THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Lesson 5: Chapter 5
Discourse #1: The Sermon on the Mount

Lord God,
You gave the Israelites the outline of the ethical stipulations of the Law of the Sinai Covenant written on tablets of stone, but Your Son has given Your New Covenant people a new law that calls for an inner transformation that is reflected in outward actions of righteousness.  He has circumcised our hearts of stone and has given us hearts of love and service as we travel the path to salvation.  Send Your Holy Spirit, Lord, to guide us in our study of the new Law that internalizes, intensifies, and fulfills the good of the old Law.  We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

+ + +

Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.  [...].  My heart has assured me and reassured me that the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be a divine reality.  The Sermon on the Mount cannot be a mere human production.  This belief enters into the very depth of my conscience.  The whole history of man proves it. 
Daniel Webster, Life of Daniel Webster, Curtis, page 684

The Sermon on the Mount contains the ethical stipulations by which New Covenant believers must be committed to live in obedience to the new Law of Jesus the new Lawgiver.  This discourse is the first of the five major homilies by Jesus which appear in Matthew's Gospel:

1. The Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:1-7:29
2. The Missionary Discourse Matthew 10:5-11:1
3. The Parables Discourse Matthew 13:1-53
4. The Homily to the Church Matthew 18:1-19:1
5. The Eschatological* Discourse Matthew 24:1-26:1

*eschatology = etymology from the Greek eschatos = uttermost + logos = word or discourse; usually interpreted as meaning the "last things;" dealing with death, particular (individual) and general (final) judgments, heaven, hell and purgatory. 

Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

  1. Introduction (5:1-16)
    1. Beatitudes
    2. The Christian and the world (similes of salt and light)
  2. Teaching on the Law with six examples of Christian conduct (5:17-48)
    1. Anger
    2. Adultery
    3. Divorce
    4. Oaths
    5. Retaliation
    6. Love of enemies
  3. Teaching on right religious practices (6:1-18)
    1. Almsgiving
    2. Prayer
    3. Fasting
  4. Teaching on material possessions, human relationships and our relationship with God (6:19-7:12)
    1. Earthly possessions versus heavenly treasures
    2. Dependence on God
    3. Judging others
  5. Conclusion (7:13-27)
    1. The Two Ways
    2. False prophets
    3. The judgment that separates the true disciple from the false disciple
    4. The two foundations

Jesus' first discourse in Matthew's Gospel, known as "the Sermon on the Mount," can be divided into five parts.  The sermon has an introduction and a conclusion (Parts I and V), and the main body of the sermon (Parts II - IV) is defined by the phrase "the Law and the prophets" (5:17 and 7:12).  It is this homily that lays the framework for the perfect precepts of the New Covenant Law written on the hearts of New Covenant believers that was promised by the prophet Jeremiah in the 6th century BC (Jer 31:31-34). 

Jesus' teaching in this first discourse set the standard by which Christian life and character are molded.  The Son of God's sermon on the "holy mountain" in the Galilee marked a rendezvous in time every bit as significant as God's first great rendezvous with Israel at the "holy mountain" in the desert of the Sinai when God formed Israel into His holy kingdom of the Old Covenant Church.

The Two Sermons: The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain

St. Luke's Gospel records a different beatitude teaching.  Please read Matthew 4:25-5:12 and Luke 4:14-15 and 6:12-26.  Compare the Matthew Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12) to Jesus' Beatitudes in Luke (Lk 6:12-26).  There are three major theories that Bible scholars have developed to account for the differences between Matthew's Sermon on the Mount and Luke's Sermon on the Plain:

  1. Both Gospels give accounts of the same discourse.
  2. The Gospels reflect two different homilies spoken at different times during Jesus' teaching ministry.
  3. The Gospels present two homilies delivered in close succession: one on the summit of the mountain to the disciples and then a second homily on the plain to the multitude.

Question: What differences do you notice between the events concerning Jesus' teaching in Matthew and His teaching in Luke?  Hint: Notice location, audience, and content of the teaching.
Answer:

It may be an important distinction that the Beatitude teaching in St. Matthew's Gospel was presented to Jesus' disciples "to believers who had already come to acknowledge His authority (Mt 5:1).  They were ready to receive a "spiritual" teaching on how Jesus had come to transform the Old Covenant by intensifying, internalizing, and fulfilling the Law of the Old Covenant.  The multitude (Mt 5:1; Lk 6:17-18), the poor people and the crowds who came from near and far, could not have understood or accepted such a teaching.  They were far more concerning with the temporal blessings and the justice that was promised to them through obedience to the Old Covenant Law (Lev 26:3-13; Dt 28:1-14).

Question: In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26, Jesus gave His teaching in the Old Covenant style of the covenant treaty sanctions of the Sinai Covenant found in Leviticus 26:3-46 and Deuteronomy 28:1-46.  What pattern do you see Jesus repeating from those passages?
Answer: Jesus was giving a series of blessings and curses just like the blessings for obedience and the curses/judgments for disobedience that God told Moses to give the Israelites.  Jesus gave 4 blessings followed by 4 curses.  However, the Old Covenant sanctions of blessings and curses/judgments were all temporal and Jesus' promised blessings and curses/judgments are eternal.

Question: What issues of social justice did Jesus address to the crowds in St. Luke's Gospel? What are the "blessings" He promised to those who have suffered in this life?
Answer:

  1. He promised the poor that they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
  2. He promised the hungry that they will be filled.
  3. He promised the sorrowful that they will become joyful.
  4. He promised those who are persecuted for following Him that they will be rewarded in heaven just as the prophets of God were rewarded.

