On the Mountaintop
1. And seeing the crowds, He went up into the mountain; and when He had sat down, His disciples came to Him.
2. And opening His mouth He taught them, saying,
3. “Happy [are] the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
4. Happy [are] they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5. Happy [are] the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6. Happy [are] they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall be satisfied.
7. Happy [are] the merciful, for they shall have mercy.
8. Happy [are] the clean in heart, for they shall see God.
9. Happy [are] the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
10. Happy [are] they that are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
11. Happy are you when they shall reproach you, and persecute [you], and say every wicked saying against you, telling lies, on account of Me.
12. Leap for joy and rejoice, for your reward [is] much in the heavens; for so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.”
As the crowds begin to gather, and as great multitudes come to Him, not only from Galilee, but also from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from areas beyond the Jordan, Jesus decides to go up onto a mountain and preach. His instruction begins with this essential teaching: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:1).
One purpose served by temptation is to make us aware of our spiritual poverty, so that we might choose to acknowledge in heart that everything we have is from God. This is one of the great purposes of temptation — to remind us that without God we are utterly helpless. This is the part of us that follows Jesus up the mountain in order to receive the opening words of His most famous speech, referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Jesus begins with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). This is the main idea which reigns throughout the sermon. To the degree that we acknowledge that all love and all wisdom is from God alone, and nothing from ourselves, we can receive the love and wisdom that constantly flows in from God. It is this acknowledgment — the acknowledgment of our spiritual poverty — which receives the kingdom of heaven.
But there are times when we forget this essential truth. And when we forget that everything good and true is from the Lord alone, sorrow and suffering are inevitable. That’s why the second blessing speaks about how God offers comfort during times of mourning: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” As we turn to the Lord in prayer and call upon His name, the Comforter comes to us, restoring lost truths, teaching us new ones, and filling us with hope and consolation. When these lost truths are brought again to our remembrance, we remember that without God we are indeed “poor in spirit.” Relieved of the arrogance that believes we are the source of truth and goodness, we experience humility. We find that we are agreeable, good-natured, and willing to admit our faults. No longer eager to win an argument, or defend ourselves, our unruly lower nature (“the earth”) is tamed, quieted, and subdued. The third blessing describes this gentler disposition: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (5:4). 1
These first three blessings speak about the qualities of people who acknowledge God as the giver of all things (“poor in spirit”), people who long for the comfort of truth (“they who mourn”), and people who are gentle and temperate in disposition (“the meek”). People who are of this nature are open to the blessings that flow in from God, beginning with the desire to serve the neighbor. Consequently, the fourth blessing speaks not only of humility, meekness and the desire to receive truth, but also of the desire to bring those truths forth in their lives. Such people desire to live a righteous life. Therefore we read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (5:6).
This marks the transition to the next three blessings. The fifth, sixth and seventh blessings summarize the works of charity that constitute a life of righteousness. As we turn to God for all things, we are filled with mercy towards others. And insofar as we exercise that mercy, we become more merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (5:7). As we practice mercy in all our relationships, our hearts become purified enabling us to see the good in others — their God-given qualities: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (5:8)
This leads to the seventh and culminating blessing: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (5:9). This is not just a state of being (humble, meek), it is also a state of doing: blessed are the peacemakers. But the kind of “doing” that takes place in this state is not human doing; it is what God does through each of us. That is why those who obtain this blessing are called “the sons of God.”
The seven blessings in their order are a divine series which reveal the process of spiritual development, beginning with the recognition of our spiritual poverty, and ending in a state in which we become instruments through which God operates to bring peace into the world.
But there is also an eighth blessing: “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake” (5:10). This eighth blessing reminds us that spiritual life is a cyclical pattern. As we achieve the blessings associated with one state of spiritual development, we are simultaneously being prepared for entrance into higher and even more elevated states of spiritual life. But in order to enter those higher states, subtler evils will have to be exposed, combated, and overcome.
