Lectionary commentary: fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A
A reading from the prophet Zephaniah, 2:3; 3:12-13
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 146:7-10. R/. Matt 5:3
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1:26-31
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:1-12
When we set out to read a book we usually know what kind of book we have in our hands. Is it a novel? Is it a history book? Is it a collection of poems? It is a science book? Is it about current fashion? Is it Barbara Cartland or William Shakespeare?
In this year dedicated to The God who speaks… we are committed to The Gospel according to Matthew and before we open its pages we must ask what kind of a book is it. What is a Gospel? Why did Matthew write this kind of book? To discover what a Gospel is, an exploration of the word “gospel” will guide us on our way.
Mark’s Gospel, the first of our four Gospels to be written, begins his work with these words:
Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ…
Beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…
The word in red is part of the Greek word euaggelion. The basic meaning of the word is “good message” or “good news” but good news with a very particular slant, as we shall see.Our word “gospel” emerges from the meaning the word had in the writings of the New Testament. When Mark wrote his Gospel the word had been common in Christian circles, and it had a Hebrew parent in the Old Testament.
First, we will do well to consider that almost every author whose writings are recorded in the New Testament use the word euaggelion, gospel. In the writings of St. Paul and writings those attributed to him and written by his disciples, the word occurs over 60 times. Some examples:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.
… on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of people by Christ Jesus.
For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
1 Corinthians 4:15
There are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
Notice immediately that the good news can be “the gospel of God”, “the gospel of Christ”. There is, too, another implication here: the gospel is from God and about God. What is given is handed over to humanity as a responsibility. It must be proclaimed by all who claim to be recipients of “the gospel of God”.
Further insight as to the meaning of “the gospel” are offered:
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
I Peter 4:17
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.
These two quotations infer that the gospel of God has repercussions at the hour of judgement.
If we turn to the Hebrew Bible our understanding of the word “gospel” will become more precise. If the word means “good news”, the obvious question is “good news” about what?”
Good News for David
One of King David’s sons, Absalom, revolted against his father when another of David’s sons raped Absalom’s sister. The story is a sordid one. Read II Samuel 13:1 to 19:8 for the wretched tale. There is one feature of the story that will throw much light on THE word “gospel”.
When the final battle against Absalom was won and the rebellious son was killed, Ahimaaz, an ambitious young man, the son of a priest named Zadok, asked to be allowed to run to Jerusalem to report to the King that “that the Lord had vindicated him against his enemies” (II Samuel 18:19). But Joab, David’s loyal and politically astute army commander, did not sanction the ambitions of the young man:
You are no man of tidings this day. You may bear tidings on another day, but this day you shall bear no tidings, for the king’s son is dead.
II Samuel 18:20
Joab knew well that David, on hearing his son had been slain, was liable to turn into a rage of grief and kill the messenger. Better to send a foreigner. So a Cushite, that is, an African from Nubia, is dispatched.
But Ahimaaz again approached Joab and asked to run. So Joab let him go, thinking that he will arrive after the Nubian who is already on the way with the tidings for the king. But Ahimaaz was brought up in Israel and knew the lie of the land. So a short-cut brought him first to arrive in sight of the gates of the city of Jerusalem. A lookout “raised his eyes and saw, and look! a man was running alone”. If he was alone, there was no danger. So the sentinel thought:
If he’s alone, there are tidings in his mouth.
Obviously, the news is good. Then Ahimaaz appeared nearer the city and the watchman recognised his gait. David is told and he said,
He is a good man and with good tidings he must come.
Ahimaaz called out to the King,
All it well. Victory has been won.
The Cushite arrives and he said his piece:
Let my Lord the King receive the tidings that the Lord has done you justice against all who rose against you.
The point of greatest importance in our quest is this: the Hebrew word used for “tidings” here implies “good tidings of victory achieved”. And the victory is God’s victory. The word for tidings is consistent throughout the whole of this story and it always means “good news”. This “good news” is news of a victory, a victory won by God. It is from this word that our word “gospel” comes. It is always the good news of victory won, victory wrought by God.
What is of great importance in unravelling the meaning of the word “gospel” is how the Hebrew was translated into Greek. We have learned in these pages that about 250 B.C. Jews in the bustling new Egyptian city of Alexandria translated their Hebrew Bible into Greek. There were quite a number of such translations and it was these Alexandrian Greek translations that was used by every single writer whose work appears in our New Testament. So how did these Greek translations translate the business of reporting to King David the death of his son and the victory of his army over that rebel?
The Septuagint is the most important and best known of these early Greek translations. Everywhere in the business of reporting to the kingJoab, the commander dispatching the messengers, Ahimaaz, and the unnamed Nubian soldier all use the noun euaggelion (the good news of a victory won) or the verb euaggelizomai (to “good news” someone). See the report of the Chusite Nubian runner:
And behold the Cushite came and said to the king:
“Let my lord and king be “good-newsed”,
for today the Lord has judged in your favour against the hand of all who raised their hands against you!”
