The Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s invitation to sacrifice those things that cause spiritual distress.
“Blessed Are Ye …”03214_000_003
Much of the unhappiness we feel in this world comes from a refusal to let go of those things that cause our unhappiness. Often as we seek relief, we aren’t able to discern the real problem, and we have trouble shaking off a sense of dissatisfaction.
For those suffering spiritual and emotional distress, the Sermon on the Mount offers relief. The first word of the sermon signals the Savior’s main message: Blessed. In the Greek text, the word is makarios, a word that refers to a state of divine happiness. With this word, the Savior draws us into his sermon and shows us how to find divine happiness in this life and take it with us into the next.
The genius of the sermon lies in the Lord’s invitation to sacrifice those very things that cause spiritual distress. He urges us to lay aside the things of this world, teaching us that real happiness is established on spiritual principles—specifically and paradoxically, on the law of sacrifice.
Soon after Adam left the Garden of Eden, the Lord taught him the law of sacrifice. (See Moses 5:4–8.) From Adam to Jesus Christ, man offered physical sacrifices that foreshadowed the coming of the Redeemer.
Then Jesus fulfilled and changed significant aspects of the law but not its nature: “I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings,” he said. Instead, “Ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (3 Ne. 9:19–20.)
The Sermon on the Mount is an explication of this new law. In it, Jesus refers to various elements of sacrificial ritual (such as salt, light or fire, and an altar) to symbolize the spiritual gifts we are to bring to him. Through this new law of sacrifice, we may obtain spiritual freedom.
From the sermon we may distill three main sacrifices that enable us to enjoy the divine happiness offered by the Savior: (1) laying self-will on the altar, (2) laying our sins on the altar, and (3) offering a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
Laying Self-Will on the Altar
One theme serves as an envelope enclosing the entire sermon: Doing God’s will rather than our own. Near the beginning, the Savior said that those who break his commandments “shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven,” while those who obey “shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:19.) Near the end, he restated the principle: He that will “enter into the kingdom of heaven” is “he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21.)
On another occasion, Jesus said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5.)
Without God, we are poor, mourners over many things, too meek to withstand powerful and uncontrollable forces, full of nameless hungers and thirstings. (See Matt. 5:3–6.) Alone, we are salt without savor, “good for nothing, but to be cast out.” (Matt. 5:13.)
We may defy our nothingness and attempt to become something without God. We may try in many vain ways to prove our worth by seeking wealth, power, or praise of men.
Yet, when we can finally admit that we are nothing without God, the Savior invites us to lay on the altar the great burden of trying to do everything on our own or of assuming more responsibility than we have. Our meekness and dependence on the Lord, our hunger to know what is right, draw the Lord and his solutions to us. It is the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek “who come unto me” who will receive the kingdom of heaven. (3 Ne. 12:3; italics added.) Those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” will be “filled with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Ne. 12:6.)
King Benjamin offers an enigmatic promise: if we will remember our nothingness without God, we will always rejoice. (See Mosiah 4:11–12.) We must admit that our own self-will has caused us the most trouble. What a blessing it is to lay it on the altar!
Laying Our Sins on the Altar
Giving up even the “small” sins. The list of things to sacrifice begins with Matthew 5:21–22 [Matt. 5:21–22], in which Jesus compares the old law with the new: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time … : But I say unto you. …”
Here he compares so-called “big” sins—like committing murder and adultery—to so-called “little” ones—the ones we are most likely to allow ourselves, like becoming angry, lusting, judging, failing to forgive, savoring a little revenge, nurturing the praise of men, fearing, and worrying. One of the Redeemer’s most liberating points is that even so-called “little” sins can make us sick.
Nephi understood this and prayed that God would deliver him from his quite justifiable anger against his rebellious brothers. (See 2 Ne. 4:28–29.) He knew that his anger—justifiable or not—separated him from God, and he couldn’t afford it.
Alma calls it the law of restoration: “For that which ye do send out shall return unto you again, and be restored; therefore, the word restoration more fully condemneth the sinner. …” (Alma 41:15.)
The Savior’s Golden Rule, found in the Sermon on the Mount—“therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12)—takes on new meaning because what we do to others, we actually do to ourselves.
When we are willing to look honestly at and repent of our “small” sins, the Savior makes it possible to replace them with Christlike virtues. When we realize that superficiality has betrayed us, we can go on to that thorough change called repentance.
