THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
As we have already seen, Matthew has a careful pattern in his gospel.
In his story of the baptism of Jesus he shows us Jesus realizing that the hour has struck, that the call to action has come, and that Jesus must go forth on his crusade. In his story of the Temptations he shows us Jesus deliberately choosing the method he will use to carry out his task, and deliberately rejecting methods which he knew to be against the will of God. If a man sets his hand to a great task, he needs his helpers, his assistants, his staff. So Matthew goes on to show us Jesus selecting the men who will be his fellow-workers.
But if helpers and assistants are to do their work intelligently and effectively, they must first have instruction. And now, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew shows us Jesus instructing his disciples in the message which was his and which they were to take to men. In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount this becomes even clearer. In Luke the Sermon on the Mount follows immediately after what we might call the official choosing of the Twelve (Lk.6:13 ff).
For that reason one great scholar called the Sermon on the Mount “The Ordination Address to the Twelve.” Just as a young minister has his task set out before him, when he is called to his first charge, so the Twelve received from Jesus their ordination address before they. went out to their task. It is for that reason that other scholars have given other titles to the Sermon on the Mount. It has been called “The Compendium of Christ’s Doctrine,” “The Magna Charta of the Kingdom,” “The Manifesto of the King.” All are agreed that in the Sermon on the Mount we have the essence of the teaching of Jesus to the inner circle of his chosen men.
THE SUMMARY OF THE FAITH
In actual fact this is even truer than at first sight appears. We speak of the Sermon on the Mount as if it was one single sermon preached on one single occasion. But it is far more than that. There are good and compelling reasons for thinking that the Sermon on the Mount is far more than one sermon, that it is, in fact, a kind of epitome of all the sermons that Jesus ever preached.
(i) Anyone who heard it in its present form would be exhausted long before the end. There is far too much in it for one hearing. It is one thing to sit and read it, and to pause and linger as we read; it would be entirely another thing to listen to it for the first time in spoken words. We can read at our own pace and with a certain familiarity with the words; but to hear it in its present form for the first time would be to be dazzled with excess of light long before it was finished.
(ii) There are certain sections of the Sermon on the Mount which emerge, as it were, without warning; they have no connection with what goes before and no connection with what comes after. For instance, Matt. 5:3132 and Matt. 7:7-11 are quite detached from their context. There is a certain disconnection in the Sermon on the Mount.
(iii) The most important point is this. Both Matthew and Luke give us a version of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s version there are 107 verses. Of these 107 verses 29 are found all together in Lk.6:20-49; 47 have no parallel in Luke’s version; and 34 are found scattered all over Luke’s gospel in different contexts.
For instance, the simile of the salt is in Matt. 5:13 and in Lk.14:34-35; the simile of the lamp is in Matt. 5:15 and in Lk.8:16; the saying that not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away is in Matt. 5:18 and in Lk.16:17. That is to say, passages which are consecutive in Matthew’s gospel appear in widely separated chapters in Luke’s gospel.
To take another example, the saying about the mote in our brother’s eye and the beam in our own is in Matt. 7:1-5 and in Lk.6:37-42; the passage in which Jesus bids men to ask and seek and find is in Matt. 7:7-12 and in Lk.11:9-13.
If we tabulate these things, the matter will become clear:
Matt. 5:13 = Lk.14:34-35 Matt. 5:15 = Lk.8:16 Matt. 5:18 = Lk.16:17 Matt. 7:1-5 = Lk.6:37-42 Matt. 7:7-12 = Lk.11:9-13
Now, as we have seen, Matthew is essentially the teaching gospel; it is Matthew’s characteristic that he collects the teaching of Jesus under certain great headings; and it is surely far more likely that Matthew collected Jesus’ teaching into one whole pattern, than that Luke took the pattern and broke it up and scattered the pieces all over his gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is not one single sermon which Jesus preached on one definite situation; it is the summary of his consistent teaching to his disciples. It has been suggested that, after Jesus definitely chose the Twelve, he may have taken them away into a quiet place for a week or even a longer period of time, and that, during that space, he taught them all the time, and the Sermon on the Mount is the distillation of that teaching.
In point of fact Matthew’s introductory sentence goes a long way to make that clear.
“Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.”
In that brief verse there are three clues to the real significance of the Sermon on the Mount.
(i) Jesus began to teach when he had sat down. When a Jewish Rabbi was teaching officially he sat to teach. We still speak of a professor’s chair; the Pope still speaks ex cathedra, from his seat. Often a Rabbi gave instruction when he was standing or strolling about; that his really official teaching was done when he had taken his seat. So, then, the very intimation that Jesus sat down to teach his disciples is the indication that this teaching is central and official.
