Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Plain

This is not very spiritual.  It’s my term paper for my Synopic Gospels class.  It’s not that bad.  It is definately something I can go back to and work on. Let me know what you think.

The Beatitudes

            The sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain are two of the most influential Gospel passages in the Bible.  There are striking differences between the two, yet there is also a deep sense of connection between the beatitudes of Matthew and the beatitudes of Luke.

              It has been discussed that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience.  Matthew shows Jesus as a Jewish messiah, teacher, and personification of Torah law calling his disciples to a higher righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees.  The sermon on the mount shows this by framing Jesus’ teaching within old testament writing. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says of the sermon, “Biblically, one can consider it to be eschatological, ethical, legal wisdom, or law as instruction (Torah) in view of the kingdom, not coercively but eschatologically enforced, a fusion of several OT genres.” (Brown 640)

            The phrase, “blessed are,” is a phrase commonly used in the old testament especially in the books of Wisdom and Psalms. (The New American Bible 1014)  Persons who are considered blessed or happy are mentioned all through the book of Psalms. (Karris 868)  Psalm 1:1 reads, “Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked.” Psalm 32:1-2, “Happy those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt.” And in Psalm 41:1, “Happy those concerned for the lowly and poor.”  These verses show a strong similarity between Jesus sermon and Old Testament teaching.  It is done to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of the law.

            The setting is very important to the sermon.  Jesus is giving this sermon on top of a mount.  The Collegeville Bible Commentary says, “In the Bible and in other religious literatures, the mountain is frequently a privileged place for revelations of or from God.” (Karris 869)  There seems to be a working parallel between Jesus and Moses.  The sermon is to be seen “as a definitive interpretation of the Torah delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai.” (Hare 34)

            The similarities between Moses delivering the law to the people from Mount Sinai and Jesus teaching the beatitudes to the disciples and the crowd are obvious.  But most commentaries consulted do not say Jesus is like Moses. In fact, they point out that Jesus is not to be considered a “new Moses.”  The New Century Bible Commentary says, “The suggestion that the mountain indicates a ‘new Sinai’, and that Jesus is here presented as a ‘New Moses’ may be implicit; but no features from the account of the giving of the Law in Exod. 19, as they are developed for instance in Heb. 12.18ff., appear here.” (Hill 109)  The commentary goes on to say that the authors could have gone further in their comparison of Jesus to Moses, but such a comparison would be so strong that it would change the entire Gospel.  Another commentary says, “Although the Moses typology is not pressed by Matthew, because he regards Jesus as far greater than Moses. (Hare 34)  Jesus is beyond Moses.  This would be consistent with the idea discussed in class that Jesus fulfills the law so radically that it does not look like the law anymore.  Another commentary says, “While there may be an allusion to Mt Sinai and the giving of the Law, Jesus is not the new Moses here. (Meier 38)  The commentary continues, “The disciples who come up to receive Jesus’ instruction stand in the place of Moses and his close companions, while the crowds at a distance might represent Israel of old.” 

            These commentaries all suggest that Jesus is not bringing the Law to the disciples and the crowds as Moses brought the Law down from Mount Sinai to the Israelites.  They suggest that Jesus himself is the Law.  In Exodus 19 God says to Moses, “I am coming to you in a dense cloud so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.” (NAB 74) God is commissioning Moses to act on his behalf just as Jesus is commissioning the disciples to act on his behalf.  This validates the commentary from John Meier.  It also corrects the Jesus comparison, not to Moses, but to God.

            The New Jerome Biblical Commentary offers their definition of a beatitude, “In form, a beatitude is an exclamation of congratulations that recognizes an existing state of happiness, beginning with the Hebr noun ‘asre’ or the Gk adj. ‘makarios.’ (Brown 640)  The idea of an exclamation that recognizes an existing state of happiness is consistent with the idea of Jesus fulfilling the Mosaic Law.  Jesus authorizes the teaching that has always been present through the beatitudes. 

            The Collegeville Bible Commentary breaks up the beatitudes into sections.  The first section deals with the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Those described here look to the future for fulfillment. (Karris 870) The poor in spirit will have the Kingdom of Heaven.  The mournful will be comforted.  The meek will inherit the land. The hungry and thirsty for righteousness will be satisfied.  Karris also says that the first beatitudes spill into the present.  He writes, “By living out the values of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, they anticipate and share the happiness that a fuller form of life with God will bring.” (Karris 870)  This idea of the Kingdom of God being something lived in the present and something anticipated in the future is consistent with the idea of constant metanoia discussed in class.  “Jesus’ declaration of happiness makes these people happy right now.” (Meier 40) The Kingdom of Heaven is to be lived in the present as it is awaited in the future.  Meier continues, “He gives them unshakable assurance that the future kingdom is already their possession. (Meier 40) Living out the Law of God in the present brings comfort to the people and they will also be comforted in the end the comfort is constant like with metanoia. 

