we would mark the same contrast as regards sin (hamartology), temptation, etc. Thirdly, we would note it as regards salvation (soteriology); and, lastly, as regards what may be termed moral theology: personal feelings, married and other relations, discipleship, and the like. And in this great contrast two points would prominently stand out: New Testament humility, as opposed to Jewish (the latter being really pride, as only the consciousness of failure, or rather, of inadequate perfectness, while New Testament humility is really despair of self); and again, Jewish as opposed to New Testament perfectness (the former being an attempt by means external or internal to strive up to God: the latter a new life, springing from God, and in God). Or, lastly, we might view it as upward teaching in regard to God: the King; inward teaching in regard to man: the subjects of the King; and outward teaching in regard to the Church and the world: the boundaries of the Kingdom.
This brings us to what alone we can here attempt: a general outline of the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ Its great subject is neither righteousness, nor yet the New Law (if such designation be proper in regard to what in no real sense is a Law), but that which was innermost and uppermost in the Mind of Christ – the Kingdom of God. Notably, the Sermon on the Mount contains not any detailed or systematic doctrinal, nor any ritual teaching, nor yet does it prescribe the form of any outward observances. This marks, at least negatively, a difference in principle from all other teaching. Christ came to found a Kingdom, not a School; to institute a fellowship, not to propound a system. To the first disciples all doctrinal teaching sprang out of fellowship with Him. They saw Him, and therefore believed; they believed, and therefore learned the truths connected with Him, and springing out of Him. So to speak, the seed of truth which fell on their hearts was carried thither from the flower of His Person and Life.
Again, as from this point of view the Sermon on the Mount differs from all contemporary Jewish teaching, so also is it impossible to compare it with any other system of morality. The difference here is one not of degree, nor even of kind, but of standpoint. It is indeed true, that the Words of Jesus, properly understood, marks the utmost limit of all possible moral conception. But this point does not come in question. Every moral system is a road by which, through self-denial, discipline, and effort, men seek to reach the goal. Christ begins with this goal, and places His disciples at once in the position to which all other teachers point as the end. They work up to the goal of becoming the ‘children of the Kingdom;’ He makes men such, freely, and of His grace: and this is the Kingdom. What the others labour for, He gives. They begin by demanding, He by bestowing: because he brings good tidings of forgiveness and mercy. Accordingly, in the real sense, there is neither new law nor moral system here, but entrance into a new life: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father Which is in heaven is perfect.’
But if the Sermon on the Mount contains not a new, nor, indeed, any system of morality, and addresses itself to a new condition of things, it follows that the promises attaching for example, to the so-called ‘Beatitudes’ must not be regarded as the reward of the spiritual state with which they are respectively connected, nor yet as their result. It is not because a man is poor in spirit that his is the Kingdom of Heaven, in the sense that the one state will grow into the other, or be its result; still less is the one the reward of the other. The connecting link – so to speak, the theological copula between the ‘state’ and the promise – is in each case Christ Himself: because He stands between our present and our future, and ‘has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.’ Thus the promise represents the gift of grace by Christ in the new Kingdom, as adapted to each case.
It is Christ, then, as the King, Who is here flinging open the gates of His Kingdom. To study it more closely: in the three chapters, under which the Sermon on the Mount is grouped in the first Gospel the Kingdom of God is presented successively, progressively, and extensively. Let us trace this with the help of the text itself.
In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount the Kingdom of God is delineated generally, first positively, and then negatively, marking especially how its righteousness goes deeper than the mere letter of even the Old Testament Law. It opens with ten Beatitudes, which are the New Testament counterpart to the Ten Commandments. These present to us, not the observance of the Law written on stone, but the realisation of that Law which, by the Spirit, is written on the fleshly tables of the heart.