Thus, the trials of temptation will begin again, as less obvious evils are exposed by the brighter light of divine truth. These evils will rise up within us, fiercely defending themselves, as they fight for their life. But if we persevere, refusing to succumb to the rationalizations and justifications that support our selfish concerns, there will be a great blessing: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (5:11-12).
The seven blessings, which are given in a divinely ordered series, perfectly describe the spiritual evolution of every person. These blessings begin with the acknowledgment that we cannot do good from ourselves, and they steadily progress to the highest blessing that God can confer upon us: we become sons of God, people through whom God works to bring peace on earth. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The eighth blessing returns us to the beginning of the series, and reminds us once again that temptation provides us with the opportunity to follow God. This is not something to be dreaded; rather it is to be anticipated with joy. “Rejoice,” says Jesus, “and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”
Doing Good Works
13. “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt become saltless, with what shall it be salted? After that it is of no use, except to be cast out, and to be trampled by men.
14. You are the light of the world. A city that is laid out on a mountain cannot be hidden.
15. Neither do they light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the lampstand, and it shines for all that [are] in the house.
16. So let your light shine in front of men, so that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father that [is] in the heavens.”
The Sermon on the Mount provides wonderful instruction. Yet mere instruction, without a desire to do good works in the spirit of that instruction, is useless. It is like salt which has lost its flavor, like a light hidden under a basket. All truth is given for the sake of use. Every blessing God bestows upon us is done so that we may be of greater service to the neighbor. And in that service is true blessing, for all heavenly reward is the delight that we experience when we are involved in some loving service towards the neighbor. 2
It is for this reason that the divine series continues with these words: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (5:13).
Salt is highly useful as a seasoning. But salt that has lost its flavor is useless. Similarly, a human being who has no desire to do good is like salt with no flavor. That person is useless. 3
Truth must be put to use. This is the thrust of this section of the sermon. Light is good, but it must be put to use: “You are the light of the world,” says Jesus. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (5:14-15).
The emphasis is not just on learning truth, but on living it. Jesus therefore says to His disciples, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (5:16).
Spiritual instruction has no other end but the doing of good works. And good works are truly good, only when they are done by the Father through us. That’s why this section of the sermon includes the all-important reminder that when others see our good works, all praise, glory, and honor should go to God. As Jesus puts it, let them see your good works, but be sure that they glorify your Father in heaven. It’s not about us; it’s about God working through us. 4
Jesus Begins to Reveal the Inner Meaning of Scripture
17. “Do not suppose that I have come to undo the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to undo but to fulfill.
18. For amen I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one yodh or one little horn shall not pass away from the Law, till all things come to pass.
19. Therefore whoever shall loosen one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whoever shall do and teach [them], he shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.
20. For I say to you that unless your justice shall exceed [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens.
21. You have heard that it was declared by the ancients, Thou shalt not murder; and whoever shall murder shall be subject to the judgment.
22. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother rashly shall be subject to the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be subject to the council; and whoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be subject to the gehenna of fire.
23. If therefore thou offer thy gift on the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has anything against thee,”
24. Leave there thy gift in front of the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come offer thy gift.
25. Be of good will with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him, lest the adversary deliver thee up to the judge, and the judge deliver thee up to the attendant, and thou be cast into prison.
26. Amen I say unto thee, Thou shalt not come out from there until thou hast paid the last farthing.
27. You have heard that it was declared to the ancients, Thou shalt not commit adultery.
28. But I say to you that everyone who looks at [another] woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29. And if thy right eye cause thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not [that] thy whole body be cast into gehenna.
30. And if thy right hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast [it] from thee; for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not [that] thy whole body be cast into gehenna.
31. And it has been declared that whoever shall send away his wife, let him give her a divorce.
32. But I say to you, whoever shall send away his wife, outside of the reason of scortation, makes her commit adultery; and whoever shall wed her that is sent away commits adultery.
33. Again, you have heard that it has been declared to the ancients, Thou shalt not swear falsely, but shalt render to the Lord thine oaths.
