An Alternative Way to Live — Center for Action and Contemplation

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An Alternative Way to Live

The Sermon on the Mount

An Alternative Way to Live
Sunday, July 18, 2021

I am told that the Sermon on the Mount—the essence of Jesus’ teaching—is the least quoted Scripture in official Catholic Church documents. We must be honest and admit that most of Christianity has focused very little on what Jesus himself taught and spent most of his time doing: healing people, doing acts of justice and inclusion, embodying compassionate and nonviolent ways of living.

I’m grateful that my spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi, took the Sermon on the Mount seriously and spent his life trying to imitate Jesus. Likewise, Francis’ followers, especially in the beginning, tried to imitate Francis. Like the Quakers, Shakers, Amish, Mennonites, and the Catholic Worker Movement, Franciscanism offers a simple return to the Gospel as an alternative lifestyle more than an orthodox belief system. The Sermon on the Mount was not just words for these groups! They focused on including the outsider, preferring the bottom to the top, a commitment to nonviolence, and choosing social poverty and divine union over any private perfection or sense of moral superiority.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount [1], Jesus gives us this short but effective image so we will know that we are to act on his words and live the teachings, instead of only believing things about God:

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built a house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined (Matthew 7:24–27; my emphasis).

Dorothy Day (1897–1980), one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, understood the Sermon on the Mount as the foundational plan for following Jesus: “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers.” [2] She observed that “we are trying to lead a good life. We are trying to talk about and write about the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the social principles of the church, and it is most astounding, the things that happen when you start trying to live this way. To perform the works of mercy becomes a dangerous practice.” [3]

That’s because Jesus was teaching an alternative wisdom that shakes the social order instead of upholding the conventional wisdom that maintains it. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not about preserving the status quo! It’s about living here on earth as if the Reign of God has already begun (see Luke 17:21). In this Reign, the Sermon tells us, the poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, the grieving are filled with joy, and enemies are loved.

[1] What is called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel (5:1–7:29) is called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel (6:20–49).

[2] Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis: 2002), 262.

[3] Dorothy Day, All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Marquette University Press: 2010), 166.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Scripture as Liberation, (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2002), MP3 download.

Story from Our Community:
I’ve worked since age 8 or 9 to keep Christ’s Beatitudes central in my life. Life has been filled with one hill followed after another, and I’ve tried to help others in my community. In my 80s now I work to see Christ’s light in each face I meet and to make them laugh, whether in an in-person meeting or on the phone. —Darlene A.

Image credit: Oliver, Street Piano (detail), 2010, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Image inspiration: A public piano is for everyone. The sound of the notes is a gift, made by ordinary people, rippling outward toward passersby. The beauty of shared music is present, whether or not the people who hear it respond.
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