And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying… (Matthew 5:1-2)
The Word soars high and fresh with meaning, allusions, application, and contention from the outset of our Lord’s most renowned message, the Sermon on the Mount. We are moved with his compassion from his beholding of the throng below him at the foot of the mountain, and we are also aware of the urgent need for discipleship, at his bidding for an audience to hear his message of obedience and love to the world for the ages.
A few different schools of thought have emerged in the two millennia since Christ first uttered his Sermon. One contention occurs at the outset, with the question of who were his disciples for this message. Were they separate from the multitudes, or a part thereof?
These “multitudes” came from Greek: ὄχλος, or ochlos, meaning: a crowd that had flocked together at the same place at the same time. (The word “rabble” could even be substituted for it.) Our text tells us that these people had followed him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, and from the other side of the Jordan (Matthew 4:25). Once Jesus observed the massing crowds of miracle seekers, he removed to the mountain to give his lesson. Then he was “seated,” the seating of an instructor was mandatory in those days and the sermon began. My question is thus: how many disciples were there?
Some preachers have even referred to the audience of the Sermon on the Mount as separate from the crowd that flocked below. They contend that Jesus’ greatest sermon was reserved for his select students, and that the multitudes were seen by him from his vantage point, the only real listeners to him were his apostles and other select disciples.
But the word disciples (Greek: μαθητής (mathetes) for learner or pupil) does not necessarily refer to a select group, but from those who simply became students. The Church Fathers side with this view, that Jesus was speaking to at least part of this multitude, in that some of those who had followed him from other locales transformed from miracle seekers into students.
Writes St. John Chrysostom (St. John of the Golden Tongue): “But when He had gone up into the mount, and ‘was set down, His disciples came unto Him.’ Seest thou their growth in virtue? and how in a moment they became better men? Since the multitude were but gazers on the miracles, but these from that hour desired also to hear some great and high thing. And indeed this it was set Him on His teaching, and made Him begin this discourse.”
Still, a huge difference yawns between those who stayed off the mountain and those who ascended with Him. The Blessed Theophylact wrote, “The multitude comes for the miracles, but the disciples come for the teachings.” And these teachings are not easy ones. They teach us to be humble, and meek, mournful about our sinfulness, wary of our thought-life and circumspect about our motives, moves, and murmurings. Thus, in a way, it is much easier just to behold his miracles. Accept the grace of God insofar as it makes us feel better but when it begins to demand something of us in our conduct or conversation, then we stay off the mountain.
This ferreting between multitude and disciples has another application in the Church. There is a difference between those who come for the entire Liturgy — the teaching and the miracle of the Eucharist at the end, and those who just want communion and come 30 minutes from the end, get their body and blood and leave. Jesus, I would say, wants us to behold both the miracle of the Communion of God and man, and the moral application thereof.
So, whatever it is that needs saving in your life — whether your body, your mind, your soul, or a loved one, remember that Jesus is the only one who can do it. And we must attend in faith to that miracle and then attend to his teachings so we may continue to bask in his bright and eternal salvation.