Jesus taught that those who wished to follow him must love one another. They should give to the poor and worship God as part of a personal, living relationship. Worship should be done in secret and with a view to seeking and obeying God's will. This is reflected in the demands of MT6:1-18 (concerning almsgiving, prayer and fasting). In this section, Jesus focuses on 3 traditional forms of Jewish piety, and seems to criticise the pharisees' approach. ("So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to be honoured by men" MT6:2).
Jesus said that the path of discipleship was tricky and he warned that there would be trouble ahead through his use of anthithetical parallelisms. These are sayings such as- if the gate is wide and the road is easy then it leads to destruction, however if the gate is narrow and the road is hard, it leads to life.
He used these sayings to suggest that discipleship requires serious commitment- "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a man who builds his house on the rock". (7:24)
The sermon also includes the golden rule "do to others as you would have them do to you" (7:12), which Barclay suggests sums up the entire sermon.
Righteousness is a key term for Matthew- the all embracing notion for the actions, behaviour and disposition of the disciples/ followers of Jesus. It crops up throughout the sermon, for example "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees" (5:20).
What is required by righteousness is summed up in the Beatitudes, the eight sayings that all begin with "Blessed are the...". John Meier describes these as the "happy attitudes" that Jesus is encouraging people to adopt. The quest for righteousness is encapsulated in the beatitudes in verses 5:6 ("Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness..") and 5:10 ("Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake...").
"The righteousness envisaged by Matthew's beatitudes stands for human conduct"- David Catchpole.
Jesus also seems to encorporate those on the margins of society into the folds of salvation. Jesus takes words with negative associations and links them to righteousness. Chrysostom suggests Jesus "declares desirable" exactly what others avoid. Perhaps he is redefining the notion of righteousness.
Despite the call for righteousness and correct moral behaviour there is still a place for forgiveness in Jesus' ethics. The Lost Parables in LK15 emphasise this.
The lord's prayer, found in the Sermon on the mount, also highlight's how God is forgiving and we should be too- "And forgive us our debts as we forgive those who trespass against us" (6:12). Meier notes how debt was a metaphor for sin in Aramaic.
This looks to the need of the followers to be forgiven before the final judgement, which is a Jewish tradition (the rabbis demanded reconciliation before the day of Atonement- Yom Kippur).
E.P. Sanders also commented on the place of forgiveness in Jesus' ethics- "People should be perfect, but God was lenient- and so was Jesus, acting on his behalf" (The Historical Figure of Jesus).
The aim for perfection is most evident in the antitheses (MT 5:21-48). They demand higher standards than ever before, and focus on emotions as well as just actions.
According to Meier, it seems that Jesus is "building a sort of fence around the law", and acting as "decisive arbiter" of its meaning. Perhaps, as W.D. Davies suggested (The Sermon on The Mount), Matthew was creating "a christian answer to Jamnia" here, as the Pharisees recently reformulated Judaism there to exclude the messianic Jews. Perhaps MT intended to make his sect appear even more perfect than the devout Pharisees.
It seems that Jesus emphasises that his followers need to be "perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (MT 5:48). However, this call for imitatio dei (acting like God) does seem unrealistic- Schweitzer suggested therefore that perhaps Jesus' was an interim ethic- it was only intended to be maintained for a short period of time, leading up to the parousia (second coming).
This may suggest that Jesus only encouraged such perfection in the hope that it would lead to eschatological reward, which does not seem very positive.
In the Sermon, Jesus urges people to "love their enemies" (MT 5:44). He follows up this statement by giving the reason "so that you might be sons of your father", suggesting that the ulterior motive behind such an action may be to receive eschatological reward.
However, Gerd Theissen (Social reality and the Early Christians, 1992), suggests that perhaps there is more than one possible motive for loving one's enemies. Firstly, it could be argued that Jesus is being very Jewish here, by urging his followers to imitate the qualities of God (imitatio dei). In the first century, it was the aim of all law abiding Jews to become, through their actions and covenant membership, a "son of God", and this command may have been intended to help them achieve this.
Secondly, perhaps the evangelists placed emphasis on this antithesis in order to stand out from the crowd. The antitheses are something different to the law of Judaism and may be seen as making christianity unique.
Another reason Theissen suggests Jesus may have given this command is that it is underpinned by the Golden Rule that people should "do to others as you would have them do to you". It may encourage reciprocal behaviour.
Finally, Theissen agrees that eschatological reward may have been Jesus' motive, as this antithesis may seem only to address love but also encourages perfection and holiness, which will ultimately lead to salvation. As Schrage points out, in instructing followers to feel certain emotions, such as love, Jesus seems to be attempting to "reshape human intentions, and establish a new will, that he wants to claim for God not just the body but the heart, the whole person" (1988).
However, one must question how important love really is in Jesus' kerygma (teaching).
- In John 13:34 it is regarded as the new commandment which Jesus left behind for his disciples.
- The best summary of Jesus' love command is found in MK12:28-34, which states "there is no commandment greater" than love.
- However, Jewish sources at the time suggest love wasn't just a feature of Jesus' teaching- Rabbi Akiba stated that loving one's neighbour "is a great and comprehensible feature in the Torah".
- Perhaps, as Keck suggests, "Jesus actually said very little about love" and it is blown out of proportion.