Question: What were the four curses/judgments that He pronounced?  What are the ultimate consequences of the curses?
Answer: He pronounced curses on the rich who allow poverty to increase without using the blessings of their material wealth to comfort the poor and suffering.  The rich who do not share their wealth will only receive temporal blessings in this life but will remain spiritually impoverished, and they will have no share in the eternal blessings promised in the heavenly kingdom:

  1. They will have no "wealth" in eternity.
  2. They may be full now, but they will be hungry for eternity.
  3. They may experience joy now, but they will suffer later beyond this earthly existence.
  4. They are compared to those who persecuted God's holy prophets.

Question: Are these curses relevant to us today?  When should we review this teaching on a regular basis?  See Mt 25:31-46 and Lk 12:15-20, 48.
Answer: Absolutely.  In one's participation in the Sacrament of Penance these concerns should be a part of one's examination of conscience.

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus' Sermon on the Plain can also be divided into 5 parts:

Part I: Beatitudes and Curses/Judgments

Part II: The love of enemies

Part III: Judging others

Part IV: Good works versus evil acts

Part V: The parable of the two foundations

The slope of the land from the site of the Mount of Beatitudes to the Sea of Galilee presents a spectacular natural amphitheater.  If Jesus stood on the level plain below the Mount of Beatitudes, He could speak and be easily heard by a multitude of people up along the hillside.  Scripture and tradition also identifies this site as the place where Jesus chose the twelve Apostles (Lk 6:12-16).  Today pilgrims can visit a lovely domed Church (built in 1936) with peaceful gardens on the Mount of the Beatitudes that is maintained by the Franciscan sisters, who also operate a hospice on the grounds.

THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD

All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: Come, let us climb the LORDS' mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.'
Isaiah 2:2c-3d

If you visit the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel today, you will be surprised to discover it is hardly more that a gentle hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Question: Matthew 5:1 identifies the site of Jesus' teaching by using the definite article "the." What is the significance of identifying the site as "the mountain" as opposed to "a mountain?"  What is the significance of "God's mountain" in Sacred Scripture?  What was the first "holy mountain" in the Bible where man entered into fellowship with God?
Answer: Mountain imagery in the Bible is a reference to the original "holy mountain" that was Eden.  Eden was the first "holy mountain" of God and a place where He had fellowship with His first children in the human family.  From the time of Eden, the concept of the holy mountain is understood to be a place where God's redemptive acts and revelations take place, moving man forward in God's divine plan to call man to an eternal destiny.  On the holy mountain of the Mt. of Beatitudes, God will again reveal Himself to man.

Some significant passages identifying Eden as the first holy mountain:

That Eden was the original "holy mountain" explains the significance of the other mountains that will become important in the history of God's covenant people as sites for God's redemptive acts and revelations, calling mankind back to the relationship man enjoyed with God in Eden (Gen 22:2; Ex 19:16-19; 2 Chr 3:1; Mt 28:16-20).  God's holy prophets promised the restoration of "the mountain" to the earth:

The prophets taught that the "holy mountain" signified the fulfillment and consummation of man's restoration to God through the Messiah's atonement when the Kingdom of God's universal peace would fill the earth: There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea (Is 11:9).    That Jesus called His disciples up "the mountain" in Matthew 5:1 is theologically significant to God's covenant people; it signals another revelation of God among His people and takes them a step closer to the fulfillment of the Kingdom.

Question: In addition to Eden, how many such "holy mountain" sites can you think of where events occurred that had a significant impact on salvation history? 
Answer:

HOLY MOUNTAINS OF GOD WHERE GOD'S PRESENCE WAS MANIFESTED

Mountain Scripture Passage
1.  The Garden of Eden: Located on a mountain from which 4 rivers flowed. Gen 2:10;
Ez 28:12-14
2. Mt. Moriah:
  • Site of the substitutionary atonement of the ram in place of the sacrifice of Abraham's son Isaac.
  • The site where David saw the Angel of the Lord standing with his sword in his hand ready to destroy Jerusalem until David built an altar there and made atonement through sacrifice.
  • The site where Solomon built the Temple of the One True God.
  • Jesus made atonement for the sins of mankind and was crucified and resurrected on a lower elevation of Mt. Moriah.
Gen 22:2;
1Chr 21:15-17;
2Chr 3:1;
Mt 27:33, 59; 28:1-7;
Mk 15:22, 46; 16:1-6;
Lk 23:33, 53; 24:1-6;
Jn 19:17, 38-42; 20:4-9
3. Mt. Sinai/Horeb:
  • Giving of the Law, the formation of the Sinai Covenant and birth of the Old Covenant Church.
  • The site of God's appearance to Elijah.
Ex 19:12-40:38;
1 Kng 19:11-18
4.  Mt. Carmel: Site of Elijah's defeat of the prophets of Baal (carmel is a Hebrew word for "garden"). 1 Kng 18
5. Mt. of Temptation: The site where Jesus, the "new Adam," resisted Satan. Mt 4:8-11;
Lk 4:1-13
6. Mt. of Beatitudes: The commissioning of the 12 Apostles and the giving of the New Covenant law. Mt 5:1-7;
Mk 3:13-19;
Lk 6:12-16
7. Mt. at Caesarea Philippi: Jesus' official commissioning of Peter as Vicar of the New Covenant Church. Mt 16:13-19;
Mk 8:27-30;
Lk 9:18-21
8. Mt. of Transfiguration: Jesus appeared in His glory. Mt 17:1-8;
Mk 9:2-8;
Lk 9:28-36;
(Peter refers to this place as "the holy mountain" in 2 Pt 1:16-18)
9. Mt. of Olives:
  • Jesus is arrested in a garden on the Mt. of Olives.
  • Jesus ascends to the Father from the Mt. of Olives.
  • It will be the site of Christ's return in His Second Coming.
Mt 26:47ff;
Mk 14:43ff;
Lk 22:47ff;
Jn 18:3ff;
Acts 1:1-12;
Zech 14:3-5