These Ten Commandments in the Old Covenant were preceded by a Prologue. The ten Beatitudes have, characteristically, not a Prologue but an Epilogue, which corresponds to the Old Testament Prologue. This closes the first section, of which the object was to present the Kingdom of God in its characteristic features. But here it was necessary, in order to mark the real continuity of the New Testament with the Old, to show the relation of the one to the other. And this is the object of Mat_5:17-20, the last-mentioned verse forming at the same time a grand climax and transition to the criticism of the Old Testament-Law in its merely literal application, such as the Scribes and Pharisees made. For, taking even the letter of the Law, there is not only progression, but almost contrast, between the righteousness of the Kingdom and that set forth by the teachers of Israel. Accordingly, a detailed criticism of the Law now follows – and that not as interpreted and applied by ‘tradition,’ but in its barely literal meaning. In this part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ the careful reader will mark an analogy to Ex 21:and Ex 22
This closes the first part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ The second part is contained in Mt 6. In this the criticism of the Law is carried deeper. The question now is not as concerns the Law in its literality, but as to what constituted more than a mere observance of the outward commandments: piety, spirituality, sanctity. Three points here stood out specially – nay, stand out still, and in all ages. Hence this criticism was not only of special application to the Jews, but is universal, we might almost say, prophetic. These three high points are alms, prayer, and fasting – or, to put the latter more generally, the relation of the physical to the spiritual. These three are successively presented, negatively and positively. But even so, this would have been but the external aspect of them. The Kingdom of God carries all back to the grand underlying ideas. What were this or that mode of giving alms, unless the right idea be apprehended, of what constitutes riches, and where they should be sought? This is indicated in Mat_6:19-21. Again, as to prayer: what matters it if we avoid the externalism of the Pharisees, or even catch the right form as set forth in the ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ unless we realise what underlies prayer? It is to lay our inner man wholly open to the light of God in genuine, earnest simplicity, to be quite shone through by Him. It is, moreover, absolute and undivided self-dedication to God. And in this lies its connection, alike with the spirit that prompts almsgiving, and with that which prompts real fasting. That which underlies all such fasting is a right view of the relation in which the body with its wants stands to God – the temporal to the spiritual. It is the spirit of prayer which must rule alike alms and fasting, and pervade them: the upward look and self-dedication to God, the seeking first after the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness, that man, and self, and life may be baptized in it. Such are the real alms, the real prayers, the real fasts of the Kingdom of God.
If we have rightly apprehended the meaning of the two first parts of the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ we cannot be at a loss to understand its third part, as set forth in the seventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Briefly, it is this, as addressed to His contemporaries, nay, with wider application to the men of all times: First, the Kingdom of God cannot be circumscribed, as you would do it. Secondly, it cannot be extended, as you would do it, by external means, but cometh to us from God, and is entered by personal determination and separation. Thirdly, it is not preached, as too often is attempted, when thoughts of it are merely of the external. Lastly, it is not manifested in life in the manner too common among religionists, but is very real, and true, and good in its effects. And this Kingdom, as received by each of us, is like a solid house on a solid foundation, which nothing from without can shake or destroy.
The infinite contrast, just set forth, between the Kingdom as presented by the Christ and Jewish contemporary teaching is the more striking, that it was expressed in a form, and clothed in words with which all His hearers were familiar; indeed, in modes of expression current at the time. It is this which has misled so many in their quotations of Rabbinic parallels to the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ They perceive outward similarity, and they straightway set it down to identity of spirit, not understanding that often those things are most unlike in the spirit of them, which are most like in their form. No part of the New Testament has had a larger array of Rabbinic parallels adduced than the ‘Sermon on the Mount;’ and this, as we might expect, because, in teaching addressed to His contemporaries, Jesus would naturally use the forms with which they were familiar. Many of these Rabbinic quotations are, however, entirely inapt, the similarity lying in an expression or turn of words. Occasionally, the misleading error goes even further, and that is quoted in illustration of Jesus’ sayings which, either by itself or in the context, implies quite the opposite. A detailed analysis would lead too far, but a few specimens will sufficiently illustrate our meaning.
