THE STORY OF YESHUA
by miriam berg
THE GREAT SERMON
Gennesaret is the name of a fertile plain lying along the
western shore of the sea of Galilee. The name comes from
the Hebrew for "garden of flowers" or "valley of flowers";
in the time of Yeshua it was said to be the most productive
section of Galilee. Flavius Josephus called it "the ambition of
Nature." A tiny village of five hundred persons still exists
there by the name of Ginnosar.
It was to this plain, along the seaside, that Yeshua came
after his encounters with the scribes and the Pharisees
in Kephar-Nahum. And as usual, he was followed by crowds
from all over Palestine; Mark says they came from Galilee and
Judea and Jerusalem, and from Idumea, far to the south of
Judea, and from across the Jordan, which was the region of
Perea, far to the east, and from Tyre and Sidon, far away to
the northwest on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The crowd
was so great, in fact, that Yeshua asked his followers to moor
a fishing-boat near there, so that he could stand on the boat
and speak to the multitude from the shore. The crowd was once
more full of those seeking to be healed, and we are told that
he did heal many of them; and there were those who were said to
be possessed of demons, whom Yeshua rebuked and silenced when
they scoffed at him by calling him the son of God. This is
then the third time that we have seen Yeshua speaking harshly
to those who use the term 'son of God' to refer to him: in the
synagogue in Kephar-Nahum, at Simon's house afterward, and now
here on the beach.
This may have been the occasion on which Yeshua spoke his
most famous speech, which I have called the "Great Sermon."
It is known as the "Sermon on the Mount" since Matthew
says that Yeshua spoke all these things while he was up on a
mountain; Luke tells us that he was "standing on a level place",
so that it has come to be known as the "Sermon on the Plain" in
Luke. But it is clearly the same speech; and since Matthew
does not say what mountain it was, and since it is also unlikely
that Yeshua said all of the things which are included in the
speech on a single occasion as reported by Matthew, but that they
were collated from many remembered sayings, I am following Luke
in assuming that it was delivered on the plain of Gennesaret, on
which we are told that Yeshua preached to the people many times.
Matthew and Luke also both tell us that Yeshua returned into
Kephar-Nahum after the speech.
Despite his scathing retorts to the Pharisees and scribes,
Yeshua was filled with affection and gentleness towards
ordinary people. In the Great Sermon, he speaks to his
hearers with warmth and tenderness in a series of sayings known
as the Beatitudes, from the Latin beatus facere
meaning "to make happy", as follows:
Blessed are you that are poor.
Blessed are you that are hungry.
Blessed are you that are sorrowing.
Blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
We cannot think that Yeshua meant that his hearers were blessed
because they were poor, and hungry, and sorrowing; he must have
meant that they were blessed in spite of their condition, just
because they were children of God and that the reign of God
of which Yohanan had spoken and which Yeshua had called the
"good news" was open to them, was within their reach.
Matthew tinkered up these sayings, making them more
sanctimonious and lugubrious: Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for they shall see God; blessed are those who hunger and
thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled; blessed are
they that mourn...making Yeshua's original sayings into priestly
homilies. The amme ha'eretz had been told over and over again
that they were scum and dregs and sinners; here came Yeshua
telling them that they were the light of the world, and salt of
the earth. Is it any wonder that the crowds flocked to hear him?
In the Great Sermon Yeshua also tells them that he had not
come to destroy the law or the prophets, but to bring them
to fulfilment. This should have been reassuring to the
scribes and Pharisees, who saw themselves as the defenders of
the law, but apparently it wasn't. Yeshua finishes this thought
with his appeal to his listeners to go beyond the law, to go
further than mere ritual and rote behavior:
Unless your goodness exceeds that
which the scribes and
teach and practice, you cannot bring about the reign of God
in your hearts.
So Yeshua does not tell them to disregard the teachings
of the religious leaders, but to do more than is asked of them,
and he illustrates this teaching by several examples.
Thus, he takes the sixth commandment of Moshe, Thou shalt
not kill, and extends it beyond physical violence to verbal
abuse and even emotional outbursts:
I say unto you, that even if you are angry with another
you shall be in danger of the judgment of God;
if you speak contemptuously of them, if you condemn them,
it is as bad as if you had killed them.
Therefore if you are going to the temple
to worship, and you remember that someone holds something
against you, go first to that person, and be reconciled
to them, and then you may go ahead with your worship.
Note that he does not simply say, Don't be angry, nor does
he say, If you are angry with someone, seek reconciliation.
He says, If someone else is angry with you, then
you should first seek to be reconciled, even before you go to
the temple to worship God. God cannot be truly worshipped when
there is rage and spite between his children.
Then he takes the eighth commandment of Moshe, Thou shalt
not commit adultery, and tells them all that having lustful
desires is just as bad as the act itself:
I say unto you, that even if you look upon someone with lust
you have committed adultery already in your heart.
