Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll travel through a small portion of the Bible—chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Because the sermon is short, we will be able to take a leisurely walk through it, thinking carefully about what we are reading and what it means for our lives today. Although the sermon is short, it gives us a great deal to reflect on.
This guide provides everything you need to explore the Sermon on the Mount in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that highlight what Jesus’ words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch your group into fruitful discussion, helping you to both investigate Jesus’ teaching for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp Jesus’ message. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with Jesus’ teaching. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what these words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present. By showing what this sermon has meant to others, these sections will help you consider what it means for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they appear. (Notice, however, that the “Guide to the Reading” in Week 1 is longer than usual—probably too long for reading aloud at the discussion session.) “Between Discussions” pages offer supplementary material to be read outside group sessions.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished amateur biblical scholars, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to take turns as facilitators and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 92) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the entire text of the Sermon on the Mount, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one (some of the questions refer to other parts of the Bible). You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) or individuals (page 95).
Life with a Purpose
In a typically American juxtaposition, St. Agnes Church, which looks like it was designed to stand in an alpine valley, towers over a neighborhood of homes belonging, for the most part, to African Americans, Native Americans, and Hmong people from Laos. German-speaking immigrants built the St. Paul, Minnesota, church in the 1800s. Its graceful clock tower and gleaming baroque interior, with subdued golden accents and elegant stained-glass windows, perfectly reflected the builders’ central European piety and taste. But their descendants moved away long ago. The church and its school now serve a mixed twenty-first-century population.
Two of my daughters were among the mix of young people who made their way through St. Agnes high school in recent years. On Sunday afternoons two years apart, first Anna, then Virginia donned a graduation gown and joined the procession down the church’s main aisle, beneath a lofty ceiling painting of the teen martyr Agnes being welcomed by angels into heaven. On both occasions, the church’s pastor, Monsignor Richard Schuler, delivered pretty much the same short message. The gist of it was simply “God created you to be happy.” What an appropriate reassurance for young adults launching out into a changing world!
Monsignor, I’m sure, would readily acknowledge that he took his theme from a Jewish preacher who addressed audiences long before Africans, Germans, or Laotians came to America. Speaking to gatherings of people in first-century Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth not only asserted that God had created them to be happy; he announced that God was acting in a fresh way to secure their happiness. And he instructed them in the way of living by which they could find the happiness that God intended for them. What a vital message for them—and for you and me today.
Jesus himself did not write down his thoughts. But after his death, his followers gathered their recollections into orderly accounts of his life and teaching. In one of these accounts, the Gospel of Matthew, the sermon that we will be reading over the next six weeks is featured as Jesus’ inaugural speech. Because of the location where Jesus delivered his sermon, it is called the Sermon on the Mount.
Because the Sermon on the Mount is not an independent work but part of Matthew’s Gospel, we should view it within the whole story that Matthew tells. Matthew opens with a narrative of Jesus’ birth and infancy, then fast-forwards some thirty years to a scene at the Jordan River, where Jesus is baptized by a prophet known as John the Baptist (chapters 1–3; unless otherwise noted, biblical citations in this book refer to Matthew’s Gospel). Immediately afterward, Jesus spends some weeks in the dry hills east of Jerusalem, praying, fasting, and being tested by the devil (4:1–11). Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, baptism, and temptation converge like spotlights on the subject of his identity: together the events show Jesus to be God’s unique and obedient Son (1:20; 3:17; 4:3, 6). Thus Jesus deserves to be believed when he begins to announce that a new phase in God’s saving activity is underway (4:17).
Jesus gathers disciples (4:18–22) and soon attracts crowds by his remarkable healing powers (4:23–25). Then, at an outdoor venue somewhere in Galilee—the northern region of present-day Israel—he delivers his Sermon on the Mount (5:3–7:27). After this, Jesus continues to teach about the coming of God’s “kingdom”—God’s direct, manifest reign over everyone and everything (13:1–53). Jesus’ vision of God’s purposes and Jesus’ claim of authority challenge the leaders of Judaism (see chapter 12). Eventually, some of these leaders arrange to have him executed as a political troublemaker (chapters 26–27). At his final meal with his disciples, Jesus reveals that his death will establish a new bond between God and human beings (26:26–29). Soon after his death, to the amazement of his followers, Jesus rises from the dead (chapter 28).
