Beatitudes: New Torah

The readings for Sunday, January 29, 2017, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; and Matthew 5:1-12a.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading begins a series of five Sundays of selections from Matthew’s composition called the Sermon on the Mountain. The Sermon on the Mountain is the first of five major sermons the author of Matthew’s Gospel constructs from current traditions about Jesus in the mid-eighties of the first century. Why five? For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses. The first five books of the Old Testament are attributed to the authorship of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These five books or scrolls are known as The Torah, meaning, “The Teaching.” They are also known as the Law of Moses. Tradition taught that God gave Moses the Torah in the Sinai wilderness on the Holy Mountain of Sinai or Horeb. The new Torah by the new Moses is therefore also placed by Matthew on a mountain.

The Torah of Moses dealt much with positive and negative commandments, 613 of them according to the ancient Jewish scribes. They were formed as “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” just like the most famous of them, The Big Ten, also called the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words. The new Moses begins a more gentle approach. Instead of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” he pronounces blessings on his disciples who live by his principles. These blessings are called “The Beatitudes.” They seem more invitation than commandments, “If you do such and such, or live in such or such a way, this will be your reward.”

The beatitudes are not entirely new. Much of the material from which they are constructed are already found in the Old Testament. A valid approach to their interpretation is through similar thoughts from the Old Testament. The first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Who are the poor in spirit and what is the kingdom of heaven?  A good definition is found in Isaiah 57:15, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit.”  In this case, the kingdom of heaven would be God dwelling within the repentant and the humble.  The second beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” These are the people who mourn over evil. Old Testament background is found in Ezekiel 9:4, where those Israelites “who grieve and mourn over the abominations committed in Jerusalem,” are singled out for God’s special protection. The third beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” These are the ones who are slow to anger, gentle with others, not depriving others to gain for themselves.  Similar to this beatitude is Psalm 37:11, “The meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” In Psalm 37 quoted above, “land” is a synonym for prosperity. The fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” For Matthew, the righteous are those who strive for perfect obedience to God’s laws.  For example: Matthew describes St. Joseph as a righteous man, because he was obedient to the laws of God and the commands  of God’s angel. Proverbs 21:21 relates righteousness to kindness, “He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor.”

The fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Sirach 28:2 explains this beatitude, “Forgive your neighbor the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. If a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?”  The Our Father is more concise, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  The sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Psalm 24:4-5 comments, “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully, he will receive blessing from the Lord….” To sum up the sixth beatitude in one word: Integrity.

The seventh beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (children) of God.” Peacemaking is related to love of neighbor. Therefore Sirach 4:9-10 serves as interpretation. The eighth and ninth beatitudes can be combined: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and speak all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me.” Isaiah 51:7 sums up the meaning of this combined beatitude.