Christ’s celebrated Sermon on the Mount as found in the Gospel account of St. Matthew is narrated clearly with an eye toward Moses’ acceptance of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai centuries before. St. Matthew pointedly observes that Jesus “went up the mountain” to address the disciples and the crowds even though St. Luke’s account suggests that Jesus delivered his famous words “on a level stretch.” The mountain aspect deliberately lends Mosaic authority to Jesus’ celebrated words. St. Matthew also writes, with clear intention, that Jesus “sat down” to share with his followers his words of wisdom. The ancient rabbis always sat in an authoritative chair to instruct their congregations, much as today bishops may administer sacraments from a special stool.
The blessings or beatitudes listed by St. Matthew might possibly have been stated separately by Jesus on several different occasions but were gathered here by St. Matthew as a unit. Jesus’ list of blessings is clearly reminiscent of Moses’ list of commandments. The Mosaic Ten Commandments are noticeably a Divinely inspired rendition of the natural law common not only to believers but to all humanity. Respect for God, His Name, and His worship joined to respect for human authority, life, marriage, private property and reputation is the core of much of the secular world’s constitutions. Jefferson’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well as Madison’s Bill of Rights are not too far removed from Moses’ core values as stated in the Decalogue.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount however is no mere restatement of the natural law nor are Jesus’ words a lyrical refinement of the Ten Commandments. Especially when St. Matthew’s editorial nuances are taken into account, the Beatitudes are a basic statement of uniquely Christian principles, the plain foundation required for a Christian lifestyle, a clear outline of what an authentic Christian existence will demand. Rather than focusing on a believer’s human responsibilities as the Commandments do, the beatitudes rather emphasize the believer’s human indigence. The first beatitude sets the whole tone. The Christian believer is spiritually poor, sensing a deep, interior need that only God can satisfy. Poverty of spirit, a sense of emptiness before God, is the quintessential Christian disposition opening the believer to all God’s blessings. The Christian believer is likewise mournful, ruing the loss of original innocence that only God can restore. The Christian believer is also meek, relying more on Divine help than on earthy prowess. The Christian believer knows too a “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” There is an emptiness, a longing, an appetite, in the soul that only God can sate and slake.
The Christian believer will similarly exercise mercy, an especially Divine gift that supersedes earthly justice and relies on heavenly help in order to overcome human indifference and prejudice. The Christian believer will be “clean of heart,” purified of mere fleshly enticements and intent on the things that are above. The Christian believer will be a peacemaker, laying aside personal considerations and pursuing common goals that reflect the Will of God. And finally the Christian believer will be found among the persecuted, the insulted and the slandered, those whom the world despises and who must derive all consolation uniquely from God himself.
All eight beatitudes underline the notion that the authentic believing community will consist, as Zephaniah writes in today’s first reading, of “a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD.” The truly blessed, the truly happy, community will be those who trust not in their own resources, as most human beings do, but rather trust “in the name of the Lord,” in the grace of God, in uniquely Divine blessings.
In exactly the same vein, St. Paul writes powerfully today to the Corinthians: “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.” Zephaniah and Paul are one with Christ on the mountainside insisting that the true Christian life finds its greatest resource not in human talent, no matter how legitimate or capable, but rather in God Himself, in Divine assets, in sanctifying and sacramental grace. As St. Paul wisely writes, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”