Preaching with Luther on the Sermon on the Mount 



Preaching with Luther on the Sermon on the Mount in February Introduction


All four gospel lessons in February are taken from the 5th chapter of Matthew, the first section of the Sermon on the Mount. In his 1532Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (LW 21: 1-294) Luther saw that the Matthean text is instruction for all disciples, that all the baptized are called and equipped for following Jesus i.e. not just clergy or cloistered monks or nuns.  His focus, hence, is on how to live the Christian life in the world, already now, as life before God (coram Deo), that is, in the presence of Jesus' Father in heaven who knows in secret and sees in secret (Matthew 6: 4, 6, 18), who does not judge superficially by outward appearances but knows and judges the heart. Exegetically, Luther grasped that the Sermon on the Mount is about Jesus' proclamation of His heavenly Father (e.g., Matthew 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 9; 7:11, 21) as the foundation of the new obedience of the followers of Jesus. To this focus on new life before God corresponds Luther's elevation of "conscience" as the human dimension of life in which believers are to relate to God. In distinction from this conscientious relation to God, Luther has another term for describing the set of relationships that constitute being in the world, "before humanity" (coram hominibus, coram mundo).


The distinction between these relationships is of crucial importance since the Sermon on the Mount, following the First Commandment, demands that disciples seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, trusting that worldly needs will be provided (Matthew 6:33). The distinction accordingly forbids giving conscience to any worldly authority; it requires instead the difficult task of a discerning cooperation (or non-cooperation) with worldly authorities in a conscience wholly and solely owed to God (so Luther correlates the Sermon on the Mount with Romans 13: 5). As Luther's treatise, The Freedom of the Christian, explains: "A Christian is a free lord subject to none; a Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all." Before God, the believer is a beloved child by grace in faith and thus fearlessly subject in conscience to nothing else in the world; before others, she is a humble servant in love and hope. In a nutshell, the Christian is responsible to God for her world.


We do not, then, have a general ethic. The Sermon on the Mount is instruction in discipleship: "Christ is addressing His sermon only to the His Christians and seeking to teach them the kind of people they should be, in contrast to the carnal ideas and thoughts that still clung to the apostles. They imagined that He would institute a new realm and empire and set them up to rule as lords and to conquer their enemies and the wicked world. Thus flesh and blood has always expected to find its own dominion, honor and advantage in the Gospel, and an escape from all suffering" (LW 21: 107; the entire section commenting on Matthew 5: 38-42 in LW 21: 105-15 lays out Luther's distinction between relationships coram Deo and coram mundo).


Ernst Troeltsch attacked Luther's distinction for bifurcating Christian ethics into a dualism of private and public moralities that, he claimed, deprived the Sermon on the Mount of its radical demand for social transformation. Following Luther's lead, Lutherans had taught for centuries that the same self-giving love that turns one's own cheek to the offender in personal existence in public existence (say, as a police officer or a soldier) places one's body between an aggressor and its victim in defense of the latter. Critics like Troeltsch argued that this distinction amounts to Christian passivity before the legalized injustice of criminal law or unjust warfare. Whatever Lutherans historically taught, as we shall now see, this criticism hardly corresponds to exposition of the Sermon on the Mount that Luther actually made.


February 2, 2014, Lectionary 4: Matthew 5: 1-12

Luther exposits the beatitudes as the "fruits of the Spirit;" he does this by providing the foundation of Christian life in what God has already done for us in Christ and applied to us by the Spirit in baptism. "There is nothing that you have to do or give for it, except that if you want to be a child of God, you must also show yourself to be one and do your Father's works toward your neighbor. This is what Christ, our Lord, has done for us by reconciling us to the Father, bringing us into His favor, daily representing us, and interceding on our behalf..." (LW 21:43). Notably then, the works of neighbor love are in the first place the Father's work, manifest in Christ His Son and enabled by the same Spirit that led Christ from the waters of His baptism into battle for us with sin, death and the power of the devil.


Thus Luther's treatment of the Beatitudes aims at the final blessing of those who suffer for righteousness' sake: "So far we have been treating almost all the elements of a Christian's way of life and the spiritual fruits under these two headings: first, that in his own person he is poor, troubled, miserable, needy, and hungry [that is, before God]; second, that in relation to others he is a useful, kind, merciful, and peaceable man, who does nothing but good works.. Now He adds the last: how he fares in all this. Although he is full of good works, even toward his enemies and rascals, for all this he must get this reward from the world: he is persecuted and runs the risk of losing his body, his life, and everything..." (LW 21:45).


