When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12 – NRSV)
We find a text in Luke 6:20-23 with similarities to this classic text from Matthew.
“The introduction to the Sermon on the Mount contains four sections: the setting (5:1–2), the Beatitudes (5:3–12), the identity of Jesus’ followers (5:13–16), and the teaching about the Law (5:17–20). The setting (5:1–2) on the mountain stands in contrast to the plain that serves as the setting of the Lukan sermon (Luke 6:17–20a). By placing this first and most dramatic instance of Jesus’ teaching on the mountain, Matthew sought to evoke biblical ideas about mountains as places of divine revelation and about Mount Sinai as the place where God’s will for Israel was revealed. But note that Jesus gives the teaching; he does not receive it as Moses did.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 82.)
Later – Matthew 9:36 – the description of Jesus helps us to understand the Beatitudes: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’.”
In the final words of this “Sermon on the Mount” – Matthew 7:28-29 – Matthew notes that, in contrast to the current teachers in Israel, Jesus is a reliable witness to the Covenant: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
disciples: “The concept of disciple is expressed in the NT through the word mathētēs. The substantive meaning ‘discipleship,’ however, does not occur. The verb mathētēuō (in most cases in the active voice) ‘to make someone into a disciple’ seldom appears. However, akolouthein ‘to walk behind, to follow’ (frequently used in the NT as a specialized term for following Jesus) must also be considered. This verb characterizes the central quality of existence as a disciple. All 261 references to ‘disciple’ in the NT are found in the Gospels and Acts. The emphasis clearly lies in the Gospels, inasmuch as only 10 percent of the references occur in Acts. The case is like that of the word akolouthein ‘to follow after’: Of the 90 occurrences, 79 are found in the Gospels, the rest in Acts (4), Revelation (6), and 1 Corinthians (1). This discovery already indicates that discipleship is a phenomenon which demonstrates a close association with Jesus himself” (H Weder, “Disciple, Discipleship”, D. N. Freedman (Ed.), D. Martin (Trans.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 207).
“The disciples of Jesus are introduced at this point without explicit explanation. The word fo disciple – mathētēs – etymologically denotes one who learns. But the learning from Jesus as he taught in the synagogues (4:23) would not of itself justify use of the term. The word generally points to a commitment to some specific kind of learning, normally based on an allegiance to a particular teacher and often involving a full sharing of life by a group of disciples with their teacher. Given that the call of the four in 4:18–22 is to follow Jesus and be prepared by him for a role patterned on his own practice, the four must clearly be counted as disciples. What is less clear is whether we are to understand that the disciple group is to be thought of as having expanded by this point (by 10:1 there are twelve disciples, named in vv. 2–4) and whether a specific call to follow is required of those for whom Matthew will use this language (the only other call scene before 10:1 is the call of Matthew in 9:9).
“Matthew does not use ‘disciple’ in a way which definitely takes us beyond the Twelve. But he does use the related verb mathētēuō (‘disciple/make disciples’), which suggests that in principle he does not intend to restrict the discipleship category exclusively to the Twelve. The action of Joseph of Arimathea in asking for the body of Jesus is based on the fact that he had ‘been discipled to Jesus’ (27:57), and this discipleship anticipates that disciple making to which the Eleven are directed in 28:19–20. ‘The disciples’ in Matthew are the Twelve because it is they whose sharing of life with Jesus and learning from him at every level provide the foundation on which the discipleship to which Matthew challenges his readers is ultimately based. But that which they have gained from being ‘the disciples’ in an exclusive sense, they have in order to pass on to others (28:19–20) who will know the call of Jesus in a more general sense (cf. 11:28–30), who will, not physically but in a very deep sense, find that they have Jesus with them (18:20), and who will make great sacrifices in following him (19:29).