M. Hunt copyright 1998; revised 2007, 2011

Note: I did not include Mt. Ararat (see Gen 8:4) because, although God did place the redeemed family of Noah on that mountain, there was no visible manifestation of His presence or any single act signifying His presence.

Approximately 1,300 years before the Sermon on the Mount, after the Israelites escaped out of Egypt by crossing the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) and enduring the tests of their desert journey Sinai, Yahweh called the children of Israel to the foot of the "holy mountain" of Sinai to establish His covenant with Israel.  He told them to stay back because it was too dangerous for a sinful people to profane a holy God by coming too close (Ex 19:23-25).  Then God came down in thunder and fire to give them His word embodied in the ethical stipulations of the Law of the Covenant, later to be written on tablets of stone.  In response the people willingly vowed their obedience to the covenant, acknowledging Yahweh as their sovereign Lord and their God and His Law as the path of life (Ex 24:3).  Jesus now calls His holy people to a new holy mountain to give them the ethical stipulations of the new covenant treaty that will become for them the pathway to the Kingdom of Heaven.  He does not tell them to stay away but encourages them, and us, to draw near and to be transformed.

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes

The Old Covenant Law of Moses was meant to be a tutor and a guide to teach the people about holiness and prepare them for the coming of the Messiah (CCC 1962-63).  The holy prophets of God promised that the coming of the Messiah would usher in a new age in which a new covenant would be formed between God and His people and a new law with new blessings would be written on their hearts (Jer 31:31-34).  The Sermon on the Mount begins with the introduction of this "new law" "the Beatitudes or Blessings of the New Covenant Law.  It is the Son of God's spiritual plan for a radical transformation of hearts and lives.

The Hebrew and Greek words for "blessing" in the Old and New Testaments do not equate to our English word "happiness" "a feeling of general well-being.  A "blessing" in Sacred Scripture evokes the supernatural creative power of God and can only come from God "either directly from God or through the mediation of His priestly representative who requests on behalf of the people, God's divine blessing.  In the Old Testament the Hebrew word barak ("to bless;" barakah, "blessing") expresses this supernatural creative power but in the New Testament the word used for "blessing" is the Greek word makarious (ma-car'-e-os), which means the state of bliss experienced by the Greek gods or upon the mortals who receive their special favor becoming themselves semi-divine.  Like other Greek words, the Christian community transformed this Greek word into one which carries a distinctive Hebrew-Christian meaning.  In this case the "blessings" of the Beatitudes will give us the unique divine vitality, the bliss of God living in us. 

The Beatitudes Jesus gives in Matthew's introduction to the Sermon on the Mount are the foundation of God's New Covenant Law, marking the road map or stairway that lights the path to Heaven.  Like any road map there is a beginning point of the journey and a destination at the end of the journey, and like a stairway one step must be achieved in faith and obedience before stepping out in faith and obedience to the next.  But this plan is more than a stairway or a road map to an intimate relationship with God on our journey of faith.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and applied through the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, the Beatitudes, as the Law of the New Covenant people of the Resurrected Christ, are the very hinges on which our moral and spiritual lives as Christian believers must turn on a daily basis.  But this is a plan that cannot be achieved on a human level "only through the filling and indwelling of the Holy Spirit can this blessedness be empowered and celebrated in the life of the New Covenant Church.  For what is impossible for man (human beings) is possible for God (Lk 18:27; see the handout on the Progression of the Beatitudes).

Early in His ministry Jesus' fame had spread and large crowds were following Him everywhere, coming from the towns and villages around the Galilee, from the Greek culture towns and villages to the southeast of Galilee across the Jordan River known as the Decapolis (Greek for the "10 cities"), from Syria to the north, to the south from Jerusalem, Judea, and even from as far away as the Transjordan "including the south-eastern side of the Jordan River known as Perea (Matthew 4:24-25).  Just three kilometers to the west of the village of Capernaum, the home fishing port of the brothers Peter, Andrew, and their partners in the fishing trade, James and John Zebedee, was the village of Tabgha.  This village was located along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and behind it was the highest hill in the area, today known as the Mount of Beatitudes.  The Mount of Beatitudes dips as it nears the sea, the terrain creating the curved half circle shape of a natural Roman or Greek theater.

One fine morning, seeing the crowds moving toward Him, Jesus withdrew up the slope of this "holy mountain" overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Matthew 5:1-12
1When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 He began to teach them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.

7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Question: When Jesus withdrew from the crowds up onto the hillside, who are the men who came to Him to receive His teaching?  See Mt 5:1 and Lk 6:12-16.
Answer: His disciples and Apostles.