To begin with the first Beatitude, to the poor in spirit, since theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, this early Jewish saying is its very counterpart, marking not the optimism, but the pessimism of life: ‘Ever be more and more lowly in spirit, since the expectancy of man is to become the food of worms.’ Another contrast to Christ’s promise of grace to the ‘poor in spirit’ is presented in this utterance of self-righteousness on the part of Rabbi Joshua, who compares the reward formerly given to him who brought one or another offering to the Temple with that of him who is of a lowly mind (השרעתו שפל) to whom it is reckoned as if he had brought all the sacrifices. To this the saying of the great Hillel seems exactly parallel: ‘My humility is my greatness, and my greatness my humility,’ which, be it observed, is elicited by a Rabbinic accommodation of Psa_113:5, Psa_113:6 : ‘Who is exalted to sit, who humbleth himself to behold.’ It is the omission on the part of modern writers of this explanatory addition, which has given the saying of Hillel even the faintest likeness to the first Beatitude.
But even so, what of the promise of ‘the Kingdom of Heaven?’ What is the meaning which Rabbinism attaches to that phrase, and would it have entered the mind of a Rabbi to promise what he understood as the Kingdom to all men, Gentiles as well as Jews, who were poor in spirit? We recall here the fate of the Gentiles in Messianic days, and, to prevent misstatements, summarise the opening pages of the Talmudic tractate on idolatry. At the beginning of the coming era of the Kingdom, God is represented as opening the Torah, and inviting all who had busied themselves with it to come for their reward. On this, nation by nation appears – first, the Romans, insisting that all the great things they had done were only done for the sake of Israel, in order that they might the better busy themselves with the Torah. Being harshly repulsed, the Persians next come forward with similar claims, encouraged by the fact that, unlike the Romans, they had not destroyed the Temple. But they also are in turn repelled. Then all the Gentile nations urge that the Law had not been offered to them, which is proved to be a vain contention, since God had actually offered it to them, but only Israel had accepted it. On this the nations reply by a peculiar Rabbinic explanation of Exo_19:17, according to which God is actually represented as having lifted Mount Sinai like a cask, and threatened to put it over Israel unless they accepted the Law. Israel’s obedience, therefore, was not willing, but enforced. On this the Almighty proposes to judge the Gentiles by the Noachic commandments, although it is added, that, even had they observed them, these would have carried no reward. And, although it is a principle that even a heathen, if he studied the Law, was to be esteemed like the High-Priest, yet it is argued, with the most perverse logic, that the reward of heathens who observed the Law must be less than that of those who did so because the Law was given them, since the former acted from impulse, and not from obedience!
Even thus far the contrast to the teaching of Jesus is tremendous. A few further extracts will finally point the difference between the largeness of Christ’s World-Kingdom, and the narrowness of Judaism. Most painful as the exhibition of profanity and national conceit is, it is needful in order to refute what we must call the daring assertion, that the teaching of Jesus, or the Sermon on the Mount, had been derived from Jewish sources. At the same time it must carry to the mind, with almost irresistible force, the question whence, if not from God, Jesus had derived His teaching, or how else it came so to differ, not in detail, but in principle and direction, from that of all His contemporaries.
