January 29, 2023 –
The 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“He began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit ….’”
Today’s Gospel passage is the first twelve verses of the fifth chapter of Matthew: the start of the Sermon on the Mount. In our own day, preachers often start a sermon with a story or a joke. Jesus decided to begin His Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes.
However, before he starts giving us Jesus’ sermon, St. Matthew the Evangelist mentions a few interesting details about Jesus. The evangelist relates to us that when “Jesus saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him.” Consider just two points here: that Jesus went up the mountain, and that He sat down there.
Why did Jesus have to go up a mountain in order to preach a sermon? Obviously, He didn’t have to. Jesus preached many other sermons during the three years of His public ministry, and most of them were preached in other settings. But in St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first sermon, so Jesus is teaching us here not only by His words, but also by the setting that He chose, and by choosing to sit down.
Why did Jesus choose a mountain to be the site of His first sermon? St. Matthew clarifies this throughout the course of his Gospel account. Through the way he structures his Gospel account, St. Matthew portrays Jesus as a New Moses. Both the mountain setting and act of sitting to reach His disciples reflect this. One reason for portraying Jesus as the New Moses is that unlike many other New Testament books, Matthew’s Gospel account was written for converts from Judaism.
Moses was, for the Jewish people, the Prophet without peer. In the last chapter of the last book of the Jewish Law—Deuteronomy Chapter 34—following the description of Moses’ death, the Bible says that “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, … and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel” [Deut 34:10-12].
Yet even more important than all the signs and wonders and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses worked was the fact that the Lord chose him—Moses—to bear the Ten Commandments to His People. During the course of their Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, God’s People stopped at Mount Sinai. There, while the rest of God’s People remained below, Moses alone ascended Sinai to receive from God His Ten Commandments. Moses then had to descend the mountain to give to God’s People this Law, the means by which His People might keep right with God.
But here in St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel, it’s not only Jesus who ascends the mountain. Jesus draws His disciples up with Him. In turn, it’s not a voice from the heavens that speaks there to a prophet. Instead, the New Moses, God in the Flesh, speaks to His people face to face. Jesus gives to us, His people, not ten commandments, but nine beatitudes.
There is a wealth of spiritual riches within the beatitudes. But keep in mind that Jesus put the Beatitudes at the start of the Sermon on the Mount because a good teacher puts the most important lesson first. Likewise, then, we ought to consider the first of the nine beatitudes as being first for a reason.
Maybe as you ponder all nine of the Beatitudes, another of them—not the first—will strike you. Meditate on that beatitude during the week. But meditate nonetheless on the first beatitude: first to fall from Our Lord’s lips because He wants it first to shape our hearts.
The Lord has given us everything we need for the journey to Heaven. He’s given us life, grace to strengthen us for the journey, and the journey’s roadmap in these nine beatitudes. The first, upon which all the others rest, is humility: poverty of spirit. The Lord has even helped us to acquire humility. We do so by gazing upon the humility He shows in His compassion, His Divine Mercy, and His self-sacrifice on the Cross.