Matthew’s Gospel as a whole thus tells of God’s decisive action on behalf of men and women through his beloved Son, Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus says little about himself or the sweep of God’s action through him. The sermon is mainly an invitation to personal transformation. Jesus summons us to make a determined, lifelong effort to model ourselves on the goodwill, kindness, and justice of God. He calls us to reshape our behavior, our speech, and our thinking according to the highest standards of what is right and good.
Taking the sermon to heart requires tremendous effort on our part. But it is crucial to see it as a response to God’s action. The Gospel as a whole shows that God has taken the initiative. Our action, then, will simply be a response to what God is already doing on our behalf. Jesus precedes his call to personal transformation with the announcement that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). His hillside sermon is a part of his ministry of proclaiming and showing that God is bringing people reconciliation and healing (4:23–25). With Jesus’ arrival, a new wave of God’s action is spreading through human society. Jesus’ sermon contains his instructions for how to align ourselves with God’s activity, how to live in God’s kingdom to the extent that it is already becoming present. Matthew shows that Jesus has accepted a painful death in order to bring us into a new relationship with God (16:21; 26:26–29). It is through this new relationship with God that we find the power to follow the teaching in the sermon.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to live in a way that fosters justice, peace, harmony, and well-being within and among people. In the rest of his preaching, Jesus makes it clear that God is the one who will ultimately bring about this condition of holiness and wholeness toward which the sermon urges us to strive (see especially his parables—13:1–53). It is God who will abolish every source of sorrow through the final arrival of his kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides us with instructions for how to become ready to enter God’s kingdom, how to have a place in it when it arrives, how to cooperate with its growth in the world. Yet the coming of God’s kingdom—day by day and at the end of time—depends on God’s overarching, creative power.
The Sermon on the Mount is not an impersonal lecture. It is an expression of how Jesus approaches life. It reflects his desire for men and women to live in intimacy with God and in peace with one another. Jesus does not depict a distant ideal; rather, he expresses the commitments by which he actually lives—as the rest of the Gospel shows. The sermon offers, in the words of John Paul II, “a sort of self-portrait of Christ.” Far from being a mere collection of ethical principles, the sermon conveys Jesus’ instructions for how to live as his personal disciples.
Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as a teacher whose teaching we may accept with complete confidence. Unlike Jesus’ original listeners, who did not yet know the outcome of his life, we who read the Gospel know that Jesus willingly endured death in faithfulness to his principles (26:39) and that after dying he entered into risen life with God. Jesus is the teacher of the path to happiness because he has walked the path to its successful conclusion. By his death and resurrection, Jesus went ahead of us on the path, thereby opening it for us.
We will read the Sermon on the Mount section by section. Before we begin, however, it will be useful to get a big-picture view of the sermon as a whole, because its structure helps to express its meaning. Viewed from an altitude of thirty thousand feet, so to speak, the sermon looks like this:
Introduction (5:3–16): Who will be happy?
Beginning (5:17–20): God’s law and righteousness
Section 1 (5:21–48): How to interpret God’s law
Section 2: Part 1 (6:1–4): Merciful deeds Part 2 (6:5–15): Prayer
At the center (6:9–13): The Lord’s Prayer Part 3 (6:16–18): Fasting
Section 3 (6:19–7:11): On wealth and criticism
End (7:12): God’s law is love of neighbor Conclusion (7:13–27): Choose well!
Notice the placement of the Our Father. The prayer stands out in the middle of the sermon as prominently as a diamond on an engagement ring. This positioning is a clue to the purpose of the sermon: the sermon shows us how to lead a life centered on God. The various instructions in the sermon are pieces of wisdom about how to lead a God-centered life. At the same time, the central placement of the Lord’s Prayer suggests that only through personal communion with God our Father can we succeed in following Jesus’ instructions.
Equally remarkable is the way that references to God’s law in the Old Testament (5:17–20; 7:12) enclose the body of the sermon (5:21–7:11). By framing his teaching in this way, Jesus indicates the continuity of his teaching with God’s instructions to Israel through Moses. Jesus is not founding a new religion; he is bringing the religion of Israel to perfection. In addition, the frame highlights the dual principles by which we can discern the core of the Old Testament’s ethical heritage: “righteousness” and love of neighbor.
The relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the divine commands contained in the Old Testament has been the subject of much debate. How, precisely, does Jesus fulfill the Old Testament commands? This question will confront us especially when we read 5:21–48, where Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard that it was said. . . . But I say to you . . .”
One explanation of the relationship between the Old Testament commands and Jesus’ instructions is that they constitute a lesser and a greater morality. That is to say, Jesus viewed the Mosaic law as deficient and supplied what was lacking. This has been the opinion of some prominent Christian teachers, such as St. Augustine. According to another view, Jesus regarded the Mosaic law as correct but thought that it had become encrusted with misunderstandings—misunderstandings that he pried away.
Whichever view one takes, Jesus’ general approach to the Mosaic law in Matthew’s Gospel is clear enough. Jesus valued the entire Mosaic law, including its ritual and ceremonial aspects (23:23; 24:20). Matthew never portrays Jesus as speaking against the Mosaic law. Yet among the hundreds of Old Testament precepts, Jesus does focus on those that he believes to be of fundamental importance. He gives primary attention to the Ten Commandments (5:21, 27; 15:1–9) and views rules such as those concerning ritual purity (23:25–26) as relatively minor. Although he does not dismiss any of the Old Testament commands, he has a clear sense of priority: “Woe to you,” he tells some religious leaders, “for you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (23:23). Twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus quotes an Old Testament oracle in which God declares, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7; Hosea 6:6). Thus Jesus ranked as first the commands to love God above all and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (22:34–40; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus’ disciples were Jews, and Matthew seems to have written for a mainly Jewish-Christian audience. Apparently these Jewish followers of Jesus continued to keep the whole Old Testament law. As Jews, they would have seen the manifold Mosaic law not as an encumbrance but as a gift from God. Consequently, they would have welcomed the gift of Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the law as the guide to following it to perfection. When non-Jews flooded into the Church, however, the question arose of whether they were obliged to keep the ritual requirements of the Mosaic law. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the early Church answered this question with a definite no (Acts 15). For non-Jewish Christians, Jesus’ teaching provided not so much a means for interpreting the Mosaic law as the basis for a holy way of life that was free from the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law, even while being in continuity with the Mosaic law’s fundamental vision of life. This is the value that it has for us today.
The fact that Jesus’ disciples and Matthew’s first readers were Jewish has an important implication. Jesus’ criticisms of religious behavior in the Sermon on the Mount have sometimes been interpreted as criticisms of Jews as Jews—a critique of Judaism. But this cannot be his meaning. Because Jesus, and Matthew, mainly address Jews, the criticisms in the sermon are part of a conversation among Jews about the proper way to live as Jews. Take, for example, Jesus’ criticism of people who make a show of their acts of charity and their prayers in the synagogue (6:2, 5). This is not, as people have sometimes thought, an attack on the synagogue and on those who attend it; after all, Jesus and his followers belonged to the synagogue (notice that Jesus refers to “the synagogues,” not “their synagogues”). In targeting hypocrisy in the synagogue, Jesus condemns the fake religiosity that any devout Jew would reject. Jesus’ criticisms of defective forms of piety are part of an intra-Jewish, not an anti-Jewish, critique. Thus it is a misuse of the Sermon on the Mount to employ it as an attack on Judaism, either past or present. We who are disciples of Jesus today, whether of Jewish or gentile origin, are likewise subject to the temptation to parade our piety before other people. The sermon is given to us so that we might engage in self-criticism, not criticism of others.
Jesus’ sermon calls for careful reading. Jesus speaks in striking metaphors (5:13), in pithy, proverblike exhortations (6:34), in terms sometimes deliberately exaggerated (5:22). His instructions are not to be taken literalistically (in 5:29–30, Jesus does not literally advocate plucking out eyes or amputating hands). His speech is dense, and we must work to unpack his meaning (5:21–48). While Jesus teaches with complete authority, he does not put his instructions in the form of a systematic treatise on ethics; rather, he uses examples, leaving it to us to dig out the underlying principles and determine how they apply to our lives (5:39–42). His words challenge us without telling us precisely what we must do in every specific situation (5:43–48). He calls us not only to new ways of acting but also to new attitudes, even new desires (5:6; 6:19–21). Only if we interact with his words over time, pondering them and trying to act on them, will they shape our minds and hearts.