(ii) Matthew goes on to say that when he had opened his mouth, he taught them. This phrase he opened his mouth is not simply a decoratively roundabout way of saying he said. In Greek the phrase has a double significance. (a) In Greek it is used of a solemn, grave and dignified utterance. It is used, for instance, of the saying of an oracle. It is the natural preface for a most weighty saying. (b) It is used of a person’s utterance when he is really opening his heart and fully pouring out his mind. It is used of intimate teaching with no barriers between. Again the very use of this phrase indicates that the material in the Sermon on the Mount is no chance piece of teaching. It is the grave and solemn utterance of the central things; it is the opening of Jesus’ heart and mind to the men who were to be his right-hand men in his task.
(iii) The King James Version has it that when Jesus had sat down, he opened his mouth and taught them saying. In Greek there are two past tenses of the verb. There is the aorist tense, and the aorist tense expresses one particular action, done and completed in past time. In the sentence, “He shut the gate,” shut would be an aorist in Greek because it describes one completed action in past time. There is the imperfect tense, and the imperfect tense describes repeated, continuous, or habitual action in past time. In the sentence, “It was his custom to go to Church every Sunday,” in Greek it was his custom to go would be expressed by a single verb in the imperfect tense, because it describes continuous and often-repeated action in the past.
Now the point is that in the Greek of this sentence, which we are studying, the verb taught is not an aorist, but an imperfect and therefore it describes repeated and habitual action, and the translation should be: “This is what he used to teach them.” Matthew has said as plainly as Greek will say it that the Sermon on the Mount is not one sermon of Jesus, given at one particular time and on one particular occasion; it is the essence of all that Jesus continuously and habitually taught his disciples.
The Sermon on the Mount is greater even than we think. Matthew in his introduction wishes us to see that it is the official teaching of Jesus; that it is the opening of Jesus’ whole mind to his disciples; that it is the summary of the teaching which Jesus habitually gave to his inner circle. The Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than the concentrated memory of many hours of heart to heart communion between the disciples and their Master.
As we study the Sermon on the Mount, we are going to set at the head of each of the beatitudes the translation of the Revised Standard Version; and then at the end of our study of each beatitude we shall see what the words mean in modern English.
THE SUPREME BLESSEDNESS
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Before we study each of the beatitudes in detail there are two general facts which we must note.
(i) It can be seen that every one of the beatitudes has precisely the same form. As they are commonly printed in our Bibles, each one of them in the King James Version has the word are printed in italic, or sloping, type. When a word appears in italics in the King James Version it means that in the Greek, or in the Hebrew, there is no equivalent word, and that that word has had to be added to bring out the meaning of the sentence.
This is to say that in the beatitudes there is no verb, there is no are. Why should that be? Jesus did not speak the beatitudes in Greek; he spoke them in Aramaic, which was the kind of Hebrew people spoke in his day. Aramaic and Hebrew have a very common kind of expression, which is in fact an exclamation and which means, “O the blessedness of . . .” That expression (‘ashere (HSN0835) in the Hebrew) is very common in the Old Testament. For instance, the first Psalm begins in the Hebrew: “O the blessedness of the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly” (Ps.1:1), that is the form in which Jesus first spoke the beatitudes. The beatitudes are not simple statements; they are exclamations: “O the blessedness of the poor in spirit!”
That is most important, for it means that the beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but nebulous prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is. The blessedness which belongs to the Christian is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now. It is not something into which the Christian will enter; it is something into which he has entered.
True, it will find its fulness and its consummation in the presence of God; but for all that it is a present reality to be enjoyed here and now. The beatitudes in effect say, “O the bliss of being a Christian! O the joy of following Christ! O the sheer happiness of knowing Jesus Christ as Master, Saviour and Lord!” The very form of the beatitudes is the statement of the joyous thrill and the radiant gladness of the Christian life. In face of the beatitudes a gloom-encompassed Christianity is unthinkable.
(ii) The word blessed which is used in each of the beatitudes is a very special word. It is the Greek word makarios (GSN3107). Makarios is the word which specially describes the gods. In Christianity there is a godlike joy.
The meaning of makarios (GSN3107) can best be seen from one particular usage of it. The Greeks always called Cyprus he (GSN3588) makaria (GSN3107) (the feminine form of the adjective), which means The Happy Isle, and they did so because they believed that Cyprus was so lovely, so rich, and so fertile an island that a man would never need to go beyond its coastline to find the perfectly happy life. It had such a climate, such flowers and fruits and trees, such minerals, such natural resources that it contained within itself all the materials for perfect happiness.
