Matthew sets the Sermon on the Mount early in Jesus’ ministry. In the preceding narrative, Jesus has fasted in the desert, faced temptation, and called his first disciples. Having witnessed Him preach in the synagogues, cure the sick, and drive out evil spirits, crowds have begun to follow Jesus. The crowds are not just from the local towns and villages of Galilee, but from the surrounding regions as well, as far as Syria and the Decapolis. This narrative presents an enthusiastic beginning to Jesus’ ministry. The narrative that follows the Sermon relates Jesus’ healing of a leper and of the centurion’s servant. In the leper we find an unclean social outcast while the centurion is not only an unclean gentile but is an authority for the occupation forces in Judea: one is a completely powerless outcast, one a symbol of brutality and strength. Juxtaposed between these images of a growing messianic movement and the ironic opposites of leper and centurion, the Sermon on the Mount unites the themes of a reinvigorated understanding of ancient traditions, radical conversion to God, and the universal call to holiness.
In the preceding narrative to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contends with the devil, quoting scripture to reject the devil’s temptations. Jesus again quotes scripture in the Sermon, but this time He rejects the traditional understanding of these passages to draw his listeners to a new understanding. Six times Jesus reminds the crowd, “you have heard it said,” but then challenges the “political-religious structure of his time” (Hill 2004) to rethink what these passages mean. In doing so he challenges his listeners to “return to the best of their traditions” (Hill 2004). Not satisfied with the status quo, Jesus asks us to reconsider the things we say and do that are too often done by rote. Jesus takes to task the conventional wisdom of the day regarding adultery, retaliation, enemies, and more, and confronts, upsets, revises and extends this understanding. It is not enough to exact justice; rather, the mercy that God shares with us we must share with others. It is not enough to love one’s neighbor; rather, one’s enemy is as much a child of God as we are and is therefore our neighbor. It is not enough to apply the cold dictates of law to marriage; rather the law of love must rule hearts and relationships. It is not enough to be loving with the “righteous;” rather, the outcast and the sinner are just as deserving of our friendship. Even with prayer, our intimate discourse with God, Jesus asks of us to reconsider our habits and assumptions. Furthermore, in the narrative that follows, Jesus puts his words into action, healing the leper (the very definition of the outcast) and the centurion’s servant, showing healing love to the enemy himself. Jesus shows by word and deed how to put this new understanding into practice.
Jesus preaches a radical conversion to God. In the narrative preceding the Sermon, Jesus calls his disciples and they leave everything to follow him, abandoning boats and nets, family and friends. In the Sermon, the Beatitudes call to us to get on with our own conversion. By inverting our understanding of what holiness is, the Beatitudes demand of us just as radical a conversion as the one experienced by the first disciples.
We don’t think of the poor and the powerless as being particularly happy. Those who have actually witnessed poverty - true poverty - would argue that the destitute, in their wretched condition, are rarely happy people. Jesus himself would have both witnessed and experienced the poverty of 1st century Palestine. Yet he knows the poor, the meek, and the persecuted are, by virtue of their destitution, in the position of being closer to where we ourselves need to be with God: they have no choice but to place themselves at God’s feet, to cast their lot on God’s mercy and providence, to become totally dependent on God. And it is this, this total dependency, which grants us happiness, for it is in dependence on God that we find that it has been God’s grace all along that has worked to uphold and sustain us. Therefore, to convert ourselves to God means to value what God values, not the things the world values. Instead of power, riches, fame, and glory, Jesus proposes we look to “the impoverished, the downtrodden” (Hill 2004). By converting our vision to God’s vision, we begin to see how to be perfect as God is perfect. Continuing this theme, the narrative following the Sermon casts a leper, obviously one of the poor and destitute, as being blessed, but also the centurion, in his humble admission of unworthiness, shows his own blessed poverty in spirit.
Jesus preaches a universal call to holiness. In the narrative preceding the Sermon, the multitudes that follow Jesus are not only from the immediate region of Galilee, but also from gentile regions of Syria and the Decapolis. The Decapolis is especially remarkable as centers of a Hellenistic culture often clashed with the Semitic cultures of the Levant. In the Sermon, Jesus preached “holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition.” (Second Vatican Council 1964). All people of every social and religious background are included, even those outside of the Hebrew faith. Continuing this theme, the narrative that follows shows both the Roman centurion and the leper as recipients of Jesus’ healing, and these two extremes, in their being made whole, continue the theme of the universal call.
The outcast is transformed, made whole, healed and renewed. The outsider’s faith is a marvel. Jesus accepts them both. All are called to be radically transformed to faith and to love. In living this call, all are made holy.
Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.
Second Vatican Council. "Dogmatic Constitution On The Church." Vatican Web Site. November 21, 1964. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html .