Jesus’ teaching is rich in meaning, allowing for a wealth of interpretations. Through the centuries, saints and scholars have detected ranges of meaning in his words and have come to different conclusions about how they should be applied. Different readers have grasped different aspects of Jesus’ message. In a slender book like the present one, it is impossible even to mention all these interpretations. There is space to point out only a few interpretations of the sermon. My selection does not imply that interpretations that are not mentioned are mistaken.
As readers of the Sermon on the Mount, we take our place among the generations of Christians over the centuries who have sought to understand Jesus’ words. To each generation making its way through a changing world, Jesus issues his call to a life that is right and good, a life that leads to happiness. Jesus addresses his teaching to each of us as directly as Monsignor Schuler offered his reassurance to each of the high school graduates sitting before him in St. Agnes Church. Jesus challenges you and me to become interpreters of his sermon, seeking to grasp his teaching and apply it to our own particular situations. Then, like St. Agnes herself, depicted in the church ceiling high above the graduates’ heads, we will enter the happiness that God has in store for us.
Three terms that play an important role in discussing the Sermon on the Mount deserve special attention:
Beatitude. Declaration that someone is happy or is in a situation that will lead to happiness. From a Latin word meaning (could you guess?) “happiness.” Examples: 5:3–11 (“Blessed are the poor,” etc.).
Torah. Hebrew word meaning “instruction” (see Psalm 32:8, which uses the verbal form of the word: “I will instruct you”). In biblical tradition, Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible, which convey God’s basic instructions for his people’s relationship with him, with one another, and with others. Torah is often translated “law” or “the Law,” that is, the Mosaic law. Matthew uses the Greek word for law to refer to the Torah. It is helpful, however, to keep in mind that Torah does not mean “law” in the sense of a criminal code. In the sermon, Jesus indicates that the Torah should not be viewed as a set of legal regulations requiring merely minimal observance but, rather, as a set of instructions on the principles on which we should base our lives. Examples: 5:17; 7:12.
Righteousness. In common usage today, this word has an unpleasant flavor. It suggests an attitude of self-righteousness. Some translations avoid this problem by rendering the underlying Greek word as “justice.” But justice carries the atmosphere of the courtroom. In biblical tradition, righteousness does not have a self-justifying or legalistic connotation. As it is used in the Sermon on the Mount, righteousness refers to God’s character (fairness, mercy, and generosity), to human actions (doing what is right, behaving virtuously, acting charitably), and to a condition of society (being rightly ordered, having right relationships between people, functioning for the benefit of all its members). Examples: 5:6, 20; 6:33.
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 What’s your approach to spices in food?
The hotter the better.
I’ll try anything once.
Just pass me the salt.
2 Mae West once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” What’s your opinion?
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: Psalms 34:6–22; 37:5–11; Matthew 5:1–16
Background: The Psalmists’ Faith
Psalm 34:6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
and was saved from every trouble.
7 The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8 O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him. . . .
15 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their cry.
16 The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
18 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord rescues them from them all. . . .
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be
37:5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will
not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
Take Your Seat. The Teacher Is About to Begin Matthew 5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
You Have a Public Responsibility
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Compare 5:1 with Exodus 34:1–4 (also see Exodus 19:3, 20; 24:15, 18). How are the passages similar? What might be the significance of the similarity?
2 Who are the two groups in Jesus’ audience? What different meanings might this first part of the sermon have for each group?
3 The word meek is used in 5:5. What does meek mean in ordinary usage today? Based on the surrounding statements in 5:3–12, does the modern meaning seem to be what is intended here?
4 Jesus warns his followers that they may encounter persecution. Does he mean this literally? Take a look at Acts 7:54–8:3; 9:1–2.
5 What ordinary uses of salt might Jesus have in mind in 5:13?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
Jesus urges us to view life as a onetime opportunity to journey toward God. He is about to mark out the road to our divine destination (5:17–7:12). Knowing that we will meet with
difficulties along the way, he starts with an encouragement: it is good to be on this road, despite its problems and sorrows, because it leads to the ultimate peace and joy—the “kingdom”—for which God has created us (5:3–12).
