Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Sermon on the Mount



I will attempt to write a theological reflection on the Beatitudes from Matthews portrayal of the Sermon on the mount(Matthew 5:1-12).  I have chosen this particular passage from the list of options as I find it to be the one that is most unfamiliar to me.  As a convert, I rarely if ever heard anyone discuss the beatitudes and if they did it was in a passing quote here or there.  After converting to the Roman Catholic faith I found myself fascinated with this entire discourse, more especially since I had found some of them to be very difficult to comprehend from a human stand point.

First I always find it important for my own understanding to address the particular situation in which the author portrays this event. At the beginning of this section of scripture Mathew indicates that “he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.”  The first major thing that I notice of this passage is that Jesus began by sitting down, assuming a position of authority, the position of the teacher. Then we see that the disciples climbed the mountain to receive his teaching. This leads also an interesting correspondence to the event that occurs when Moses receives the commandments directly from God.   As God spoke from the top of the mountain, Moses climbed up to meet him. Our Pope Emeritus in one of his writings indicated that we should also look at scripture through a Christological lens, a hermeneutic of faith. When we examine this event from that understanding, we begin to see a very similar pattern in that the disciples climbed the mountain to receive a litany of commandments dealing with life with God and with mankind.

The beatitudes themselves almost seem to have an intricate dichotomy of meanings. On the one hand we have these positives, and with the others we seem to have almost a negative promise.  It puts me in mind of the ten commandments themselves in which we find 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots.'  We find that we get a condition “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)  These seem almost to make a direct correlation, an understanding that easily presents itself.   When we take the word blessed and examine it's root of makarios we find the word means in a sense happy.  Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God.   That we are truly only happy when we are like God.  This I think gives me the key to my personal understanding of the Sermon, that to be happy we must be like God, to be more like Christ himself.

The second affirmation seems to me to be “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Another aspect that we clearly see, as maybe the most important aspect of our relationship with God, is that of His mercy. Scripture affirms consistently that God is a just and merciful God, “for the Lord your God is a merciful God” (Deuteronomy 4) reminds us that this all important attribute of God is also one that we must remember.  Jesus himself reaffirms it again in another saying where he says “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:2)  That true happiness comes from being merciful in our lives. In our relationships with others and with God; when we extend mercy to others they too will extend it back to us.

The third affirmative beatitude I'd like to address is “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”    Jesus reminds us that nothing impure can enter into the kingdom of heaven, that our heart must free of any attachment to sin. The gospel of Matthew repeats this theme again when he tells us that our “righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees” or we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  This sort of thought prompts me to exclaim with the disciples, “who then can be saved”? Jesus seems to be saying we must be as righteous as He (as God himself) in order to be happy.

The fourth thou shalt of the favorable proclamation from the mount is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)  Again we see the pattern of those who seek earnestly the will of God, righteousness, will be given happiness.  That true happiness comes from being more like God and seeking to be morally upright in all of our actions.  This  will provide us with a filling satisfaction of not only achieving that justification, but also a supernatural happiness.

That brings us to the other end of the scale, where we seem to have a more perturbing nature of promises or proclamations.  Where as Jesus has been promising happiness for things that seemingly make sense to be happy about, now we find a different nature to the secondary half of the formulation.  Jesus speaks of suffering and pain being the happiness. Things that we might perceive as negative, yet then follows with a reward for them. From my protestant background this almost seemed at odds with the God of the ATM, the God who gave you what you asked for and if you suffered it was simply because you did not have enough faith or had in some way sinned.

