The Beatitudes: The New Law Given by the New Moses

On the Readings for Sunday, January 29, 2016

• Zeph. 2:3; 3:12-13
• Psa. 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
• 1 Cor. 1:26-31
• Matt. 5:1-12a 

During this Sunday’s Gospel reading we hear the Beatitudes, among the most well-known and oft-quoted sayings of Jesus. The Beatitudes consist of nine “Blessed are…” statements that together form an introduction and doorway to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

In Jewish literature, beatitudes were common in works having to do with worship and wisdom, such as the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Book of Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon). They described a situation in which God’s blessing is experienced and they exhorted the listener to live in a way that would lead to such a blessing. For those who ignore the beatitudes, condemnation is either described or implied. In this way they echo the structure of blessings and curses found in the Law of Moses.

A connection to Moses and the Law is clearly made in the description of Jesus going up to the mountain to teach. “With this great discourse,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth, “Matthew puts together a picture of Jesus as the New Moses…” This is firmly rooted in the promise of a great Prophet made to Moses and the people of Israel during the Exodus: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut 18:18).

Jesus, the New Moses, did not come to do away with the Law and the prophets, but as he clearly states later in Matthew 5, “to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). This is an essential point, because the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount have sometimes been misinterpreted as tossing out or overthrowing the Old Testament. That was never the intent of Christ, who showed by word and deeds the deeper and perfect meaning of the Law and the prophets—a meaning that can only be found in Him.

The Beatitudes have also, at times, been misconstrued as somehow outlining a political or utopian social project. This view either misses or rejects both the Jewishness and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Zephaniah is a perfect example of the emphasis on humility and lowliness found in the prophets. Such humility, which is the recognition of who we are in relation to God, must be present in order for God’s blessings to be realized. This hints at the paradox fully disclosed in the Beatitudes.

It is the poor in spirit, the meek, and the mournful who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Or, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, “God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.” In these paradoxes, writes the Holy Father, “the standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world.”

The Beatitudes, Benedict XVI further notes, are “eschatological promises.” That is, they orient us toward our final end and the purpose of our existence. Yet they are not just about thinking of the future, but about living now in the firm hope of the future. The Beatitudes, states the Catechism, “shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life; they are the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations; they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ’s disciples; they have begun in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (CCC 1717). They offer the challenge of discipleship in concrete terms: becoming meek, seeking righteousness, showing mercy, making peace, having a pure heart, enduring persecution and insults for the sake of Christ.

The world looks upon the Cross and sees weakness, failure, and shame. Those who hear the words of the New Moses and embrace His Cross see the wisdom of God and experience sanctification and redemption. “Rejoice and be glad,” says the Savior, “for your reward will be great in heaven.”

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 3, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1180 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.