In my high school religion class, we have recently been covering the Sermon on the Mount. To prepare myself for the classes I was going to give, I reread the Sermon and reviewed some notes on it from years ago. I hope the day never comes when I lose a sense of amazement at these three chapters of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, which summon us to a life lived entirely on the plain of the supernatural. In these days when many Catholics are wringing their hands about various real threats to their “religious freedom” (understandably so), it would be good to attend to this Sermon, so that we can truly understand and live the Christian life that an evil government may one day demand us to forfeit. If we are going to be accused of the high crime of practicing Catholicism, let us make sure we are guilty as charged. Living the demands of the Sermon on the Mount will give the prosecutor an excellent case against us.
We can never lose our Christian freedom, by the way, for our liberty is “the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free,” not something conceded to us by the State.
Saint Matthew introduces the Sermon this way: “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him. And opening his mouth he taught them, saying…” (Matthew 5:1-2).
Jesus Christ is the New Lawgiver, the New Moses. Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai through the ministration of angels in a dramatic way: “And all the people saw the voices and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking; and being terrified and struck with fear, they stood afar off, Saying to Moses: Speak thou to us, and we will hear: let not the Lord speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:18).
By contrast, Jesus sits atop the Mount of Beatitudes, in a scene of bucolic tranquility and “opens his mouth.” That mouth, by the way, was not merely the mouth of another prophet declaring “thus speaks the Lord”; no, it was the mouth of the Lord Himself, which opened to declare His New Law, neither through the ministration of angels, nor through the voice of a prophet, but directly thanks to the mystery of the Incarnation.
And with what did He begin to teach? Did He warm them up with some easy directives so as to encourage them little by little and accustom them to a life of virtue? No, He gave them the Beatitudes, acts that flow with ease, and resulting from the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. These are perfect and excellent acts of the grace-filled soul, and a foretaste of heavenly beatitude that are also marks of a highly advanced interior life.
In other words, Jesus began with the end.
The Beatitudes pertain not only to the life of Heaven (our final end) but to the life of perfection here on earth (our proximate preparation for that end). The excellence of the Beatitudes is explained by Saint Thomas in these words: “[T]hose things which are set down as merits in the beatitudes are a kind of preparation for, or disposition to, happiness, either perfect or inchoate: while those that are assigned as rewards may be either perfect happiness, so as to refer to the future life, or some beginning of happiness, such as is found in those who have attained perfection, in which case they refer to the present life. Because, when a man begins to make progress in the acts of the virtues and gifts, it is to be hoped that he will arrive at perfection, both as a wayfarer, and as a citizen of the heavenly kingdom.”
If the blessings of the Beatitudes apply to this life as a prelude to the life of Heaven, then those who have them now, “those who have attained perfection,” are ready for their final end. For these all-too-rare souls, death will be little more than the opening of the veils separating them from the Beatific Vision. For the rest of us who die in the state of grace, there is Purgatory — God’s summer school for the ill prepared.
Is it any wonder that the Gospel reading for the Feast of All Saints is the Beatitudes?
The Sermon on the Mount is a powerful attack against the triple concupiscence: “the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). It is a declaration of war against the world. Consider what Our Lord is recommending: Poverty of spirit, meekness, humility, mercy, hungering after justice, seeking an invisible reward, suffering persecution for His sake, doing good in secret so as to be seen only by God, loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, being pure, not only in body, but in mind and heart. These are all standards and maxims that are totally contrary to the standards and maxims of the world. It is an outline for the living of the supernatural life whereby we live as children of God, depending on His providence, turning to Him for our necessities.
So that we might pray like God’s children, we are taught the “Our Father,” an utterance we would not dare make unless we had been given the divine consent to call God “Father.” It is only by virtue of our divine adoption by Baptism that we may do so, for now we are all members of the Only Begotten.
Seven times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses the expression, “but I say to you.” In all but the last, He is elevating a moral precept of the Mosaic Law, taking it to a new level. The Old Law was a preparation for the New, but it was much inferior to it.
- You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)
- You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:27-28)
- And it hath been said, whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting for the cause of fornication, maketh her to commit adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery. (Matt. 5:31-32)
- Again you have heard that it was said to them of old, Thou shalt not forswear thyself: but thou shalt perform thy oaths to the Lord. But I say to you not to swear at all, neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God: Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king: Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil. (Matt. 5:33-37)
- You have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other: And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him. And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two, Give to him that asketh of thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away. (Matt. 5:38-42)
- You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust. (Matt. 5:43-45)
The last “but I say to you” does not pertain to the Mosaic Law, but to mankind’s general anxiety for material goods, which Our Lord would have us put aside in favor of confident trust in God’s providence:
- And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. (Matt. 6:28-29)
Evil politicians might seek to rob us of our divine inheritance one day, but their effort will ultimately be fruitless. Persecution serves to strengthen the Church. Perhaps we can use the Sermon on the Mount during this upcoming Advent to prepare ourselves, not only for a possible persecution in our lifetime, but, more importantly, for the inescapable judgment we will face when our time here ends.
See that thou make all things according to the pattern which was shewn thee on the mount. (Heb. 8:5)