What is the Sermon on the Plain?

by Luke Wayne
2/25/16

The Sermon on the Plain is the term used for the discourse Jesus gives in Luke 6:20-49. The content and the context of the sermon are strikingly similar to the "Sermon on the Mount" that comprises Matthew chapters 5-7. The similarities are striking enough that many commentators see these passages as reporting the same event, though others note that Jesus often preaches similar material on more than one occasion and that they could well be two similar sermons at different times. The fact that both Gospels place the discourse right before the healing of the centurion, however, seems to give much greater weight to the view that they are the same sermon.

The difference in the names comes from the fact that Matthew 5:1 describes the setting of Jesus' address by saying, "When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain," (thus the sermon "on the mount"). Luke 6:17 sets up the scene saying, "Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place," (thus the sermon "on the plain" or "level place"). However, Luke 6:12 has already explained that they are indeed on a mountain, and the description of Jesus coming down to a level place implies a mountainous setting. Still, the Gospels are often not strictly chronological, and one need not insist that the sermons reported by Matthew and Luke are indeed the same sermon.

The Sermon on the Plain begins with a series of Beatitudes or statements of blessing. The blessings, however, are all upon the sort of people one would tend to think least to be blessed, such as the hungry, the grieving, and those who are hated and treated ill (Luke 6:20-22). Such are told to be glad, indeed to "leap for joy," not because the suffering itself is good, but because their reward will be great in heaven, with the encouraging reminder that the prophets themselves suffered these same things. (Luke 6:23). Luke reports these blessings more plainly and straightforwardly than Matthew does in the Sermon on the Mount (simply "poor" rather than "poor in spirit" and "hunger" rather than "hunger and thirst for righteousness," for example). Luke also includes a counter list of woes on those who are well fed, laughing now, and spoken well of (Luke 6:24-26) which Matthew did not include. The thrust of the passage, however, is the same. Jesus is explaining that God's blessing for those who follow Him will often mean suffering now, but glory and comfort in the Kingdom to come. Those who seek their comfort and pleasure in this life here and now may appear to be blessed, but in fact, they are to be pitied because in the age to come they will find nothing but weeping, suffering, and want.

Luke does not report Jesus' interpretation of the law, as Matthew does in 5:17-37. He reports the Lord's model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) elsewhere in His gospel (Luke 11:1-4) rather than in this sermon. He does the same with Jesus' teachings on money (Matthew 6:19-24; Luke 12:22-34) the example of asking, seeking, and knocking (Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13) and several other such sections. Likewise, Luke reports Jesus using the example of the blind guiding the blind here (Luke 6:39), where Matthew does not, though Matthew's gospel contains a similar teaching elsewhere (Matthew 15:14).

The Sermon on the Plain, like that on the Mount, proceeds from the Beatitudes to:

  • Jesus' teaching on love and generous mercy toward enemies (Matthew 5:33-48; Luke 6:27-36).
  • His instructions on proper judgment (Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37-38).
  • The example of the speck in your neighbor's eye and the log in your own, (Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42).
  • The analogy of the tree and the fruit (Matthew 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45).
  • The warning about saying "Lord, Lord" and not doing what Jesus says (Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 6:46).
  • The closing illustration of the two foundations (Matthew 7:24-27, Luke 6:47-49).

Historically, the "Sermon on the Plain" passage has received far less attention by commentators and theologians than the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew. Luke's reporting of this sermon, however, brings powerful insights that Matthew's does not, and is just as striking a presentation of Jesus' teachings to his disciples. It was given by the same Holy Spirit and deserves to be read just as carefully and frequently. It has tremendous value on its own right, and in conjunction with the material in Matthew, it helps the Christian reader draw out a deeper and fuller understanding of Jesus' words, which is certainly why the Spirit of God inspired the writing of both of these parallel passages.