I had a great deal of difficulty understanding these four pronouncements for many years, until I heard Father Robert Baron speak of them in his Catholicism series.  I cannot pretend to do justice to what he gave in that series but I'd like to attempt my own understanding of it and hopefully in a clear enough manner to convey my thoughts. He speaks of Thomas Aquinas and the spheres of influence that typically get in the way of our trust in God. Those spheres are wealth, power, pleasure, and honor.  Father Barron compares these to the four remaining beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)  This beatitude seems to suggest that we must be detached from worldly possessions.  That having or owning something is not as important as not being attached to wealth.  Here we have a simple reminder that  indeed for a 'rich' man to enter into the kingdom of heaven is nearly impossible, but with God all things are possible.  It also reminds us that a poor man can have negative attachments to his wealth just as a rich man can be completely unattached to it.  The widow who placed her two pennies in the offering was generous, but she also could have been stingy hanging on to everything she had left.  That it is our spirit, our heart that determines where our hearts are.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matt 5:4)  In the same scheme of things it's important not to be attached or addicted to feeling good.  In our society we often look for good feelings at all times.  Our children shows flood us with the concept that love is feeling good and sex is relegated not to procreation but to what feels right. Feeling good is of course a good thing, and when ordered to God's will is indeed beautiful, but we also know that addictions can occur when we put this first into our lives. Only when we are unattached to those feelings can we truly follow the will of God and do even that which seems difficult or painful at the time to do that which is right.  It also reaffirms that our hearts call out to God, and that the only place we find rest is in Him. We often try to cram anything we can into that God shaped hole in our heart, but the only thing that will fit permanently and comfortably is God himself.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5) I can only imagine how this must have seemed to those who believed Jesus to be the political and kingly Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government.  Here he clearly sets a course that would not lead to any sort of world domination or overthrowing of any political regime. “Happy are those” who are not attached to political (worldly) power and fame.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 5:10)   Again we see a call to detachment from another sphere, that of honor. Jesus seems to indicate that by freeing yourself from the need to be seen in a position of honor that we can inherit the kingdom of Heaven and be the children of God.

I think that those four amazing statements can only be understood rightly when looked at while also gazing at the cross of Calvary. As Jesus hung on the cross he embodied all of these, more especially the four negative, in a fullness and a fulfillment of the words themselves. How much more poor in spirit can one get than to have nothing left, worldly at all? As he hung there with no clothing, no possessions, just a crown of shame and his own flesh ripped and torn in the wind.  How much less honor can one have than to be the King of the Universe, but to be crucified alone. Matthew portrays Jesus as having no friends, no family, no disciples at his feet. Even the 'good thief' isn't present, only those who deride and mock him. How far from feeling pleasure can one be than to be suffocating under their own weight, their skin flailed to the point of falling off, their hands and feet pierced by nails and driven to a cross?  The driving winds of the dry desert air parching and cracking your tongue and lips and the heat of the day blistering.  How meek and humble did he appear when he allowed himself to be crucified for our sake? The master of legions of angels and king of the entire universe, placing himself into the hand of men to go to his own death.  Yet, here is truly a happy man who lived for God, and did God's will in all things.

As I examine those thoughts and I image Jesus hanging on the cross in my place, I am struck by how the very sermon on the mount cried out to those disciples on the mount in a way that almost says “Blessed are they who are like Me.” I find that each of this statements directly corresponds to behaving in the way that Jesus behaved.  His life itself lived out the beatitudes to a fullness that I am not sure any other human can or has lived them. A holiness so much more difficult to follow, but so much more practical and easy to understand.  A call for each of us as disciples of Christ to emulate Jesus, who is our Sabbath and our rest.

I feel that this amazing understanding of the need for detachment calls me as a Christian in my own personal walk to begin to further analyze my life.  I also find it particularly pertinent on this the feast of Christ our King, to again approach every aspect of my existence and ask myself, Who is my king? The old cliché “WWJD (What would Jesus Do)” seems even more relevant as we ask ourselves: Are we detached from those spheres of influence? Does the need for honor rule my life? Political, social,  or economic power? Is it a need for things and money? Or a need for things that 'feel' good regardless of their spiritual significance? Should not my needs and wants be centered around Christ himself? To live this way, means reorganizing and restructuring every second and every breath, until I too can look down from own cross and say “It is not about me.”  It reminds us that the things that are unpleasant in life are in a way, our cross.. and we are to look down from our cross and say "Its' not about me, it's about you." Jesus died on his cross for us, so we too must die on our cross for others. We often make it all about ourselves.  The beatitudes, yes Christ himself, reminds us that the goal in life is to live for God first, and our neighbor as well.  That we must be completely detached from everything, including our own ego, and say fully thy will be done.