The Gospel (or “good news” -a word coined around 950AD by an Anglo-Saxon monk) according to Maththaîon is concerned with the fulfillment of ancient scriptures, hence why the text continually references the prophecies of Jeremiah. The gospel of Matthew takes great liberties to trace Jesus’s genealogy to the ancient bloodline of Israel, as the objective is to persuade the general public of Jesus’s divinity, through means of miracles (a tactic to persuade large crowds) and also by proclaiming the fulfillment of scriptural prophecies (a tactic to draw the attention of the learned and upper echelon of Jewish culture). In this way, Matthew is intended to be a uniquely public document, a book to be read by the greatest numbers of people. The text is written in Koine Greek, the common language of post Alexandrian antiquity (as with much of the ‘New Testament’) though Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, the linguistic legacy of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon many centuries earlier.
Background Chapters 1-4
The first four chapters of Matthew detail the rise of Jesus (“Yeshua” or “Joshua” meaning something like ‘the deliverer’) – Chapter 1 gives a genealogical account of Jesus dating back to Abraham, thus connecting the theme of the book with the ancient Hebrew scriptures in the Torah, and it explains Mary’s virgin pregnancy, a “child of the Holy Ghost” or sometimes translated as the “Holy Spirit” (1:18). Meanwhile Joseph is visited by an “Angel of the Lord” to prevent him from divorcing Mary. It continues with the story of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, and the wise men from the east guided by a star who ask Herod (the Roman ruler of the province of Judea) where the King of the Jews is born so they can worship him and bring valuable gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). When they depart Bethlehem, the wise men (unspecified number) are warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod so they go a different route to their own countries. Herod orders the death of every child under (in a way, mirroring the acts of Exodus in the Torah).
An “Angel of the Lord” appears to Joseph to take his family to Egypt for safety, then later after Herod’s death, an “Angel of the Lord” appears again to Joseph instructing him to return to Israel. However Joseph is afraid of Archelaus, ruling son of Herod, so he turns and takes his family to the Galilee region of Northern Israel, in a town called Nazareth (thus, according to the text, fulfilling more prophecies). Hence why Jesus is a Nazarene.
We then get an account of John the Baptist “preaching in the wilderness” thus fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecies. He is portrayed as a man of the land, a frontiersman of sorts, who is praised by many for his generosity and baptisms. However, he rebukes the Pharisees and the Saducees, both conservative and orthodox Jewish rabbinical schools of Judea. They were both of the upper eschelons of Hebrew culture. Chastising the Pharisees and Saducees, while also proclaiming deference to the scriptures and their fulfillment, is a popular theme and a notable tension in Matthew. At any rate, John the Baptist’s proclamation is: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (3:2). When Jesus appears to be baptized, John is hesitant but Jesus demands he do it in accordance with full “righteousness.” And as soon as Jesus is baptized, a voice booms from the heavens (presumably God’s voice) saying: “This is my Son, whom I love; with whom I
am well pleased” (3:17). One key ingredient of Matthew is the need to justify Jesus’s authority both by constant reference to Jeremiah and Isaiah, as well as frequent recourse to miraculous suspensions of the natural world. Perhaps the multitude of people are less persuaded by reason, and more convinced of prophecies and miracles.
A fascinating interlude occurs in Chapter 4 in which Jesus is led into the “wilderness” or “desert” to be tempted by the “tempter” or “devil” (διαβόλου). He fasts for forty days and forty nights and the devil commands three miracles from Jesus – 1) if you are the son of God turn these stones into bread 2) he takes Jesus up to a gable of the temple in Jerusalem and commands him to fall for if he is the son of God will be protected 3) then to a tall mountain to show him the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus will worship “Satan” he will be given rulership over the kingdoms. Jesus yells at Satan and “angels” come to attend to him as the devil leaves. Jesus learns of John the Baptist being arrested so he goes to live in Capernaum by the sea, no longer in Nazareth (this fulfilling another prophecy of Isaiah). Jesus begins preaching John the Baptist’s refrain: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” and he gathers disciples of his teaching – Simon called “Peter” and his brother Andrew (both fishermen) and another pair of brothers who are fishermen, James and John, who immediately leave their father (“…leaving their boat and father” 4:22).
Jesus travels throughout Galilee: teaching in synagogues, preaching the “gospel” or “good news” of the kingdom (what is the good news of the kingdom?), but he becomes better known throughout all of Syria for healing the sick and the lame. Many crowds begin to follow him.
The Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 4-6)
The Beatitudes refer to “blessings” or “blessedness” -a phrase coined by Cicero and thus was later included in Latin vulgate editions of Matthew, though the original Greek μακάριοι “makarioi” means roughly the same thing. The Beatitudes are a collection of eight blessings (general) and one blessing directly addressed to Jesus’s followers.
Jesus “sees” the crowds” and goes up the mountainside, perhaps in an effort to speak in seclusion however also to speak to the crowd. He sits and his disciples listen (we know of four: brothers, Simon “Peter” and Andrew, and James and John). The sermon is delivered to his followers up the mountainside, a parallel to Moses’s trip up the mountainside to receive the “words” or “commandments” -the old law. Similarly Jesus becomes a new lawgiver, though not a law that is written down. He is an educator of moral teaching. Each of the beatitudes begins with a blessing for a downtrodden state of being, and concludes with a hopeful glimpse of things to come, in some cases even a promise or prediction of future events.
