The Sermon on the Mount
Theosophical Quarterly, October, 1906
In studying the Teachings of Jesus, we shall do well ever to bear in mind his words to his disciples: “It is given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given . . . therefore speak I to them in parables.”1 And in fact we find this very division running through all the Teachings: on the one hand, the Parables, and chiefly the Parables of the Kingdom, for the multitude; on the other, the direct teaching to disciples. This direct teaching is given most fully in two great discourses: the Sermon on the Mount, at the outset of the ministry; and the Discourse of the Last Supper, recorded by the beloved disciple, on the eve of the Crucifixion.
The Sermon on the Mount is, therefore, the first teaching to disciples. We shall do well to consider its exact position, at the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew. Levi, the toll-gatherer, also called Matthew, belonged to the town of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Galilean lake, into and out of which flows the stream of the Jordan. In that region about the lake the early events recorded by Matthew are placed. Passing directly from the birth of Jesus to the mystical and symbolical baptism by John, Matthew then records the not less mystical threefold Trial in the Wilderness. After this, Jesus took up his abode at Capernaum, Matthew’s own town, and most of the disciples were drawn from the immediate neighborhood, among them being Matthew himself. From this point, Matthew is a first-hand witness of what he records. He tells us that, in this early time, the Master went through the region around the lake, teaching in the synagogues, preaching “the gospel of the Kingdom,” and healing all manner of disease. The result was, that his fame went throughout all Syria, and that great crowds of people went about after him, as he passed from town to town.
On a certain occasion, to escape from the multitude, he went, as was his wont, to one of the mountains beside the lake, and ascended to a solitary spot, far away from the throng. Thither also came the recently called disciples, and there the teaching was given to them, which is therefore called the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon is divided into three parts. The first part is concerned with the nature of discipleship. Jesus stated the law of discipleship many times. Thus we find him saying: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoso doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”2 Matthew himself gives a slightly different phrasing: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”3
The first step for the disciple is, therefore, the renunciation of the personal life, personal ambition, personal desires, personal will, to follow the divine will, to obey the divine law, to live the life of the
divine Self, the Lord. This is symbolized in the formula used in the call of the disciples: “Follow Me!” And only he who has made that renunciation, who has definitely sacrificed the personal to the divine life, following the divine law, has passed from the multitude and become a disciple.
As a disciple, he comes under a new law, belonging no longer to the “kingdom of this world,” but having heart and life in the “kingdom not of this world, the kingdom of heaven.” New conditions apply to him. New experiences await him. A new life opens up before him. New powers become manifest to him.
We have seen Jesus stating the first qualification of the disciple in the phrase so constantly used by him: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” In the Sermon on the Mount, we may take the verses beginning with the word “Blessed,” called the “Beatitudes,” as a fuller statement of the character and quality of discipleship. We may say that four negative and four positive qualities are recorded. As for the negative, the disciple must be “poor in spirit,” renouncing personal self assertion; he must “mourn,” finding nowhere in the visible world what his soul longs for; he must be “meek” and lowly in heart; he must “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” These are the qualities which make up the losing of his life. Then the positive qualities: he must be “merciful,” loving his neighbor as himself, seeing the one divine Life in both; he must be “pure in heart,” desiring only the Eternal; he must be a “peacemaker,” bringing about the great reconciliation between man and the Divine, between man and his brother. In “keeping his life unto life eternal,” in coming to himself in the new divine life, these new qualities blossom forth in him, not so much as virtues, but rather as the unfolding of his immortal Self.
Then the Master passes on to the next theme: the position of the disciple in the world. The disciple is “the salt of the earth;” he is “the light of the world;” visible representative, in this world, of the Divine and Eternal. He stands for spiritual law, and from his very being and life radiates something of that law. And to such the Master says: “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” A perfect expression of the selfless life of the disciple; it is not he that must shine before men, but the light; it is not he that must be seen, but the good works; it is not he that shall be glorified, but the Father which is in heaven, the Most High, the Eternal.
Does obedience to this divine Law absolve the disciple from following the laws of men? May he plead that, once on the Path, nothing is for him any longer commanded or forbidden? The Master answers: “I come not to destroy but to fulfil. . . . Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments . . . shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Moreover, the disciple must fulfil the law with a faithfulness, a scrupulous exactitude, far beyond the fidelity of the men of the world. The disciple must learn respect for law and obedience to law, as typifying the subjection of the lower nature to the higher; an obedience which must first be practised in the heart, and then outwardly expressed in thought and act. Except the righteousness of the disciple exceed the righteousness of the man of the world, he shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.
