On Matthew 5:1-16:
With chapter 5, we enter on what, for many people, is the heart and soul of the Gospel of Mathew: the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). It makes the immediate impression of conveying deep truths for human life. It challenges and encourages. And it also confuses us and sometimes leaves us feeling lost. We’ll take our time working through it in this series of comments. (And let me say, as an aside, that readers are welcome to respond to posts on this website with questions or comments.)
What’s this business about the mountain?
There was a practical reason. In an age without amplifiers, there was an advantage if the speaker was a bit elevated so that more people could see and hear. But there’s probably more than that going on here. Readers have long noticed that Luke has a similar sermon, but specifically states that Jesus delivered it “in a flat place.” Each choice has its own significance. The “flat place” puts Jesus and his words squarely in the middle of daily life. The mountain, on the other hand, literally looms larger, recalling the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. And, in fact, the sermon makes specific references to the Law. Matthew is suggesting that this event has an importance comparable to Mt. Sinai—even that it is Jesus’ new iteration of the Law. And some of the sayings speak to this very issue.
Why start with beatitudes?
A good question that we seldom think to ask. We tend to take the Sermon on the Mount for granted: it just is. But the Beatitudes start the address off in a quite particular way. On the one hand, they’re highly traditional. The Psalms, too, begin with a beatitude: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” (KJV) More modern translations replace “blessed” with “happy,” which captures an important part of the meaning. “Blessed” here doesn’t mean “morally superior” as we sometimes assume today; it means something closer to “happy” or “fortunate.” The good behavior for which this person is praised is expected to yield the fruits of a happy and contented life: “he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season.” .
But, on the other hand, Jesus’ beatitudes are addressed to people who don’t seem to be faring any too well: the poor in spirit, the mourners, those hungering and thirsting after righteousness, the persecuted. Is he saying, “The worse off you are, the better off you are”? He certainly seems to be talking in terms of a great reversal: the people with no pretensions will inherit the earth; the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who have pretty much run out of hope (or whatever, exactly, the unusual phrase “poor in spirit” may mean); it’s not the powerful who are God’s true children, but the peacemakers.
Isn’t that all in the age to come, not here?
There’s certainly an element of that: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” But the classic beatitude isn’t just a future promise. It’s a present declaration: Even now, you are the really fortunate and happy people. Jesus is saying that all these folk are blessed and happy now, even if he is allowing for a future dimension to it as well. After all, he compares the blessed to the prophets who were persecuted in the past (vss. 11-12). Some of them (Jeremiah in particular) had lives of real suffering. But they also had the presence of God. Jesus isn’t suggesting here that the sufferings will go away; but he is saying that even the most distressed and least powerful of human beings can have the same kind of intimacy with God the prophets had—and have it here and now. Just look at what comes next!
But verse 13 seems almost like a fresh start.
Many have thought so. Some readers of Matthew suggest that the Sermon on the Mount (and the other discourses of Jesus in this gospel) were mostly assembled by Matthew himself out of separate bits and pieces handed on in the oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings. Luke, by comparison, has a set of Beatitudes (6:20-32) and also the saying about salt; but he puts the saying about salt in a completely different context (14:34-35). It’s quite conceivable that the sayings were handed down independently of each other, but that doesn’t mean that Matthew was just pasting things together. The sequence is carefully thought through.
It is the people who have been blessed in the Beatitudes to whom Jesus now says, “You are the salt of the earth”—the element that gives life and flavor to the world. He makes the point a second time: “You are the light of the world.” High praise in both cases. But, in both cases, Jesus also makes the praise a warning. The salt in us, the light in us, comes from our poverty of spirit, our meekness, our hunger for God—things that throw us back on God. We are salt and light because we mourn, knowing the failures of human life and the limits of our capacity to make everything right, because we are meek, with no artificially grand notions of ourselves, because we hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than claiming to possess it and impose it on others, because knowing our own imperfections has made us merciful toward the struggles of others, because we are becoming pure in heart—a purity that can withstand the temptations of religious power and armed might, because we are not conquerors but peacemakers. And therefore the blessing is ours even when we are persecuted because those who long to own the world and control it cannot bear the sight of us.
Many Christians, from age to age, haven’t even come close to claiming these blessings. None of us fulfills them completely. But the true saints have been living by them and in them for just as long. Jesus doesn’t compel either group. He invites us to enjoy the blessings, and by grace we can and do make progress in the undertaking.
And this makes us the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Or, rather, it means that we, less and less, waste our savor and dim our light. For Jesus is not calling us to something new and unheard of. He is calling us to what the prophets already knew, to what is deep in our created humanity if we can only rediscover it and bring it back into play—light, savor, generously shared with the whole house.
Remember, too, that Jesus is not addressing his new disciples alone here, but also the wider audience of enquiring, perplexed, or curious people. For that matter, his disciples haven’t had any special, distinct instruction from him yet at this point in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus tells the crowd that, simply as the ordinary human beings they are, they are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world—and also that it is possible to lose both of these qualities.
Next up: HOW CAN THE LAW CHANGE AND STILL BE THE SAME?