In this teaching of the blessings of the New Covenant, Jesus began to prepare His Apostles and disciples for the second great Pentecost which would result in the birth and salvation of the New Covenant people through baptism by water and the spirit (John chapter 3; Acts 2).  In the Beatitudes, Jesus does not promise salvation only to an ethnic group of people called to holiness at Sinai who exhibit the qualities of faith of poverty of spirit, or pure hearts or those who encounter persecution in their quest for holiness.  These blessings are instead the spiritual demands made on everyone who answered the call to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The call of the Beatitudes is to fulfill all the blessings and to reap all the promises.  We must also keep in mind that the Beatitudes have an eschatological fulfillment.  They promise eternal blessedness and salvation but not in this world.  This is a promised blessing that was not possible under the sacramental system of the Old Covenant Church.  See Catechism of the Catholic Church #1716-1724.

The first Beatitude: "BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT"

The fool has said in his heart,
There is no God.'
Their deeds are corrupt and vile,
not one of them does right.
Yahweh looks down from heaven
at the children of Adam.
To see if a single one is wise,
a single one seeks God.

Psalms 14:1-2

Matthew 5:1-2 ~  When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying Blessed are the poor in spirit'...

The word Jesus used for "poor," ptochos in the original Greek, means "poor" but not as in "pauper" "one who works for a living but cannot rise above the poverty level (penes in the Greek).  Instead the Greek word ptochos [pto-khos] is better translated as "beggar," one who is completely dependant on someone else for support.  In this blessing, Jesus taught His disciples that the first step on the pathway to Heaven is to admit that you cannot make it on your own "in this life or in the next.  We are "poor in spirit," we are not self-sufficient "we admit our dependence on God and that we need Him in our lives, rejecting our natural desire for a "self-sufficient spirit."

In order to understand the significance of Jesus' statement, it might be helpful to look at incidents in Sacred Scripture when men and women rejected or failed to acknowledge their dependence on God.

Please read Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-5

Question: What was the first sin committed by our first parents in the Garden of Eden?  What was the goal and desire of Adam and Eve in yielding to this temptation and what was the result?
Answer: God told Adam if they ate from the forbidden tree that they would die.  Satan lured Adam and Eve into sin with the lie that they wouldn't die if they ate from the forbidden tree.  He promised them if they ate the forbidden fruit that they would become like gods themselves, telling them, "the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad." Adam and Eve desired this greater knowledge that they could acquire for themselves and which Satan promised would make them like God.  Their act of rebellion was a rejection of God's sovereign authority over them as His human children.

Satan, the serpent-deceiver and "the father of lies" (Jn 8:44), failed to tell them that although death would not be immediate they would indeed experience not only physical death but they would also experience spiritual death.  Their sin would end of their immortality and would separate them from their intimate fellowship with God.  And so, influenced by the serpent, their goal and desire was to be like gods in deciding for themselves what was good and what was evil.  When they ate from the Tree of Knowledge they were usurping the sovereign authority of God to decide for them what was good and what was evil.  The result was that they declared their independence and rejected guidance from God in their desire to be self-sufficient.  This was the first sin "Adam and Eve's failure to remain "poor in spirit" and dependant upon God.  It was the first sin and is in essence the root of all future sins when men and women, lacking faith in God, attempt to make decisions concerning right and wrong based on their own "feelings" and governed by their own conscience (see CCC# 397-8).

Also consider the story of the rich young man in his encounter with Jesus the Messiah in Matthew 19:16-22.  This wealthy and privileged young man had everything he could possibly want materially in his life.  However, after listening to Jesus' spiritual teachings he was troubled.  He could control just about everything that happened to him in this life but what about the next life after his death?  And so he questioned Jesus about what he must do to achieve eternal life:

Now someone approached him and said, Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?'  He answered him, Why do you ask me about the good?  There is only One who is good.  If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.'  He asked him, Which ones?'  And Jesus replied, You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother'; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  The young man said to him, All of these I have observed.  What do I still lack?'  Jesus said to him, If you wish to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.'  When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Question: What was the young man's problem "what prevented him from following Jesus?  He told Jesus he was following all the commandments that Jesus listed, but what were the other commandments that Jesus did not list?
Answer: The young man's problem wasn't his great wealth; the problem was his enormous ego.  Jesus listed the commandments concerning the treatment of one's fellow man/woman, but what the young man lacked were the commandments that put God first in his life.  He was not willing to give up his wealth to submit himself to God the Son.

After the young man sadly turned away, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.'  When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and said, Who then can be saved?'  Jesus looked at them and said, For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible' (Mt 19:23-26).

When Jesus said this the disciples were astonished.  In the way they had come to interpret the promised blessings of the Old Covenant, wealth was considered a sign of God's blessing, and now Jesus had told them that great material blessings could be a great hindrance to salvation.

Question: Why did Jesus tell them wealth could be a curse instead of a blessing?  What is the comparison He is making between a camel and the eye of a needle?
Answer: A wealthy person often considers himself a totally self-sufficient person. Wealth can become the "god" a rich man worships, destroying that man's reliance upon his relationship with the One True God.  In that case, instead of being a blessing, wealth became a trap that makes it nearly impossible for a wealthy person to place himself or herself in the hands of God "making Heaven as difficult to obtain as the possibility for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. 