II Samuel 18:31
It is, of course, not good English. But, in his Gospel, St. Luke almost always uses the Greek verb, not the noun. A few examples:
The angel Gabriel says to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist:
I was sent to good-news you.
To the shepherds:
Behold!I good-news you with a great joy
that will be for all the people.
John the Baptist did the same:
Thus with many other exhortations,
he was good-newsing the people.
Here is a very awkward sentence from Luke when translated without using elegant English. It is, of course, fine in Greek:
The Law and the Prophets are until John.
From then on the kingdom of God is being gospelled
and everyone is forcing themselves into it.
Of course it is correct to translate “the kingdom of God is proclaimed”. But that obscures the power and intimacy that “God is gospelling us”, that “God is “goodnewsing” us about a victory achieved. But that is what is meant.
In 490 B.C., for the first but not the last time, Persia (Iran) sought to invade Greece, intent on destroying the city of Athens. A small force of only 10,00 men rushed north from Athens and confronted the Asian fleet as it landed a vast army from, it is estimated, a thousand ships. A miracle happened and the Greeks won. A messenger named Pheidippides ran as fast as he could the whole 26 miles to Athens to inform the terrified citizens that their army had won. He burst into the city crying,
Good News: We’ve won!
- and dropped dead.
But everyone knew what the word meant. It meant “good news of a great victory”. The City Council (known, by the way, as the ekklesia of the city) immediately set about preparing euaggelia, the special sacrifices offered to the gods when, and only when, a victory in battle had been won. A great sacrifice of thanksgiving was offered to the gods.. In Greek the word for thankfulness and gratitude is eucharistia.
Is it not strange that we offer the sacrifice of the Mass in thanksgiving, remembering the good news that a great victory has been achieved?
What we must know whenever we come across the word “gospel” in the New Testament, and when it is used as a title for the writings of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, is that what is being presented is good news of God’s victory over all that opposes God’s peace. What we learn as we read each Gospel is that God, on our behalf, has fought the good fight, and we are blessed with the good news that God has achieved victory on our behalf.
What we must discover is why God fought on our behalf, where was victory achieved, against what enemies, and what consequences are enjoined on those who would celebrate God’s victory. As Ahimaaz and the Nubian ran to shout victory to the anxious city, so must God’s victory be understood, proclaimed and celebrated. That’s what the Church is for.
My mind keeps nudging me to be aware of the fact that the death of a son is central to both stories.
Why did Matthew write his version of the victory won by God?
Matthew wrote in order to overcome deep divisions in the Christian communities in Antioch. There were many Jewish Christians in that city and there were many former pagans who had found faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Many Jewish Christians were the first readers and hearers of Matthew’s work. They would have noted a pleasing feature. Everywhere Matthew quotes from the great prophets of Israel, especially those quotations that point to a coming Messiah and what the Messiah would accomplish. Matthew emphasises that the Messiah would uphold the Torah, that is, all that identified a Jew as belonging to God’s people and outlining the way such a chosen one should live. Matthew even discusses issues as if he were a Jewish rabbi, as we will see when he turns to the question of divorce (Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-9). But he also opposes some Jewish misconceptions about Jesus and, as the coming of the magi indicates, he emphasises that Gentile people are welcome into the church of God. One very important commentary on Matthew’s Gospel summarises Matthew’s work elegantly and accurately:
Antioch had a very large Jewish population. At the same time, the city was the centre of the earliest Gentile mission. This dual feature seems to be mirrored in Matthew, which breathes a Jewish atmosphere and yet looks upon the Gentile mission in a most favourable light.
To understand what this Gospel means to us, we must try to understand what it meant to them, the Jews and Gentiles who made up the first readers and hearers of the Gospel according to Matthew and who had difficulties sitting at the same table to break the bread and drink from the cup.
A reading from the prophet Zephaniah, 2:3; 3:12-13
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his just commands;
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
and none shall make them afraid.
The word of the Lord.
A word about the Book of Zephaniah. The prophet, whose name means “God protects”, may have been a great, great grandson of the important King Hezekiah. The author tells us that he was writing in the time of the saintly reforming King Josiah (640 B.C. - 609 B.C.). However the condemnatory tone of the book would suggest that he was writing in the early days of Josiah’s reign before the religious reforms of that king had begun to be effective.
Zephaniah was concerned to expose and condemn the evils that flourished in Jerusalem, in Judah, and were endemic throughout all the nations of the world. All such evils would, he warned, be subject to the awesome judgement of God. On The Day of the Lord, he declares in the name of God,
I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth.
That phrase, The Day of the Lord, is used by many of the prophets to refer to the time of God’s final and definitive judgement to put to rights the evils that plagued the earth.
