Matthew most probably wrote his gospel for a Jewish-Christian community. This explains why we so often encounter in this gospel expressions like “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet.” We saw it also last Sunday, when Matthew considered the return of Jesus to Galilee as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. What Matthew is very keen on is to show that Jesus is the expected Messiah of Israel.
This also explains why Matthew divides his gospel into five parts, as if it were made up of five books. The main part of the Old Testament is the Torah (which means the “law”), that is, the first five books of the Bible, in Greek called the “Pentateuch.” Well, Matthew wants his gospel to be like a kind of new Pentateuch, like a kind of new law.
Each part of Matthew’s gospel is divided into two sections: a narrative section and a discourse. We are now reading the first part of the gospel, concerning the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have already read, on previous Sundays, some passages from the narrative section: the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan; his withdrawal to Galilee and the call of the first disciples. Today we start the reading of the first and most important of the five discourses in Matthew’s gospel, the “Sermon on the Mount,” so called because delivered by Jesus on a mountain.
Just as Moses had climbed Mount Sinai and there he had received the law of God, so now Jesus goes up a mountain and there he gives a new law. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses that promulgates the new law. With a difference: while Moses received the law from God; Jesus gives the law himself.
This new law is a sui generis law; it is a demanding law, more demanding than the old one (we will see on next Sundays); but, before being a series of precepts, it is a gospel (that is, “good news”). The Beatitudes, which are an introduction to the Sermon, are exactly this, the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. If you notice, Jesus is not giving new commandments; he is not saying: You should do so and so. He says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are they who mourn …” and so on. Jesus is not giving orders, he is only stating a fact. Practically, he is saying the same things as Paul in the second reading: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.” What Jesus and Paul are telling us is about the liking of God: God prefers the poor to the rich, the weak to the strong, the foolish to the wise.
Poverty here is not to be understood just in a sociological and economical manner: the “poor in spirit” are the “humble of the earth” (‘anawim ha-’areṣ), whom the prophet Zephaniah addresses in the first reading (Quaerite Dominum, omnes mansueti terrae). They are those who seek the Lord, those who seek justice and humility. This is precisely the only thing we can do: to seek the Lord, to be just and humble; that is, to put ourselves in a position to be chosen by God. This does not give us the certainty, but the hope that we will be saved by God. It is interesting what the prophet says: “Perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” Perhaps we will be saved; but we are confident, because we know that he likes the poor; and we want to be among them and, with them, be blessed.