Becoming perfect. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord commands us to be “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.)
The Greek word for perfect is teleios, which means “whole” or “finished.” This command, along with the other commands in the sermon, pertains to the intents of our hearts. As we approach the Lord, hungry for his will for us, convinced that the greatest good for ourselves can come only from him, he will gradually complete us—or make us whole—with appropriate gifts of the Spirit and with experience.
We cannot foresee what we will be like when we are perfect. Teleios represents a great picture puzzle of ourselves, to which we do not yet have all the pieces. We do not even know how many pieces there are. But we know that God knows all the pieces of the puzzle, and that the pieces lie along the road of time and experience and submission to him. (See Moro. 10:32–33.)
Depending on God. Even “small” sins are accompanied by fear—of losing the good opinion of men, of being found out, of being robbed of earthly treasure. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior asks us to sacrifice this fear, trusting in the Father’s justice. We are to give alms in secret, pray in secret, and fast in secret, “and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” (See Matt. 6:4, 6, 18.) We are to seek heavenly, rather than earthly, treasures. (See Matt. 6:19–21.)
We fear that God will require us to give up something we think we must have in order to be happy. Yet Jesus’ model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount reflects the needs of the abundant life: God’s will, daily bread, forgiveness, strength in temptation, acknowledgment of God’s glory. (See Matt. 6:9–13.)
The prayer for daily bread evokes a day-to-day promise which appears at the heart of the sermon: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil [or trouble] thereof.” (Matt. 6:33–34.)
We learn to pray for daily bread. A day at a time is sufficient when we depend on God, who provides for the fowls and the lilies alike. We cannot relive the past, and we cannot know the future, but we can, day by day, moment by moment, humbly seek God and receive from him all the things we really need. (See Matt. 6:25–32.)
Laying down all guilt. The Lord explains that if we “forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15.) But often the most difficult ones to forgive are ourselves. In the face of our many failings, we struggle for a sense of worthiness.
It can be a relief to admit to our Father in Heaven and to ourselves that we have sinned, even though confession stirs guilt. Happily, we do not have to live with guilt. The Savior invites us to lay all of it on the altar through repentance.
Forgiveness sometimes seems impossible when we cannot undo the injury we have done to others. But guilt retained after repentance is a denial of the Atonement. We must not let it become a beam in our eyes that prevents us from seeing clearly.
Offering a Broken Heart and a Contrite Spirit
The Lord tells us that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:21.) The implied opposite is also true: Where our hearts are, there will our treasure be.
When our hearts are pure, our works will be righteous and worthy, even if imperfect. “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit,” said the Savior.
“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17–18.)
Perhaps the clearest description of the change of heart appears in the Book of Mormon when King Benjamin’s people feel joy at their acceptance of the Atonement and their consequent change of heart. (See Mosiah 4:2–3; Mosiah 5:2.) Their experience was dramatic; for most of us a change of heart is a gradual movement from relief to relief as we learn to submit and trust.
We initiate the process by our faith and repentance and by our desire for it. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” said the Savior. (Matt. 7:7.) It is clear, however, that we cannot dredge a new heart up out of our own souls. Rather, it is the result of divine action: As we present a broken heart and a contrite spirit to the Lord as an offering, “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent … [works] a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)
Amulek promised that as we “repent and harden not [our] hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto [us].” (Alma 34:31.)
We need not wait for the healing process to begin. Great power lies in our agency. Improving our consciousness of God and practicing true principles bring us steady relief. But knowing that our growth will take time, the Lord counsels, “Continue in patience until ye are perfected.” (D&C 67:13.)
To be makarios, to be joyful, is a spiritual blessing that the Lord will give us if we follow his law. The storms of life will surely create tumult and beat upon us, but the Savior’s message in the Sermon on the Mount is that the basis of real happiness does not lie in trying to subdue the storms outside us, but in sacrificing our sins and allowing the Savior to activate righteousness within us.
Indeed, without the storms we might have thought happiness lay in our own ability to control people and events to our own specifications. Instead, the storms propel us to God, where we may “receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge,” so that we may “know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.” (D&C 42:61.)
Before Jesus Christ left the earth, he said to his disciples then and now, echoing words from the Sermon, “Your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. …
“Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:22, 24.)