The Sermon on the Mount
By Jean-Pierre Isbouts
--One day, when Jesus once again saw large crowds streaming toward him "to be healed of their diseases," he decided instead to preach to them. It was time to present his great vision and articulate his halakha, his legislative teachings. This speech would become known as the Sermon on the Mount, which contains eight blessings known as the Beatitudes. The Greek expression Makarioi ("Blessed are . . . ") as used in Matthew was a popular rhetorical flourish that frequently appears as ashrei ("Happy are . . . ") in the Hebrew Scriptures (Psalms 1:1; Job 5:17; Daniel 12:12). Another close parallel to the beatitude "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" is Psalm 37: "But the meek shall inherit the land." (Psalms37:11)
Or in Jesus' words:
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. (Matthew 5:3-6)
This theme, of a kingdom of God that is within the grasp of those who cleave to Jesus' words, would dominate Jesus' teaching for much of his subsequent ministry in Galilee and beyond. Whereas most of Jesus' contemporaries saw the reign of God as a future promise to be realized by a redeemer or Messiah, many Gospel passages suggest that Jesus saw the kingdom as present in his lifetime (Mark 1:15; Luke 17:21). Arguably, Jesus' kingdom concept was not a new Davidic polity (though some scholars have tried to portray it in such terms), but a radically new way in which society would operate. Its realization would require a new social covenant whereby Jews pledged to return to the quintessential virtues of the Law: compassion toward one another, solidarity within one's community, and love and faith in God.
In this, Jesus may have found inspiration in prophets such as Micah, Hosea, and particularly Jeremiah, who also admonished the Jews of their time on the biblical commandment for social justice. "Behold," Jeremiah had said, "if you truly amend your ways, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood," then God "would dwell in this land." (Jeremiah 7:1-7)
One interpretation of Jesus' kingdom of God, then, is that it was both a social and a spiritual revolution, to be brought about as a grassroots movement of people power. "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed," Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke; "Nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17:20-21)
There is, however, some ambiguity in Jesus' parables about the kingdom, and it is questionable whether his disciples ever truly grasped the meaning of Jesus' vision. But one thing is clear: Jesus never imagined a break from contemporary Judaism. Rather, he sought a redefinition of its most essential values—social responsibility and faithfulness to God. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets," Jesus states emphatically at the end of the Beatitudes, referring to the two principal divisions of the Hebrew Bible—the Law (Torah) and the Prophets (Nevi'im)—of his time; "I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17) And to underscore that notion, he added, "Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
The Mount of Beatitudes
There are several places that tradition has marked as the place where Jesus delivered his seminal speech at the beginning of his campaign of social and spiritual renewal. Some suggest it took place near Bethsaida; other traditions point to Mount Arbel near Tiberias, the highest hill in walking distance of the Sea of Galilee, at an altitude of more than 1,000 feet above the level of the lake. But the location with the longest claim is undoubtedly the so-called Mount of Beatitudes (or Mount Eremos) close to Tabgha and ancient Capernaum, on the northernshore of the Sea. As early as the fourth century c.e., a Byzantine church was built there, later expanded into a monastery, of which some remains have been excavated. In 1937, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini commissioned a new church on the site, which was designed by Antonio Barluzzi, loosely inspired by the centralized church in Raphael's painting "The Marriage of the Virgin" (1502). The result is a lovely octagonal church, each side of which is dedicated to one of the eight beatitudes. From here, one has a stunning view of the softly undulating hillside that once reportedly served as the sounding board for Jesus' words.
Just a short walk away is Tabgha, traditionally associated with Jesus' miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. This miracle, also known as the "Feeding of the Five Thousand," is the only miracle described in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). According to the story, Jesus felt compassion for the crowds that had come from afar to see him, "because they were like sheep without a shepherd." (Mark 6:34) Jesus charged his Apostles to go and find something to feed them with. They answered incredulously, "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them?"— implying that this would have severely strained the movement's modest funds.
Jesus replied, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." They did so, and reported back that they had "five (loaves), and two fish." Jesus then ordered everyone to "sit down in groups on the green grass." And "taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples." And, says Mark, "all ate and were filled." And when everyone was finished, "they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of fish." (Mark 6:37-43)
The traditional spot associated with this miracle was marked in the fourth century by a small church, which was later replaced by a fifth-century Byzantine basilica. In 1932, the remains of this basilica were excavated. This in turn inspired the current structure, built by the German Foundation for the Holy Land in the late 1970s, which in many ways attempts to re-create the elegant simplicity of the original. The new walls were rebuilt on the old wall remains whenever possible, while columns were restored in their original positions; the overall effect is exceptionally peaceful. In the pavement just before the altar, the builders retained a beautiful mosaic of a basket of loaves with two fishes, which the pilgrim Egeria described in her fourth-century notebook.
Luke tells us that this was also the place where Jesus formally commissioned his Apostles. For the roughly 12 months that remained to him, Jesus then set out to propagate his great vision—not only in Capernaum and surrounding villages, but in all of Galilee, and even the towns and cities beyond, in foreign lands.
Reprinted by arrangement from the book In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity by Jean-Pierre Isbouts. Copyright © 2012 National Geographic Society.
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