"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (29 January 2017)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

JGospel

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

We find a text in Luke 6:20-23 with similarities to this classic text from Matthew.

“The introduction to the Sermon on the Mount contains four sections: the setting (5:1–2), the Beatitudes (5:3–12), the identity of Jesus’ followers (5:13–16), and the teaching about the Law (5:17–20). The setting (5:1–2) on the mountain stands in contrast to the plain that serves as the setting of the Lukan sermon (Luke 6:17–20a). By placing this first and most dramatic instance of Jesus’ teaching on the mountain, Matthew sought to evoke biblical ideas about mountains as places of divine revelation and about Mount Sinai as the place where God’s will for Israel was revealed. But note that Jesus gives the teaching; he does not receive it as Moses did.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 82.)

Matthew 9:36 suggests the way we might understand the opening gambit here: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’.”

At the end of the end of this so-called “Sermon on the Mount” – Matthew 7:28-29 – Matthew notes that, in contrast to the current teachers in Israel, Jesus is a reliable witness to the Covenant: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

disciples: “The disciples of Jesus are introduced at this point without explicit explanation. A μαθητής (mathētēs) is etymologically one who learns, but the learning from Jesus as he taught in the synagogues (4:23) would not of itself justify use of the term. The word generally points to a commitment to some specific kind of learning, normally based on an allegiance to a particular teacher and often involving a full sharing of life by a group of disciples with their teacher. Given that the call of the four in 4:18–22 is to follow Jesus and be prepared by him for a role patterned on his own practice, the four must clearly be counted as disciples. What is less clear is whether we are to understand that the disciple group is to be thought of as having expanded by this point (by 10:1 there are twelve disciples, named in vv. 2–4) and whether a specific call to follow is required of those for whom Matthew will use this language (the only other call scene before 10:1 is the call of Matthew in 9:9).

“Matthew does not use ‘disciple’ in a way which definitely takes us beyond the Twelve. But he does use the related verb μαθητεύειν (‘disciple/make disciples’), which suggests that in principle he does not intend to restrict the discipleship category exclusively to the Twelve. The action of Joseph of Arimathea in asking for the body of Jesus is based on the fact that he had ‘been discipled to Jesus’ (27:57), and this discipleship anticipates that disciple making to which the Eleven are directed in 28:19–20. ‘The disciples’ in Matthew are the Twelve because it is they whose sharing of life with Jesus and learning from him at every level provide the foundation on which the discipleship to which Matthew challenges his readers is ultimately based. But that which they have gained from being ‘the disciples’ in an exclusive sense, they have in order to pass on to others (28:19–20) who will know the call of Jesus in a more general sense (cf. 11:28–30), who will, not physically but in a very deep sense, find that they have Jesus with them (18:20), and who will make great sacrifices in following him (19:29).

“The content of the sermon takes us in the same direction. As radical as its demands are, this is no manual for an exclusive spiritual elite. Its concern to elucidate the will of God is based on theological and ethical considerations and is not linked to a distinctive call for an exclusive few. The double audience of disciples and crowds fits in with this: the disciples learn from within the context of a relationship of committed discipleship, but that which they learn has pertinence as well to all the others who hear.” (John Nolland, “Preface” in The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 191-192.)

mountain: “Readers are expected to picture the hills on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but attempts at determining the exact site are useless. In the ancient Near East mountains were considered the homes of the gods and sacred sites. In Exodus 19ff. the Torah is revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Just as Moses received God’s commandments on Sinai, Jesus reveals God’s will on the mountain. In Matthew important events in Jesus’ life take place on mountains: temptation (4:8–10), feeding of four thousand (15:29–39), transfiguration (17:1–9), arrest (26:30–35), and final commission (28:16).” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 78.)

Blessed: The Greek word is makarios and may mean “blessed”, “happy” or “fortunate”. Though the idea here is better conveyed by the word “blessed” because it more clearly conveys the fact that it is grace, God’s gift. The idea of being “blessed” by God is common enough in the Hebrew Scriptures – eg Proverbs 3:13 and 28:14. There, however, the “blessing” is here and now. In Matthew’s Beatitudes it is a promise – it is eschatological in other words.

poor in spirit: The idea seems to be that we come before God as “beggars”, we have nothing to bring and everything to receive. Daniel Harrington writes: “The word ptōchos denotes a ‘beggar’, not just a poor person with few possessions. The Beatitudes should be read against the OT tradition of God’s special care for the poor (see Exod 22:25–27; 23:11; Lev 19:9–10; Deut 15:7–11; Isa 61:1). Matthew’s qualification ‘in spirit’ further defines the ‘poor’ as those who recognized God’s kingdom as a gift that cannot be forced. The expressions ‘poor’ and ‘poor in spirit’ were used by members of contemporary Jewish communities to describe themselves as Psalms of Solomon 10:6; 15:1 and the Qumran War Scroll 14:7 show, respectively.” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 78.)

Reflection

Who can read the Beatitudes – believer and non-believer alike – without being moved? Jesus’ words, as brought to us by Matthew, resonate with something deep in the human heart. Strangely though, the meaning of those same words is not obvious. Our intuition runs ahead of our comprehension. We need to listen with the ear of the heart.

Mahatma Gandhi records in his autobiography that, when he read the Sermon on the Mount, it “went straight to my heart”. (Mahatma Gandhi, My Experiments with Truth: An Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, General Press, Kindle Edition, 34.) Gandhi, in an article in 1941, made a particularly insightful comment concerning the life and teaching of Jesus: “To me it implies a spiritual birth”. (Robert Ellsberg, editor, Gandhi on Christianity, Orbis Books, 1991, 27.)

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) set the tone for the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29), and the Sermon on the Mount sets the tone for the Christian life. But we need to distinguish the Beatitudes as a mystical statement from the Beatitudes as a moral statement. The first concerns being – our life in the Spirit – and the second concerns doing – the fruits of the Spirit. The Beatitudes invite us into a “spiritual birth”, a way of being that will bear fruit in a way of doing.

I know of no better expression of this mysticism – this way of being – than St Pauls’ statement to the Christians in Galatia: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (2:20).

Thomas Merton reminds us of the mystical heart of our faith: “Christianity is more than an ethical system .... Jesus not only teaches us the Christian life, He creates it in our souls by the action of the Spirit.” (Thomas Merton, The New Man, Burns & Oates, 1961/1964, 116.)

The ethical – or the moral – is the expression of the Spirit of Christ through us, with us and in us. When we miss this point we are prone to attempt a wilful, self-centred and anxious pursuit of “virtue” and “holiness” that has nothing whatsoever to do with the splendid ethical vision of Jesus. Do you really think we can become “poor in spirit” wilfully – or meek or pure in heart or merciful? Wilfulness gives virtue a bad name. It also diminishes our joy.

Awareness is the key. God has promised: “I am with you!” Are you aware of that in your days? Pay attention to what is happening. Face the truth of it. Listen with the ear of your heart. Look at people, events and things with the eyes of your soul. Immerse yourself in the life of the Christian community, especially the liturgy. Get to know Jesus, the incarnation of God’s promised presence – he walks with you everywhere, all the time, in all circumstances.

Do you have ways of listening – not analysing or judging, just listening?