34. But I say to you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God;
35. Nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
37. But let your word be, yes, yes; no, no; and whatever [is] beyond these is from evil.
38. You have heard that it has been declared, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
39. But I say to you, Do not stand against the wicked; but whoever shall hit thee on thy right cheekbone, turn to him the other also.
40. And [if anyone] wills to have thee judged and take thy tunic, let him have the cloak also.
41. And whoever shall compel thee [to go] one mile, go with him two.
42. Give to him that asks thee; and turn not away him that wills to borrow from thee.
43. You have heard that it has been declared, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and shalt hate thine enemy.
44. But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, do well to those that hate you, and pray for those that injure you and persecute you,”
It’s undeniably true that truth must be put to use. But before the Word of God can most fully be put to use, it must be fully understood. That’s why Jesus now gives His disciples a brief tutorial on how to read scripture, beginning with this disclaimer, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (5:17).
On one level, Jesus did fulfill the Law in that His coming fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. But He was also about to fulfill the Law by infilling it with higher meaning. He would explain how the Law speaks not only about our outward behavior, but, also about our inner attitudes; He would explain how the Law speaks not only about our bodily actions, but also about the desires of our spirit. In this way, Jesus would fill the Law full of a spiritual meaning. It would be of use not only for regulating one’s external conduct, but, more importantly, for reforming one’s inner life.
Jesus begins with the commandments: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder’ … But I say unto you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” (5:21-22). Similarly, He reveals the spiritual meaning of the law against adultery: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say unto you that whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28).
These are new teachings, but not totally beyond the grasp of His audience. There would be more to come, more interior teachings about the human spirit and the path to heaven, and it would take time before people could completely grasp these higher messages. For now, however, it would be enough to give people concrete, literal examples that they can understand — not abstract truths that are beyond their comprehension. In this regard, Jesus teaches them to forgo oath-making (5:33-37), to turn the cheek when struck (5:39), to give more than what is demanded (5:40), to go further than what is required (5:42), to give to everyone who asks, and to lend to anyone who wants to borrow (5:42).
These teachings would be hard to follow, but not difficult to understand. Within them are higher truths about our response when our inmost beliefs are under assault — not just in the public arena, but more specifically, when we are being persecuted by hellish spirits. At such times, we must not worry, for if we abide in the truth we will remain in God’s protection. 5
The only thing that can avert this divine protection is our free decision to identify with and succumb to the promptings of our lower nature (arrogance and conceit, resentment and anger, anxiety and fear, misery and despair and etc.) — promptings which flow in from hell. 6
Instead of teaching these interior truths, Jesus keeps their minds on more obvious issues — like the need to overcome their desire to take revenge: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
This would, of course, have seemed impossible and illogical. Questions would inevitably arise: “Why should anyone turn the cheek to an attacker?” “What about self-defense?” “What about protecting our loved ones and our country?” “What good can come from turning the cheek, especially if it leads to evil people taking greater and greater advantage of good people?” These are legitimate questions, and Jesus would have answers for each of them — at a later time. 7
The people to whom Jesus is speaking are not yet able to understand the more interior truths contained within these teachings. They are not ready to understand that “turning the cheek” is something we do internally when our beliefs are being attacked. These attacks do not necessarily come through other people, but rather through unseen spiritual forces that endeavor to destroy our faith in God and our trust in the power of His truth. Therefore, whenever we turn the cheek internally, we practice interior forgiveness. We know that no words spoken, whispered or insinuated can possibly bring us down or hurt our faith. This is what enables us to pray for our enemies, to forgive them, and even to love them. Because we are under God’s protection, we know that evil can do us no spiritual harm. Therefore we need not resist it.
On the physical plane, however, we must be more cautious. People can cause a great deal of physical harm. Therefore, we cannot and should not give to everyone who asks, nor lend to everyone who wishes to borrow. Such indiscriminate charity would leave us penniless and without resources to do good to others. Similarly, we should not allow thieves, cheats, and scam artists to take advantage of us. If we allowed ourselves to be abused in this way, society would be destroyed. Therefore, people who prey on innocent victims must be reported, prosecuted, and if found guilty, appropriately punished. It does evildoers no good, society no good, and us no good to ignore criminal behavior or support malicious intentions. We must defend ourselves and our loved ones.
