Many wonder about what was Jesus’ mission, at the same time perfectly human and divine.
A possible answer lies in the central part of the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, where the Son of Man announces that He is the Son of God, who came to announce the Kingdom here on earth, and show us His way: the poverty in spirit, that implies the end of all poverty, as it is so well expressed in the Our Father
Christians claim that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, is also the Son of God. They believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God. What do they mean by saying that? If Jesus is God incarnate, why did God feel the need to come among us as a human? What was the earthly mission of Jesus?
There are many possible answers. In fact, Christology—the branch of theology that studies Jesus the Christ—is a vast discipline. Jesus can be studied from many points of view: biblical, philosophical, the arts… and many more. If we want to have an answer in a nutshell, we need to go to the core of Jesus’ mission. It is possible to do so by looking at what Jesus Himself presented as His master plan. The focus now goes to the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5–7. This section is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is in this sermon that Jesus announced the Kingdom of God and revealed God as Father, two striking features of His mission.
The Kingdom of God is one of the main themes of the gospel of Matthew. He actually speaks of the Kingdom of the Heavens, but this is a Semitism to refer to God without mentioning His name. While the proclamation of the Kingdom is found throughout the gospel, the evangelist concentrates Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters are some of the most important texts in the New Testament and have conquered the attention of many Christians throughout the centuries.
Poverty to abolish poverty
The Sermon is introduced with the scene of Jesus climbing the mountain, sitting and teaching (5: 1). There is no mention of which mountain because this is not a geographical note, but a theological one. Jesus climbs the mountain as many did before Him to meet God and receive a revelation (see the stories of Moses and Elijah). His taking a seating position is another signal of what is going to happen: Jesus takes the teaching position; He sits as the Messiah sits on a throne to give His teaching/judgement.
We find here another of Matthew’s major themes: Jesus is the new Torah (usually translated as the Law of God, yet Torah in Hebrew means teaching), and His words are Torah. Jesus clearly states that He did not come to abolish the Law (5: 17) but to fulfil it, i.e. to bring it to completion. It is not by chance that in all rabbinical literature it is not possible to find a statement of trust and fidelity towards the Law as radical as that of Jesus “not a small dot of the Law will change until all is fulfilled” (5: 18).
The Sermon proper starts with the Beatitudes. The words of Jesus mirror many similar expressions found in the Old Testament: happy are… This expression is found 48 times in the Old Testament, of these, 28 times in the Psalms and 13 times in Proverbs. It is found 18 times in the New Testament. In reality, it is difficult to translate what Jesus said. The Greek word makarios, used here by the evangelist, translates the Hebrew word ashrei. Ashrei does have a shade of connotation as happiness or bliss, yet its meaning is far wider. This word means to be on the right path, to move in the right direction. It was used to describe the journey towards Jerusalem; so one is happy to be doing the right thing, to be moving in the right direction. This happiness is not just a feeling of contentment; it is the realization of following God’s will.
The first beatitude says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is the most important of the beatitudes for from this all others depend. Poor (ptokos) translates the Hebrew word anaw. Anaw (plural anawim) is the poor, yet the word implies a person covered in fear, bent, hidden away. The term is used in the Bible to refer to a person wrongly reduced to poverty, the existence of whom depends on the generosity of others. The anaw is a victim; exploited, he places his trust in the Lord. The word spirit appears 387 times in the Old Testament. It basically has three different meanings. It is referred to as a creative energy; as a destructive force and as the inner impulse that moves a person to action.
Since these are the meanings of the words we find in the first beatitude, how can we understand Jesus’ words? If we translate “poor of spirit”, it would mean a lack of character of the person. This cannot be the right translation. If we render the words as “poor in spirit”, the most common translation, we would refer to a spiritual attitude, one not dealing directly with practical life. We would understand these words as referring to people who have but are detached from earthly goods. Rich yet indifferent to riches is an idea found in the Old Testament, not in the New Testament. If we translate “poor for the spirit” then we would mean people who make a choice of poverty as a tool to counter the causes of poverty.