At the time Jesus lived most people were either very wealthy or very poor.  Jesus' point was that the problem with wealth is that it gives a false sense of control over one's destiny, creating the allusion that one's fate rests entirely in one's own hands instead of in God's hands.  The Greek word Jesus used in the "camel" metaphor is kamlon, which is the accusative form of kamlos.  This word means "camel" and can also mean "pack animal."  However, Jesus is speaking in Aramaic and the Aramaic equivalent is the word gamlo.  The word camel/gamlo in Aramaic has a double meaning.  It is also the word used for the thick rope made from camel's hair which was resistant to rot that was used by fisherman.  Bar-Bahlul, a 10th century Aramaic lexicographer, identified gamlo as a thick rope which is used to bind ships.  Speaking to His Apostles, several of whom were fishermen and familiar with such a rope, Jesus was using hyperbole and may be comparing the impossibility of the thick camel hair rope passing through the tiny hole in the end of a needle with the wealthy attaining salvation (Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark, page 304).

It would indeed be impossible for a large rope/ gamlo to pass through the eye of a needle.  This interpretation of Jesus' statement gives no hope of eternity for the wealthy without the divine intervention of God.  However, another story is told, but often disputed by modern scholars, that may help to illustrate the significance of Jesus' statement concerning the difficulty of the rich in obtaining salvation compared to a camel passing through the "eye of a needle."  At the time that Jesus lived the walls of Jerusalem had eight large gates.  At night the great doors of all the gates were closed and barred at sunset.  However, one smaller door, within the Damascus gate, was left guarded and could be opened so a late traveler might enter.  But it was only a small door "only the height of a man.  As the story goes, this door was called the "Eye of the needle."(1) You can see such a small door in the large gate in Jerusalem today.  Although it is too small for a caravan camel to walk through, it is still possible for a camel to pass through the door but only if it can crawl through on its knees.  Yes, it is hard but it is not impossible "as Jesus tells His apostles, "with God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26)! 

This is the same way we must approach God; we approach with humility, acknowledging our weakness and our need, coming to Him on our knees to surrender all of ourselves to Him in childlike faith. In Matthew 18:1-4, the disciples asked Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven? He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.

Question: Why does Jesus use the example of a little child in Matthew 18:1-4?  What characterizes a child's relationship with a parent?
Answer: A child is completely trusting, a child is completely dependant, and a child looks only to his parent for his care and wellbeing.

Question: How then can one achieve this blessing of "poverty of spirit"?  How can a child's relationship with his parent be compared with our relationship with God?
Answer: This is a blessing that cannot be achieved on a human level.  This blessedness of "poverty of spirit" can only be achieved through our utter and complete dependence on God "turning to Him in childlike faith as we "die to self and live for Christ."  We must exhibit childlike spirituality in our "poverty of spirit" relationship with God.

Compare the Rich young ruler's encounter with Jesus to Simon Peter's experience in Matthew 14:22-31.  It was after the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 that occurred earlier in the day.  While they were sleeping in a boat, the Apostles were surprised by a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee during the night(2): Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.  After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.  When it was evening he was there alone.  Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.  During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea.  When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.  It is a ghost,' they said, and they cried out in fear.  At once [Jesus] spoke to them, Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.'  Peter said to him in reply, Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.'  He said, Come.'  Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.  But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, Lord, save me!'  Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?

If Peter had "little faith," what about the faith of the other Apostles who didn't dare to walk out to Jesus like Peter?  Peter only began to sink into the water when he took his eyes off his Master and did not completely trust Jesus to protect him.

Question: What was Adam and Eve's sin in Eden?  Yes, they were disobedient in eating from the forbidden tree, but their disobedience was more than a simply physical desire for the fruit.  What was the fruit of their desire?  See Gen 3:5.
Answer: It was: You will be like gods knowing good from evil; the fruit of their sin was their desire to usurp God's sovereignty and authority " rejecting "poverty of spirit." 

Question:  What was Israel's sin that led to the conquest and exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians and the conquest and exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians?  See CCC 710, 716.
Answer: The Old Covenant people did not remain faithful in "poverty of spirit."  Yahweh sent them into exile to teach them to be "poor in spirit" and called a "faithful remnant" of those who learned "poverty of spirit" to turn back to Him in childlike faith.

Question: Now, compare the wealthy young man's response to Christ with Peter's actions when he began to sink into the raging sea.  What was Peter's immediate response?  Did he turn to swim back to the boat when he began to sink?  What was the wealthy young man's sin?  See Eph 2:5-10.
Answer: Peter did not hesitate but immediately reached out and called on Jesus to save him and surrendered himself to the Master.  He freely acknowledged his poverty of spirit and his need for Jesus, but the rich young man suffered from the false sense of control that his wealth gave him.  This is the sin of self-sufficiency.  His wealth helped to provide for his every physical and material need and so he became blind to the truth that although he was materially wealthy, he was spiritually improvised.  It wasn't that his wealth was evil, but his wealth, which came from God as everything comes from God, could not be more important to him than his relationship with God.   He had to be willing to place his need for God before the self-sufficiency available to him through his material wealth.  It was a test he did not pass.  He feared losing his wealth more than he feared the possibility of losing the gift of eternal life. 

The simple truth is that like Peter we must admit that we cannot make it on our own "we need to surrender our lives to God.  We cannot buy our salvation or even work to earn it (Eph 2:5-7:8).  Instead, we must accept God's gift and make it our own so that the works of God can work through us (Eph 2:9-10).  We must respond to the reality of who Christ is and who we are.  The result will be that we realize we simply cannot make it to Heaven on our own.  We surrender and become "poor in spirit," and like Peter in childlike faith, we become ready to reach out to take the Master's hand in the storm of life.