            Another commentary says of the first section of beatitudes that they are a proof of Jesus’ commitment to the needy.  It reads, “The original beatitudes about the “poor,” the “mourners,” and the “hungry” express Jesus’ mission to the needy in Israel and the dawn of a new era of salvation history.” (Brown 640)  For Matthew, Jesus’ ministry includes but is not confined to the needy.  This is emphasized by generalizing the groups.  The poor become the poor in spirit. The hungry and thirsty become the hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  These changes may have been done to include all persons in the beatitudes, but there is also a real element within this spiritual element of inclusion.  Brown writes, “In the Bible economic destitution is an evil to be corrected and wealth is not an evil in itself.” (Brown 640)  Brown cites Deuteronomy 15:11 as an old testament passage that both suggests it is not sinful to possess wealth, but the wealthy must care for the poor.

            Another commentary suggests that the poor in spirit are those of are economically and socially depressed and have trust only in God because they have nothing else. (Hill 110)  Similarly, another commentary says, “The poor in spirit are those who bow humbly before God in total trust, who are willing to await everything at God’s hand.” (Meier 40)  The words, in spirit, radically change the concept of the poor. Yet what does not change is what is needed.  Whether it be the economically depressed of the spiritually bankrupt, salvation is needed all the same. “God is the source of all their happiness.” (Karris 870)

            The second group of beatitudes deals with the actions of the person.  They include the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  Jesus gives a blessing to these groups. (Karris 870)  Like the first set of beatitudes the second set has both a primary subject and a secondary or generalized meaning.  For the merciful, Jesus is literally talking about those who show mercy to others.  Brown writes, “This refers to the pardoning of one’s neighbor, to love, esp. of the needy, and even of one’s enemies.” (Brown 640)  Brown continues to say that this means an absolute opposition to vengeance.  The pure of heart means, “close to justice and includes covenant fidelity, loyalty to God’s commands, and sincere worship.” (Brown 640)  It also is a reference to those who are ritually impure and need to be cleansed.  The peacemakers are a reference to the Old Testament term salom, which is a total well-being. (Brown 640)  Peacemaking includes loving your neighbor which makes this beatitude close to that of mercy. (Brown 640)  Peacemaking also refers to those who bring about peace by overcoming evil with good. (Hill 113) The persecuted for the sake of righteousness implies that persecution has been felt.  So, one can assume that this beatitude was a construct of the early church. (Hill 113)  Hill goes on to say that it probably includes both Jewish and Christian martyrs in the early days of the church and the Kingdom of Heaven will be theirs for their sense of righteousness.

            The last beatitude has to do with persecution because of Jesus.  It reads, “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.” (NAB 1015)  This one connects the disciples and the crowd to the prophets of the Old Testament. (Karris 870)  The final beatitude is a culmination of all the beatitudes.  Meier writes, “The disciples of Jesus who practice justice, mercy, and peacemaking must expect the same fate, the fate of the persecuted prophets. (Meier 42)  Again, this is Jesus showing himself as the fulfillment of the law.  The people will be persecuted for following Jesus, just as people in the Old Testament were persecuted for following the law.

            Luke’s beatitudes are much different than Matthew’s. The first difference is the location being on the plain and not the mount.  According to Karris, “But instead of staying on the mountain to deliver his discourse, Jesus comes down from the mountain like Moses descending to deliver the law to the people.” (Karris 949)  Karris cites Exodus 34:15 as a connection to the Old Testament. The last part of the verse says that someone will come to invite the people and they may take part in his sacrifice. (NAB 89)

            Karris suggests that the difference between Matthew’s sermon on the mount and Luke’s sermon on the plain is “that Matthew’s beatitudes suggest what Jesus’ disciples ought to be, whereas Luke’s describe what they actually are.” (Karris 949)  Matthew’s first beatitude says blessed are the poor in spirit, which can be seen as a call to humility.  Luke’s first beatitude says blessed are you who are poor; the poor being the economically depressed.  The hungry and thirsty in Matthew are hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  The hungry in Luke are hungry. Luke is more literal with his beatitudes.  “The ‘poor’- without the qualification of ‘in spirit’ (Mt) – are the really poor in the literal sense.” (Fuller 1003)

