The background to Matthew’s version of the Good News is the most explicitly Jewish of the four Gospel narratives.
When he presents Jesus going up the mountain (rather than the “hill”), he is showing Jesus in the same light as Moses at Sinai, where Moses received the Law, the Torah, from God. Jesus sits down, this being the posture of a teacher addressing students or disciples. He does not give a new law so much as new teaching (which is the root meaning of Torah). The long sermon begins with a list of attitudes or dispositions which his disciples should adopt: the Eight Beatitudes are thus the equivalent of the Ten Commandments; they are positive in tone, in contrast with most of the Mosaic instructions which begin, “You shall not…” The one set of teaching is not proposed in opposition to the other; rather, for Matthew, Jesus’ doctrine represents the true inner core of the Torah of Sinai. If people are properly disposed, there is no need for law: for example, if a person is a peacemaker, the commandment against killing is not necessary.
The timing of the promised reward for living out the Beatitudes is interesting: it will come at the end of time, in the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is mentioned at the beginning and the end of this section, and the Beatitudes in between refer to the final judgement, when the kingdom will be finally established in its perfect form.
As we celebrate the feast of All Saints, we remember all those people, some of whom we have known, members of our families, friends and fellow parishioners who have gone before us and who tried their best to live up to the standards Jesus proposed for his disciples. They are part of the “great cloud of witnesses on every side of us”, those anonymous saints who are now with God in glory, as well as those who have been officially recognised by the Church.
Each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say “I believe in… the communion of saints”. By that we mean that we are somehow united in some way with those who have gone before us. As it says in the first Preface of the Mass for the Dead, “for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended”. Just as Jesus was transformed through his death and resurrection, so we believe that all those who die and rise with him sacramentally in baptism share in his risen life, both now and in eternity. The Beatitudes may seem like impossible ideals, but all that the Lord expects of us is that we do our best to live up to them and to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in our efforts. That is why the Eucharist is so important: receiving Holy Communion is not a reward for being a good Christian, but a powerful aid to becoming one. In that, we have the witness of those anonymous saints whom we commemorate today.
- Matthew is depicting Jesus as the new Moses: Moses represents the Law given on Sinai.
- The Hebrew word translated often as “Law” is Torah: its meaning is broader than legal rules and basically means “teaching” or “instruction”.
- The collection of the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – is known as Torah.
Recite quietly the Apostles’ Creed: think about the various phrases, especially ” I believe in … the communion of saints”.