In brief, self-defense is not contrary to divine law; nor is it wrong to defend one’s family and country when under enemy assault. God never asks us to be doormats. On the external plane we must resist evil. But on the internal plane, there is no resistance. Instead, there is love, mercy, understanding, compassion and forgiveness. It is these God-given states of consciousness that make us impervious to spiritual danger. In such states we need not resist interior evil — for God alone resists those evils that would take away our faith and destroy our happiness. 8
These are the more interior lessons that Jesus will offer at a later time. For now, it is Jesus’ task to keep their minds on a simple, clear lesson: the need to learn forgiveness: “You have heard it said that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (5:43-44). These literal teachings would be troubling, difficult, seemingly impossible to keep. But the struggle to do so would be important. It would teach them the most important lesson of all: they could never do so without God.
“Be ye therefore perfect”
45. “So that you may be sons of your Father that [is] in the heavens; for He makes His sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.
46. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the publicans do the same?
47. And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do beyond [others]? Do not even the publicans do so?
48. Be ye therefore perfect, just as your Father that [is] in the heavens is perfect.”
Because the people are not yet ready to understand, Jesus cannot yet reveal that these teachings have a higher, more interior spiritual meaning — a meaning that will be revealed to them at a later time. 9
Eventually (and in a different gospel), He will tell His disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). For now, however, these initial teachings will become vital steps along the pathway to human perfection. All they have to do is live according to these introductory teachings.
Therefore, Jesus’ focus, at this point, is to instruct them in the fundamentals of charitable service — to help them become perfect in the art of charitable giving. This will involve doing good works that are purified from selfish motives, seeking nothing in return. Moreover, these charitable works should not be limited to friends and neighbors. From now on their good works are to be extended even to enemies. After all, it’s easy to love one’s friends and do good things for them. That’s natural — not spiritual. But to be “perfect” they will have to love their enemies: “Love your enemies,” says Jesus “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?”
Jesus is here speaking about heavenly rewards, the spiritual delights that flow in when we truly love others — including our enemies. “Be ye, therefore, perfect, as your Father who is in the heavens is perfect” (5:45-48).
It should be noted that this verse is often translated as a promise rather than a command. Instead of “Be ye, therefore, perfect,” it has been translated as “You shall be perfect” — not exactly what Jesus is getting at. It is the striving to be perfect, not the attainment of perfection that matters. As Swedenborg teaches, even the angels never reach a state of final perfection; neither can we. But we can persevere; we can strive; we can endeavor to be perfect “even as our Father in the heavens is perfect.” 10
Admittedly, striving for perfection can be difficult — not just for the people of biblical times, but even for us today. Self-interest must be overcome; resentments must be put aside; generosity must prevail over greed; forgiveness must displace revenge, and love must triumph over hate. Without God, no one can accomplish any of this — and “perfection” becomes an unachievable goal. The only way to get there is through recognizing and acknowledging one’s imperfection. Only then, with God’s help, can we begin to strive towards states of greater perfection. From this point onward the only thing required is a willingness to receive divine truths and live according to them.
If we do so, it will inevitably lead to combats of temptation in which interior evils rise up to revile and persecute whatever flows in from God. These evils strive to take away our affection for learning truth and for doing good. A blow to the left cheek represents an attempt to take away our desire to learn truth, and a blow to the right cheek represents an attempt to take away our desire to do good. 11
But, once again, we should not worry, nor even resist, for evil can do no harm to those who are under God’s protection.
All this is contained in Jesus’ command, “Be ye, therefore, perfect, even as your Father in the heavens is perfect.” In this way, as we come to trust more and more in the Lord’s leading — acknowledging that He is the source of every loving feeling, every noble thought, and every chartable action — we will be continually perfected. 12