Makarios (GSN3107) then describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self-contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the changes of life. The English word happiness gives its own case away. It contains the root hap which means chance. Human happiness is something which is dependent on the chances and the changes of life, something which life may give and which life may also destroy. The Christian blessedness is completely untouchable and unassailable. “No one,” said Jesus, “will take your joy from you” (Jn.16:22). The beatitudes speak of that joy which seeks us through our pain, that joy which sorrow and loss, and pain and grief, are powerless to touch, that joy which shines through tears, and which nothing in life or death can take away.
The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking for ever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ.
The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.
THE BLISS OF THE DESTITUTE
Matt. 5:3 (continued)
It seems a surprising way to begin talking about happiness by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” There are two ways in which we can come at the meaning of this word poor.
As we have them the beatitudes are in Greek, and the word that is used for poor is the word ptochos (GSN4434). In Greek there are two words for poor. There is the word penes (GSN3993). Penes describes a man who has to work for his living; it is defined by the Greeks as describing the man who is autodiakonos, that is, the man who serves his own needs with his own hands. Penes (GSN3993) describes the working man, the man who has nothing superfluous, the man who is not rich, but who is not destitute either. But, as we have seen, it is not penes (GSN3993) that is used in this beatitude, it is ptochos (GSN4434), which describes absolute and abject poverty. It is connected with the root ptossein (GSN4434), which means to crouch or to cower; and it describes the poverty which is beaten to its knees. As it has been said, penes (GSN3993) describes the man who has nothing superfluous; ptochos (GSN4434) describes the man who has nothing at all. So this beatitude becomes even more surprising. Blessed is the man who is abjectly and completely poverty-stricken. Blessed is the man who is absolutely destitute.
As we have also seen the beatitudes were not originally spoken in Greek, but in Aramaic. Now the Jews had a special way of using the word Poor. In Hebrew the word is `aniy (HSN6041) or ‘ebyown (HSN0034). These words in Hebrew underwent a four-stage development of meaning. (i) They began by meaning simply poor. (ii) They went on to mean, because poor, therefore having no influence or power, or help, or prestige. (iii) They went on to mean, because having no influence, therefore down-trodden and oppressed by men. (iv) Finally, they came to describe the man who, because he has no earthly resources whatever, puts his whole trust in God.
So in Hebrew the word poor was used to describe the humble and the helpless man who put his whole trust in God. It is thus that the Psalmist uses the word, when he writes, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (Ps.34:6). it is in fact true that in the Psalms the poor man, in this sense of the term, is the good man who is dear to God. “The hope of the poor shall not perish for ever” (Ps.9:18). God delivers the poor (Ps.35:10). “In thy goodness, O God, thou didst provide for the needy” (Ps.68:10). “He shall defend the cause of the poor of the people” (Ps.72:4). “He raises up the needy out of affliction, and makes their families like flocks” (Ps.107:41). “I will satisfy her poor with bread” (Ps.132:15). In an these cases the poor man is the humble, helpless man who has put his trust in God.
Let us now take the two sides, the Greek and the Aramaic, and put them together. Ptochos (GSN4434) describes the man who is absolutely destitute, the man who has nothing at all; `aniy (HSN6041) and ‘ebyown (HSN0034) describe the poor, and humble, and helpless man who has put his whole trust in God. Therefore, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means:
Blessed is the man who has realised his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God.
If a man has realized his own utter helplessness, and has put his whole trust in God, there will enter into his life two things which are opposite sides of the same thing. He will become completely detached from things, for he will know that things have not got it in them to bring happiness or security; and he will become completely attached to God, for he will know that God alone can bring him help, and hope, and strength. The man who is poor in spirit is the man who has realized that things mean nothing, and that God means everything.
We must be careful not to think that this beatitude calls actual material poverty a good thing. Poverty is not a good thing. Jesus would never have called blessed a state where people live in slums and have not enough to eat, and where health rots because conditions are all against it. That kind of poverty it is the aim of the Christian gospel to remove. The poverty which is blessed is the poverty of spirit, when a man realises his own utter lack of resources to meet life, and finds his help and strength in God.
Jesus says that to such a poverty belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. Why should that be so? If we take the two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and set them together:
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,
we get the definition: the Kingdom of God is a society where God”s will is as perfectly done in earth as it is in heaven. That means that only he who does God’s will is a citizen of the Kingdom; and we can only do God’s will when we realize our own utter helplessness, our own utter ignorance, our own utter inability to cope with life, and when we put our whole trust in God. Obedience is always founded on trust. The Kingdom of God is the possession of the poor in spirit, because the poor in spirit have realized their own utter helplessness without God, and have learned to trust and obey.
So then, the first beatitude means:
O the bliss of the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, and who has put his whole trust in God, for thus alone he can render to God that perfect obedience which will make him a citizen of the kingdom of heaven!
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