This thought of law is then taken up and followed. Representative commands from the law: three of the Ten Commandments, and certain of the texts which follow them, are then taken; and the Master shows in what way the disciple must fulfil the law. In every case, the principle is the same. Taking the materialistic command of the law, the Teacher shows its spiritual lining, the principle of the Law which underlies the law. There is the command: “Thou shalt not kill!” It means far more for the disciple than to refrain from slaying the body. It goes deep into the mystery of the soul, to that supreme law of the Oneness of all beings, whose manifestation is perfect love. Two most eloquent illustrations are added: “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Then, that there may be no pretext for the excuse that we are indeed to be reconciled to our brothers, but may still remain in hostility toward our enemies, the Teacher once more speaks: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.” Here again we see, what we see everywhere throughout the teaching of the Master, the stern condemnation of unbrotherliness, of the sense of separateness from others, which was the spirit of the Pharisee, the “man of separateness.” Unity of heart is a quality without which there can be no discipleship.
Then passing from the root of hate to the root of lust, the Master takes the commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and shows that the heart must be pure, not the act only. Unclean desire is sin already; the impure heart can never hold the light of the Eternal. Lust and desire are a deformation of the longing for joy, that joy which is the very essence of the Soul. Those who find the Soul find joy, and can no longer seek its false image. Therefore, he who seeks the Soul must cleanse the desires that dwell in the heart, and become altogther pure.
The Master touches on marriage. The Mosaic law gave the husband a right to put away his wife for various causes, almost at his pleasure; though no such right of separation was given to the wife. This, says the Master, was because of hardness of heart; therefore the true principle of marriage is gentleness of heart, that very unity and love so perpetually insisted on throughout the teaching.
Then comes a piece of Oriental imagery, concerning unclean desire and hate: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out. . . . If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” Here the offending eye is the symbol of lust; the offending hand is the symbol of the hate that strikes and the greed that grasps. If, therefore, the disciple is made to stumble by the barriers of lust and hate, let him cut these things out of his heart, as the husbandman cuts away the unfruitful branch of the vine, casting it into the fire.
A third commandment is then quoted, though not verbally; that which we are wont to translate: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain:” that is, thou shalt not take the name of God to witness a false oath, or, as Jesus paraphrases: “Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths.” On this, the Master comments, with that matchless eloquence which makes him one of the greatest poets: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is His footstool!”
Then we come to those principles of the law of retaliation: An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; which form the basis of all ruder codes. To the disciple, the Master says: Seek not to retaliate; “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.” Here many deep principles are involved. The Oriental disciple, believing in the law of Karma: “whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap,” will hold firmly the thought that whatever blow he suffers, was struck by himself; that whatever is torn from him, is taken by himself; pains suffered are but the return of pains inflicted on others. He will see in the blow, in the loss, a merited punishment; nay more, a debt paid, an account closed. But there is more in the matter than this. The disciple seeks above all things to rid his heart of the great evil and delusion of separateness; to lose his life, that selfish, separate life which he has called himself; to lose this, that he may find the Eternal. Therefore he who strikes the blow is not to be thought of as other than himself. He cannot separate himself from the unclean or evil man. The world’s sin and shame are his sin and shame. The seed of all evil is this delusion of separateness: separateness from the Eternal; separateness from our other selves; and whatever gives the opportunity to pierce this delusion is eminent gain.
Many times it has been said that this rule, if put in force, would disrupt society; that it is not to be taken literally, not to be carried out. But let us recall our first principle of criticism: that the Sermon on the Mount is given to disciples not to the multitude, and we shall be freed from this confusion. It is enjoined only on disciples, who have lost their lives, that they may keep them to life eternal; and disciples will be able to keep the rule without causing the least disruption of society; nay, as “the salt of the earth,” they are preservative of whatever is pure, holy and of good report in the life of society. When disciples come to be the majority, so that the rule is widely kept, it will be time for society to be transformed into a brotherhood not of this world, eternal in the heavens.
Then comes a final comment on the old law, closing the first part of the Sermon by the enunciation of the Law: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you . . . that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. . . . Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
The closing words of the first part of the Sermon bring the disciple to the intuitive vision of “the Father which is in Heaven:” the divine Life in the inner world, which begins to be revealed to his inner being after he has made the renunciation of personal desires, losing his life that he may keep it to life eternal.
The second part of the Sermon dwells on this thought: the inwardly revealed divine Life, which dwells with the inner being of the disciple, gradually drawing that inner being into oneness with the Eternal; gradually instilling into the inner life of the disciple the holiness and wisdom and power of the Eternal, with all gentle charity to others.