In the Talmudic passages from which quotation has already been made, we further read that the Gentiles would enter into controversy with the Almighty about Israel. They would urge, that Israel had not observed the Law. On this the Almighty would propose Himself to bear witness for them. But the Gentiles would object, that a father could not give testimony for his son. Similarly, they would object to the proposed testimony of heaven and earth, since self-interest might compel them to be partial. For, according to Psa_76:8, ‘the earth was afraid,’ because, if Israel had not accepted the Law, it would have been destroyed, but it ‘became still’ when at Sinai they consented to it. On this the heathen would be silenced out of the mouth of their own witnesses, such as Nimrod, Laban, Potiphar, Nebuchadnezzar, etc. They would then ask, that the Law might be given them, and promise to observe it. Although this was now impossible, yet God would, in His mercy, try them by giving them the Feast of Tabernacles, as perhaps the easiest of all observances. But as they were in their tabernacles, God would cause the sun to shine forth in his strength, when they would forsake their tabernacles in great indignation, according to Psa_2:3. And it is in this manner that Rabbinism looked for the fulfilment of those words in Psa_2:4 : ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, the Lord shall have them in derision,’ this being the only occasion on which God laughed! And if it were urged, that at the time of the Messiah all nations would become Jews, this was indeed true; but although they would adopt Jewish practices, they would apostatise in the war of Gog and Magog, when again Psa_2:4 would be realised: ‘The Lord shall laugh at them.’ And this is the teaching which some writers would compare with that of Christ! In view of such statements, we can only ask with astonishment: What fellowship of spirit can there be between Jewish teaching and the first Beatitude?
It is the same sad self-righteousness and utter carnalness of view which underlies the other Rabbinic parallels to the Beatitudes, pointing to contrast rather than likeness. Thus the Rabbinic blessedness of mourning consists in this, that much misery here makes up for punishment hereafter. We scarcely wonder that no Rabbinic parallel can be found to the third Beatitude, unless we recall the contrast which assigns in Messianic days the possession of earth to Israel as a nation. Nor could we expect any parallel to the fourth Beatitude, to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Rabbinism would have quite a different idea of ‘righteousness,’ considered as ‘good works,’ and chiefly as almsgiving (designated as ṣedaqah, or righteousness). To such the most special reward is promised, and that ex opere operato. Similarly, Rabbinism speaks of the perfectly righteous (צדיק גמור) and the perfectly unrighteous, or else of the righteous and unrighteous (according as the good or the evil might weigh heaviest in the scale); and, besides these, of a kind of middle state. But such a conception as that of ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ after righteousness would have no place in the system. And, that no doubt may obtain, this sentence may be quoted: ‘He that says, I give this “Sela” as alms, in order that (בשביל) my sons may live, and that I may merit the world to come, behold, this is the perfectly righteous.’ Along with such assertions of work-righteousness we have this principle often repeated, that all such merit attaches only to Israel, while the good works and mercy of the Gentiles are actually reckoned to them as sin, though it is only fair to add that one voice (that of Jochanan ben Zakkai) is raised in contradiction of such horrible teaching.
It seems almost needless to prosecute this subject; yet it may be well to remark, that the same self-righteousness attaches to the quality of mercy, so highly prized among the Jews, and which is supposed not only to bring reward, but to atone for sins. With regard to purity of heart, there is, indeed, a discussion between the school of Shammai and that of Hillel – the former teaching that guilty thoughts constitute sin, while the latter expressly confines it to guilty deeds. The Beatitude attaching to peace-making has many analogies in Rabbinism; but the latter would never have connected the designation of ‘children of God’ with any but Israel. A similar remark applies to the use of the expression ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the next Beatitude.
A more full comparison than has been made would almost require a separate treatise. One by one, as we place the sayings of the Rabbis by the side of those of Jesus in this Sermon on the Mount, we mark the same essential contrariety of spirit, whether as regards righteousness, sin, repentance, faith, the Kingdom, alms, prayer, or fasting. Only two points may be specially selected, because they are so frequently brought forward by writers as proof; that the sayings of Jesus did not rise above those of the chief Talmudic authorities. The first of these refers to the well-known words of our Lord: ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.’ This is compared with the following Rabbinic parallel, in which the gentleness of Hillel is contrasted with the opposite disposition of Shammai. The latter is said to have harshly repelled an intending proselyte, who wished to be taught the whole Law while standing on one foot, while Hillel received him with this saying: ‘What is hateful to thee, do not to another. This is the whole Law, all else is only its explanation.’ But it will be noticed that the words in which the Law is thus summed up are really only a quotation from Tob 4:15, although their presentation as the substance of the Law is, of course, original. But apart from this, the merest beginner in logic must perceive, that there is a vast difference between this negative injunction, or the prohibition to do to others what is hateful to ourselves, and the positive direction to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The one does not rise above the standpoint of the Law, being as yet far from that love which would lavish on others the good we ourselves desire, while the Christian saying embodies the nearest approach to absolute love of which human nature is capable, making that the test of our conduct to others which we ourselves desire to possess. And, be it observed, the Lord does not put self-love as the principle of our conduct, but only as its ready test. Besides, the further explanation in Luk_6:38 should here be kept in view, as also what may be regarded as the explanatory additions in Mat_5:42-48.
