Time to (re)read the Sermon on the Mount

At the parish we began a book club a few months ago. The purpose is to read what are considered classics from the last 2,000 years. Once a month we gather to discuss the book we just read. It is not meant to be an academic exercise, but the discussion is meant to engage the intellect. This month the book club is reading Thomas à Kempis’  “The Imitation of Christ.” I began rereading it a few weeks ago, it is a great Spiritual read and I read it once a year. In chapter one the reader is told, “Let all the study of our heart be from now on to have our meditation fixed wholly on the life of Christ, for His holy teachings are of more virtue and strength than the words of all the angels and saints.” One of the greatest resources to help us to live a life modeled on Christ is that of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s Gospel chapters five through seven. 

What is best known from the Sermon of the Mount is the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12). In the opening verses of chapter five we are told that Jesus went up the mountain and sat down. These are not insignificant words. Matthew is writing his Gospel for a Jewish-Christian community. He will be emphasizing the continuity that exists from the law and the prophets to Jesus’ preaching. The mountaintop is where the Law was entrusted to the people of Israel. The mountaintop is also where God continues to reveal Himself. In addition, the posture of Moses when teaching was to be seated. All of this means that when Jesus goes up the mountain and is seated, He is continuing the role of Moses.

The Beatitudes all begin with, “Blessed are those.” If you look at those Bibles that are interpretative texts (such as the Good News Bible), often they will have it read “Happy are those.” What are described are not stages in life, but rather the different experiences of life. There will be times that we are poor in Spirit, mourning, meek, thirsting for righteousness, persecuted for the sake of righteousness, etc. What distinguishes the Christian for others is that in each of these moments the Christian still lives in joy. This isn’t because they ignore the realities around them or are oblivious to life. Rather, their relationship with the Lord keeps the goal of Heaven and the promises of God forefront in their lives. They are aware that the things we experience during our earthly life are at best temporary and what God has promised is forever.

This state of blessedness or happiness is the fruit of a life dedicated to God, regardless of our state in life. It is achieved through growing in one’s relationship with Christ. This involves taking time to learn more about God and His teachings, time for quiet prayer and meditation, active participation in the Sacramental life of the Church — especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation and seeking to live life in a Christ-like manner: recognizing Christ in others and responding to others as Christ would.

All of this takes time, patience and commitment. We also need others to encourage us and challenge us. Even Jesus took time to be with the worshipping community in addition to His time alone in prayer. In the times when things aren’t going so well, the times of mourning, persecution, illness, etc. the human tendency is to turn inward, to circle the wagons. This takes our focus from God and His promises and places it on the darkness that we are experiencing. Scripture tells us that we are “children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness” (1 Thes 5:5). Therefore our time nurturing our relationship with Christ is time discovering and nurturing our true identity.

I think we can all agree that our culture and our world are facing some very serious problems. I also believe that we are witnessing that as great as human achievement is, we still fall short. It is disturbing the level of bickering and intolerance that is found in our society at all levels. The solution begins with all of the baptized seeking to live lives modeled on Christ. As I am writing these words I am mindful that this starts with myself. The Gospel won’t take root in our world, our nation, communities or families if we expect everyone else to change and not ourselves. 

I guess it’s time to read (or reread) the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety. 

Anchor columnist Father Frederici is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Pocasset and diocesan director of Campus Ministry and chaplain at UMass Dartmouth and Bristol Community College.

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