The greatest sermon ever preached takes only fifteen minutes to read and can be printed on a single page; yet it has changed the world more than any other speech ever made. Even Gandhi found nothing in his rich, six thousand-year-old Hindu tradition to equal it. Even atheists, agnostics, and humanists testify to its greatness. The whole world stares in an ecumenical orgy of agreement at it; yet the whole world fails to follow it, exactly like the man in Jesus’ parable at the end of the sermon (Mt 7:24–27) who built his house on the sand of hearing instead of on the rock of heeding.

But before we can follow it, we must understand it, and words can help to that end. These words are meant to be an arrow, not a target; a road map, not a journey; a laboratory manual, not an encyclopedia.

Matthew’s version of the sermon takes three chapters (5–7), Luke’s only one (6). Matthew probably compiled sayings spoken on various occasions into one, while Luke, who claims historical precision and order (1:3), probably reported the words in the order they were first spoken. The gist, structure, beginning and end of the sermon are the same in both accounts. Both begin with the Beatitudes, the gateway to all the rest. Matthew lists nine Beatitudes, Luke four. Luke specifies four correlative woes to his four blessings, Matthew does not. Matthew specifies the spiritual nature of the beatitude of poverty and of hunger, Luke does not. But what really matters, in the last analysis, is only three things: (1) what the words mean, (2) whether they are true, and (3) what difference they make to me, to my life. That is true of all words, especially sermons, especially Jesus’ sermons, and most especially this one.

Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 79–80.

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