Fr Joseph O’Hanlon, a retired priest of the Nottingham Diocese who has a lifetime of experience teaching the Bible, writes about the Sermon on the Mount and asks: Are you happy or are you blessed?
By Fr Joseph O’Hanlon
If you turn to Chapter 5 in Saint Matthew’s Gospel you will find Jesus sitting on the mountain. There’s a big crowd of people around him. His disciples came to him.
I’d better explain what disciples are. The word means a student, a pupil, a learner, an apprentice. Someone at school and – hopefully – eager to learn. Jesus gathered special people around him in the hope of teaching them who he was and what he wanted the world to know about God. He placed great hope in them and was constantly explaining things to them. At times, they were not very bright. Now and again, they really shone.
So on the mountain you have Jesus the Teacher. And you have crowds of people. The crowds are really important because they represent the people of the world, the people Jesus wants to be brought near to God, the people he wants to convince that God loves them. The disciples, the learners, the pupils, the apprentices – these are the people who are being trained to carry the message of Jesus to the crowds, to people of the world. They are the ones being made ready to go and teach all nations, as we learn in the very last sentence of Matthew’s Gospel. Look it up… Matthew 28:19-20.
So Jesus sat down. Now that is important. It’s what rabbis and teachers did in the ancient world. They sat down and everybody else sat down around the teacher. It was a classroom – ancient style.
Then the Gospel says: HE OPENED HIS MOUTH.
Of course he did. He was about to speak. But putting it this way indicates that what he was about to say was of the greatest importance. It tells us that Jesus was making a proclamation, that he was announcing a foundation to all his teaching, and this meeting on the mountain is a most solemn occasion. Every time I hear or read or preach about the words spoken by Jesus on the mountain I think of what Jesus said to the devil that tested him as he fasted in the desert:
‘No human being will live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Is God speaking to us through the mouth of Jesus?
Some English translations of our Bible begin this all-important sermon by Jesus with these words: ‘How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Others begin with, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.
Which do you think? Happy or Blessed?
Fr Joseph O’Hanlon is a retired priest of the Nottingham Diocese and former Director of the International Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury. His books include The Jesus Who Was, The Jesus Who Is, The Dance of the Merrymaker, Mark My Word, Beginning the Bible and Walk One Hour. Fr Joseph has a lifetime of experience teaching the Bible and a passion for communicating scholarship to adult Christians.