Although all three translations are possible, the third one seems the most appropriate. Poverty is not in the plan of God (Dt 15: 4: “You should not have any poor in your midst”), but it can be chosen as an act of love towards the neighbour. It is not a personal ascetic choice, in fact it is expressed in the plural, it is the choice of the community of the disciples who follow their model (see 2 Cor 8: 9). This is a choice possible only to those inwardly rich, since those who are poor inside are more disposed to opulence.
Here and now
To those choosing poverty as a way of life, Jesus says “yours is the Kingdom of Heaven”, where ‘heaven’ stands for God. The Kingdom is referred to as an existing reality; it is not a state to be reached in future. It is here and now. The same promise is repeated after the last beatitude, creating an inclusion that points out how the motivations following the other beatitudes are ulterior explanations of the main theme: the coming of the Kingdom.
The last beatitude focuses on justice and it is placed in parallel with the first beatitude. It is clear that poverty alone is not enough to build the Kingdom. To pursue justice is essential (theirs is the Kingdom, i.e. they belong there). The term justice appears seven times in Matthew and describes the relationship between two persons: God and the person (salvation), the person and God (faithfulness), or person to person (honesty). Only here it means social justice. Poverty without justice would be meaningless. Justice, or the harmonious relationship between living beings, is essential to create the new society embodied in the Kingdom of God.
While the first and last beatitudes say “theirs is the Kingdom”, meaning here and now, the others speak of the kingdom in the future tense. It is the realization of the first and last beatitudes that allows the fulfilment of the others. So the growth of the Kingdom depends on the acceptance of these important beatitudes by the community of the disciples.
Even from a first reading of the Beatitudes, we gather that the Kingdom of God is linked to our commitment. The Kingdom is certainly there. Yet, it will grow according to our willingness to make radical choices in favour of others. It will advance in relation with our acceptance of suffering, of being placed at the fringe of society so that justice will prevail.
The salt and the light
Following the Beatitudes, we have two sayings about the characteristics of the disciples. Actually, to be the salt of the earth would not be really positive. Salt provokes sterility. But here Matthew means to be the salt for human life on earth. Salt was very precious in ancient times (the word salary comes from sale, Latin for salt) and it had a spiritual meaning in Israel. Salt was always mixed with offerings (Ez 43: 24), and it was the symbol of the Covenant (Lv 2: 13). So the lack of salt was the sign of sterility (Nm 18: 19). Salt is essential for life, gives flavour and is the symbol of a stable, mature person. Jesus says “if the salt becomes crazy…” (usually translated as insipid, but the true meaning used here is crazy). In 7: 26 we read of the mad man, the one who hears and does not practise accordingly, the crazy salt (the one that loses flavour) represents those people who hear the Beatitudes and do not act accordingly.
The light is God’s first creation. God is light (Ps 27: 1; Jh 1: 5), His Word is light to our steps (Ps 119: 105). The Torah is Light, Israel is called to be light to the Gentiles, and the Messiah is light. To be the light is an image in line with biblical tradition. Well, this light is not to be put under the bushel (used to turn the light off!), but on the lamp rod typical of all Palestinian houses. To be the light does not mean to parade good deeds, an action later referred to as sinful (6: 1), it means to act in a way that shows the One who generates it and reveals Him as the Father.
The Beatitudes describe the fundamental attitudes to build the Kingdom, and the two aforementioned sayings define the characteristics of the disciples. Justice emerges as the key word to understand the Sermon on the Mount. Justice is present in the Beatitudes and it is found through the Sermon (5 times: 5: 6. 10. 20; 6: 1. 33). We already saw how justice is mainly faithfulness and honesty in relationship with other persons. In relation to God, it can be seen as the coherence in obeying God’s will as it is expressed in the Law. Jesus invites the disciples to practise a more abundant justice (5: 20), that is a faithfulness to God much more radical than that required by the Torah of the Old Testament. Jesus is the new Torah. He does not abolish the older Torah (5: 17ff) but shows a more radical way to live it, i.e. to bring it to completion (5: 21–48).
Some commentators see this section of chapter 5 as a series of antitheses, sentences that de facto abolish the old and propose a new Law. However, Jesus is not proposing a contrasting formulation of the Law. When He says “but I say to you”, Jesus does nothing more than use a rhetorical form of speech to reveal the deeper meaning of the Law. There is no substitution, but transcendence in understanding.