The second instance, to which it seems desirable to advert, is the supposed similarity between petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, and Rabbinic prayers. Here, we may remark, at the outset, that both the spirit and the manner of prayer are presented by the Rabbis so externally, and with such details, as to make it quite different from prayer as our Lord taught His disciples. This appears from the Talmudic tractate specially devoted to that subject, where the both exact position, the degree of inclination, and other trivialities, never referred to by Christ, are dwelt upon at length as of primary importance. Most painful, for example, is it to find this interpretation of Hezekiah’s prayer, when the King is represented as appealing to the merit of his fathers, detailing their greatness in contrast to Rahab or the Shunammite, who yet had received a reward, and closing with this: ‘Lord of the world, I have searched the 248 members which Thou hast given me, and not found that I have provoked Thee to anger with any one of them, how much more then shouldest Thou on account of these prolong my life?’ After this, it is scarcely necessary to point to the self-righteousness which, in this as in other respects, is the most painful characteristic of Rabbinism. That the warning against prayers at the corner of streets was taken from life, appears from the well-known anecdote concerning one, Rabbi Jannai, who was observed saying his prayers in the public streets of Sepphoris, and then advancing four cubits to make the so-called supplementary prayer. Again, a perusal of some of the recorded prayers of the Rabbis will show, how vastly different many of them were from the petitions which our Lord taught. Without insisting on this, nor on the circumstance that all recorded Talmudic prayers are of much later date than the time of Jesus, it may, at the same time, be freely admitted that here also the form, and sometimes even the spirit, approached closely to the words of our Lord. On the other hand, it would be folly to deny that the Lord’s Prayer, in its sublime spirit, tendency, combination, and succession of petitions, is unique; and that such expressions in it as ‘Our Father,’ ‘the Kingdom,’ ‘forgiveness,’ ‘temptation,’ and others, represent in Rabbinism something entirely different from that which our Lord had in view. But, even so, such petitions as ‘forgive us our debts,’ could, as has been shown in a previous chapter, have no true parallel in Jewish theology.
Further details would lead beyond our present scope. It must suffice to indicate that such sayings as Mat_5:6, Mat_5:15, Mat_5:17, Mat_5:25, Mat_5:29, Mat_5:31, Mat_5:46, Mat_5:47; Mat_6:8, Mat_6:12, Mat_6:18, Mat_6:22, Mat_6:24, Mat_6:32; Mat_7:8, Mat_7:9, Mat_7:10, Mat_7:15, Mat_7:17-19, Mat_7:22, Mat_7:23, have no parallel, in any real sense, in Jewish writings, whose teaching, indeed, often embodies opposite ideas. Here it may be interesting, by one instance, to show what kind of Messianic teaching would have interested a Rabbi. In a passage which describes the great danger of intercourse with Jewish Christians, as leading to heresy, a Rabbi is introduced, who, at Sepphoris, had met one of Jesus’ disciples, named Jacob, a ‘man of Kerr Sekanya,’ reputed as working miraculous cures in the name of his Master. It is said, that at a later period the Rabbi suffered grievous persecution, in punishment for the delight he had taken in a comment on a certain passage of Scripture, which Jacob attributed to his Master. It need scarcely be said, that the whole story is a fabrication; indeed, the supposed Christian interpretation is not even fit to be reproduced; and we only mention the circumstance as indicating the contrast between what Talmudism would have delighted in hearing from its Messiah, and what Jesus spoke.
