Matthew has a Sermon on the Mount. Luke has a Sermon on the Plain: “Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground” (Luke 6:17).
If you pick up Luke’s story from this point, you will hear Jesus say many of the same words in Matthew’s story, only slightly different. In one story he’s sitting down on a mountain. In the other, he’s standing on a level place. What gives?
One preacher I knew asserted that Jesus, like any good preacher, re-preached his sermons. This preacher harmonized the differences by claiming that these are two separate events. This is certainly a reasonable theory. I’ve heard amazing speakers reuse their material.
But most scholars of the Bible have a different theory. It’s unlikely that Jesus had a stenographer among his disciples, furiously scribbling down everything he said. It’s more likely that someone compiled a list of “Jesus sayings,” and that Matthew and Luke both reconstructed their stories around these sayings. This hypothetical “sayings gospel” has been lost to history. Scholars refer to it as “Q,” which stands for source in German (quelle).
Some literalist Christians are shaken when they learn that the gospels were not beamed directly by the Holy Spirit into the authors’ heads, guiding their hands regarding historical accuracy, and that there may be contradictions or discrepancies in the authors’ accounts.
I’m not a literalist, so I LOVE the contradictions. I love seeing the way different people see Jesus differently. The early Christians had the chance to compile all four gospels into one consistent account, and they rejected that option. They wanted a diversity of perspectives! For me, that is a far more “inspired” view of scripture than boring, artificial consistency.
So when I read the Sermon on the Plain and compare it to the Sermon on the Mount, part of what gets revealed is how Matthew and Luke see Jesus differently. And their different perspectives have direct implications for how we view Jesus today.
Any good story requires a bit of background. We’ll look at that tomorrow.
Great Mystery, play with us in paradox.