Each Sunday in Lent the preachers at the main Sunday service of the Holy Eucharist at St Stephen’s Church, Canterbury will be leading our thoughts through the beginning of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, through the verses known as “the Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:1-10). After each sermon I will post a series of questions and reflections for anyone who wishes to take the ideas in the sermon series, and the original Sermon on the Mount (!), further. The posts will provide suggestions for further thought, study or prayer. Some people may wish to use them in privacy. Others may wish to gather together in groups, over bible study or coffee, with friends or neighbours, to share your ideas and questions.)
- Session 1 / 10 February (Lent 1) Teaching from the Mountain — Matthew 5:1-2
- Session 2 / 17 February (Lent 2) The Poor and the Mournful — Matthew 5:3-4
- Session 3 / 24 February (Lent 3) The Meek, the Hungry, and the Thirsty — Matthew 5:5-6
- Session 4 / 2 March (Mothering Sunday) Mercy and Purity — Matthew 5:7-8
- Session 5 / 9 March (Lent 5) Peace and Persecution — Matthew 5:9-10
This first post is a general introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.The Beatitudes are the opening section of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. They are a collection of eight sayings, each beginning with “Happy (or blessed) are the…” —hence their name, for beatitudo is the Latin for ‘happiness’. However, we should all remember that the gospels were not originally written in Latin but in Greek, and the word that St Matthew used was makarios, which can mean happy, but also means much more. A rough approximation would be “possessing an inward contentedness and joy that is not affected by the physical circumstances”.
Furthermore, we should not think that the Sermon on the Mount is the transcript of a single sermon preached on a single occasion by Jesus: rather it is a compilation of some of his teaching (and certainly not all of it) collected and arranged by Matthew and placed by him at the beginning of his account of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. The Sermon on the Mount frames Jesus’s ministry and gives us what the scholars call a “hermeneutic lens”; that is, it gives us a means of interpreting and understanding the whole of Jesus’s teaching and actions. If you want to understand Jesus’s ministry, Matthew says, then read the Sermon on the Mount; if you want to understand the Sermon on the Mount, then look at Jesus.
This is an important point. Look at the way Matthew begins and ends the Sermon.
Matthew 5:1-2: “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… ”.
Matthew 7:28-29: “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.”
Matthew frames the whole Sermon by showing that Jesus is acting in the role of Rabbi, a scribe, a man learned in Scripture and the Law. Jesus assumes the traditional position of the teacher at the beginning of the Sermon: he teaches whilst sitting (in Jesus’s day, as in our own, the person who remains sitting in a social gathering, is the person with the greater authority— the Queen doesn’t stand up for anyone!). Some scholars have seen a connection between the structure of the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of the law by Moses. Just as the Law of the Old Testament, the Torah, was given to Israel in five books (Genesis, Exodus etc), the Sermon on the Mount can be divided into five sections, or discourses. In this way, the hill in Galilee becomes a new Sinai, and Jesus the new Moses, the Lawgiver. Certainly there is another Old Testament connection: Matthew has arranged the Beatitudes to reflect the promises made by God in Isaiah 61. Jesus is shown as the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of all God’s promises to his people.
If the posture Jesus used in teaching is familiar, the reaction to his teaching is anything but. The crowds (not just the disciples, the in-crowd, but all the curious of Galilee who came to see what the rabbi had to say) were astonished at the authority with which he taught. It is not that what he had to say was anything desperately novel or unusual: scholars can find similar ideas in the teaching of other rabbis of the period. It is the way in which he taught. The crowds recognised the absolute identity between who Jesus was and what he taught. There was no difference between what he said and what he did. There is an authenticity to Jesus, teaching and man, and this surprises the crowd.
In other words, if you want to understand the Beatitudes then look at Jesus. If you want to understand Jesus then look at the Beatitudes. The whole of Jesus’s life and teaching was lived and spoken according to the kingdom values of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are an expression of what it means to be a child of God the Father, and Jesus was the particular and complete example.