Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon on the Mount
Today we begin reading from Matthew’s gospel and will continue to do so for several weeks to come. We begin with chapter 5 and the Sermon on the Mount.
In reading Matthew’s gospel we need to remember that it was directed primarily at a readership with a Jewish background and in this it differs greatly from Mark. One of Matthew’s aims is to present Jesus as the new Moses, transcending but not putting aside the law given to the Israelites by the first Moses. And, as the law of Moses is contained in what we call the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, so the law or teaching of Jesus is presented uniquely in this gospel by five long discourses.
The first of these is the Sermon on the Mount and it consists mainly of the qualities which are expected of a follower of the new Law and the new Moses, Jesus.
It begins with what we call the Eight Beatitudes. It could be said that these have been greatly under-rated in the life of the Christian churches, Catholic and otherwise. Most people tend to see the centre of Christian living in the Ten Commandments and yet they really belong to the Hebrew Testament, they are part of that Law which the coming of Jesus did not nullify but transcended. They are, of course, still valid as moral guidelines but, in many ways, they fall far short of what is presented by Jesus in the Beatitudes.
It would seem, in fact, that Matthew is presenting the Beatitudes as taking over the role of the Commandments and this is indicated by the prominent place they have in forming the opening of the first discourse. They are, as it were, a manifesto of Jesus’ message and his call to see the world in his way. They express the necessary attitudes of those who belong to the Kingdom. Those who have these attitudes already have entered that Kingdom.
Perhaps a few words about the ‘Kingdom’ are in order. In many ways, Matthew’s gospel can be called ‘a Gospel of the Kingdom’. The phrase that Matthew consistently uses, however, is ‘Kingdom of heaven’. For many people this can be misleading because it causes them to think that Jesus is talking about the next life, our life in ‘heaven’. So that the Beatitudes are interpreted as conditions to be observed by those who want to go to heaven after they die.
This, I believe, would be a serious misreading of the text. Matthew uses the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ because, mindful of the Jewish background of his readers, he does not like to mention the name of God directly. He uses other circumlocutions in the course of his gospel to get around using God’s name. As when he has Jesus say, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” By using the passive in the second half of the statement, he avoids mentioning the Doer, God. The other gospels have no hesitation in talking about the ‘Kingdom of God’ and that is what Matthew also means.
What is this kingdom? It is not a place. The Greek word basileia (basileia) is an abstract word which means ‘kingship’ or ‘reign’ rather than ‘kingdom’, which suggests a territory. ‘Kingship’ or ‘reign’ on the contrary suggests power. To belong to the Kingdom or Kingship of God, then, is to put oneself fully, consciously and deliberately under the power of God, to experience that power and be empowered by it. That power is above all the power of agape-love.
When we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom come”, we are not talking about a future life after death but praying that people everywhere put themselves under the loving power of God. That is made clear by the petition immediately following: “Your will be done on earth…” Our first call as Christians is to belong to, to enter that Kingdom and not just to be a member of the Church.
The Church is, in so far as it is faithful to the call of Christ, part of the Kingdom but the Kingdom extends far beyond the membership of the Church. The Church is, as it were, the sacrament or visible sign of the Kingdom. As examples, I would suggest that people like Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are people who are very much full of the spirit of the Kingdom, more so, I dare to say, than many of us who are baptised. It is significant, I think, that Gandhi was particularly fond of the Beatitudes and identified with them.
It is time now to look at today’s text.
It begins with Jesus seeing the crowds and going up a hill. Moses, too, delivered God’s law from an elevated place, Mount Sinai. In neither case can we identify the actually mountain or hill, although traditionally, of course, a hill in Palestine has been called the Mount of the Beatitudes.
In the traditional way of a teacher, Jesus sits down to teach. We see him doing the same in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:20). He is joined by his disciples and it is not clear whether they were the primary object of his teaching or that the crowds were also included. The teaching, of course, is directed to followers and, in particular, to those reading the gospel.
Jesus begins the discourse with the wonderful words of the Beatitudes. There are eight of them, each one beginning with the words, “Happy are those…” ‘Happy’ is a translation of the Greek adjective makarios (makarios) which includes not only the idea of happiness but also of good fortune, of being specially blessed. So we can translate it as “Blessed indeed are those…” or “Fortunate indeed are those…”
It is important to realise that being a follower of Christ is intended to be a source of deep happiness and a realisation that one is truly fortunate to have discovered this vision of life.
At a first reading, the Beatitudes seem to fly in the face of commonly accepted ideals of the good life. It takes a deeper reading to see their inner truth.
How happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The Gospel in general shows great concern for the poor, that is, all those people who are deprived of what they rightfully need to lead a life of decent dignity. Why should the poor be particularly blessed? As people living in deprivation, obviously they are not. But in terms of the Kingdom they are blessed because in the Kingdom, where love, compassion and justice prevail there is no place for such inequality. The Kingdom is an environment of interlocking relationships where people take care of each other and where the resources of all are shared according to the needs of all. The Kingdom is a place of blessings and happiness for the poor because it spells the end of their poverty. The poor are the “little ones” that Jesus speaks about as qualification for entering the Kingdom. They are the “last” who will be first. And, while ‘poverty’ in a wider sense can be applied to all, Jesus is thinking especially of the material simplicity that he expects from his disciples, a poverty which he himself experienced with “nowhere to lay his head”. Wealth can only mean depriving the needy of what they should have.
