This coming Sunday is the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In today’s post we continue to explore Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” which as we discover is more than the Beatitudes of the previous Sunday’s gospel. By paying attention to the text, in Matthew’s telling, we also discover that Jesus is speaking, not to a crowd, but to a select group of disciples. As well we will discover, Jesus is beginning to prepare them for the distinctiveness of Christian discipleship.
One of the points, lost in translation, is that the meaning of “Blessed are….” in the Beatitudes are a bit more subtle than would appear at first glance. The Greek word used in makarios. This does not mean “blessed by God” (bārûk in Hebrews, translated into Greek as eulogētos). The word “happy” in today’s English carries too much connotation of emotional and psychological well-being – and that is off the mark. Makarios is a description of the circumstances of a good life; a life well lived – even if it proves to come at a cost. That cost is something made clear in the following verses: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt 5:11-12)
Our very short gospel passage follows immediately after Matthew’s presentation of the Beatitudes (5:1-10) as part of the larger “Sermon on the Mount” as it is popularly known. It is a parallel text, in part, to Luke 6:20-49, the “Sermon on the Plain.” More importantly, this passage is part of the first of the five great discourses in the gospel. At a broad stroke, Matthew 5-7 are an expose of Jesus’ authoritative teaching; Chapters 8-9 are stories of his authoritative deeds.
With the chapters dealing with authoritative teaching, there are four primary themes that emerge:
- 5:3-16 distinctiveness of Christian discipleship
- 5:17-48 disciples: fulfilling the Law
- 6:1-18 disciples: true and false piety
- 6:19-34 disciples: trust in God over material security
Much of Chapter 7 is given to providing contrasting examples of these, with the culmination in Matthew 7:28-29: “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
Although crowds are described at the beginning of Mt 5, the focus of this larger discourse is for the disciples who have already responded to Jesus (cf. 4:18-22) and now need to learn what life in the Kingdom means. To understand the “Sermon on the Mount” as simply a general code of ethics, is to miss that Jesus is beginning to explicate the demands of the Kingdom that point towards a way of being in the world: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) This is held in contradistinction from a simplistic following of the Law (5:21-48).
- Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain