“Did he say ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’? What’s so special about cheesemakers?”
“Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Those lines are from Monty Python’s irreverent but still humorous film Life of Brian as Jesus attempted to deliver the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We’ve seen the images of Jesus talking atop a hilltop to a multitude in rapt attention. There stands the Teacher, surrounded by scores or even hundreds of listeners. Do those images get it right?
When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them, saying: –Matthew 5:1-2
Clearly, the portrayals, including Monty Python’s, have at least one thing wrong. Jesus is frequently pictured as standing up, while Matthew 5:1 says that He sat down. But let’s look a bit more closely. The “sermon” was delivered in apparent response to crowds. At the close of chapter 4, we read that crowds were following Him. Then as chapter 5 begins, we’re told that “he saw the crowds.” Then He went up on the mountain. Did the crowd follow? That’s not clear. Did Jesus go up on the mountain in order to speak to the crowd? It definitely doesn’t say that. What it does say is that after he sat down, apparently to teach, “his disciples came to him.” That word for “disciples,” mathetes, does not necessarily indicate the eventual twelve disciples (especially since Matthew wouldn’t be called until chapter 9), but it does indicate followers or learners. And in verse 2, Jesus “began to teach them.” Who? English grammar would suggest that the pronoun “them” refers back to the nearer noun, the disciples, rather than to the farther noun, the crowd.
I’d like to suggest that at least the primary audience for this teaching was the disciples, those already bought in to the Jesus program, and not to the entire crowd of curiosity seekers. Is there any evidence to support this position other than these two verses? I’m glad you asked. Turn a few pages toward the back of the book to Matthew 13. There, Jesus is asked by his disciples–remember them–why He always teaches in parables. His response is significant for us:
Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.–Matthew 13:11
Now go back to the Sermon on the Mount. Are there any parables there? There are some metaphors and the “Two Foundations” closer in Matthew 7:24-27 could be called a parable, but the vast bulk of these three chapters is straight-forward and reasonably literal teaching. Perhaps these are the “secrets of the kingdom” and this occasion is part of when they were given.
In the Life of Brian, the cheesemaker and other comments are made by people on the distant periphery of the crowd. Although these are an exaggeration, Jesus was not talking to those who simply crowded around. Instead, I’d suggest these were those of whom Jesus spoke, quoting Isaiah 13:14:
You will listen and listen,
but never understand;
you will look and look,
but never perceive.