Because the "holy cross" is sure to follow disciples of Jesus, Luther therefore admonishes contemporaries to secure a good conscience before God so that they can be resolved in the world and persevere in their callings in the thick of adversity. "See to it, therefore, that you have a genuine divine cause for whose sake you suffer persecution, and that you are really convinced of it so that your conscience can take a stand and stick by it, even though the whole world should stand up against you. The primary thing is that you grasp the Word of God firmly and surely so that there can be no doubt or hesitation there. Suppose that the Emperor, the bishops, or the princes were to forbid marriage, freedom in the choice of food, the use of both kinds in the Sacrament, and the like, and were to persecute you for these things. Then you would have to see to it that your heart is convinced and persuaded that the Word of God...Then you can have the confidence to say: "This cause does not belong to me but to Christ, my Lord. For I have not concocted it out of my own head. I have not assumed or begun it on my own or at the advice or suggestion of any man. But it has been brought and announced to me from heaven through the mouth of Christ, who never deludes or deceives me but is Himself sheer Truth and Righteousness... Who cares if a crazy prince or foolish emperor fumes in his rage and threatens me with sword, fire, or the gallows! Just as long as my Christ is talking dearly to my heart, comforting me with the promises that I am blessed, that I am right with God in heaven, and that all the heavenly host and creation call me blessed. Just let my heart and mind be ready to suffer for the sake of His Word and work. Then why should I let myself be scared by these miserable people, who rage and foam in their hostility to God but suddenly disappear like a puff of smoke or a bubble, as the prophet Isaiah says (Is. 51:12, 13)." (21:47).


In this light, one should reject the notion expressed in the "Ideas for the Day" in Sundays and Seasons, "Although all metaphors and images are imperfect, balancing familiar and unfamiliar, male and female images can enrich our spiritual imagination and our corporate worship" (p. 96). Jesus' proclamation of His heavenly Father in the Sermon on the Mount is not one metaphor or image of the unknowable divine along sides others equally true and equally false, hence to be balanced according to our wisdom for our "enrichment" and "spiritual imagination." In Matthew's text, the Jesus who speaks is Immanuel, the Son of God incarnate, who is inviting disciples as beloved children into His own relationship to the God of Israel, whom He addresses as Abba, Father, and whose difference from all familiar fathers is indicated by the adjective, "heavenly," and displayed by the gospel narrative of the incarnate Son's life. Ideas and images should be derived from the exegesis of the Biblical text, not imposed upon it out of extraneous considerations. This "spiritual imagination" is, or easily becomes, what Luther and the Lutheran Confession decisively rejected as "enthusiasm" (see the Smalcald Articles, in The Book of Concord, Kolb  & Wengert, pp. 322-3).



February 9, 2014 Lectionary 5: Matthew 5: 13-20

Following up on last's Sunday's commentary on fortifying conscience in the Word of God to take principled stands of responsibility in the world, Luther comments as follows on the "salt of the earth" passage from today's gospel lesson. "The world could tolerate it if we proclaimed Christ and all the articles of faith correctly." In other words, mere orthodoxy is salt that has lost its savor when the conflict is inaugurates with the world is not discerned and attested. "But if we want to seize it and salt it by showing that [the world's] wisdom and sanctity are worthless, indeed, blind and damned, this it cannot and will not tolerate. It accuses the preachers of doing nothing but criticizing and biting, of causing revolutions and discord, and of maligning the clergy and good works. But what can we do? Salting has to bite. Although they criticize us as biters, we know that this is how it has to be and that Christ has commanded the salt to be sharp and continually caustic, as we shall hear. St. Paul is always rebuking the whole world and criticizing everything it praises and does without faith in Christ. And Christ says (John 16:8): "When the Holy Spirit comes, He will convince the world." That is to say: "He will attack everything He finds in the world, without exception or discrimination. He will not rebuke some and praise others, or punish only the thieves and criminals. He will throw everything on one pile, one with another-great, small, pious, wise, holy, or whatever-in short, everything that is not Christ." There is need for the Holy Spirit to come and to send preachers into the world, to uncover and to punish, not the outwardly gross sins like adultery and murder, which the world can know and punish by itself, but the things it regards as the most precious and its highest asset, the claim to piety, holiness, and the service of God. So it is a mistake when some wiseacres maintain now that it is enough for a preacher to tell everyone what is right and simply to preach the Gospel, but not to touch the pope, the bishops, the princes, and other stations or persons, since this causes unrest and discord" (LW 21:55-56).