“The content of the sermon takes us in the same direction. As radical as its demands are, this is no manual for an exclusive spiritual elite. Its concern to elucidate the will of God is based on theological and ethical considerations and is not linked to a distinctive call for an exclusive few. The double audience of disciples and crowds fits in with this: the disciples learn from within the context of a relationship of committed discipleship, but that which they learn has pertinence as well to all the others who hear.” (John Nolland, “Preface” in The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 191-192.)
mountain: “Readers are expected to picture the hills on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but attempts at determining the exact site are useless. In the ancient Near East mountains were considered the homes of the gods and sacred sites. In Exodus 19ff. the Torah is revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Just as Moses received God’s commandments on Sinai, Jesus reveals God’s will on the mountain. In Matthew important events in Jesus’ life take place on mountains: temptation (4:8–10), feeding of four thousand (15:29–39), transfiguration (17:1–9), arrest (26:30–35), and final commission (28:16).” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 78.)
Blessed: The Greek word is makarios and may mean “blessed”, “happy” or “fortunate”. Though the idea here is better conveyed by the word “blessed” because it more clearly conveys the fact that it is grace, God’s gift. The idea of being “blessed” by God is common enough in the Hebrew Scriptures – eg Proverbs 3:13 and 28:14. There, however, the “blessing” is here and now. In Matthew’s Beatitudes it is a promise – it is eschatological in other words.
poor in spirit: The idea seems to be that we come before God as “beggars”, we have nothing to bring and everything to receive. Daniel Harrington writes: “The word ptōchos denotes a ‘beggar’, not just a poor person with few possessions. The Beatitudes should be read against the ot tradition of God’s special care for the poor (see Exod 22:25–27; 23:11; Lev 19:9–10; Deut 15:7–11; Isa 61:1). Matthew’s qualification ‘in spirit’ further defines the ‘poor’ as those who recognized God’s kingdom as a gift that cannot be forced. The expressions ‘poor’ and ‘poor in spirit’ were used by members of contemporary Jewish communities to describe themselves as Psalms of Solomon 10:6; 15:1 and the Qumran War Scroll 14:7 show, respectively” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 78).
In today’s Gospel – the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) – Matthew tells us that Jesus “went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them”. This sets the context for one of the great pieces of literature in the Western canon. It also gives us a valuable insight into what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
One commentator writes: “Readers are expected to picture the hills on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but attempts at determining the exact site are useless. In the ancient Near East mountains were considered the homes of the gods and sacred sites” (Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 82). The geographical setting thus reminds us that God dwells here, in this moment, in this teaching, in this teacher. It also reminds us of the promise to Moses long ago on another mountain – Mt Sinai: “I shall be with you” (Exodus 3:12). However, whereas Moses is the recipient and messenger of God’s revelation and teaching on Mt Sinai – in Exodus 3:1-15 and again in Exodus 19:1-31:18 – Jesus is a teacher in his own right and thus a source of divine revelation. And so the Sermon on the Mount concludes with the statement: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). Matthew reaffirms Jesus as teacher at the end of his Gospel: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
In the light of the foregoing, we can begin to understand what a disciple is. Discipleship is a crucial concept in the Christian Scriptures – the word is used more than 260 times. It carries its own, unique Christ-centred meaning. The disciple in Christian Tradition is one whose whole life is centred on Jesus the teacher. “To become his disciple, intellectual or even moral aptitudes were not important. What matters is call, the initiative of which comes from Jesus (1:17-20; John 1:38-50) and behind him the Father, who ‘gives’ Jesus his disciples (John 6:39; 10:29;17:6 & 12)” (Xavier Léon-Dufour, editor, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 103). This “call” – pure gift as it is – forms the basis of a growing relationship between the disciple and Jesus the teacher. For the disciple of Jesus, learning what he has to teach, is an experience of deepening love and communion. The teacher and the disciple become increasingly one. St Paul sums it up best when he says: “I live now, not I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19). All of which suggests a particular destiny and dignity that is an essential part of discipleship. At the end of his hymn to love, St Paul writes: “We will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).