We hear at Mass this year the Gospel of Matthew. As he tells the story he’s using as a framework what hearers from a Jewish background would be familiar with: their own Scriptures, the Hebrew Bible. And so the narrative of Jesus’ ministry is roughly divided into five major sections – to parallel the Torah, the five scrolls that are the Hebrew Bible’s core. Today we hear Matthew present Jesus as a “new Moses” – the teacher who goes “up the mountain” (similar to Moses’s receiving the Law of God on Mount Sinai) and giving from the mountain the new revelation of God’s way. Later on in this passage we’ll also encounter the sayings of Jesus that have a structure of “You have heard it said (in the Jewish teachings), but I say to you….” So what is the core of the new teaching? For this, we need to back up a bit.
In the largest view, God’s started His plan to restore the damage to His good creation that sin caused by calling the Jewish people, who were chosen to be His emissaries to the rest of the world. By their way of life (spelled out in the Torah, or Law) they would show the wisdom of God’s plan for the world, and attract others to it. But things didn’t quite work out that way. The continuing effects of sin caused the chosen people to fall away from observance of the Law instead of giving good example; to turn inward instead of being missionary; and in general to cover up the wisdom of God’s teaching with human foolishness of every stripe. But there was always the hope that the light of true and wise teaching would break through; sometimes this hope was focused on a new age to come, sometimes on the person of the messiah who would someday appear. And it’s in this context that Matthew tells the story of Jesus the new teacher of God’s way, fulfillment of the Jewish hope. (There’s much more to Matthew’s picture of Jesus, of course, but this is enough for our present purpose.)
We start out today with Jesus’ parallel to the Ten Commandments: the Beatitudes. (Whenever there’s a ruckus about posting the Ten Commandments in some public park or courthouse, there’s a part of me that wonders: Why is it, in a supposedly “Christian” society, that no one ever campaigns to post the Beatitudes? I’d love to see courthouses and parks with plaques that read, “Blessed are the poor…the meek…the peacemakers… the persecuted.…” I suspect it’s not just deference to Jewish citizens….)
Even the quickest reading shows that the Beatitudes are much more radical than the Ten Commandments; just as the rest of the “Sermon on the Mount” and the entire Gospel are more radical than the Torah. It’s as if so much more damage has been done to creation by sin that a more dramatic remedy is now required. Instead of just the orderly, just, and compassionate life that the Torah called for, in Jesus God now has to “up the ante”: nonviolence, love of enemies, valuation of society’s discards, and an ethic that goes deeper than behavior right back to intentions. (“Whoever looks with lust…has already committed adultery in his heart.”) Here it’s vital to understand why: the stakes are higher.
Go back to God’s plan to redeem creation through His chosen people: It hasn’t worked, so something else is called for. (This will ultimately be the crucifixion and resurrection of His Son, but it also involves the way of life of those who are called to be members of the Body of the Risen Christ; and that’s what the Sermon on the Mount is teaching: How to be a disciple/missionary for God’s new adventure into restoring creation to its original blessedness.)
I’ll go into the details of that radical way of life in a future column; here it’s important to note that God’s new plan for redemption also continues to run into the roadblock of human sin: The new Chosen People (who now include you and me) continue to go down the dead-ends of the Jewish people before Jesus: failure to follow the teachings; self-preoccupation and infighting; loss of a missionary focus. Although we are guaranteed that God’s plan in Jesus will succeed, getting there shows evidence of all the types of human foolishness and wickedness that have plagued human history from the start. So as we study Jesus’ teachings over these next few weeks, let’s start by getting the big picture right: we need to live this way not only for our personal salvation; but to join, as members of the Risen Body of Christ, in God’s work of restoring creation. Until next week, peace.