The Sermon on the Mount: Jesus, the New Law, and the Kingdom of God

Over the next four Sundays, as we approach the Season of Lent, the Gospel Readings in the Western Rite of the Catholic Church will be read from the Gospel of St. Matthew, specifically readings from the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the three-year lectionary cycle, we hear from the Sermon on the Mount many times. It’s an important section of St. Matthew’s Gospel and one that needs to be understood by all the faithful since it’s Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of God.

Below are excerpts from a paper I wrote on the Gospel of St. Matthew – “The Catechetical Gospel”, when I was a graduate student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

It is at the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus begins to draw the outline for the new covenant. He explains that the new kingdom will awaken the hearts of humanity and that it won’t be just laws and decrees as seen in the old covenant. It is through his teachings at the Sermon on the Mount and his teachings through the parables, where he will reach the heart of all who hear him.

As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis says in Fire of Mercy, “Jesus is not only the new Moses but God himself, who inscribes the Law of his Sacred Heart no longer now on stone tablets but on the very hearts of men” (1996). Christianity is not a “religion of the book.” “Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 108, will be known as CCC).

The Sermon on the Mount covers chapters five, six, and seven in the Gospel of St. Matthew and is the first dialogue of five dialogues [the apostolic discourse; the parabolic discourse; the discourse on the Church and the discourse on eschatology] (Navarre Bible, page 22) where Christ begins to explain the new covenant and his outline for the “Kingdom.”

“In the Sermon on the Mount, and especially in the Beatitudes, Our Lord proclaimed the ruling maxims of His kingdom. It was a discourse – new, utterly un-heard of, and coming straight from heaven!” (Kneght, page 470) The Sermon on the Mount covers a variety of themes that assist us to focus to see that the New Law will redefine and supplant the Old Law. The themes Jesus covers are how a person is to direct themselves so they can enter the Kingdom of God, the ability to practice religious duties, trusting in the divine economy of God, the behaviors of God’s children and how they are to act towards one another; and the precepts for entrance into heaven (Navarre Bible, page 23).

Sermon on the Mount Icon

“The New Law or the Law of the Gospel is the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed. It is the work of Christ and is expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount” (CCC 1965).

In chapter five, we see Jesus moving away from the crowds and ascending up the mount where his disciples are gathered around him as he sits. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him” (Matthew 5:1).  His movements up the mount and his sitting to teach are definitive acts placing himself as the Teacher of authority. Christ is stating that he is now the “Mediator between God and man.” Just as Moses once was the mediator between God and the people of Israel; now Christ takes on this role – he is the “New Moses.” (Leiva-Merikakis, page 181) And just as Moses sat in judgment; now Christ “sits” in the cathedra where he teaches the Truth, which he is himself.

On the Sermon on the Mount, Christ begins his dialogue with the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are “the gateway to the Sermon on the Mount.” The Beatitudes are not just for different people who are seeking salvation. They are to be reached by all those who desire to follow Christ and the religious and moral outline that he sets forth. The Beatitudes are requirements for everyone who wishes to follow Christ. Each of the Beatitudes does not represent a single person, just like salvation is not meant for one person or a group of persons, but is available to all who follow Christ.

It must be understood that the Beatitudes are defined as eschatological [theology of the last things], since the promise of salvation lies in the world to come and not in this veil of tears. (Navarre Bible, page 56)  The Beatitudes are the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments, but unlike the Commandments of the Old Testament, the Beatitudes now give us the ability and potential in this world to be God-like.

Leiva-Merikakis states, “The Beatitudes are no longer now negative commands that forbid sin, as the first Decalogue largely was, in keeping with its nature as the minimum necessary to obey God.  The Beatitudes are the carta magna, as it were, that invites the poor mortals to be like God here…”

The promises laid down by Christ reach their apex in the Beatitudes. “In the Beatitudes, the New Law fulfills the divine promises by elevating them and orientating them toward the “kingdom of heaven.” (CCC 1967)  We see in the Beatitudes the infancy outline of how to reach perfection in Christianity. In seeking out this perfection through the Beatitudes we are trying to imitate the behavior of the Divine, which will help us on our way to be happy, as God is happy. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Sources:

Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican City , Vatican : Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Knecht, D. B. (2003). A Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture. Rockford, Ill: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.

Leiva-Merikakis, E. (1996). Fire of Mercy Heart of the Word . San Francisco, CA : Ignatius Press.

The Navarre Bible. (2000). St Matthew. Dublin , 8, Ireland : Four Courts Press

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