The ethics of the old world has been turned on its head. Now the meek and poor in spirit are blessed above all others, and humility is honored.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3)
The “poor in spirit” is a vague term, perhaps implying a distinction between the bold, arrogance of the high-born spirit of the old aristocracy. The poor in spirit are humble, perhaps lacking in confidence, and lacking in lavishness. Because their kingdom is not to be found in this world, there is hope. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom presumably not of this corporeal world.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4)
The second beatitude is tragic, emphasizing those who have sorrow, perhaps those mourning the loss of someone or something. Mourners are to be blessed and honored, and made to feel comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5)
The third beatitude refers to a physical state-of-being as well as a quiet or gentle disposition. The meek are to be honored for they will inherit the earth. What does it mean to inherit the earth? At any rate, an inheritance is at stake, and the meek stand to gain.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (5:6)
The fourth beatitude introduces politics, and promises satisfaction to those who hunger for justice.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (5:7)
Those who empathize and forgive, will in turn be forgiven, reframing the ancient idea of the equality of punishment (i.e. “an eye for an eye”) as equality of forgiveness.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8)
The “pure in heart” phrase is vague, perhaps implying those who are without internal blemish, those striving with honesty and purity to do good, will “see God.” God is no longer limited to the secret shrines and cults. Now God is accessible to anyone with a pure heart.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called offspring of God” (5:9)
Peacemakers, as distinct from warmongers, are honored. Henceforth, peacemakers will be called (perhaps by the multitude) as the children of God. Recall Odysseus’s treatment of Thersites at the outset of the Iliad -he beats him for his desire not to fight in the war, and all the Greek’s laugh at him. Jesus honors the attitude of Thersites. Perhaps here lies a tension that exists between Athens and Jerusalem.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10)
Those who are unjustly chastised despite being righteous are honored and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Thus far, the kingdom of heaven is for the poor in spirit and for those who are persecuted because of righteousness.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil
against you because of me” (5:11)
The Beatitudes concludes by directing a blessing at its listeners, Jesus’s disciples, blessing them when they are insulted, persecuted, and spoken falsely of. It presumes and foreshadows that followers of Jesus will be scorned. But “rejoice” and “be glad” because Jesus promises great rewards in heaven.
The remainder of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is directed to followers of Jesus. Recognizing the radicalism of his new teaching, Jesus declares part of his purpose: he comes not to “abolish” the old laws or the prophets, but rather to “fulfill” them (5:17), and he calls upon his followers to “surpass” the righteousness of the Torah scholars and the pharisees.
At 5:21, Jesus begins contrasting his teaching with the old laws of the Torah – ‘You have heard it said, do not murder…but I say anyone who is angry with his brother shall face judgment…’ In other words, there is a newness about Jesus. His objection to Mosaic law is its prohibitions and punishments, however Jesus is more concerned with getting to the root of the problem of crime, and evil, which begins internally in how people think and feel, before they behave. In this way, merely looking at a woman is the same as committing adultery, and people are called to be “perfect” eliminating any extraneous parts of themselves if they cause any sinning. Jesus regularly refers to punishment for disobedience of these new ethics as banishment to the fire of Gehenna, a ravine outside the city where trash was piled and constantly kept burning. Jesus also forbids the promising of oaths (as commanded in the past), as they are evil. Instead people should simply say: “Yes” or “No.”
He commands his followers not to resist evil, in contrast to the old axiom of “an eye for an eye,” and to turn the other cheek when stricken on the right cheek. Thus vengeance is evil. Allow yourself to be robbed. Be more charitable than you need to be, Jesus demands one to restrain the ego in their soul, and instead embrace their more philanthropic and forgiving intuitions. He commands his followers to give love to enemies, not merely their friends as is commonly held. Do not do good deeds, like charitable giving and prayer, simply for praise from the public.
At 6:9 Jesus teaches his followers how to pray (the Lord’s Prayer) in disciples are called to pray to God for His kingdom to come and also his will to be done on earth as it is heaven. In other words, earth must be conformed to the perfection of heaven. Riches are better in heaven than on earth, a man cannot serve both God and Mamon (an aramaic term for a reliable home. They pray for food – give us today our daily bread- ask God to forgive all debts, as Jesus’s followers are also called to forgive debtors. They ask God to lead them away from temptation and evil, and the prayer closes with an acknowledgement of the kingdom.
Then, Jesus closes by reminding his followers not to worry: do not care about clothes, or food, or wealth, and so on. Consider the “lilies in the field” -they neither care where they grow or how they grow. His theology is anti-materialistic. Jesus says to give no care for the morrow, pay attention to today’s troubles only. He commands his followers not to judge others, without first judging themselves.
Curiously, Jesus makes huge promises to his followers (notably distinct from Socrates). Jesus promises that if they ask it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and doors will be opened to you. Theology promises answers, comfort in revealed knowledge of the divine. Philosophy cannot make such promises.
Jesus says whoever follows his teachings and hears his words will be considered a prudent man, and the opposite will be a foolish man. It will be a house that cannot be torn down by the wind and the rain -perhaps in reference to the church. Jesus wants perfection, something that will not pass away with time.
As Jesus finishes his speech, the crowds are astounded as he speaks with authority. Saint Augustine once called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew the ‘perfect example of the Christian life’ in his Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Others like Luther suggest it presents an impossible ethic for a human being.