5:3. Jesus’ opening words—“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—serve as a key for unlocking the meaning of all that follows. But who are the “poor in spirit”? And what does it mean that they are “blessed”?
In the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, the phrase translated “poor in spirit” echoes exactly the phrase translated “crushed in spirit” in the ancient Greek version of Psalm 34:18—an echo of which Matthew must have been aware. Thus we may look to Psalm 34 to help us understand the meaning of poverty of spirit. In that psalm, the “crushed in spirit” are people ground down by the injustices of “evildoers” and by other “afflictions.” They are “brokenhearted” because of failure, neediness, and loss. Such people recognize the limitations of the human condition; they know that we cannot “have it all.” Yet the crushed in spirit in Psalm 34 trust God in the midst of their neediness; they “take refuge in him” (34:8, 22). Poverty of spirit, then, is the opposite of what we might call “wealth of spirit”; it is the opposite of pride and arrogance. Poverty of spirit guides us toward humility, the vantage point from which we can begin to perceive God. Modern twelve-step programs reflect a certain poverty of spirit: I admit that my behavior has done harm and that I need to change—and that I cannot change without the help of a higher power.
To call the poor in spirit “blessed” is not the same as saying they are happy. People who are crushed in spirit are obviously not happy, in the ordinary sense of the term. The beatitude is a striking paradox. In effect, Jesus declares, “Those who lack the blessings of material sufficiency, justice, health, and so on are blessed because they are well positioned to receive greater blessings.” To declare the poor in spirit blessed is to congratulate them for being on the right road. They are, we might say, in a good place. Jesus assures them that God will uproot the causes of their present suffering and sorrow when the “kingdom of heaven” comes.
5:4. Those who mourn “will be comforted.” Quite simply, mourning is grieving. Those who suffer the death of one deeply loved or loss of health or abandonment by friends or exile from homeland are among “those who mourn.” Jesus speaks to all of us who mourn for any reason—because of catastrophes and injustices in the world, because of defects and scandals in the Church, because of our own failures and sins.
Again, “blessed” does not mean “happy.” Jesus is not making the absurd assertion that grief is joy. He takes mourning for what it is. Nevertheless, he declares, if we are in mourning, we are “blessed,” for grief can be the path to great happiness. The beatitude implies that is it better to confront the sorrows of life head-on than to paper over them with artificial cheeriness, with a “happy face” spirituality—or to flee from them into self-destructive behavior. Mourning leads to poverty of spirit, which in turn prepares us to surrender ourselves to God. Then we will be open to being “comforted” by God, who offers us not only sympathetic words but also the promise that he will bring his kingdom.
5:5. Meekness is complex: humility demonstrated in kindness. Jesus alludes to Psalm 37:11: “the meek shall inherit the land.” Judging from that psalm, the “meek” are oppressed people who put their lives in God’s hands and look forward to the justice that will prevail when his kingdom comes. They hold on to God’s hand in the darkness, when terrible events seem to call his power and goodness into question. Meek people do not respond in anger to injury and offense. They do not respond to evil with outbursts of temper (Psalm 37:8) but with patient, constructive action (compare Romans 12:21). In the rest of the sermon, Jesus will dissipate any suspicion that meek means “weak.” Any man or woman who follows his path of meekness must become a person of strong character indeed.
5:6. Once we have adopted a posture of humility and mourning, we become more aware of the pain of people around us. We begin to notice the injustices that others suffer. Poverty of spirit sensitizes us to the presence in ourselves of the sin that causes so much of the suffering that we decry in the world. When I shake off my pride, for example, I begin to perceive that the kind of hatred that drives terrorists to kill innocent people is present in my own heart—especially toward terrorists. If we are willing, these realizations will give rise to the desire to bring the world, and ourselves, into a better state. This is “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” The desire is twofold: that society as a whole and we ourselves would reflect the righteousness that God intends. It is important to observe that to “hunger and thirst” means both to “long for” and to “make an effort for.”
5:7. To be “merciful” is to do merciful deeds and to extend forgiveness. St. Augustine noted that as soon as we try to make progress toward righteousness, we are confronted with our weakness in doing good. We feel the need for God’s help. In Augustine’s view, Jesus is here suggesting that we express our desire for God’s help by giving what help we can to our neighbors. Let us aid our neighbors as generously as we want God to aid us, Augustine recommends; let us forgive them as freely as we want God to forgive us.
