At the heart of this Gospel stands the figure of Jesus, constantly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and patiently explaining its meaning to his disciples. Jesus is not only the supreme Teacher but is himself the Model for all his followers.
Mathew presents the Church as the community of disciples wherein the Kingdom of God is seen to be already present. The Church is not just a vague collection of individuals who profess the Lordship of Jesus, but a community of disciples which is clearly identifiable as a society, with appointed leaders (acting with a God-given authority), teachers, pastors, etc., all of whom must help the members to witness to Gospel values. (The Church may also have its share of false leaders, hypocrites, and bad witnesses). The Church is not called the Kingdom of heaven because she is perfect, and all her members virtuous beyond reproach, but because the Lord Jesus is present to and completely identified with this mixed band of followers.
Here Jesus manifestly stands in the place of his People. When tried by hunger, the OT People complained so bitterly that God had to send them manna (Exod.16). When they suffered thirst, again they protested, demanding that God prove himself by giving them water (Exod.17). As they were about to enter the Promised Land they were warned against the urge to worship false gods (Exod.23), but once more their own appetites prevailed. It is not so with Jesus! He is tempted in similar fashion, but in each case humbly submits so that it is God's will which prevails, not man's. In him, then, in this son of Israel, God's People is at last victorious. Jesus is also one with the People of God in the future, that is, with the Church. The Church too will be tempted, and like Peter her leader, at times will fall. But each time she will find her strength and salvation in Jesus, who will be always with her (Mt.28:20).
In his series of trials, Jesus, like the People, is tempted to make material security the goal of his life; then urged to take foolish risks while expecting God to show his power and special care for him; finally he is invited to worship Satan, the power behind world empires. In all these temptations Jesus exposes the wiles of Satan and relies totally on his Father. In him, the Kingdom becomes a fact. (Note that although Satan is present in all manner of evil, even in sickness of mind and body, Mathew teaches that nowhere is he more present and powerful than in the craving for material goods, the appetite for mighty signs and wonders to prove God's power and love, and the passion for control over the peoples of the world).
The Sermon on the Mount
Here Mathew has gathered together Jesus' teaching on the manner of life proper to his disciples. Some disciples will want to abolish all rule of law and make Christianity a broad and easy road, less demanding than the Law that came before. Others will want to identify discipleship with the possession of extraordinary spiritual gifts. Christian discipleship is both simpler and harder. It is doing the will of the Father as revealed in Jesus.
The Beatitudes form the key to the whole Sermon and express the paradoxical nature of membership in the Kingdom: it is both a total gift and yet something that must be worked for. The Beatitudes ("Blessed are... ") proclaim the greatness of the gift God offers, and at the same time how arduous are the demands made on those who accept. The word "Blessed" means favoured, valued, approved, upheld by God. It declares that a certain way of acting leads to happiness and is therefore highly commended. Since this "way" means a complete reversal of worldly standards, it cannot be an easy one and will make no sense except to those who believe in Jesus and his Kingdom, and who are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.
Disciples must be "poor in spirit". The essential mark of disciples is the recognition of their absolute debt to the Father. No matter how holy, no matter how heroic their life, all is from God. They put aside all delusions of self-sufficiency and accept this fundamental truth. Before God they are and always will be poor and empty. To be "poor in spirit" is to be poor right to the core of one's being, and not just materially poor. It is that emptiness which is a need of God and therefore cannot be filled by any earthly goods or pleasures. Disciples genuinely poor cannot devote themselves to the piling up of earthly goods. God alone is their goal and his Kingdom their only reward. It follows that they will not be attached to any material goods that they may happen to possess. Because it is so fundamental, this first blessing generates all the others and indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount.
"Blessed are the meek (gentle)": these are disciples who decline to pre-judge or to look down on others through self-righteousness. They rely on God alone to set things right, refusing to attack, seek vengeance or dominate. "Blessed are they who mourn": this blessing is not an invitation to resignation, still less to desire suffering! Rather, it invites Christ's disciples to find meaning in the sufferings they will inevitably endure if they resolutely follow his way. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice": these are disciples who long for and promote what is needed for man's true dignity on earth and what serves his final glory, life with God.
