When Jesus called the four fishermen and told them to get behind him (to step into his footprints) and to accompany him as he continued to fulfill the penitence of his baptism, presumably defining the life to which Christian baptism leads us, Matthew followed this with the Sermon on the Mount, which spells this out.
The Sermon, given over a period of time in Galilee and subsequently organized into its present form, has, in its present form, a chiastic structure. At its center are the words, ὡς ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς, “as in heaven, so also on earth.” These words give us the key to the entire teaching. They are set in the middle of a prayer, prayer being at the heart of our relationship to the Divine, and, as it turns out, at the heart of the Christian life. A life that is not lived as a form of prayer is not the Christian life at all, for the Christian life must be lived in the sight of — in the presence of — the Divine, and not before people, according to their expectations or for their approval or consumption.
A …… The Frame (4:25–5:2)
B ……….. The Rock of Blessedness (5:3-10)
C ……………. Prophecy (5:11-16)
D ………………… Narrow the Gate, Straitened the Path (5:17-20)
E …………………….. Divine Love the Only Measure of Love (5:21-48)
F …………………………. Doing Good as If Only the Divine Matters 6:1-6)
G …………………………….. Being As If There Is Only the Divine (6:7-9a)
H …………………………………. The Prayer (6:9b-10b)
I ………………………………………. “as in heaven, so also on earth” (6:10c)
H’ ………………………………… The Prayer (continued, 6:11-13)
G’ ……………………………. Being As If There Is Only the Divine (6:14-15)
F’ ………………………… Doing Good As If Only the Divine Matters (6:16-18)
E’ ……………………. Divine Reality the Only Measure of Reality (6:19–7:11)
D’ ……………….. Narrow the Gate, Straitened the Path (7:12-14)
C’ …………… Prophecy (7:15-23)
B’ ………. The Rock of Blessedness (7:24-27)
A’ ….. The Frame (7:28–8:1)
The frame (4:25–5:2 and 7:28–8:1) sets and takes down the stage for the teaching, and gives us its immediate context. Between these two bookends are the teaching.
“And large crowds followed [Jesus] from the Galilee and [the] Ten Towns, [from] Jerusalem and Judea, and [from] across the Jordan. But when he saw the crowds, he used to go up the mountain, and when he sat down, his students used to come to him. And having opened his mouth, he used to teach them, saying …”
“And it happened that, when Jesus finish these words, the crowds used to be struck by his teaching because he was teaching them like one who had [genuine] authority and not like their scholars. And when he used to come down from the mountain, large crowds followed him.”
We can imagine that Jesus, seeing the crowds, would look for a place in the open air on a hillside. There he would sit on the ground, and his students who had followed him would sit in a half-circle around him. It was a quiet place in a natural setting. As he taught them, as he was aching to do, a curious crowd would find out and gradually gather around them so they could also hear what he was saying to his students.
So, let’s begin with the outer layer as a way in.
In 5:3-10 there are eight beatitudes. Each begins with the Greek word μακάριος which translates the Hebrew word אַשְׁרֵי, ashrei, the word which begins the psalter. It means happy, and is related to Israel’s suppressed mother Goddess, the Asherah, to whom Israel originally offered חַלָּה, challah cakes and who was once represented by the seven-branched candlestick, who may have been in the time of the prophets Israel’s preeminent deity, the Holy One. Here “blessed” has the same meaning as in Psalms and Proverbs where it seems to be deeply connected to Wisdom and the worship of the First Temple.
In the first and last of this series, happiness is ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, “because theirs is the realm of the heavens.” If, as I said before, this refers to the spiritual Holy of Holies, then so do the other six causes of happiness: comfort, inheriting the land, being sated, receiving mercy, seeing the Divine, and being called the divine “sons” (υἱοί). These all are the promised results of following Jesus in this way of penitence: being poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
The eight beatitudes form a chiasm but there is also progression. The first three ― being poor in spirit, grieving, and meekness ― are indicative of the life of penitence. Also characteristic of penitence, hungering and thirsting after righteousness and showing mercy are the result of the prophetic gift and burden. Having a vision of the divine and being called a divine son are indicative of receiving the anointing of the Holy One in the Holy of Holies. The response of the patriarchal world, in the eigth beatitude, is to persecute that which so fundamentaly opposes and threatens it.
The first beatitude with which Jesus begins is key. “Blessed [are] the poor in spirit.” This is to be poor before the Divine, to see oneself as having nothing of one’s own, to come utterly empty and open to the Divine. This is, in fact, what we are. We own nothing, and we have no merit or rank. These are things the ego attributes to others and to itself, but they are all imaginary. To be poor in spirit is to be aware of oneself in the presence of the Divine with this clarity. We will see that Jesus is very concerned with our living our lives more aware that we in the presence of the Divine than that we are in the human νοῦς-sphere.
I would like to return to the beatitudes at another time. Let me say for now that I understand them, and the whole Sermon, to be a penitential response to the whole edifice of patriarchal civilization, a response rooted in Jesus’ deep connection to שְׁכִינָה, ἡ πανθεά omnium animabilium.
In 7:24-27, Jesus ends his teaching with the story of a wish and a foolish builder. The first build his house on rock and it stood up to the forces of water and wind. The second builds his house on sand and it collapsed when the forces of water and wind assaulted it. The wise person is the one who hears the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ― the words about living a life of penitence ― and does them. The foolish person is the one who hears them and does not do them.
The house may be the edifice of one’s life. It might also allude to one’s worship. The holy mount on which the Temple stood was thought to have been the first dry land from which creation emerged. The rock in the Holy of Holies was known as the foundation stone. On this was placed the ark upon which was the chariot throne between the cherubim. The chariot throne was also identified with the feminine presence of the Divine, the Mother of the elohim, the Asherah. In the days of King Josiah, the Lady of the Temple, the Queen of heaven, was forsaken and those who worshipped her were persecuted and driven out. Could this be “the rock” (ἡ πέτρα) of Jesus’ teaching in 7:24? It is Wisdom, חָכְמוֹת, who has “built her house” (Proverbs 9:1) on this rock, and the wise human builder does the same. The house built on sand, perhaps, was the patriarchal and exclusionary legacy of Josiah’s “reforms” that was carried over into the Judaism of the second Temple.
This is as far as I can go tonight. Let me end here.