5:8. Purity of heart means undivided obedience to God. In the rest of his sermon, Jesus will call us to go beyond merely trying to do the minimum that God requires; he will urge us to make a wholehearted effort to attain the righteousness that God desires—to do what is right not for personal gain but for love of God, to put God’s agenda for the world ahead of our own comfort and security. As soon as we try to respond to Jesus’ call, difficulties arise, confronting us with the question of whether our primary concern is to serve self or to serve God and others. This is the question of purity of heart.
5:9. Peace is not just an end to fighting; it is society in right order, people sharing God’s blessings with one another. God longs for this peace. If we wish to be associated with God, to be his “children,” we must share his longing—and we must embrace his means of achieving the goal. As we will see, God’s approach to peacemaking in an often warlike world involves great risk-taking and faith.
5:10. The final beatitude ties all eight into a package by repeating the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” from verse 3. Thus we are guided to read the beatitudes as a unit: Blessed are those who are poor in spirit and mourning and meek and so on, because God will give them comfort and mercy and all his other blessings. The mention of “righteousness” here echoes the fourth beatitude (5:6), thus pointing up righteousness as both the central principle and the final goal. Jesus reveals a God who is totally invested in achieving righteousness—right living, justice—in us and in the world. The recipients of God’s blessings will be those who earnestly seek to do what is right in God’s eyes and work so that others may enjoy justice.
5:11–12. Without denying that evil causes sadness (recall 5:3–4), Jesus declares that even in painful situations we can experience the joy of knowing that God’s kingdom will prevail over every form of evil (see Romans 5:3–5).
Looking back over the beatitudes, I am astonished by their challenge. Jesus summons me to overcome my deep-rooted egotism. How much I need to change in order to be the kind of person Jesus congratulates! He comforts me with the assurance of a kingdom that, to my secularized eyes, often seems ethereal and distant. How much I need to change in order to feel encouraged by the assurance that Jesus offers!
5:13–16. Jesus makes it clear that his is not a merely private spirituality. He calls us to a mission to the world, for the world. The beatitudes are not merely a formula for achieving personal aspirations or forming relationships within the Christian community. Jesus invites us to act in the midst of a world that is suffering poverty and grief and hoping for justice and peace. (For additional discussion, see “Between Discussions,” page 26.)
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Where in your life—or in the lives of people you know—has the lack of material blessings prepared the way for receiving greater blessings?
2 What is the difference between being poor in spirit and giving up on yourself or on life—or even on God? How do the poor in spirit respond to hardship? Is there a situation in your life where you need to respond in this way?
3 Does anything in this reading stand out as new, inspiring, or challenging to you? As you read 5:3–10, which beatitude stands out most prominently? What might God wish to say to you through this beatitude? What step could you take to respond?
4 Persecution may take various forms. What forms does it take in contemporary society? Have you had any experience of this? If so, what have you learned from it?
5 What suggestions and cautions can you offer with regard to using the beatitudes to console or encourage someone? Given the differences between the beatitudes, it may be best to consider each one separately.
6 What does it mean to be salt and light for the people you interact with every day? How could you grow in being salt and light for them?
7 How can we express love and care for people in a way that allows them to see our good works and also helps them recognize that the source of our good works is our Father in heaven?
Our Bible journey can be more fun if we encourage other seekers to accompany us. . . . Talking with others also provides a good sounding board for testing our impressions and conclusions.
Steve Mueller, The Seeker’s Guide to Reading the Bible
Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use one of these approaches—or create your own!
Pray either Psalm 34 or Psalm 37:1–11. Provide an opportunity for silent or spontaneous prayers. Conclude with an Our Father.
Use the beatitudes as your prayer. Ask one person to read 5:3–10 out loud, pausing after each verse to allow the group to pray, “Make us your people, Lord.” Then spend a couple of minutes in silent reflection. Conclude with an Our Father.
Saints in the Making A Young Man of the Beatitudes
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
When Pier Giorgio Frassati was quite small, his grandfather took him to visit a nursery school. At lunchtime, Pier Giorgio quickly noticed one boy, whose face was marred by a skin disease, eating apart from the others. Pier Giorgio immediately seated himself next to the boy and shared his lunch. As a young teen, Pier Giorgio kept a notebook containing the names and addresses of impoverished families he met. He would duck out of recreational activities to bring them small gifts.
