In this series, I’m looking at the Gospels as literature, as religious tracts, with contents selected and shaped accordingly. Even if your ‘religion’ is liberal, radical or non-existent, these fascinating and thought-provoking pieces of literature have much to offer, if read for what they are, rather than for what, in my view, they are not. What we can learn from them, however, is arguably more important, in the final analysis, than how we choose to view them.
Matthew presents Jesus as a Saviour of the Jewish people, as was Moses before him. Both have ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ birth stories; survive an outbreak of infanticide; pass through the waters (the Sea of Reeds and the River Jordan); are tested in the wilderness; and have a ‘divine’ message to bring to their people. Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and Jesus delivers his ‘sermon on the mount’.
To me, and you must make up your own mind, there was no particular “mount”, nor was there a “sermon” delivered as reported. There was no one at that time to film, photograph, record or write down lengthy orations. Matthew has gathered up a suitable selection of stories and sayings orally circulating, and fitted them into successive ‘thematic’ sections. He may also have had access to a collection of written sayings such as the one proposed, and called “Q”, by New Testament scholars.
Matthew begins the ‘sermon’ with what are called the “Beatitudes”, in which various classes of people are said to be “blessed”. Here is where we must remind ourselves that Jesus’ message was apocalyptic. Apocalypticism was dualistic. It split the world into 2 categories – the bad associated with Satan and his demons, and the good associated with God and his angels – and with nothing in between. You were on one side or the other.
For his own reasons, God had allowed the powers of evil lots of rope, but he was on the point of suddenly, and forcefully, intervening in the world to destroy the perpetrators and supporters of evil, and to identify and reward all on the side of the good. A great reversal was about to happen, in which those currently running the whole rotten show, the powerful, wealthy and self-serving, would see it destroyed in front of their eyes, and themselves along with it. A new world would rise in its place, the ‘Kingdom of God’ in which there would no longer be any evil, injustice, poverty, suffering, illness or death. People who had been at the bottom of the heap, and trodden underfoot, would find themselves ‘elevated’ in every imaginable way.
It’s only in this apocalyptic context that those who are “poor”, who “mourn” the current state of things, who are “meek” and powerless, who are “persecuted” and oppressed, can plausibly be regarded as “blessed”. What an entirely different future is said to lie ahead of them. Those who longed for “righteousness” and social justice, and who yearned for “peace” and security, will now enjoy all of these, and the “merciful” will take the place of the merciless.
You and I may well not share that apocalyptic vision, but that doesn’t mean this section of the ‘sermon’ is so much nonsense. It’s still an inspiring humanitarian (despite the apocalyptic violence) vision. It challenges us to care about people who are poor and disadvantaged, who feel depressed and hopeless, who are weak and powerless, oppressed and persecuted. Rather than waiting for a divine intervention, however, it’s up to us to do what we can, with whatever resources we possess. We can write, speak up and give. We can support humanitarian organisations and their work. We can vote for politicians and political parties who advocate, and pursue, policies which effectively address these same issues that clearly mattered to Jesus so long ago.