In both Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s, Jesus delivers a wide-ranging sermon near the beginning of his ministry. Matthew’s account, lengthier and better known, is called the Sermon on the Mount, since Jesus delivered it from an elevated point in rural Galilee. Scholars note Matthew’s careful portrayal of Jesus as a teacher with an extensive knowledge of Israel’s wisdom literature. Jesus was a rabbi who had made Israel’s traditions his own and who could instruct with confidence the crowds who had gathered along with his disciples.
‘No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.’ (Lk 6:40)
What beam must you remove from your eye?
What fruits do you produce?
What attitudes fill your heart and speech?
In Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” by contrast, Jesus gathers with his closest disciples in a meadow or field near Capernaum. He instructs them like a Greek philosopher initiating his inmost circle into the world’s mysteries. Elements from the Sermon on the Plain appear in each of the other Gospels, but only Luke brings them together into a unified statement of teaching. Unlike Matthew, who portrayed Jesus as a rabbi, Luke uses this sermon to depict Jesus as a philosopher-prophet. Such a character would be especially appealing to the Hellenized Jews who many scholars believe composed Luke’s audience.
Luke uses philosophical idioms throughout his sermon. An obvious example appears in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, which appear just before today’s Gospel passage. In addition to declaring “happy” the poor, hungry, weeping and hated, Luke includes a series of parallel “woes.” Such pairing of opposites was a common rhetorical trope in the Stoic and Cynic philosophy of Luke’s day. The use of such a trope primed Luke’s audience to attend to Jesus’ words as the teaching of a sage.
Luke structures the account in this Sunday’s Gospel passage around two proverbs, which he calls “parables.” The first, “Can a blind person guide a blind person?” encourages self-scrutiny, a practice highly valued among Greek thinkers. Jesus is especially severe with the disciples. If they learn well, they will become like him; but if they fall prey to self-deception, they will fail and drag others down too.
In the second proverb, “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit,” Jesus reminds his followers of the dangers of hypocrisy. The word hypocrite originally came from the language of the theater and referred to an actor skilled in mimicry. A hypocritical disciple can say all the right words and can even perform certain highly visible actions, but only those with true commitment and perseverance will live according to the Gospel. The pattern of their consistent deeds will reveal the nature of their inner character.
This philosophical program has a prophetic purpose. Unlike Greek philosophers, who might have grounded their teaching in first principles or in appeals to pure reason, Jesus offers God’s own example as a model for transformation and character. In this, Jesus reveals the roots of his teaching in the traditions of Israel. It is not enough for his disciples to believe that God loves them or that God has acted to save them; their own behavior must reveal the God of saving love as the model for every deed.