By the time he was in college, in the early 1920s, Pier Giorgio’s aid to his suffering fellow citizens in Turin, Italy, had become systematic. He regularly visited residents of a hospital for the mentally and physically disabled, bringing them candy, clothing, and cheerful conversation. He worked with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, calling on needy families and securing various kinds of assistance for them. Pier Giorgio considered becoming a priest but rejected the idea, because he thought he could have a closer relationship with working-class people as a layman. So he studied engineering and planned a career in mining—a field where he would be surrounded by workers in blue collars. Despite his family’s wealth—his father was a prominent newspaper publisher and an Italian ambassador to Germany—Pier Giorgio had only a small allowance. But he preferred to travel third-class rather than first-class on trains and to share the savings with others.
Frassati’s mother was a not very devout Catholic; his father was an agnostic. Pier Giorgio’s life was a tightrope walk between his parents’ expectations for his success and his desire to escape his privileged lifestyle and live as an ordinary person, dedicating his energies to serving people in need. His tightrope walk ended at age twenty-four, when he died from polio.
Frassati died in 1925. In the following decade, his life inspired a young Polish student, Karol Wojtyla. In 1990, Wojtyla—
as Pope John Paul II—declared Frassati “blessed,” a step toward sainthood. Calling Frassati “a man of the eight Beatitudes,” the pope has said that Pier Giorgio “proclaims that a life lived in the Spirit of the Beatitudes is ‘blessed,’ and that only the person who becomes a ‘man or woman of the Beatitudes’ can succeed in communicating love and peace to others.”
The portion of Jesus’ sermon that we have just read is so rich in meaning that we will pause here to look back and reflect on it some more. Next session’s portion also contains much to explore, so we will get started on it in this section.
Looking back. Jesus concludes his beatitudes by referring to the opposition that we are likely to encounter if we live the way he recommends (5:10–12). He may still be thinking about opposition as he goes on to speak about the public nature of our role (5:13–16), for he warns us not to compromise the qualities that make us distinctive as his followers. Rather, we should let our merciful actions, our commitment to justice and peace, be visible in the world.
Jesus makes his point by combining ordinary images in surprising ways. There was nothing unusual about ceramic oil lamps. But the idea of putting a burning lamp under a wicker basket is not only ridiculous but also alarming. Salt has a variety of uses, and commentators have discussed which use Jesus has in mind here. The most common use of salt, and thus the most likely reference, is to flavor food. As the most basic seasoning, salt is necessary and irreplaceable. Jesus’ point, then, is that his followers serve a necessary and irreplaceable function in the world. The qualities that make us “salty” are meekness, mercy, peacemaking, and so on—those things he has just mentioned in the beatitudes. The uniqueness of our role in the world is suggested by his declaration that we are “the” salt of the earth. Jesus assigns to his followers a mission that no other body of people in the world can carry out.
Salt seasons food by being mixed into it—not by staying in a box. The image of salt, then, suggests that our mission involves mingling with other people. While periods of solitude are essential for spiritual life (6:6)—and while some men and women are called to a life of prayer in monasteries and convents far from the mainstream of society—the Church as a whole has a role to play at the center of the world. New Testament scholar Hans Dieter Betz makes this observation on Jesus’ image of his disciples as salt: “The faithful disciples must get involved with this earth and its life. . . . There can be no doubt that this means a life under hazardous conditions. One might refer to another proverbial image: ‘Behold, I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves’ (Matthew 10:16). Yet, the life of the faithful disciples is not that of passive and helpless victims, but that of movers and shakers: it is a life of ‘doers.’ Every single situation described in the Sermon on the Mount puts the disciples into the center of trouble, difficulties, and hard choices. This is the place where they must ‘seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33).”
The image of the burning oil lamp (5:14–16) helps to explain the nature of our role. We are to let our light shine out so that other people may see our good works and “give glory” to our Father in heaven (5:16). Clearly, the light we are supposed to show to people is, in origin, God’s light, since others will praise God, not us, when they see it. The “good works” are the sort of deeds that God does—showing mercy, establishing justice, making peace. The virtues that Jesus identifies in the beatitudes are the qualities of God. If we become men and women of the beatitudes, people who look at us will catch a glimpse of God—and will thank him for his goodness.
