Why the Sermon on the Mount is an announcement of liberation
Jesus operated in a context of occupation, revolution and political ferment. Although the Jews had returned from Babylon several centuries before, they still thought of themselves as living in exile because they were under Gentile occupation. The early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel portray Jesus as the one who will bring the exile to an end. The longed-for liberation was happening. Through Jesus, God was intervening in history in faithfulness to his covenant promises – though not necessarily in the way that the Jews expected.
Matthew opens his Gospel by recounting the genealogy of Jesus. He structures into three groups of fourteen to highlight Jesus’ link to Abraham, David and the exile. Jesus is the one who will fulfil the promises to Abraham and who will reign on the throne of king David, but he is also the one who brings an end to the Babylonian exile. In 2:18 Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31:15 – a prophecy concerning the end of exile. Likewise in 3:1–3 Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40:1–3 where Isaiah promises ‘comfort’ to the exiles. Israel had first entered the land through the river Jordan – quite literally passing through it. So the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan (3:13) was symbolic of re-entering the land. In 4:12–16 Matthew again applies a prophecy about the end of exile (Isaiah 9:1–2) to the ministry of Jesus.
In the Old Testament the end of the exile which Israel longed for was often described in terms of the exodus. The exodus was God’s great act of liberation in Israel’s history, freeing the people from slavery and oppression in Egypt. Now they looked for a new exodus. And Matthew presents the liberation of Jesus as a new exodus. Jesus comes out of Egypt (2:13–15). Israel is first called God’s son when Moses goes to Pharaoh to demand that he lets the people go free. Now the voice from heaven says of Jesus ‘this is my Son’ (3:17). Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days just as Israel was tempted in the wilderness for 40 years (4:1–2). Israel failed the test, but Jesus is the faithful one. The book of Deuteronomy was the word Moses spoke to the people on the verge of the promised land and now Jesus counters Satan with words from Deuteronomy (4:3–11).
The theme of liberation continues into the Sermon on the Mount. The blessings promised in the beatitudes arise because God’s people will once again live in the land of blessing – the land flowing with milk and honey. They will be restored to life under the reign of God (5:3). They will receive the comfort promised to the exiles in Isaiah 40:1–3 (5:4). Verse 5 is a reference to Psalm 37:11 which says ‘the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace’. It is a promise of inheriting the land and so, in this context, of returning from exile – except that Jesus now has the whole earth in mind as the home of God’s people. To thirst for righteousness is to long for God’s saving intervention in history and to be satisfied is to enjoy the land of milk and honey again. ‘Sons of God’ is what Israel was called when Moses demanded that Pharaoh set them free – the final plague falls on Egypt’s firstborn because Egypt would not liberate God’s ‘firstborn’ (see Exodus 4:22–23). So to be a called ‘sons of God’ is to be the liberated ones. The beatitudes are not spiritual aphorisms, nor guides to a happy life, nor moral precepts: they are announcements of liberation. They are announcing a return to the land of blessing – except that the land has become the whole earth.
Who is it that will enjoy this liberation? Who will enjoy the blessings of the promised land? Not the politically powerful (the Sadducees and the Herodians) for ‘blessed are the poor and the meek’. Not the violent revolutionaries (the Zealots) for blessed are the merciful and the peacemakers (see also 5:39, 41, 44). Not the religiously pure (the Pharisees) for ‘blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart’. Not those who separate themselves (the Essenes) for the blessed ones are a city on a hill and a light that cannot be hidden. No, the ones who enjoy liberation are the poor in spirit – the broken people.