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The King is the Context

On the Readings for Sunday, February 17, 2019

'Palestine. Sermon the Mount.' by Vasily Polenov (c. 1900;
'Palestine. Sermon the Mount.' by Vasily Polenov (c. 1900;

• 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.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1170 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.


  1. Jesus dealt with so many kings in his lifetime, especially King Herod. We often call Jesus “King of the Jews” a title he may not revere. To be associated in title with the tyrants of his time seems to cloud his messages.

    • Someone better alert John the Revelator:

      “11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. 13 He is clad in a robe dipped in[b] blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. 15 From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Rev 19:11-16)

      • And then there’s John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world.” My vertical kingdom, and not, say, my horizontal domain. In the Dead Sea Scrolls from Isaiah the term for the King of Kings is so vertically-holy and unspeakable that instead of any words, there’s only a reverent blank shown as “….” The King thing is the context. Mary said only “fiat”.

        True, God allowed the Hebrews to have kings of a sort, as a way of combating the more organized Philistines, but he also told them that, with the intervening human element now in play, they would regret it (1 Sam 8:1-22).

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