            All the commentaries consulted agree that though Luke is more literal, the poor are poor, the hungry are in need of food, etc., Jesus’ sermon on the plain is not confined to the poor, the hungry, the weeping, or those who are hated because of Jesus.  Luke’s beatitudes include a larger audience.  One commentary reads, “Luke is careful to point out that that the poor in question are disciples; and close behind the poor of Yahweh with all the religious association of the term.” (Fuller 1003)  Another commentary states that God’s fulfillment in Jesus is an invitation to all to become the “poor of God.”  And only persons who believe God’s kingdom depends on Jesus can become “the poor of God.”  And the rich are those who do not want to commit themselves to Jesus. (Brown 694) Another commentary says, “Luke’s own readership included wealthy and middle-class citizens of the Empire. To be “poor” involves a state of dependence, which is what both sets of beatitudes are aiming for.” (Karris 949)

            The last commentary continues to summarize the Lukan beatitudes through the last one just as Matthew’s beatitudes are summarized through the last one.  It says that it is no enough to be poor or hungry or hated, one is fortunate to be treated badly, because the prophets in the Old Testament were treated badly for obeying God.  And Jesus himself was treated badly for doing the will of the father. (Karris 949) Luke’s audience is brought into the lives of the prophets just like in Matthew’s beatitudes.

            What Luke’s beatitudes have that Matthew’s does not are consequences for those who have.  They seem to be words of caution to people who are not poor, or hungry, or weeping, or hated.  It is an invitation to correction as one commentary puts it.  It says, “A social class is not being condemned.” (Brown 695) And that, “the woes are addressed to would be disciples who have possessions. They are challenged that wealth, stomachs filled with select food-stuffs, carefree time, and being held in high esteem by the right people are ephemeral when compared with following Jesus and his kingdom message.” (Brown 695) 

            The sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain are very different from each other.  Mathew and Luke are writing to different audiences.  In this situation differences are not just understandable, but are expected.  Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, so naturally there will be much comparison to Mosaic Law.  In Matthew, Jesus gives his sermon on a mountain top just as revelations from God have always been given.  Luke is writing to a Gentile audience, so there will be a strong case made that the Gentiles are just as good as the Jews.  Both groups of people are on even ground.  This may be why Jesus gives his sermon on the plain, to emphasize equality of Gentiles to Jews.  The Gospel if Reversal.  Jesus is stepping down from the Mosaic position to reach the Gentiles.  Matthew’s first beatitude is to the poor in spirit; an invitation to all people to humility regardless of economic situation.  Luke’s firs beatitude is addressed to the poor, those who do not have money. The kingdom of God is there’s.

            Greater still are the similarities in the two sermons.  Both have a clear audience in mind, yet, write in a way to invite all people to hear God’s word.  Both show Jesus as the solution to their problems.  Both address the imminent persecution all will face for believing in the word of Jesus.

            Both sermons are relevant to this day.  Matthew’s call for all to be poor in spirit is very important to a world where wealth is not as rare a possession.  Luke’s specific address to the poor is very important to a world where well over half the population go hungry.  As a Redemptorist seminarian I study to preach the Gospel to the poor and abandoned.  The literal poor can not be forsaken. Nor can the need to reach the figurative poor be taken for granted.  God’s Message is for all to hear.  The two sermons together, make sure all hear Jesus’ message of grace and constant conversion.

 

Works Cited

 

Brown, Raymond E., S.S. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J. (emeritus), et al. The New Jerome

            Biblical Commentary. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. 1990.

Fuller, Reginald. Johnston D.D., Ph.D., L.S.S., Leonard S.T.L., L.S.S., et al. A New

            Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.  Thomas Nelson and Sons. London,

            Wisconsin. 1969.

Hare, Douglas R. A. Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching:

            Matthew. John Knox Press.  Louisville, Kentucky. 1993.

Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Wm. B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1987.

Karris, Robert J. O.F.M. The Collegeville Bible Commentary. The Liturgical Press.

            Collegeville, Minnesota. 1992.

Kilgallen, John, J. A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Paulist Press. Newy

            York. 1988.

Meier, John P. Matthew. The Liturgical Press. Collegeville, Minnesota. 1990.

New American Bible for Catholics (NAB). World Bible Publishers. Iowa Falls, Iowa.

            1991.

 

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