In our spiritual journey, we must strive to be like Peter, admitting "poverty of spirit" and constantly reaching out for Christ.  It is this first blessing which identifies and defines our relationship with God, placing us on our knees before the throne of our Lord.  It is first step on the path to Heaven.

And if we achieve this blessedness the promise is:

FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

 Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.
Mark 10:14b-15

On the Resurrection side of Salvation History, it is often difficult for us to image the impact Jesus' words and teachings had on 1st century AD Israelites and Jews.  We are very familiar with the terms which describe Jesus as the "Lamb of God" and concepts like the essential elements of the New Law instituted by Jesus Christ that are communicated to New Covenant believers in invisible grace and in visible sanctification through the Sacraments which are necessary for our salvation.  But how often do we realize that the statement by John the Baptist that Jesus is the "Lamb of God" (Jn 1:29, 36) identifies Jesus of Nazareth as a human sacrifice "a shocking statement to the crowd assembled on the banks of the Jordan River the day St. John pointed out Jesus to the crowd. We fail to understand that for 1st century AD Israelites and Jews that many of Jesus' teachings shook their understanding of their covenant relationship with God.(3) Prior to the miracle of the Resurrection and the coming of God the Holy Spirit at the second great Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), the broader implication of many of Jesus' teachings were beyond their understanding.

We have discussed in Lesson #1 that the term "Kingdom of Heaven" is unique to St. Matthew's Gospel.  St. Matthew uses the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" about thirty times, but it is obvious that in Matthew's Gospel the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" can be understood to be the same as the "Kingdom of God," the phrase which is used in the other Gospels of the New Testament and which is also found in the books of the Old Testament prophets. 

Question: How do we, as New Covenant believers, come to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God?
Answer: Through yielding our lives to God in the Sacrament of Baptism and through obediently living the Sacraments of our faith throughout our faith journey.

We understand that our inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven as a convert is first dependant upon our response to God's grace through faith, which is followed by rebirth through "water and the spirit" of baptism when we cease to be children of the family of Adam and become children in the family of God.  For those born into the Church and baptized as infants by their parents, the journey has already begun with their rebirth in Christian baptism, but that is only the first step on the journey to salvation. 

Question: What did Jesus' disciples understand about the Kingdom of God from the writings of the Old Testament prophets?  See Ex 24:9-11; Job 38-39; Ps 22:27-28; 47; 95-99; 104; 145; 147; Is 45:1-13; Jer 1-11; Ez 10-16; Dan 4:3, 17, 34-35; Jon 1-4; Amos 1:3-4:13; Tob 13:1-2.   Give examples and select some significant passages to read aloud.
Answer: The Old Testament expressed the dwelling of Yahweh in terms of a royal court where Yahweh sat enthroned in the court of the heavenly Sanctuary, ruling and judging men, nations, and all of creation, similar to the way earthly kings rule their kingdoms.  Sometimes men are even allowed to come into Yahweh's presence and view the heavenly court:

The phrase "Kingdom of God" appears most often in the writings of the Old Testament prophets and concerns prophecies that look forward to the coming of the Messiah when Yahweh's rule will extend over all earthly nations and when the Messiah will establish His earthly kingdom as in the Book of the Prophet Daniel: In the lifetime of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it will break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever (Dan 2:44).  This is a promised 5th kingdom that will succeed 4 previous earthly kingdoms which can be identified historically as the Babylonian Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great (including the four Greek kingdoms that were established after his death), and Roman Empire, with the "intermarriage" alliance (Dan 2:43) being Rome's union with Judea as a Roman province.  In the days of the Apostles, suffering under Roman rule, it would have been their fondest hope that Rome was the prophesied 4th kingdom which the Messiah, according to Daniel's prophecy, would destroy, establishing His own everlasting Kingdom of God on earth.

The earthly Messianic kingdom is what every Jew and Israelite hoped and prayed for, and yet New Covenant believers now understand that they have become heirs of Christ and inheritors of the Kingdom of God through the Sacrament of Christian baptism.  Perhaps Mark chapter 10, which links the coming of the Kingdom as the disciples and Apostles understood it to be from the writings of the prophets, and Jesus reference to His baptism linked together with His

Passion, will help us understand what the Apostles understood about the promise of the Kingdom of the Messiah and what Jesus meant when He spoke of the Kingdom of God.

Please read Mark 10:35-45 ~ The Ambition of James and John

Question: This passage begins with what request from Sts. James and John Zebedee?
Answer: They request that when Jesus comes into His kingdom that they be allowed to sit at His right and left hand in the throne room of the kingdom.

Usually biblical interpreters address this passage as an example of the Apostles' complete misunderstanding of Jesus' mission.  However, in light of the teachings of the prophets with which the disciples and Apostles were completely familiar, this was a request that was presumptuous but not unsupported by what they understood about the Messianic kingdom.  Their request is probably linked to the vision of the Prophet Daniel in Daniel chapter 7, a passage which describes the Messiah using Jesus' favorite title for Himself: "Son of Man."  Please read Deanil 7:9-22.

Question: What kind of Messiah is pictured in Daniel's vision in 7:13-14?
Answer: A Messiah who has the appearance of a man but who is a divine Messiah who will receive from God dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion...  In other words, an earthly kingdom of the type already prophesied by Daniel in chapter 2 "an earthly kingdom like the one God established for Israel in the time of King David "ruled by the Messiah-King and His ministers (the Holy Ones in Dan 7:18, 22, 27).