Matthew incorporates some verses found elsewhere in Mark about
how you should pluck out your eye or cut off your hand if it
induces you to evil thoughts. These verses seem to have to do
with detachment from material things, rather than inward lusts,
so we think Matthew misplaced them here. But even if we are left
with a single sentence from Yeshua, his meaning seems to be clear:
To commit adultery is bad enough, but it is equally evil to harbor
lustful desires towards another person, which then as now means
desiring them only for bodily pleasure. Matthew also inserts a
verse found later in Luke, and similar to an event reported
later by all three, comparing divorce with adultery:
Every man that puts away his wife in order
to marry another woman commits adultery;
and if a man marries a woman that has been wife
to another man, that is also adultery.
This seems harsh; but Yeshua is probably attacking the
laws against adultery as meaningless, in view of the many things
that can happen between men and women.
And he takes the third commandment of Moshe, Thou shalt
not take the name of God in vain, and extends it to
taking any oath at all. This commandment is usually
understood to mean simply, Don't swear; but the original
sense of the commandment was, Don't vow to God that you will
do something unless you mean it. But Yeshua says flatly:
Swear not at all; neither by the heaven,
for it is the throne of God;
nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.
Neither should you swear by your own head,
for you can not make one hair white or black.
Rather let your speech be Yes if something
is so, and No if it not so, and whatsoever you say more
than these is taking the name of God in vain.
This conclusion also follows from the ninth commandment of
Moshe, Thou shalt not bear false witness, since to say more
than Yes to that which you know to be so or No to that which
you know to be not so is to bear false witness.
Then Yeshua takes the commandment of Moshe, An eye for an
eye, and a tooth for a tooth, meaning, Whosoever puts out
someone's eye shall have his own eye put out; and whosoever
knocks out someone's tooth shall have his own tooth knocked out,
and flatly nullifies this commandment:
Do not resist evil with evil; whoever should
strike you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if any man would go to law with you,
and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
And if anyone should compel you to go one
mile with him, go with him two miles.
Give to every one that asks of you;
and from him that takes away your goods,
ask them not again.
These examples are among the most precious in history.
The teaching, Do not resist evil with evil can be found in the
dialogues of Plato, in the teachings of Socrates; but nowhere
in human history has this teaching been put so starkly,
with such vivid examples. The Roman soldiers did indeed
compel the Jews to carry their loads for them. He also says
in Matthew's version of the Great Sermon:
Be reconciled with your adversary,
rather than going to court with him;
there is no point in being haled before the magistrate,
and then before the judge, and being cast into prison.
Yeshua had a razor-sharp mind, as we see again and again.
He next takes the commandment from the Qumranians, Thou
shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy, based on
precepts found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and extends the
call to love to neighbors and enemies alike:
Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you,
bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully
For if you love only them who love you,
what thanks have you? for all men love those who love them.
And if you do good to them that do good
to you, what do you more than others? do not all men do
Therefore let your love include all men,
even as God includes all people in his love;
that you may become the children of God your Father;
for he makes the sun to rise on both the evil and the
good, and sends the rain on the just and on the unjust.
This teaching, too, can be found in the book of Proverbs:
If thine enemy be hungry, give him food to eat; and if he be
thirsty, give him drink. And Mo-tse, a Chinese philosopher
who lived five centuries before Yeshua, and was a disciple of
Kung-fu-tse, whose name is known today as Confucius, wrote:
When all the people in the world love one another, the strong
will not overpower the weak, the many will not oppress the
few, the wealthy will not exploit the poor, the honored will
not disdain the humble, and the cunning will not deceive the
But no one has put the law of universal love more
clearly and precisely than Yeshua did on this occasion, whether
on the mountain, or upon the plain.
And since the Zealot movement started by Judas the Galilean
regarded the Romans as enemies and sought to drive
them out by force, Yeshua here sets himself squarely
against that viewpoint.
Yeshua was obviously concerned with the reality of piety
and virtue, and heaped scorn upon the mere appearance.
The Great Sermon continues with an emphasis upon privacy
in religious acts rather than publicity:
Thus, when you do alms, do not sound a trumpetbefore you,
as do the hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets
so that they can have applause of men. I say unto you,
that is all they will get.
But when you do your alms, do not let even
your right hand know what your left hand is doing,
that your alms may be in secret;
for it is enough to do alms,
and God your Father will reward you.
There were indeed religious Pharisees of the time,
who sought to show off their religiosity, whether they
truly felt it or not, and Yeshua saw this.
But he countered it with a reliance upon sincerity and
unselfconscious service to bring about
results in one's life.
And when you pray, do not do as the hypocrites do;
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues
and in the corners of the streets,
so that they can be seen of men.
Again I say unto you, that is all they will get.
But when you pray, go into your inner room,
and when you have shut the door, pray in secret;
for God will bring every secret thing into judgment.
And in praying, do not repeat yourself
incessantly, as the Gentiles do, for they think that
they shall be heard better the more words they utter.
No indeed; do not do the same;
for God your Father knows what things you need,
before you even ask.
Thus, prayer was to be between yourself and God, and
Moreover, when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites are,
of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces,
that it may be seen that they are fasting.
I say again unto you, that is all they will get.
But when you fast, wash your face,
and anoint your head as usual, so that men may not know
that you are fasting; and God, who sees every secret
thing, will reward you.
