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Affluent Christian Investor | February 22, 2024

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Sermon On The Mount vs. Sermon On The Plain: Different Messages For Different Economies

Christ Pantocrator – Mosaïque de la Déisis – Sainte-Sophie (Istambul, Turquie)

As we have seen there were major differences between the Galilean political economy and that of Judea. This difference in economic base was partly due to providence as expressed in the geographical differences. According to the Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels:

“Matthew 5:13–16; 6:25–33; 7:13, 24–27; 13:3–9, 24–30; Luke 15:11–15

Unlike the southern Central Hill Country, which is almost exclusively hard limestone (Cenomanian), Galilee is a mixture of hard (Cenomanian), soft (Eocene), and chalky (Senonian) limestones.

Matthew 5:13–16; 6:25–33; 7:13, 24–27; 13:3–9, 24–30; Luke 15:11–15

Unlike Judea and Samaria, which had limited areas to sow grain, Galilee possessed large valleys and plains.

(Alexander, V. H. (2016). The Words and Teachings of Jesus in the Context of Galilee. In B. J. Beitzel & K. A. Lyle (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (Mt 5:13–Lk 15:15). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

Lower Galilee (where Jesus lived and had his early ministry) had better farm land than upper Galilee (which was more mountainous and less prosperous) or than Samaria to the South. Flat land made both for better farming and also for more trade routes. Mountains are barriers to trade. They didn’t have gunpowder and could not blow the tops off of mountains or easily cut tunnels through them.

I argue that the differences in economic base should not be ignored when looking at the different ways in which Jesus talked about money in these different economic contexts; because he did, indeed, speak differently to Galileans about economic matters than he did to Judeans. One powerful way to demonstrate this is by looking at parallel sections of the Bible which are very similar, but not completely identical. There are often called ‘parallel passages’, but sometimes people use that phrase to refer to sections of the Bible which are talking about the same event at the same place and time, while others who use that phrase include in it passages which do not describe the same events, but rather similar events.

I’m using the phrase in that latter way: different events which have very similar messages. The Sermon on the Mount (starting in Matthew 5) and the Sermon on the Plain (starting in Luke 6) are so similar that those who wish to assault the veracity of the Scriptures try to use variations between them as proof of contradictions in the Bible. The detractors usually key in on the fact that one is reported to have happened on a mountain and the other is reported to have happened on a plain. But, in addition, there are differences in the actual content of his recorded remarks. For example, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain contains ‘woes’ against the wealthy. However, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount does not.

Let’s look at the different economic contexts of the two sermons. First the Sermon on the Plain:

17 And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases;

(Lk. 6:17 KJV)

We see that Jesus’ message was given in a context which centered on the capital region of Judea and its capital city, Jerusalem. There were people from Tyre and Sidon as well, which were major financial centers and which had some close financial ties with Jerusalem. For example, Tyre minted the Temple Shekel for the Herodians (which we will see was important tool of economic extraction from the people centering in its use in the temple system). It is extremely unlikely that Jesus gave the sermon in close physical proximity to Tyre and Sidon in the far North of the region. This would have been far afield from Jesus’ usual mission field. Far more likely is that Jesus was speaking near Jerusalem and that Tyreans and Sidonians were in Jerusalem for business reasons. For a rough analogy, imagine New Yorkers visiting the Washington, DC region, and stopping their negotiations to hear an itinerant preacher from flyover country.

However, even if you reject my conclusion about where the sermon was probably given, the Gospels are quite clear about to whom it was given. That’s the main point.

By contrast, the Sermon on the Mount was given to a different, far broader group of people centered in or near Galilee:

23 And Jesus was going about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.

24 And the news about Him went out into all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, taken with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.

25 And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.

(Matt. 4:23-25 NAS)

So, the Sermon on the Mount was given to Galileans, Decapolites (Decapolinians?), Judeans (including Jerusalemites) and trans-Jordanians. This is a very broad audience, more than just a national audience. It’s hard to know where it occurred—probably someplace centrally located—but the important point is who was in the audience. It was made up of people from different types of regions with different political economies. Think of something more like a national television address than a regional speech on local TV in Washington DC with visiting business interests from New York.

So, we see that although the categories are not perfectly aligned, the different audiences for the two sermons correspond somewhat to the different political economies we’ve discussed. One centers in Judea, and the other has a broader audience which includes Galileans, with Jesus giving what appears to be one of his stock speeches (with some variations) in both places. It is a nearly perfect environment to test the thesis that Jesus varies his economic commentary depending on the political economy environment into which he is speaking.

First, let’s look at the very beginning of both speeches. Both start with the Beatitudes, but the first Beatitude has an interesting variation between the two versions.

The Sermon on the Mount begins:

KJV Matthew 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(Matt. 4:25-5:3 KJV)

Whereas the Sermon on the Plain starts with:

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. (Lk. 6:20 KJV)

The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is generally considered to be less ‘in your face’ when it comes to confronting issues of economics. It is more malleable and more reconcilable with a spiritual, as opposed to socio-economic, focus. And it is given to the broad national audience which includes people from the more free-market system of Galilee and the likely more free-market system of the Decapolis, instead of just the residents of the capital city and environs.

But to the Judeans we have the blessing given to ‘the poor’, which denotes a specifically economic grouping (though connotations may suggest other social characteristics.) It is more ‘in your face.’ Preachers and polemicists who are focused on economic reform tend to default to this version of the first Beatitude – though mistakenly using it to argue for a more politicized, Judean-type, economic system – represented by the region from which the bulk of the audience was drawn.

Beyond the small variation in the first Beatitude, there is a much larger variation to consider, a section which is missing from one version and present in the other.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus transitions directly from the end of the Beatitudes to a denunciation of the rich:

22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.

23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

25 Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. (Lk. 6:25 KJV)

(Lk. 6:22-25 KJV)

But who is ‘you rich?’ It is the wealthy elite centered in the political capital of Israel, the Jerusalem elite and their cronies from the rest of Judea and Tyre and Sidon. Interesting that Jesus uses the 2nd person pronoun ‘you.’ He does not denounce the abstraction known as ‘the rich’; rather he specifies the rich to whom he is speaking, primarily the Judean rich.

The Sermon on the Mount, by contrast, moves right from the end of the Beatitudes to the Salt of the Earth, as he addresses a group which includes many of the salt of the earth in its midst, omitting the woes to the rich.

11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (No statement of woe towards the rich)

13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matt. 5:11-13 KJV)

It is unlikely to the extreme that Jesus varies his speech when speaking to different groups from different economic environments in two ways which differ specifically in their economic content, by mere coincidence. Like any great speaker, he knew his audience and adapted his speech accordingly.

This will become even more apparent as we examine numerous other instances of how Jesus caters his messages pertaining to economic matters in response to the nuances of different economic environments and the different economic aspects of the occupations of the people he encounters in his travels.



Originally published on Townhall Finance.


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