Notice that light is singular. Yet in the Greek, the words translated “you” and “your” in 5:14–16 are plural. Jesus is not speaking of many individual lights. He is saying, “The group of you is the light.” It is by working together as Jesus’ followers that we will reflect the presence of our heavenly Father in the world.
Looking ahead. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law . . .” (5:17–20). In the section of Jesus’ sermon that we are about to read, he will make six on-the-contrary statements, each drawing a contrast between what people have heard about God’s will and Jesus’ own position (5:21–48). Is Jesus retiring the Old Testament commands and replacing them with his own expression of God’s will? At first glance, Jesus may seem to be disagreeing with God’s commands in the Old Testament. But Jesus warns us at the outset to avoid this impression (5:17). His approach to the Torah is complex and subtle; it should not be misunderstood as rejection. He does not take issue with the Torah itself but with interpretations that obscure its meaning. He seeks to dispose of these misinterpretations of God’s will.
“I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” Jesus announces (5:17). He intends to show us how to carry out God’s commands in a way that fulfills their purpose. One way of expressing the purpose of God’s commands is “righteousness” (5:20), that is, being just and merciful in imitation of God, living in a way that fosters justice and peace among people (5:44–45, 48). Individual divine commands show us how to progress toward this goal. Another way of stating the purpose of God’s commands is to say that they instruct us in how to best serve our neighbor’s welfare. Jesus declares that God’s law is fulfilled when we treat others as we would like to be treated (7:12; compare 22:34–40). God’s law comes into focus when we view it through the lens of this Golden Rule. Thus the way to properly interpret and apply God’s commands is to ask questions such as “What does this teaching show me about how to foster what is right and just?” and “How does this instruction guide me in loving my neighbor?”
In his six “antitheses”—statements of contrast—Jesus rejects interpretations of God’s commands that arise from viewing them mainly as civil and criminal laws. Legal scholar Benjamin Cardozo defined law as “the sum total of community morality that judges deem it expedient and practicable to uphold by the use of force.” Civil and criminal laws, then, merely specify the minimum we must do to avoid penalties. In Jesus’ view, God’s commands in the Torah are not essentially legal limits on our behavior, such as can be enforced by the state. Rather, God’s commands are what the Hebrew word Torah basically means: “instruction.” They instruct us in how to achieve righteousness. That is, the divine commands show us how to relate to friends, strangers, members of the opposite sex, and enemies so as to achieve God’s goal of harmony among human beings. Jesus does not deny that God’s commands may also provide elements to undergird a legal system. But this is not a subject that he explores in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, he emphasizes that the primary purpose of God’s commands is to convey God’s vision for human life.
Thus Jesus insists that we not approach God’s commands in a legalistic way, as minimal standards of behavior. Loving children do not aim at merely doing the minimum that their parents require. Similarly, God’s sons and daughters should try to grasp what their Father is aiming at through his commands and should put their energies into attaining his goals. In his six antitheses, Jesus will give examples of how to apply this approach to God’s commands. He trains us to ask, “What is the summons to justice and love that God is giving me through this or that divine command?”
Jesus’ on-the-contrary statements take a specific form. First, he quotes or paraphrases Scripture. Second, he cites an erroneous interpretation drawn from an oral tradition (5:43) or an application within Scripture itself that is open to misunderstanding (5:21, 33), or he simply lets the Scripture quotation stand without further interpretation (5:27, 31, 38). In the latter case, he implicitly takes issue with the apparent meaning of the command. In other words, he regards the literalistic interpretation of the command as mistaken. Third, he presents his own interpretation, bringing to light the fundamental intention of the scriptural command.
Before moving on, it would be instructive to take another look at 5:22: “But I say to you . . .” Who is this man who speaks with such authority about God’s will for human beings? He claims to know God’s will so well that he can confidently identify the original purpose of God’s commands—and can speak with assurance about the ultimate consequences of failing to achieve God’s purpose. One scholar comments that while Jesus interprets God’s law as it was revealed in the Old Testament, he does so not as its servant but as its Lord.