Yeshua did not want the practice of virtue to turn into
self-righteousness. How these exhortations have lived on to the
present day! and will no doubt live on forever! "Let not your
right hand know what your left hand is doing....Enter into
your closet, and pray in secret....God, who sees in secret,
will recompense you..."
In the Great Sermon as it has been reported by Luke and
amplified by Matthew, Yeshua next speaks of the errors of
judging other people, and emphasizes the need for
concentrating upon our own faults rather than the faults of
Judge not, and you shall not be judged;
condemn not, and you shall not be condemned;
release, and you shall be released;
give, and it shall be given unto you...
For with the measure you use
on others you shall be measured.
And why do you point out a speck
in your brother's eye, if you don't see the cloud
of dust in your own? I say unto you, first rid
yourself of the cloud of dust in your own eye,
and then you can see clearly how to get rid
of the speck in your brother's eye.
Despite these admonitions, we have been judging and condemning
ever since Yeshua told us not to, and have thereby only added
the horror of punishment to the terror of crime, and the
cruelty of the judge to the harmfulness of the criminal. Yeshua
would have had us treat those whom we would condemn with loving
concern, and to search ourselves to be sure that we are no
worse than those we would punish.
The Great Sermon concludes with some aphoristic utterances,
which can be found elsewhere in the rabbinical tradition,
trees which produce good and bad fruit, and keeping good
treasure in your heart, and putting a lamp where it can shine:
For there is no good tree that produces
rotten fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce ripe fruit.
Each tree is know by its fruit; men do not gather figs
from thistles, nor yet from a bramble bush do they
The righteous man out of the good treasure
in his heart brings forth that which is good;
but the hostile or uncaring man out of the
emptiness brings forth that which is mpty;
for it is from the contents of your heart that your
mouth finds words.
And what man, when he lights a lamp,
puts it in the cellar, or under a bushel basket?
No, no; he puts it upon a stand, so that people
coming in may have light. Like that, you must
let your light shine before men, that they may
see your good works. Because if a city is set
on a hill, it cannot be hid.
So why do you follow me around,
and do not follow the advice I give you?
Does this advice conflict with the admonition to do your good
works in secret? Perhaps Matthew borrowed these images from the
rabbinical tradition. Yeshua concludes the Great Sermon with a
parable about building one's house upon a rock foundation rather
than upon sand:
Every person who hears these words and does
them is like a person building a house who laid a
foundation upon the rock; and when a flood came,
the stream broke and crashed against the house,
and could not shake it, for it was well built.
But whosoever hears these words and
does them not is like a person building a house
upon the earth without a foundation; against which
the stream broke, and the house fell in, and its ruin
was very great.
No wonder the crowds were astonished at his teaching!
for he knew the scribal laws as well as they did, but he did
not hesitate to extend them and override them; he made universal
love and personal trust in God the supreme commandments,
just as Moshe himself had said in the books of Leviticus and
Deuteronomy, centuries earlier:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,
and with all your might.
And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
The early Hebrew legends portray Yahweh as a jealous,
capricious, almost vicious God who creates humanity and
then destroys them by a great flood; who destroys cities
by fire and brimstone; who orders the Hebrews to slaughter non-
Hebrews and tear them to pieces; who orders David to take a
census and then punishes him for it. During the period of the
kingdoms under the constant admonishment of the great prophets
God receded into the background as an active agent, but still
was to be followed with strict obedience, and gradually the
concept of God as universal over the whole of mankind emerged.
Yeshua's addition to this theological legacy was enlarging the
concept of God to that of the Father of all mankind, not merely
a ruler or lord. Even this was foreshadowed in the book of
Jonah, where God pities the Ninevites who repent, especially
the thousands of children who did not yet know right from wrong;
and in the book of Malachi, last of the Old Testament:
Have we not all one Father? hath not one God
created us all?
And it may have been Yeshua's references to God as "Father"
which led his later followers to label him the "Son of God",
in spite of Yeshua's own rebuke of that label, as we have
seen; and the first two words of the most famous prayer
attributed to Yeshua reveal the universality of his concept:
and every single time Yeshua speaks of God in the Great
Sermon, as well as many other places in the gospels, he uses
the phrase your father, thus including all his hearers
in sonship with God.
About this time Yeshua also designated twelve of his followers
as "disciples", in some special way. Many of them cast
but the fleetingest shadow on history, and the four gospels
do not give the same names for the twelve. Of them, Simon,
nicknamed "the Rock", was preeminent; supporting roles are played
by the "sons of thunder", Yakub and Yohan; Andrew is known only
as Simon's brother, and nothing else is heard about him; except
for the moment of his call, Matthew is not heard of again; Judas
Iscariot, of course, made a mark on history second only to Yeshua.
But Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas, Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot,
and James the son of Alphaeus are not told of except in the lists
of disciples reported by Mark, Luke, and Matthew. John does give
bit parts to Philip and Thomas, and also to one Nathanael, who is
considered to be identical with Bartholomew. But John only
mentions six of them altogether by name. Nevertheless, we can
believe that Yeshua selected an "inner circle" composed of twelve
of his followers, which must have included Simon, Yakub, Yohan,
Matthew, and Judas, at least.