Question: The Prophet Daniel was troubled by the visions he received, especially the visions of the "beasts" in 7:1-8.  Daniel approached one of the heavenly beings in the Court of Heaven and asked the meaning of his vision.  What did the heavenly being tell Daniel in 7:17-18?
Answer: The beasts represent 4 earthly kingdoms but they will be conquered and the "Holy ones" of God who shall receive the authority to rule.

Question: Who would the Apostles interpret these "Holy ones" who belong to the Messiah to be?
Answer: Probably themselves.

In Daniel 7:19-22, Daniel's vision revealed a period of tribulation for the "Holy ones" of God until God delivered judgments against the oppressors and the "Holy ones" possessed the Kingdom.  Elaborating on this period of tribulation, Daniel is told in 7:23-27 that this powerful 4th kingdom will conquer the known world with its confederation of 10 kings (Rome controlled 10 provinces and client kingdoms in the 1st century AD).  After a period of intense tribulation for 3 ½ years, kingship and dominion will be given to the holy people of the Most High, whose kingdom shall be everlasting: all dominions shall serve and obey him (Daniel 7:27).

Question: How is it likely that James and John interpreted these passages in light of what Jesus promised them in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 when He told them that the Apostles were to judge the 12 tribes of Israel?
Answer: They understood that these passages would be fulfilled in Jesus the "Son of man" and they also would understand that, as the "holy ones" of the Messiah, they would sit in judgment with Him in the promised Kingdom of God.  It is likely that James and John were speaking of seats of judgment when they asked to sit at Jesus' right and left and not of a divine banquet; in a divine banquet they would be reclining (see Jn 13:23).

Question: Returning to Mark chapter 10, what is Jesus' response to the Zebedee brothers' request?  Does He rebuke them for making a foolish request or for misunderstanding the meaning of the Kingdom?  What does He ask them in return?
Answer: He did not rebuke them.  Instead Jesus told them they did not know what they were asking, and He asked them the question: Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?

Question: What baptism was Jesus referring to and what was the "cup"?  See Lk 12:50; Rom 6:3-7.
Answer: In the Old Testament the metaphor of "drinking the cup" is used to refer to God's judgment, whether drinking the cup of God's wrath or the cup of suffering.  In Jesus' case, it is both, which was to be expressed in divine judgment on the sin of man that Jesus, the Lamb of God, was to expiate through His Passion on behalf of the guilty (see Is 53:5 and Mk 14:24).  Jesus' baptism was not the baptism He received from St. John the Baptist.  St. John's baptism of repentance was to prepare Israel to receive the Messiah.  Jesus submitted to St. John's baptism as an example for believers, and St. John's baptism of Jesus signified the anointing of the Messiah by the Holy Spirit.  The baptism of which Jesus spoke of to the Zebedee brothers in this passage was to be His bloody crucifixion, death, and Resurrection for the salvation of humanity

Question: Jesus told the Zebedee brothers that the authority of assigning  places of honor in His Kingdom was reserved to God the Father, however what did He tell them was necessary for them in order to have a share in His glory?  See Mk 10:39-40.
Answer: Sharing in the glory of the kingdom must involve a share in Jesus' sufferings.

Question: Is this a warning for us as well?  To become inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven through our baptism must we also have a share in His suffering?  What statement of Jesus supports this concept of sharing in His suffering?  See Mt 10:38; 16:24; Mk 8:34; 10:21; Lk 9:23; 14:27.
Answer: In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus repeats the doctrine of uniting with Him in suffering twice.  For example:

Question: When we surrender ourselves to Christ, why does He save us?  Is there anything we can do to earn our salvation?
Answer: When we surrender ourselves to Christ we discover that He does not save us because of anything we have done, but instead He saves us because of what He has done for us when He surrendered His life on the Cross at Calvary.  His death on the Cross was His Baptism in blood which makes possible our Baptism through water and the spirit.

Question: What takes place when one receives the Sacrament of Baptism?  See John chapter 3 & CCC# 405; 1212-14; 1227-28; 1265.
Answer: Through the sacrament of baptism we have received "new life" in Christ "we have died to sin and we have been raised to a new life, having been forgiven original sin (and all other previous sins if baptized as an adult), and the promise that if we persevere in faith we shall receive the gift of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

We cannot work to achieve our own salvation; only a heartless and indifferent or uncaring God would sell such a precious gift "only a loving Father does for his children what they are unable to do for themselves.  In Romans 8:3 St. Paul teaches: For what the law was powerless to do God did for us. God's gift of Heaven is granted to the victor who has persevered in faith "To the victor I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that is in the garden of God (Rev 2:7b).

But this is a gift that is not awarded to the "victor" upon conquest but instead it is a gift awarded upon our complete surrender "through "poverty of spirit." The first step in the journey toward salvation is to surrendering your life to God humbly in childlike faith, and your reward will be as God's child you will inherit the Father's Kingdom "His Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life, and His Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the Kingdom that the prophet Daniel prophesied would succeed all earthly kingdoms, the Kingdom of the New Israel, the Universal Catholic Church ruled by God's Holy Ones (Dan 7:18, 22, 27).  This is the earthly kingdom that guides and prepares us to inherit the eternal Kingdom of the Father. 

