Sunday, June 12, 2011
The Sermon on a Flat Place On the Side of the Mount – SOTM: Part 2
Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? Silly question. Almost as silly, but not quite, as, “Where was the Sermon on the Mount preached?” Matthew’s gospel clearly says that Jesus went up into the mountain where he spoke to his disciples; Luke’s gospel describes him coming down to a “plain” where he preached to them. Who is right, and does it matter?
In some ways it doesn’t matter. Matthew and Luke are presenting their inspired versions of the same event. Matthew was likely present at the event so he should be expected to know a mountain when he is on one. However his preceding description of Jesus’ activities (in chapter 4) is very generalized, apparently not intended to focus on much beside Jesus’ general itinerary, leading up to the sermon itself. At that point Matthew’s account becomes much more specific and voluble in his description of the sermon than Luke’s does. Luke apparently built his gospel from the remembrances of others. There is no evidence that he was an eye-witness to any of the events he describes in his Gospel. However, he introduces the sermon with a more detailed description of the “ordaining” of the twelve than Matthew does. Each man was inspired to draw from his own resources, according to his own interests and perceived purpose, the details he would used to tell his story.
“But,” some object, “didn’t the Holy Spirit inspire both Matthew and Luke?” Yes, I believe he did. “Then,” the argument goes, “they cannot be contradictory.” They may, in fact, not be contradictory; I believe they are not. But even if they were it would not negate the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Two persons can be inspired to write a description of an event – even have it published in a Christian journal – but they may not necessarily describe it the same way. They could even have opposing views of what happened. Inspiration doesn’t guarantee accuracy. If it did there would be no need for four Gospels. One authentic, perfectly dictated record would do. While God inspired the writers of Scripture he obviously did not, except in some rare instances, dictate to them the things they wrote.
A careful reading of both Gospels shows them presenting essentially the same story. Jesus had just recently begun his ministry and large crowds were pressing around him seeking healing and deliverance from satanic powers. Jesus had attracted many, perhaps hundreds, of disciples. He seems to have sensed that it was time to single out those disciples who would be most close to him; whom he could instruct and empower to be the leaders of his church when he was no longer among them. To prepare for the selection of those who would be known as apostles, Jesus went into the mountain and prayed all night. (It is interesting that Jesus, who would choose his apostles by inspiration, knew that he needed the mind of his Father so that he would make the right choices.) In the morning he selected the twelve whom he would call apostles.
After the designation of the apostles, Matthew describes him going (back?) up into the mountain to speak to his disciples. Luke says he went down to a plain to address them. The Greek word Luke uses is topos, a place, not necessarily a vast prairie. If one is to address a large group of people one needs a flat topos where the people can stand or sit and where the speaker can be seen and heard. Both Matthew and Luke are describing Jesus’ search for such a place.
I don’t personally think Matthew and Luke should have to reconcile their differing perspectives, but I can foresee a scenario where both are right. Jesus, perhaps, went into the mountain to pray all night. In the morning he came down and selected apostles. He then led all of his disciples up the mountain seeking a place where they could assemble to hear him preach. Looking back down the mountain he spied a large enough topos for his purposes and he led them down to it. So it was there that he preached the “Sermon on a Flat Place on the Mount.”
Still, knowing what he said there is infinitely more important than knowing the details of the place where he said it. We’ll get to that soon.