Scholarly treatments as well as popular books on the Sermon on the Mount abound. Although many are worthwhile (Dale Ellison’s and Charles Quarles’s come to mind), many more can be safely ignored. Here are six volumes that deserve special attention.
Must Reads: There is nothing quite like Eberhard Arnold’s Salt and Light. In these selections from lectures and talks given in Germany between 1915 and 1935, Arnold calls decisively for a new, revolutionary way of discipleship. He speaks with a passion and longing that simply sweeps you off your feet. Each individual chapter addresses a particular feature of the Sermon on the Mount; taken collectively, the unrelenting clarity of Arnold’s words propels one to action. He highlights again and again that Jesus’ teaching is neither a new ethic nor a moral code but rather a proclamation: a witness to the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. Discipleship and community life belong together, and both belong to God’s coming kingdom of complete love and justice.
Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship drives home Arnold’s call to decisiveness by centering on the necessity of obeying Jesus’ words. Bonhoeffer’s rare ability to explain scripture in a way that is both illuminating and genuinely inspiring has made this perhaps the most influential book on the Sermon on the Mount for modern Christians. Writing under the nose of the Nazis, he develops his well-known emphasis on discipleship as a matter of “costly grace” – a call to make visible one’s allegiance to Christ within a life of true Christian fellowship that encompasses every aspect of daily life.
Jumping forward to today, Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount (2013) does a marvelous job of drawing both practical and theological insights from Jesus’ commands. McKnight is a New Testament scholar and so addresses many of the exegetical hot spots. Yet he does so in a way that is readily understandable and to the point, moving the reader easily from the text to lived experience. McKnight’s tone is less passionate than Arnold’s and Bonhoeffer’s but no less bold: he is adamant that the Sermon on the Mount is potent as well as “supremely and irreducibly ecclesial” In addressing the many thorny interpretive questions, McKnight judiciously surveys the evidence and then offers his own take with thoughtfulness, grace, and brevity. Repeatedly he brings the reader back to the main issue: How can we obey Jesus’ words today?
Recommended: John Stott’s 1978 Christian Counter-Culture has become an evangelical classic. Relying on the metaphors of “salt and light” and focusing on Christian character, Stott beautifully highlights the radical nature of discipleship and the contrast between following Jesus and the conventional wisdom of this world. Stott is a teacher at heart and handles the text in a way that stimulates reflection.
From a more Anabaptist viewpoint, Glen Stassen’s Living the Sermon on the Mount spells out the social implications of Jesus’ teachings by asking how we are to pursue God’s justice in the world. The outstanding feature of this volume is its emphasis on Jesus’ transforming alternative to power, violence, injustice, and impurity.
Both Stott’s and Stassen’s books remind us that whenever we approach the Sermon on the Mount we do so historically and contextually. This is what makes The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries so refreshing. A collection of essays by a dozen noteworthy writers including Robert Louis Wilken, Mark Noll, and Stanley Hauerwas, this volume enables the reader to appreciate the richness of Jesus’ Sermon through the eyes of earlier believers including Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Yoder, and Pope John Paul II. It’s a refreshing read, and a humbling one.