Today’s reading is a call to repentance. The humble people of the earth are called to seek the Lord with integrity and humility. The way of the Lord is to do no injustice, to speak no lies, to shun deceit of all kinds. By seeking to live as the Lord demands, those who walk in the way of the Lord,
… shall graze and lie down,
and none shall make them afraid.
The good counsel of Zephaniah is a fitting introduction to the way of the Lord that Jesus outlines in what we have come to love as The Sermon of the Mount.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 146:7-10. R/. Matt 5:3
R/. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
It is the Lord who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free. R/.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
the Lord watches over the sojourners; R/.
He upholds the widow and the fatherless.
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
the Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations. R/.
This is one of a number of psalms that are songs of praise. Such psalms celebrate God’s steadfast love, God’s compassion, God’s mercy, and God’s forgiveness. Psalm 146 lists the many human miseries that are healed by God. Just to list God’s caring agenda outlined in today’s Responsorial Psalm is to marvel at how much we are loved for God’s shepherding never ends and is never bested by human tragedy or human failure. God is the one:
who does justice for the oppressed, who gives bread to the hungry, who sets captives free, who gives sight to the blind, who lifts up those bent by trouble, who looks out for the foreigner and outsider, who guards the widow and orphan, who defeats the way of the wicked.
It is this Lord God whose compassion endures forever so that none is left outside, none abandoned. We can be certain that the Lord will reign forever, overcoming and outlasting whatever evil seeks to undo in the creation that God declared to be very good.
Praise the Lord!
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1:26-31
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
The word of the Lord.
Saint Paul was not only the greatest theologian given us by God. He was the greatest pastor, the pastor who founded more Christian communities than anyone else. He loved people into the ways of God. But he was often heart-scalded for the Christian communities in Corinth contributed much to his sleepless nights.
Today’s reading reveals how seriously he chided his wayward people and how in chiding he made them aware of the glory of God so splendidly shining through their very being. Chastise with one hand by lavishing praise with other: all pastors please note.
He reminds the brothers and sisters - notice no matter what, they are all sisters and brothers of Paul - of who they are. Like many of the very first Christians, those in Corinth were not from the top end of society, though some obviously were. If the cap fits ...
they were not the wisest people around; they were not influential; they were not upper class.
But look what God has done! God has set his hat on the foolish, on the powerless, the insignificant, the despised, even on
may come to realise that they have no special place in God’s heart. All God’s chillun got wings!
For everything is a gift and the greatest gift sent to all—nobodies and somebodies alike—is Christ Jesus. It is Jesus who speaks true wisdom to humanity. His wisdom is creative beyond all human creativity for his wisdom makes us at one with God (righteousness, at rights with God), makes humanity realise that it is holy and utterly safe in God’s hands. So if there’s any glory doing the rounds, it must be given it to God.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:1-12
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
SETTING THE SCENE
A few points must be mentioned before we listen to the first sentences of the most influential sermon ever preached. Matthew is immensely careful in setting the scene. Every word is important. The introduction that Matthew provides for his readers and hearers is a vital key in understanding the whole of what traditionally is called The Sermon on the Mount.
First, “seeing the crowds”. The crowds are not just background scenery, a noise off, in Matthew’s Gospel. Throughout the Gospel they represent the harvest that must be reaped, the people who must be brought to God. The crowd or crowds are mentioned 45 times in Matthew’s Gospel. The crowds are at times a chorus that signals how Jesus is being received:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
The response of the crowds is often a commentary on events:
When the crowds saw it, they feared, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to the people.
Here “fear” must be interpreted as it is understood in the Book of Psalms and throughout the Hebrew Bible. Let one quotation stand for the 609 references to fear in that Bible, not all, of course, with exactly the same meaning:
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
The crowd/crowds stand in awe of Jesus, with that same awe they have for God. So in awe are/were Jewish people that they did/do not utter the name YHWH, the name of God embedded in their faith. That awe must become the faith of all the earth’s inhabitants.
At the end of the sermon, “he came down from the mountain” and “great crowds followed him” (Matthew 8:1). Following Jesus is, in our Gospels, the first positive step on the way to faith in Jesus Christ. When we come to the last days of the life of Jesus, the crowd/crowds will be of great concern.
Secondly, Jesus went up the mountain. The Jerusalem Bible tells us that “he went up the hill”. He didn’t. The New Jerusalem Bible informs us that “he went onto the mountain”. He didn’t. The New International Version, a very popular translation, offers “he went up on a mountainside”. He didn’t. The Revised English Bible tells its readers that “he went up a mountain”. He didn’t. The 1611 Authorised Version, the most influential Bible in the history of Christian Churches, offers “he went up into a mountain”. The defective Greek text on which the Authorise Version or, as it is more commonly called, the King James Version, is responsible for that mistranslation. It should be said, however, that the recent Revised King James Version also offers “he went upon a mountain”. That will not do. The Catholic Douai Version of the Bible that began its life in Rheims in 1582 offers “he went up into a mountain”. He didn’t.
