• Jer 17:5-8
• Psa 1:1-2, 3, 4 AND 6
• 1 Cor 15:12, 16-20
• Lk 6:17, 20-26
“Context,” I have read, “is king.” While such a saying should itself be read and understood in context, there is certainly something to it. Context is about connections, coherence, and circumstances; it shapes the setting for seeing matters clearly.
The Sermon on the Mount is a good example of a famous discourse that is often read and interpreted outside of its proper context. Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is the shorter and lesser known version of the Sermon on the Mount; Matthew’s longer rendition (Matt 5) is most often quoted and commented on. The Sermon on the Mount is interpreted by some as a poetic set of moral guidelines, a sort of free-floating ethical code transcending even Christianity. Some fundamentalist Protestants insist it was meant for Jews alone, not for Christians. Others express admiration for its challenging rhetoric, but doubt it has much to offer real people living in a complicated world.
Scripture scholar N. T. Wright, in Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996), situated the Sermon in a specific context. “For a Jew,” he wrote, “the context of behavior was the renewal of the covenant. The story of the kingdom was designed to generate the praxis of the kingdom.” In other words, the Sermon is intimately connected with the Kingdom of God, and it is meant to show us how to live within the Kingdom.
Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007), reflected at great length on the Sermon. Jesus Christ, he noted, revealed himself to be the new Moses who ascended the mountain—a new Sinai—and took his seat as authoritative teacher, “as the great Moses, who broadens the Covenant to include all nations.” He then emphasized an essential insight: “Jesus understands himself as the Torah—as the word of God in person.”
The Sermon, then, is rooted in the identity of the Sermonizer; it cannot be understood apart from him. The Sermon does not reveal a Jesus who is a rebel, a liberal, a political zealot, or a counter-cultural guru. Instead, it discloses the merciful heart of the God-man who fulfills the Old Covenant, establishes the New, and inaugurates the Kingdom of God. The reading from the prophet Jeremiah is instructive here, for it contrasts trust in man with trust in the Lord. Political systems, social institutions, and ideologies have a place in this world, but they are limited and flawed. Placing our trust in flesh—that is, in human attempts at salvation—leads to a lifeless, “empty earth.”
Those who trust and hope in the Lord, however, are like trees nourished by living water, bearing fruit. They are, in a word, blessed. To be blessed is to possess God’s favor and be marked by God’s fullness and life. It also suggests a certain detachment from the world, a confident awareness that God alone satisfies my needs. “Blessed are you who are now hungry,” Jesus says, “for you will be satisfied.” This hunger is not just physical; in fact, our deepest hunger is for spiritual food. Jesus provided for both, for after feeding the crowds with the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, he insisted, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood,” (Jn 6:11-12, 53-58).
A vital question addressed in the Sermon is this: “How are we to be faithful to God and his covenant?” It is, of course, a question addressed time and time again by the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus did not answer it by rejecting the Old Covenant, but by fulfilling it as only he could (cf. Matt 5:17-18). “The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” explains the Catechism, “far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth” (par. 1968).
The message of the Sermon is the reformation of man’s heart through forgiveness, faith, and Jesus’ gift of eternal life.
The King, in other words, is the context. For everything.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 14, 2010 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)