Matthew is unique in using the term ‘poor in spirit’. It is a significant addition. While the Gospel in speaking of the poor is mainly and rightly concerned with the materially poor, Matthew’s phrase can broaden the concept. Because, in reality, there are many other ways in which people can be deprived and regarded as poor. We are more sensitive to this in our own day with our deeper insights into psychological and sociological factors. People can, although materially well off, be literally poor in spirit. That is, they have little spirit, very little happiness, lives of full of stress and anxiety and anger and resentment. These are all the result of our highly competitive, each-person-for-himself society which is everything that the Kingdom is not. Taken in that sense, the Beatitude applies to a very large number of people.
Happy the gentle; they shall have the earth for their heritage.
The word ‘gentle’ is variously translated as ‘meek’, ‘lowly’, ‘humble’. The Greek word comes from the noun prautes (prauths). The beatitude is reminiscent of a phrase in Psalm 37: “The humble shall have the land for their own to enjoy untroubled peace.”
Probably ‘gentle’ is the better rendering. It suggests someone who is kind and caring and not particularly assertive and dominating. In our rough and tumble society such people normally get pushed aside and can thus be classed among the ‘lowly’ and the ‘humble’. But they are not necessarily ‘meek’, which suggests people who allow themselves to be trampled on. Rather they belong to those who subscribe to active non-violence. That is, they will never resort to any form of violent behaviour to achieve their goals but they are active and pro-active, not passive – or meek. We think of people like Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. To be ‘gentle’ in this sense requires a great inner strength and, of course, in the Kingdom there is a very desirable need for such people. It is there that they will come into their own.
In some texts this Beatitude is interchanged with the following and sometimes it is presented as an addition to the first about the “poor in spirit” where “gentle” is understood as “lowly” cf. Ps 37:11). In this case there would only be seven Beatitudes, a more biblical number.
Happy those who mourn; they shall be comforted.
Mourning and happiness would seem to be contradictory to each other. It does not say what the mourning might be about. It could be the death of a family member or a loved one. But it could be something quite different altogether.
Again we have to see the beatitude in the context of the Kingdom. There, those who mourn – for whatever reason – can be sure of experiencing the comfort and support of their brothers and sisters. That is something that they cannot be always sure of in a world where people are too busy taking care of their own immediate interests. Mourning by itself is never a happy experience but it can become a blessing when surrounded by the right people as their love and concern are poured out.
Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right; they shall be satisfied.
‘What is right’, ‘what is just’. Justice is done when each person is accorded what belongs to them. A just world is a world of right relationships; in the Kingdom that is realised. And so, those who truly hunger and thirst to see justice done in our world for every single person will see their dreams and hopes come to fruition.
It is a hunger and thirst which everyone of us should pray to have. Only when we all have that hunger and thirst will justice be achieved and the Kingdom become a reality. We have made progress over the years but we still have a long, long way to go.
Happy the merciful; they shall have mercy shown them.
Mercy, compassion, the ability to forgive fully. The Kingdom is a world full of mercy and forgiveness. And just as we will be ready to forgive others we will find that others will be ready to forgive us when we fail in our responsibilities towards others. In the Lord’s Prayer, which is a prayer of the Kingdom, this is what we ask for: “Forgive us our sins because we forgive the sins of those who have offended us.” In fact, it is impossible for those who belong to the Kingdom to be offended and forgiveness comes easily to them.
That does not mean, of course, that we condone every wrong. The question of justice always remains. But condemning wrong does not exclude healing wounds caused by the hurt which wrongdoing causes.
And mercy understood as compassion is a particularly desirable quality in a Kingdom person. Such a person not only experiences pity for those who suffer but knows how to enter into and empathise with what they are going through. This was a quality found again and again in Jesus himself.
Happy the pure in heart; they shall see God.
‘Pure’ here is not referring primarily to sexual purity. The pure in heart are those whose vision is totally free of any distortion or prejudice. They see things exactly as they are. As a result, they have little difficulty in recognising the presence and the action of God in the people and the environment around them.
This purity of heart, this ability to be able to see with perfect clarity is truly a gift. It requires a high level of integrity on our part; but the rewards are enormous.
Happy the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God.
Surely one of the most beautiful of the beatitudes and the one we would all love to have applied to ourselves. In a world so full of divisions and conflicts of all kinds the role of the peacemaker is so much needed. It is something we can all do, starting in our own homes, then in our working places and the wider society. It is something we can do as individuals and in groups, as parishes and churches.
And, how true that, as peacemakers, we can be called ‘children of God’! The Letter to the Ephesians speaks beautifully of Jesus as making peace, breaking down walls between people, by his death on the cross (Eph 2:14ff).
Finally, Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Most people would hardly regard being persecuted, which could involve prison, torture and death, as a source of happiness. But it is not the persecution that triggers the happiness but the reason why it is willingly undergone.
Right from the beginnings of the Church, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, Christians rejoiced to be found worthy to suffer with and like their Lord in the proclamation of his message and way of life. That way of life was so precious to them, such a source of meaning, that they were more than willing to give their lives to defend it.
In prison, they sang songs and prayed as later the civil rights leaders (most of them committed Christians) in the United States would sing “We shall overcome” as they rode the paddy wagons to jail. It is a much more painful experience to compromise with our deepest convictions in order to avoid criticism or physical suffering. They are indeed, as Jesus says, the successors to the great prophets of the Hebrew Testament.
Happy are those who with integrity can stand by their convictions whatever the cost.
Some people have seen in these Beatitudes a portrait of Jesus himself and certainly they should be the portrait of every Christian and of every Kingdom person. They are the charter people everywhere (and not just Christians) are called to follow. They go far beyond what is demanded of in the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are not so difficult to follow and, in so far as several of them are expressed in the negative (‘Thou shalt not…’), they can be observed by doing nothing! There is no way, however, that people can ever say they observe any Beatitude to the fullest. They always call us to a further and higher level.