But there are points of view which may be gained from Rabbinic writings, helpful to the understanding of the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ although not of its spirit. Some of these may here be mentioned. Thus, when we read that not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law, it is painfully interesting to find in the Talmud the following quotation and mistranslation of Mat_5:17 : ‘I have come not to diminish from the Law of Moses, nor yet have I come to add to the Law of Moses.’ But the Talmud here significantly omits the addition made by Christ, on which all depends: ‘till all be fulfilled.’ Jewish tradition mentions this very letter yod as irremovable, adding, that if all men in the world were gathered together to abolish the least letter in the Law, they would not succeed. Not a letter could be removed from the Law – a saying illustrated by this curious conceit, that the yod which was taken by God out of the name of Sarah (Sarai), was added to that of Hoshea, making him Joshua (Jehoshua). Similarly, the guilt of changing those little hooks (‘tittles’) which make the distinction between such Hebrew letters as
ד and ר
ה and ח
ב and כ
is declared so great, that, if such were done, the world would be destroyed. Again the thought about the danger of those who broke the least commandment is so frequently expressed in Jewish writings, as scarcely to need special quotation. Only, there it is put on the ground, that we know not what reward may attach to one or another commandment. The expression ‘they of old,’ quite corresponds to the Rabbinic appeal to those that had preceded, the zeqenim or rishonim. In regard to Mat_5:22, we remember that the term ‘brother’ applied only to Jews, while the Rabbis used to designate the ignorant – or those who did not believe such exaggerations, as that in the future God would build up the gates of Jerusalem with gems thirty cubits high and broad – as reyqa, with this additional remark, that on one occasion the look of a Rabbi had immediately turned the unbeliever into a heap of bones!
Again, the opprobrious term ‘fool’ was by no means of uncommon occurrence among the sages; and yet they themselves state, that to give an opprobrious by-name, or to put another openly to shame, was one of the three things which deserved Gehenna. To Mat_5:26 the following is an instructive parallel:’ ‘To one who had defrauded the custom-house, it was said: “Pay the duty.” He said to them “Take all that I have with me.” But the tax-gatherer answered him, “Thinkest thou, we ask only this one payment of duty? Nay, rather, that duty be paid for all the times in which according to thy wont, thou hast defrauded the custom-house.”’ The mode of swearing mentioned in Mat_5:35 was very frequently adopted, in order to avoid pronouncing the Divine Name. Accordingly, they swore by the Covenant, by the Service of the Temple, or by the Temple. But perhaps the usual mode of swearing, which is attributed even to the Almighty, is ‘By thy life’ (חייך). Lastly, as regards our Lord’s admonition, it is mentioned as characteristic of the pious, that their ‘yea is yea,’ and their ‘nay nay.’
Passing to Mt 6, we remember, in regard to Mat_6:2, that the boxes for charitable contributions in the Temple were trumpet-shaped, and we can understand the figurative allusion of Christ to demonstrative piety. The parallelisms in the language of the Lord’s Prayer – at least so far as the wording, not the spirit, is concerned, – have been frequently shown. If the closing doxology, ‘Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory,’ were genuine, it would correspond to the common Jewish ascription, from which, in all probability, it has been derived. In regard to Mat_6:14 and Mat_6:15, although there are many Jewish parallels concerning the need of forgiving those that have offended us, or else asking forgiveness, we know what meaning Rabbinism attached to the forgiveness of sins. Similarly, it is scarcely necessary to discuss the Jewish views concerning fasting. In regard to Mat_6:25 and Mat_6:34, we may remark this exact parallel: ‘Every one who has a loaf in his basket, and says, What shall I eat to-morrow? is one of little faith.’ But Christianity goes further than this. While the Rabbinic saying only forbids care when there is bread in the basket, our Lord would banish anxious care even if there were no bread in the basket. The expression in Mat_6:34 seems to be a Rabbinic proverb. Thus, we read: ‘Care not for the morrow, for ye know not what a day may bring forth. Perhaps he may not be on the morrow, and so have cared for a world that does not exist for him.’ Only here, also, we mark that Christ significantly says not as the Rabbis, but, ‘the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.’