"Blessed are the pure in heart": the notion of purity means interior heartfelt obedience, humble submission to God expressed in conduct, in a single-minded seeking of God's glory. (It is not primarily concerned with chastity, though this is included). "Blessed are the peace-makers": this refers not to pacifism, but to making positive efforts to bring about the will of God, even against opposition. "Blessed are you when men reproach you... on my account": If Christians are true to their call, they will inevitably be attacked by the world. This supposes that to be Christian is to be identified with a distinctive and public way of life. The Christian community is to stand for, to manifest, to live out the values of the Kingdom even when these contradict the world. (If in fact Christians lead unworthy lives and receive punishment, this is not persecution! But only when punished for following Christ, the reward will be out of all proportion to their endurance).
Salt and light: Christians must be a visible and distinctive community. Their exalted mission is to draw the world's attention to the Kingdom. It is by seeing their extraordinary way of life that people will come to Jesus. The disciples do not exist only for their own sake but for those outside the community. Hence Jesus warns them that if they become indistinguishable from those who are outside the community, they will be like salt that has lost its savour. By means of such metaphors, Jesus is insisting on a visible community with a manner of life marking it beyond all doubt as his, because it carries on his mission.
The OT Law and the NT Gospel
The Law is related to the Gospel as the first faltering steps of the child to the full stride of the adult. If someone cannot yet obey the Ten Commandments, how expect him/her to live the Gospel? Mathew gives several examples that show how the way of discipleship is an invitation to rise above the Law and the practices of the scribes and Pharisees.
"You shall not kill... but I say to you": Jesus is dismissing the narrow interpretation that reduced the law to a prohibition against physical murder. He demands a radical change of heart, one by which all other men and women, without exception, are now regarded as brothers and sisters deserving respect and acceptance. This regard for others must summon us to mercy ("first be reconciled, then offer your gift" and, "forgive or God will not forgive"). "If your right eye causes you to sin...": Disciples are not to be content with mere avoidance of the act of adultery, they must repel even unchaste thoughts and desires. To be faithful to God in matters of sexual morality requires a complete control over our appetites at whatever cost. God must be obeyed with undivided heart so that whatever may be holding us back, even if it be as precious as eye or hand, must be ruthlessly cast aside. (Physical mutilation is not asked for, but a determination to offer all our heart rather than a mere external obedience of rules).
"An eye for an eye...": This principle reminds us that people are fiercely inclined to vengeance. Jesus' disciples are to rid themselves of this worldly attitude and be willing to suffer injustice (rather than multiply violence by seeking to get even). The "other cheek," the "cloak," the "two miles," are not laws but images of that spirit of meekness and peace of which the Lord himself was the supreme example. Jesus is not here promoting pacifism, but what he forbids is aggression, revenge for personal injury, etc. True disciples never think of getting even nor of demanding strict justice every time they are wronged. They try to "love your enemies..." Even those who hate and persecute them find a place in their prayers. This kind of disinterested love is required of disciples because it is how God loves! "He makes his sun to rise...". Disciples must "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect".
This "way" is not obedience to Law but devotion to a Person, Jesus. His Holy Spirit alone can and does enable disciples to live this Gospel as "the power and the wisdom of God", and to thus show that the Kingdom of God is indeed amongst them! The call to discipleship is a call to enter by the narrow gate. Jesus warns, "It is not those who say to me, Lord, Lord..." Every disciple will be judged on whether he/she has actually lived out the will of the Father. The graphic parable which closes the Sermon on the Mount (about the house built on rock or sand) powerfully demonstrates what is at stake in true discipleship. Disciples have but one house to build and only a limited time in which to build it! Those who dedicate their energies to God's Kingdom will not be eternally ruined but eternally saved.