God is Father
After a section dealing with human relationships, Jesus reveals the true identity of God. He does that by teaching a prayer. This prayer is placed exactly in the middle of the Sermon, and at the centre of this prayer we find the revelation of God as Father. This gives the right tone to the whole Sermon. We are not reading a text of ethical rigour, but a proclamation of love and tenderness. The word used by Jesus, Abba, is the formal word used by sons and daughter—even as adults—towards their fathers. Formal does not mean devoid of feelings. Abba recognizes origin from, dependence, but also speaks of love and trust. (In modern Hebrew, abba is used much like daddy is used by children talking to their fathers, but this is a new development of the language and it was not true at Jesus’ time).
To the Father, strictly ours to avoid ‘intimistic’ temptations, the disciples ask that “your Kingdom come”. Those praying ask that God’s Lordship on the world be made visible, that His will be realized on earth, in the history of the human being.
From other passages of the gospels, we understand that God being Father means He has a very different way of relating with us. Often we are told of God as a severe judge, one that scrutinizes our words and actions, and punishes us accordingly. Jesus cleared up that image completely. He revealed a God who is a loving figure. God wants to share His life with us, this is one of the foundations of the mystery of the incarnation. God is merciful, He forgives. He is not a judge but a welcoming person who simply wishes to be known and loved as much as He knows and loves us. One description of God’s attitude towards us is found in the parables of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15: 11ff.) and that of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10: 25ff.). There, Jesus speaks of God’s profound love and respect for each person.
In the second part of the Sermon, we find an invitation to set one’s heart on the Kingdom, trusting the Father completely. The choice of the Kingdom is a choice of commitment, that is of action. The outcome of this action can be evaluated: you shall recognize them by their fruits (7: 16).
The Kingdom of God
Reading the Sermon on the Mount, it is easy to detect the meaning of the Kingdom of God in Matthew. The gospel of Matthew describes the Kingdom as the Lordship of God on creation. At the same time, this Kingdom belongs also to people. It is people who build the Kingdom by adhering to God and His Word.
The first action required of the person is to bring the Law to completion. This means to read the commandments of God in a new light. The antitheses Jesus presented (“You heard… but I say…”) are applicable to all the commandments and statutes of God. If the main aim of the Law is to direct the person to full communion with God, then it is our duty to discover the fuller meaning of God’s intention in giving us a law. It is interesting to note that Jesus applied His antitheses always in favour of a renewed relationship among people. This is the key to unlock the deeper meaning of any law: placing the person at the centre. Only in this way shall we be able to overtake the justice proposed by Mosaic Law (an eye for an eye is already a progress in respect to disproportional vengeance), and give life to a new society where justice is geared to the growth of the person and the constant appreciation of what is good in the human being.
The journey and shift of perspective proposed by Jesus will be possible only when the disciple will accept the requirements foreseen in the Beatitudes. The choice of poverty as a tool and a way of life, expounded in detail in the different attitudes described by Jesus, is not optional: it is a must. Without this personal commitment to the common good, the Kingdom will not take shape. Poverty, in this context, is not the refusal of earthly goods. It is not an ascetic state possible only to a few. Yet, poverty cannot be distorted to excuse any kind of possession and power-driven attitude.
It is important to realize that the choice for the common good is based not on benevolent goodwill, but on faith. The teachers of the Law insisted that justice (tsedeq) was built on three pillars: almsgiving, prayer and study of the Torah. Tsedeq means justice, but it is also used to describe almsgiving (tzedaqa). So the faithful can show commitment towards God (relationship = justice) through actions of piety. Jesus follows the same pattern when he teaches about prayer (the Our Father), helping the poor (6: 3) and fasting (which was understood as the prelude to approaching the study of the Law). These actions are freed from any narrow-minded interpretation. They are good if done because of love, a love seen in God, who now we know as Father, and that we can practise in life. The Kingdom of God is envisioned as the new society where every human being can make the experience of being the Son/Daughter of God, which means being empowered to act like God does.