Having lost his life, the disciple begins to find it, in that new spiritual world called by the Master: “the realm of the heavens.” The disciple gradually perceives that this newly opened spiritual world is, as it were, the lining of the visible world; that it is, as it were, the deep ocean of Life, whereon float the foam and bubbles of this visible world. And gradually, from the inner presence of the divine Life, he grows into a new law, new powers, a new consciousness, which carries the intuition of immortal life.
Thereafter the life of the disciple is, as it were, a spiritual intercourse with that divine Life; an interchange carried on incessantly between his inner being and the inwardly revealed Eternal; and the laws of that interchange are now declared by the Master, in the second part of the Sermon.
First concerning alms. The gifts of charity must be given from real love, never from vanity. They must come like the gifts of the Father, who sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. Let not the right hand know what the left hand doeth. Let the gift be secret, “and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Then concerning prayer, as exemplified in “the Master’s Prayer.” It must be an inward drawing near to the divine Life newly revealed to the inner being of the disciple, an entering into that divine Life, the heart and thought of the disciple becoming one with that divine Life, so that he thinks the thoughts and wills the will of the Eternal, entering into the Eternal as the Eternal enters into him. Thereafter he will seek to do the will of the Eternal, in the outward life of the world, as perfectly as that will is carried out in the divine inner world. And, seeing that the Eternal rules immediately in every moment, he will trust to the Eternal the daily governance of his life, the daily bread of duties and sustenance. Becoming at one with the Eternal, reconciled with the Eternal, he will be ready for reconciliation with all others, forgiving his debtors as his debts are forgiven. It may well be that the next petition should be rendered thus: “”Lead us through our trial, and deliver us from evil,” for the whole life of the disciple is a trial, only to be overcome by divine leading. Then the final invocation: “For thine are the realm, the might and the radiance, to everlasting!”
Concerning fasting, the same rule as for alms and prayer. Abstinence must be the pure offering of the inner being to the inwardly revealed Eternal, and never a matter of vanity, for the self-satisfaction of the personal life: “and thy Father who seeth in the hidden, shall reward thee in the manifest.” As all through this division of the Sermon, the disciple is brought back to the intuition of “the Father who seeth in secret,” the wonderful divine Consciousness and Life which approaches his inner being, in the newly revealed inner world.
Gradually, as the disciple offers up the purest of his thought and will and aspiration and love to that inwardly manifested Life, he will “lay up treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.” For where the treasure is, there will the heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye. The light of the disciple’s life is the spiritual vision of the Eternal, revealed inwardly in the inner world. As his inner life is lit up by that vision, as he receives into himself the splendor of the Eternal, so shall his whole being be full of light. But where the thoughts and desires are set on the things of darkness, the whole life is full of darkness, of misery, of the pain of separation, of the impending menace of death.
Then comes the world-known symbol: the two masters, God and Mammon; a testimony to the eloquence and poetical power of the Master, which has exalted the name of a petty Syrian idol into a universal symbol, just as the Parable of the Good Samaritan turned an obscure tribe name of the Jordan valley into a symbol of universal gentleness. But the antithesis of God and Mammon testifies to more than the Master’s eloquence; it testifies to his profound knowledge of the science of life, based on experience, and to be verified by experience.
We stand between two worlds, able to penetrate both by our consciousness and will. Below us, the world of animal life, of natural forces known through the senses, the world to which we owe our mortal bodies. Above us, the world of divine Life, of spiritual forces known through intuition and inward unveiling, the world which shall bestow on us the life of our immortality. There is no condemnation here of animal life, in its due place and time. The birds of the air, the lilies of the field, are of the Father. Animal life brought us far, and taught us much. But it has its term; and when the hour has struck for us to enter the world of our immortality, we must be ready to pass beyond animal life, to let it fall from us, as the chrysalid husk falls from the winged butterfly. Sin lies, not in animal life, but in the distortion of animal life for self-indulgence, which, to our shame be it said, makes up so great a part of the life we call human. Sin lies not in pure animal reproduction, but in self-indulgent desire, which distorts and corrupts a simple natural power. And so sin lies not in the animal sustenance of the body, the animal preservation of life, but in egotism, vanity, self-assertion, the sense of separateness, which are the psychical distortions of the simple instinct of self-preservation. It is above all this instinct of self-assertion, of separate ambition, of vain self-seeking, which the Master symbolises as Mammon: that very life of personal indulgence which the disciple must lose, before he can find the Life.
But, it will be said, we must all look keenly to our personal well-being, for we are pursued by the wolves of hunger and want and poverty. To this the Master answers, that the disciple’s first concern must be, to render inward obedience to “the Father that seeth in secret;” his first concern is with the soul rather than the body; for the soul is more than the body, as the body is more than its raiment. “Be not in anguish about your life,” says the Master: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
It must never be thought that this command to put away anguish about the morrow is an approval of idleness, unthrift, improvidence; that the multitude are bidden to leave all things to a generous Providence, while they idle and take their ease. As all these rules, this is an injunction to disciples, who are commanded also to fulfil every iota of the law, to render the things of Cæsar unto Cæsar, to kill out ambition; yet to work as those who are ambitious. But in all work, the heart of the disciple must be set, not on the personal reward, but on the inner vision of the divine Life, the Father who seeth in secret, and who knows that he has need of all these things.
This second division of the Sermon is summed up by the eloquent command: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
The third and last division of the Sermon is concerned with injunctions for disciples; each injunction a landmark, a guide-post for a difficult turning of the Way. First of these injunctions stands the great command: “Judge not, that ye be not judged”; and no command is more imperatively laid on the disciple. His great task is to kill out the sense of separateness, that he may become one with the Eternal, one with his brothers. The sting of separateness must be cut out of his life, so that he shall see only Oneness in the Divine. The last element of the self-seeking, vain and selfish personality is to be done away with, in order that there may be revealed in him a life spiritual and universal. And no one tendency more markedly strengthens the sense of separateness than the habit of fault-finding, of judging others uncharitably, of condemning others. The mind is thereby narrowed and embittered; the well-spring of generous kindness is dried up, and every magnanimous and heroic virtue is thwarted. Thus it comes that he who judges others with uncharity generates in himself many defects and infirmities, so that he is verily judged by the law as he has judged, and the measure he meted to others is measured back to him in turn. Therefore we are admonished to seek unity of heart, to love one another; to avoid all criticism, to forgive endlessly, bearing no malice; to seek virtues in each other, not deficiences; and when obvious deficiencies are manifest, to match them with our own, fault for fault. We are to do all in our power to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and fellowship, for “love is the power that moves the world, the only power that moves the spiritual world.”
The next rule for disciples is: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” This rule goes deep into the spiritual world. When the disciple, losing his life that he may keep it to life eternal, is reborn from above, of the spirit and fire, that new life of his grows in the spiritual world, drawing power and sustenance from the divine, and thereby “building the dwelling,” as Paul says; forming that spiritual body to which Paul gives the name: “The new man, the Lord from heaven.” The life of this new spiritual Self rests in the divine Life, and will there grow by degrees to the perfection of “the Father in heaven.” That it may thus grow, there must be as its life-giving spirit, strong aspiration toward the Eternal, an ardent and unceasing longing to go forth to the Eternal, to enter into the fulness of the Eternal. This ardent and unceasing love is the “asking” of this rule, and he who thus asks receives according to the measure of his faith.
Then comes the rule: “Enter in by the narrow gate,” the gate of the Path, the divine way which leads to the Eternal. That gate is narrow and hard to pass, for none may enter who leaves not himself outside the gate. The gate is barred by the sense of separateness, the sharp ambition to pursue one’s own fortunes, not as a duty, but in order that one may be at an advantage as compared with others, enjoying the keen sense of superior wealth, superior wisdom, superior fortune. One may say that the gate is narrow indeed, too narrow to admit any but a little child; one who has regained the lost child state of innocence and reverence and simple faith. Yet though the gate be narrow, it is wide enough for all mankind to pass through, as soon as the great renunciation is made.
To these rules, two warnings are added. The first, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,” would seem to repeat in forceful imagery, the thought quoted at the outset: “to them it is not given to know the mysteries of the kingdom.” The second warning, “Beware of false prophets,” introduces the wise rule, that the tree shall be known by its fruit; every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit, “wherefore by their fruits he shall know them.” Nor must this injunction be held to refer solely to judgment of others; it is not less concerned with the manifold counselors and advocates within ourselves, which would lead us this way and that. These also we may judge by their fruit. Whatever in us brings forth the fruit of the spirit, “love, joy, peace,” is good, a true branch of the vine; but whatever brings forth bitterness, lust, hate, fear, is an evil tree, known by its evil fruit.
It is noteworthy that, among these rules for the disciple, the Golden Rule is given a great place: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? 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 the teaching for disciples, as set forth by the Master in the Sermon on the Mount, and with it we may take the promise recorded in the other version of the same Sermon: “The disciple is not above his Master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his Master.”
It may be asked, if these teachings are for disciples, what provision is made for the multitude? The answer is, that the Path of discipleship is open to all; and the way of entrance is thus set forth by the Master: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
The same thought is embodied in a vivid and powerful image: “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”
1. Matt. XIII, 11.
2. Luke XIV, 26.
3. Matt. X, 37.
4. John XII, 25.