The Sermon on the Mount 1

Anthony Zimmerman
April 26, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:1-12).

Jesus, the new Moses

Jesus had waited a long time for this historic moment, when "He opened his mouth and taught them saying...." His words will change the world. Before His public life, so far as we know, He had spoken briefly as our Teacher only one time before, and that was eighteen years ago when He had spoken in the temple, while His parents searched for Him. Patiently, very patiently, He waited from that time on until He was thirty years old and could command respect in the cultural context. He had learned the Bible in the home synagogue, had learned to speak graciously from Mary and Joseph, had experienced the realities of adult life in the carpenter shop. He had prepared specially for this moment with a forty day fast and a wrestle with the devil. Now He was ready to begin. Surely He savored the moment. The sat in the first row, and the vast crowds looked up from below. Many had seen His miracles. Now they awaited His message. The Father in heaven stood by, the Spirit enlightened His mind, and He then He opened His mouth t speak.

Jesus did not begin with a scolding; neither did He employ pyrotechnics like Moses did, with lightning, thunder, rising smoke and a quaking earth. He did something new. "Blessed are you" He said, radiating joy from His heart. He congratulated all for their good fortune of being Godfs children. As Saint John Chrysostom observed:

And He doth not introduce what He saith by way of advice or of commandments, but by way of blessing, so making His word less burdensome, and opening to all the course of His discipline. For He said not, "This or that person," but "they who do so, are all of them blessed." So that though thou be a slave, a beggar, in poverty, a stranger, unlearned, there is nothing to hinder thee from being blessed, if thou emulate this virtue (Sermon XV on Matthew).

Jesus was a brother and companion to each of those who sat at His feet. The Father had chosen each of them in Christ from eternity, to listen to His words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.... For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 1:3-4; 2:10).

And so He opened His mouth and spoke to them: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Being poor in spirit does not mean being detached from wealth if one is rich (see the Jerome Biblical Commentary (JBC) 70). It means rather being humble before God, unlike Adam and Eve who had once entertained ambitions to be little gods. Psalm 37 interprets for us what the words poor in spirit mean, namely to not be envious of the wicked, but satisfied with God, satisfied with onefs lot in life under the protection of God.

Fret not yourself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will dwell in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your vindication as the light, and your right as the noonday. Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him...

The poor in spirit, then, are the humble - those who keep the rules, who attend Sunday Mass, who respect the priest, bishop and pope, who keep the marriage laws, who are faithful to their duties. They are not theologians who dissent against the Pope, nor are they politicians who believe inside of the church doors but not outside of them. The poor in spirit are genuine people, honest with themselves, not pretentious, satisfied with how God arranges life for them.

"Blessed are those who mourn," Jesus, continues, "for they shall be comforted." The Israelites had mourned during their exile in Babylon six hundred years before this, and when survivors returned to the homeland, they dreamt of regaining the plot of land that their ancestors had owned. Unfortunately not all could reclaim their ancestral land, so they were without wealth, without title, without power. These people who are crushed, who are defenseless, who are in exile, all can look to God Himself for their comfort (see The International Bible Commentary (IBC) 1270). In this life they look to God with hope. And in the next life, God Himself will wipe their tears away: "I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" Revelations 21:3-4).

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Although they are not the recognized great ones among the people in this life, God will make them great in the next world. As Jesus said to the apostles at the Last Supper, so He says to all who are faithful to Him: "You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22:28-30).

Blessed in this context does not mean being temporarily happy, which is a passing emotion. It means rather spiritual communion with God and joy in His presence. The translation "blest" is sometimes given, but that appears to be inaccurate, being the passive voice of one who has been specially favored by God at a certain time. Being blessed points rather to an abiding disposition of the soul, of being at peace with God.

The meek are again the poor in spirit, humble in their demeanor toward God. Being content to acknowledge themselves as Godfs creatures, they do not make their own morals, but look to God (and to the Church) to form their consciences properly.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are they who seek and strive to be right with God. This is not a call for social justice and righting of wrongs on earth, but a genuine desire to be that what God wants us to be.

The first four beatitudes concern goods we receive from God. The next four concern action on our part to respond to what we receive from God. The poor who possess the kingdom of heaven will be merciful to others and will obtain mercy from God. Those who mourn and are comforted by God will become pure of heart and remain close to Him. Those who are meek and inherit the earth will in turn become the peacemakers of the earth. Those who have become righteous will in turn give witness to God during persecution.

Christ spells out the meaning of the beatitudes in other parts of the Gospel. In the Our Father and elsewhere He will explain what it means to be merciful: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The pure of heart are those who prepare rich soil upon which the seed sown by God will bring forth good fruit: "Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" Matt 13:8).

The peacemakers are those who think like God, not being clannish and narrow minded, but working to bring the gifts of God to all peoples: "So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt 5:45).

The persecuted are those who make sacrifices to maintain their union with God and their integrity of life. Many Christians are dispossessed, outcast, even killed, because they obey God rather than man. We think of Christian minorities in Islamic countries, who are denied equal rights with their fellow citizens. We think of wives who are maltreated by husbands for practicing virtue in the bed room, and for educating the children in the Catholic religion. We think of a woman who is abandoned by the man who fathered her child, and who is told to abort the baby. All such are specially blessed by God for striving to maintain their goodness of soul and of their peace with God.

Sometimes even honest Catholics are insulted by rudeness or discrimination by their parish priest or confessor. Recently a case came up of a woman who was rudely told by the confessor to get out and to leave without absolution because he judged that what she was confessing was too trivial. The mother of such a priest ought to box his ears. The woman was hurt badly but received comfort from a friend and was told to find another confessor. We all know people who react haughtily in response to insults by priests by saying: "Ifm finished with the Church forever!" But that is childish and self-defeating. It is not the way of Jesus who spoke from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." It is not the way of the Sermon on the Mount, which looks to the next life rather than to passing things of earth. Christ teaches us a new way to handle the insult: "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."

Pope John Paul II reminded us that Christians must be prepared to be persecuted because their way of life tends to rouse the ire of those who think differently from us:

At his regular public audience on Wednesday, April 21, Pope John Paul II encouraged the faithful to remain hopeful even in the face of the hostility that Christians will often encounter.... A loyal Christian should recognize that his beliefs could "provoke contempt and hostility, in a society that emphasizes self-promotion, exterior success, riches, and wanton pleasure." The witness of faithful Christians is a constant source of irritation to worldly people, he continued: "The behavior of the just man is an annoyance because it exposes the pompous and the perverse." In spite of this conflict, believers should "maintain an overall interior peace," the Pontiff said. This "communion with God is the source of serenity, joy, and tranquility." Through prayer, they can "enter an oasis of light and love" even in the midst of exterior conflicts ( Apr. 21, 2004).

The Sermon on the Mount is the Christian message in a nutshell. We live in this world, but are not of this world. We accept and even relish our poverty, our tears, our disabilities, our persecutions, for in this manner we celebrate our peace with God here on earth, while we look forward to our blessed rendezvous with Him in heaven. "For we were not born for this end, that we should eat and drink and be clothed, but that we might please God, and attain unto the good things to come" (Chrysostom Sermon 22).

Chrysostom closes his sermon 15 on Matthew urging the Christians to be generous, to forgive debts and to forgive wrongs: "Rising accordingly above all, let us forgive ... (let us cease) bearing malice against our neighbors; and thus enjoy the eternal blessings, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might now and always, even forever and ever. Amen.