So Luther is hardly guilty, as Troeltch charged, of inculcating Christian passivity before the world, though Lutheranism may very well be guilty of retreating from Luther's total critique of this world for the sake of proclaiming the total remedy in Christ alone of the coming reign of His heavenly Father. Sundays and Seasons does well in this light to lift up the serious prophetic question and diagnostic instrument, cui bono, that is, "who benefits?" (p. 99). Unfortunately, it falls short in suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount is about "mastering the rules" in personal self-discipline so that one can go on to accomplish greater things. That is but the natural wisdom of the athlete who trains, or of the student who does her homework, or of entrepreneur who defers gratification for the sake of a greater, future reward. Luther sees better. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount radicalizes the prophetic preaching of the law by already now placing disciples before the heavenly Father who sees in secret, a place that both reveals the impotence of fallen humanity to know and do the will of God but also gives to repentance and faith in Jesus the new creation of beloved daughters and sons of God who from the heart now seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.


February 16 Lectionary 6: Matthew 5: 21-37

 Ironically enough, Troeltsch also missed the mark in another respect, the one that is ostensibly central to his own concern for social justice. Consider how Luther reasons regarding the social context of living out the Sermon on the Mount in making daily life in the world, rather than religious flight from it, the place of discipleship. "For we are not made for fleeing human company, but for living in society and sharing good and evil. As human beings we must help one another to bear all kinds of human misfortune and the curse that has come upon us. We must be ready to live among wicked people, and there everyone must be ready to prove his holiness instead of becoming impatient and running away. On earth we have to live amid thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:18), in a situation full of temptation, hostility, and misfortune. Hence it does not help you at all to run away from other people, for within you are still carrying the same old scoundrel, the lust and evil appetite that clings to your flesh and blood. Even if you are all alone, with the door locked, you still cannot deny your father and mother; nor can you discard your flesh and blood and leave them on the ground. You have no call to pick up your feet and run away, but to stay put, to stand and battle against every kind of temptation like a knight, and with patience to see it through and to triumph" (LW 21:86-87). Even though already now disciples, by union with Jesus in repentance and faith, live in Him before the heavenly Father, they remain bound by their bodies to the common body still captive and groaning under structures of malice and injustice.


Hence it is a real distortion to claim that Luther, in wanting to focus on the paradox of the Already's presence in the Not Yet, restricts the Sermon on the Mount to private existence. Rather, for Luther, personal existence is social and, as some contemporary feminists claim, "the personal is the political." In this light, consider Luther's meditation on the words of today's gospel.


"Christ is a real Teacher, therefore. He does not teach you to run away from people, nor to move away, but to get hold of yourself and to discard the eye or the hand that offends you, that is, to get rid of the cause of your sin, the evil appetite and lust that clings to you and proceeds from your own heart (Matt. 15:19). Once you are rid of this, it is easy to be in human society and to enjoy human company without sinning. Hence He says clearly, as we have heard: "If you look at a woman lustfully, you have committed adultery with her in your heart." He does not forbid looking at her; for He is talking to people who have to live in human society in the world, as the preaching in this chapter, both before and after, amply demonstrates. But He does want us to distinguish between looking and lusting. You may look at any woman or man, only be sure that you do not lust. That is why God has ordained for every person to have his own wife or husband, to control and channel his lust and his appetites. If you do not go any further than this, He approves it, He even pronounces His blessing upon it, and He is pleased with it as His ordinance and creature. But if you do go further, if you refuse to be content with what God has given you for your desires, and if you leer at others, you have already gone too far and have confused the two, so that your looking is corrupted by your lusting." Indeed, yes, then. For Luther, "the personal is the political." The reduction of others to sexual objects commoditizes them for self-gratification by power and privilege - the root sin in the pornography and prostitution trafficking in which we today are awash. Innocent as sexual pleasure is in and of itself, in this world it is always bound up with sinful contests for power and exploitative markets.


It is striking and impressive that this 16th century male interpreter takes sexual lust, not as if taking pleasure were sinful, but rather as sexual greed. "When a man does not look at his wife, on the basis of the Word of God, as the one whom God gives him and whom He blesses, and when instead he turns his gaze to another woman, this is the principal cause of adultery, which then is almost inevitable. Soon the heart follows the eyes, bringing on the desire and appetite that I ought to reserve for my wife alone" (LW 21:86-87). To make it abundantly clear that the sin in sexual lust in not sexual pleasure but rather greed, Luther appends the following discussion in his Commentary. "This argument and inquiry has come from some: "Is it sinful for a man and a woman to desire each other for the purpose of marriage?" This is ridiculous, a question that contradicts both Scripture and nature. Why would people get married if they did not have desire and love for each other? Indeed, that is just why God has given this eager desire to bride and bridegroom, for otherwise everybody would flee from marriage and avoid it. In Scripture, therefore, He also commanded man and woman to love each other, and He shows that the sexual union of husband and wife is also most pleasing to Him. Hence this desire and love must not be absent, for it is a good fortune and a great pleasure, if only it continues as long as possible" (LW 21:89).


In this light, by no means unfriendly to the best concerns of contemporary feminists, I must register another objection to the theologically thoughtless speculation in Sundays and Seasons of image on the nursing mother: "As nursing mothers know, both the infant and the mother need the times of feeding. It is as if God needs to give us the milk we need" (p. 102). There is nothing wrong with creatures being needy, for we are not gods, but creatures that truly do need one other. But a needy God fast becomes a greedy God, who needs others to fulfill Herself. To project this creaturely relationship of need onto God is not only naive idolatry but disastrous for understanding why Christianity can and does  with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount proclaim the almighty heavenly Father as savior out of pure grace and gift, not out of God's own neediness. The proper interpretation of the maternal metaphor of nursing does not go off on speculative flights like this one recommended in Sundays and Seasons. It interprets the image according to the analogy of faith, that is, by Scripture. The image thus indicates Jesus the Bread of Life, not my leaking breasts. It tells of God's superabundant love, that creatures have life, and have it abundantly, in the intimacy of the Eucharist, foretaste of the feast to come.


February 23 Lectionary 7: Matthew 5: 38-48

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus' proclamation of the heavenly Father as already now the God before whom disciples live. So Luther: "With this teaching and these examples Christ now concludes this chapter: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." For Luther the "perfection" consists in the new relationship, not in the worldly achievement or success; indeed, since discipleship locates us in the still fallen world where we must bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), perfection grows in grace and mercy.


So Luther comments: "Here our sophists have spun out many dreams about perfection and have applied them all to their orders and classes-as if only priests and monks were in a state of perfection, the one higher than the other, the bishops higher than all the others, and the pope the highest of all. By this means the word "perfection" becomes completely inapplicable to the ordinary Christian way of life, as if such people could not be called perfect or be perfect... How does it come about that they are perfect...? We cannot be or become perfect in the sense that we do not have any sin, the way they dream about perfection. Here and everywhere in Scripture "to be perfect" means, in the first place, that doctrine be completely correct and perfect, and then, that life move and be regulated according to it. Here, for example, the doctrine is that we should love not only those who do us good, but our enemies, too. Now, whoever teaches this and lives according to this teaching, teaches and lives perfectly... [If we loved only friends and hated enemies] love is chopped up and divided, it is only half a love. What He wants is an entire, whole, and undivided love, where one loves and helps his enemy as well as his friend. So I am called a truly perfect man, one who has and holds the doctrine in its entirety. Now, if my life does not measure up to this in every detail-as indeed it cannot, since flesh and blood incessantly hold it back-that does not detract from the perfection." The perfection is the teaching of the heavenly Father and faith that as those enemies beloved by God in Christ (cf. Romans 5: 6-11), we begin also to love our enemies and make progress from this beginning from baptism day to resurrection day.


So Luther's simul iustus et peccator is meant dynamically, as marching order. "Only we must keep striving for it, and moving and progressing toward it every day. This happens when the spirit is master over the flesh, holding it in cheek, subduing and restraining it, in order not to give it room to act contrary to this teaching. It happens when I let love move along on the true middle course, treating everyone alike and excluding no one. Then I have true Christian perfection, which is not restricted to special offices or stations, but is common to all Christians, and should be. It forms and fashions itself according to the example of the heavenly Father. He does not split or chop up His love and kindness, but by means of the sun and the rain He lets all men on earth enjoy them alike, none excluded, be he pious or wicked" (LW 21:128-129).


                The grounds for the new life in Christ, established in the life's obedience that Christ Himself enacted once and for all, is the superabundant love of the heavenly Father, whose love for all creatures is whole and undivided. Theologically, this is common ground between the Lutheran tradition and the later Anabaptists who followed Menno Simmons rather than Thomas Müntzer. Thus the recommendation to become acquainted with the historic peace churches in Sundays and Seasons (p. 105) is cogent and worthy of action. A good place to start is the report of the international Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue, leading to repentance and reconciliation at the 2010 assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Stuttgart, available online at <