Question: Wasn't the inheritance of the heavenly Kingdom available to the Old Covenant Children of God? See CCC # 536; 1026 and Heb 9:8-10.
Answer: No, it was not.  The gates of Heaven were closed from the time of Adam's sin until the perfect sacrifice for sins could be offered.  The animal sacrifices offered under the Old Covenant Church system could not forgive sins but could only "cover" sins.  They were an imperfect and temporary measure to prevent eternal death "eternal separation from God. 

The sacrifices of animals for sins was so imperfect in fact, that animal blood sacrifice could only be offered for unintentional sins (see Num 15:22-31); only the perfect sacrifice of Christ could atone for intentional sins.  In Jesus' infinite mercy "even for his executioners, His cry from the Cross was Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23:34).  In His perfect sacrifice He had come to apply His sacrificial blood for all sins, including those past sins under the Old Law.  After Jesus' perfect sacrifice on the Cross, He descended into the depths of the grave and released the captives imprisoned there: Christ himself died once and for all for sins, the upright for the sake of the guilty, to lead us to God.  In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and in the spirit he went to preach to the spirits in prison.  They refused to believe long ago, while God patiently waited to receive them, in Noah's time when the ark was being built. In it only a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water.  It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now "not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God's right hand, which angles, ruling forces and powers subject to him  (1 Pet 3:18-22).(4)

It was through the Sacrament of Christian Baptism that we have ceased to be children of Adam and have been reborn as children in the family of God.  It is through that rebirth that the inheritance of the Kingdom of our Father is ours "the Kingdom of Heaven in all its dimensions:

It was this divine son/daughter-ship that was lost to our original parents in their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden when they became dis-graced and dispossessed of the Kingdom.  It is this eternal Kingdom of Heaven that has now been restored to those who are reborn into the family of God.  From the Fall of Adam until Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of the Father, the gates of Heaven were closed (see Heb 9:8-10; CCC# 1026).  But Jesus came not only as the new Moses leading the "new exodus" out of bondage to sin and death but also as the new Joshua (the Greek name Iesous, from which we get the English word "Jesus" is from the ancient Hebrew Yah'shua, or in the 1st century Yeshua or Joshua), leading the "new exodus" into the true Kingdom of the Promised Land of Heaven.  He threw open the gates of Heaven, His perfect sacrifice for our sins having been accepted by God the Father, so that when the Apostle John was called up to the heavenly throne room in Revelation 4:1, the door to Heaven stood open: Then, in my vision, I saw a door open in heaven...  It is through this door that we have the promise, if we persevere in faith and submit ourselves in "poverty of spirit" to the will of the Father, then we will enter the gates of Heaven and claim our Father's Kingdom as our home.

The first step on the road to salvation and the first promise:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: those who acknowledge their  need for God à Kingdom of Heaven: eternal life promised through Baptism by water and the Spirit

Questions for group discussion:

Question: Do you feel you are self-sufficient and can handle life's struggles on your own or do you acknowledge "poverty of spirit" and turn to God in the struggles and well as in the joys that life can bring.  Give some examples.

Question: Can you think of some strategies that would be helpful in our daily walk that will remind us of our need to acknowledge our childlike spirituality and "poverty of spirit"?

Question: What are the dangers in trusting to one's conscience in determining right from wrong?  Can a conscience be completely trusted or can a human conscience become damaged and untrustworthy through exposure to sin? 

Question: Do you yield to "poverty of spirit" and the sovereignty of God in the teachings handed down by Christ to St. Peter and the Apostles and through them to their successors, the Pope and the Bishops who form the Magisterium of the Holy Roman Catholic Church?  Do you follow and support the doctrines and dogmas of the Church or do you pick and choose, deciding for yourself what is "good and what is evil" in the matters of birth control, abortion, the covenant obligations of worshiping on the Lord's Day and all Holy Days, the perpetual Virginity of Mary, and celebration the Sacraments of the Church?

Question: What are the dangers associated with deciding for ourselves which dogmas and doctrines of the Church are acceptable or not acceptable?  In doing so are we following Jesus or are we following another example?  Whose child do we become when we decide for ourselves good versus evil, usurping God's sovereignty?

Question: Why is this blessing of "poverty of spirit" absolutely necessary to achieve before one can continue with the other blessings Jesus has promised us?

Endnotes:

1. A literal gate known as "the eye of the needle" is disputed by modern scholars because no written evidence has been found to identify the existence of such a gate by this name in ancient Jerusalem.  Whether Jesus is speaking of a large rope or a small gate, His meaning is clear "with out the mercy and grace of God no man can obtain salvation "but it is especially hard for those who are wealthy and who rely more on their wealth to solve their problems than they rely on God.

2. The fourth watch in the 1st century AD was from 3 AM to dawn.  The Roman division of four night watches of three hours each was kept across Judea and the Galilee.  Previous to Roman occupation, the Jews kept three night watch divisions of four hours each from dusk to dawn.

3. In ancient times every Jew was an Israelite but not every Israelite was a Jew.   A "Jew" was either a member of the tribe of Judah or the nation of Judah.  Today, however, the modern State of Israel makes no distinction between being a Jew and a citizen of the State of Israel.

4. For more passages concerning the descent of Christ to Hades (the grave), between His death and Resurrection see Mt 12:40; Acts 2:24, 31; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9; Heb 13:20.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2011 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism References:

Mt 5:1-3 CCC 397-98, 405, 536, 581, 710, 716, 1026, 1212-14, 1227-28, 1265, 1962-63