As the English Standard Version, and many other modern translations rightly inform their readers,
HE WENT UP THE MOUNTAIN.
It is not difficult. After all, in Matthew 8:1, when the sermon is concluded, we are informed in simple Greek that “he came down from the mountain”.
The mountain is an imaginary mountain. Matthew wants his readers and hearers to imagine that the mountain is Mount Sinai. Matthew wants them to remember the most important mountain in the whole Bible. For it was on that mountain that God spoke to Moses. On Mount Sinai the covenant between God and the people of Israel was signed and sealed (Exodus 19:3; 19:10; 24:9). On this mountain God revealed his presence to Moses (Exodus 19 16-18).
Matthew does not want his readers and hearers, as they listen to the sermon Jesus preached, to imagine any old mountain, or, God help us, a bit of a hill. Matthew wants his readers and hearers to close their eyes and imagine they are with Jesus on the same mountain where Moses met with God and where Israel, through Moses, learned that God was with them and had much to say to them. It was on the mountain that God created a new people. Having brought them out of slavery in Egypt and saved them from the onslaught of the Pharaoh’s army, God led them to Mount Sinai. There God confirmed their status in the divine scheme of things:
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.
What is happening on the mountain Jesus climbed is the creation of a great wonder. On the foundations of Jewish faith the nations of the world are called to be the people of God.
What is been created on Matthew’s mountain is the blueprint of the Church with the responsibility to go and to gospel them with the wonder that they are embraced by God’s love. The Sermon of the Mount is the sacred constitution that guides the world in the way of peace.
What mountain in Galilee Jesus actually climbed may be left to scholarly debates and the instincts of Israel’s tourist guides. What Matthew does is to transport his readers and hearers to Mount Sinai in order that they may discover that the love God gave to the Jewish people is now given to the whole of humanity.
Another similarly imaginary mountain will turn up at the end of Matthew’s story (Matthew 28:16). The first mountain and the last mountain come from the same understanding. They are one and the same: the mountain of God.
Thirdly, Jesus sat down. That was what rabbis did. They sat down on the ground with their disciples (students, learners, pupils) around them. Jesus the Teacher begins to teach those who “came to him”. Their responsibility will be to teach. Everyone climbing up that mountain and listening to the teacher who sits there on the ground is called to go and teach all nations:
… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
In other words, listening imposes an obligation. All who hear the word must become proclaimers of the word.
Fourthly, he opened his mouth and began to teach. The importance of the occasion, of the words that come from Jesus in this sermon, are far from casual. Consider the case of Job:
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.
In the middle of a chapter devoted to parables of Jesus, Matthew observes,
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden
since the foundation of the world.”
Matthew has a sentence that might well describe what is happening on his imaginary Mount Sinai:
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
Familiar words from the psalms may well be applied to Jesus as he opens his mouth in the hearing of the crowds and disciples:
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
A number of modern English translations and scholarly commentaries offer,
Happy are the poor in spirit…
The Hebrew word bārûk may be translated as “happy”, as can the Greek word μακάριος (makarios) used by Matthew. However “blessed” makes more sense in most occurrences in the Hebrew Bible:
You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
Help me, O Lord my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love!
Let them know that this is your hand;
you, O Lord, have done it!
Let them curse, but you will bless.
Moses prays for a blessing on the people:
May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you!
While Samson may not be a rôle model to embrace, his mother was pleased to bear a son:
And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
The Hebrew Bible teaches that God blesses and may be blessed in return. Ruth is blessed with a child and the women respond:
Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!Ruth 4:14
In the context of the sermon of Jesus the word μακάριος (makarios) is not about being happy. It is about who belongs to God’s enterprise in the world. It is about those who see the world from God’s point of view, and align themselves with God’s vision. The argument between “happy” and “blessed” seems to me to have been settled long before Matthew wrote his Gospel. In the words of the very first Psalm, a job description is provided:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Those who are declared blessed are those who do on earth as it is in heaven. The prophets have outlined again and again what values must prevail if the world is to become what it was created to be. Those who can be identified by these characteristics are blessed:
the poor in spirit those who mourn the meek those who hunger and thirst for godliness the merciful the pure of heart.
Such people mirror God but, such is the way of world, that mirroring God does not always and everywhere win the world’s approval. There is therefore a sustaining blessing for,
… when others revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.…
you reward is great in heaven.
Prophets, old and new, are always confronted with a world of evil, a world of iniquities, that create a separation between humanity and God:
Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood
and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
your tongue mutters wickedness.
No one enters suit justly;
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
The demand of the nine Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount is that we turn the that of Isaiah 59 (above) into the this of Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to gospel the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generation
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.