In Mat_7:2, the saying about having it measured to us with the same measure that we mete, occurs in precisely true same manner in the Talmud, and, indeed, seems to have been a proverbial expression. The illustration in Mat_7:3 and Mat_7:4, about the mote and the beam, appears thus in Rabbinic literature: ‘I wonder if there is any one in this generation who would take reproof. If one said, Take the mote out of thine eye, he would answer, Take the beam from out thine own eye.’ On which the additional question is raised, whether any one in that generation were capable of reproving. As it also occurs with only trifling variations in other passages, we conclude that this also was a proverbial expression. The same may be said of gathering ‘grapes of thorns.’ Similarly, the designation of ‘pearls’ (Mat_7:6) for the valuable sayings of sages is common. To Mat_7:11 there is a realistic parallel, when it is related, that at a certain fast, on account of drought, a Rabbi admonished the people to good deeds, on which a man gave money to the woman from whom he had been divorced, because she was in want. This deed was made a plea in prayer by the Rabbi, that if such a man cared for his wife who no more belonged to him, how much more should the Almighty care for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Upon this, it is added, the rain descended plentifully. If difference, and even contrast of spirit, together with similarity of form, were to be further pointed out, we should find it in connection with Mat_7:14, which speaks of the fewness of those saved, and also Mat_7:26, which refers to the absolute need of doing, as evidence of sonship. We compare with this what the Talmud says of Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai, whose worthiness was so great, that during his whole lifetime no rainbow was needed to ensure immunity from a flood, and whose power was such that he could say to a valley: Be filled with gold dinars. The same Rabbi was wont to say: ‘I have seen the children of the world to come, and they are few. If there are three, I and my son are of their number; if they are two, I and my son are they.’ After such expression of boastful self-righteousness, so opposed to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, of which it is supposed to be the parallel, we scarcely wonder to read that, if Abraham had redeemed all generations to that of Rabbi Simon, the latter claimed to redeem by his own merits all that followed to the end of the world – nay, that if Abraham were reluctant, he (Simon) would take Ahijah the Shilonite with him, and reconcile the whole world! Yet we are asked by some to see in such Rabbinic passages parallels to the sublime teaching of Christ!
The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ closes with a parabolic illustration, which in similar form occurs in Rabbinic writings. Thus, the man whose wisdom exceeds his works is compared to a tree whose branches are many, but its roots few, and which is thus easily upturned by the wind; while he whose works exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree, whose branches are few, and its roots many, against which all the winds in the world would strive in vain. A still more close parallel is that in which the man who has good works, and learns much in the Law, is likened to one, who in building his house lays stones first, and on them bricks, so that when the flood cometh the house is not destroyed; while he who has not good work, yet busies himself much with the Law, is like one who puts bricks below, and stones above which are swept away by the waters. Or else the former is like one who puts mortar between the bricks, fastening them one to the other; and the other to one who merely puts mortar outside, which the rain dissolves and washes away.
The above comparisons of Rabbinic sayings with those of our Lord lay no claim to completeness. They will, however, suffice to explain and amply to vindicate the account of the impression left on the hearers of Jesus. But what, even more than all else, must have filled them with wonderment and awe was, that He Who so taught also claimed to be the God-appointed final Judge of all, whose fate would be decided not merely by professed discipleship, but by their real relation to Him (Mat_7:21-23). And so we can understand it, that, alike in regard to what He taught and what He claimed. ‘The people were astonished at His doctrine: for He taught them as One having authority – and not as the Scribes.’