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Part 3 of Father Raymond J. de Souza’s five-part analysis of Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth.
BY FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA REGISTER CORRESPONDENT
This spring, Pope Benedict XVI published a 10-chapter book
titled Jesus of Nazareth. And while the Pope specifically said that the work is
a personal project and not part of the magisterial teaching of the Church, his
book is a profound reflection on Jesus authored by one of the greatest
theological minds in the history of Christianity.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Register’s former Rome correspondent,
analyzes the book’s contents and its significance in an exclusive five-part
series for the Register. This is Part 3.
The longest chapter in Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of
Nazareth is devoted to the Sermon on the Mount. Writing in his personal
capacity as Joseph Ratzinger, the Holy Father examines in great detail that
sermon, which takes up chapters five, six and seven in Matthew’s Gospel, and
finds in it both a “biography” of Jesus himself, and a program for the
Benedict-Ratzinger reads the Sermon on the Mount in three
parts, all of which reveal the person of Jesus Christ, incarnate Son of the
Father. First, there are the beatitudes, which express who Jesus is — the
all-powerful One who empties himself out of love and mercy.
Second, there is the new “Torah” in which Jesus claims for
himself a greater authority than that of the Mosaic tradition, repeatedly using
the expression “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you.”
And finally, Jesus reveals his own relationship to the
Father as the model for prayer in the “Our Father” itself.
In sum, the Sermon on the Mount is not only a program for
living, or an updated moral code. It is first of all a revelation of who Jesus
is, and only consequently the program for Christian discipleship.
Benedict-Ratzinger stresses that only if Jesus is God does he have the
authority to place himself, rather than the Torah of Moses, at the heart of
“The beatitudes express the mystery of Christ himself, and
they call us into communion with him,” the Holy Father writes. “But precisely
because of their hidden Christological character, the beatitudes are also a
road map for the Church, which recognizes in them the model of what she herself
should be. They are directions for discipleship, directions that concern every
individual, even though — according to the variety of callings — they do so
differently for each person.”
In his detailed analysis of several of the eight Beatitudes,
Benedict-Ratzinger inserts a more general criterion for biblical interpretation
in the life of the Church. Because the Sermon on the Mount puts the person of
Christ at the center, its most luminous “interpretation” is found in the life
of those who themselves are most radically attached to Christ — the saints.
“Behind the Sermon on the Mount stands the figure of Christ,
the man who is God,” he writes. “The saints from Paul through Francis of Assisi
down to Mother Teresa, have lived out this option and thereby shown us the
correct image of man and his happiness.”
In meditating upon the first beatitude — “Blessed are the
poor” — the Holy Father cites St. Francis of Assisi, “the figure whom the
history of faith offers us as the most intensely lived illustration of this
“The saints are the true interpreters of holy Scripture,”
the Holy Father writes. “The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes
most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it
and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely
academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to the purely historical. Scripture
is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up
when someone ‘lives through’ and ‘suffers through’ the sacred text.”
This is the radical newness of the Sermon on the Mount.
Whereas the Torah of Moses had formed the heart of the Jewish faith and the
foundation of the Jewish social order, Jesus on the mountain now places himself
as the fulfillment of both.
In looking at that claim, Benedict-Ratzinger enters into an
extended conversation with a book by the Jewish theologian Jacob Neusner,
author of A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. Neusner’s book is a sympathetic and
respectful examination of the preaching of Jesus, but ultimately Neusner cannot
become a Christian disciple because he concludes that Jesus is adding something
new to the salvation history of “eternal Israel” — he is adding himself.
Benedict-Ratzinger praises Neusner for reading the message
of Jesus in its full depth — Jesus is announcing that he is the way, the truth
and the life.
The Sermon on the Mount then is not merely a code of
morality, as important as that may be, but a revelation of the full truth about
Jesus, namely that he is God, and that salvation lies in following him.
The first listeners to the Sermon have this intuition too,
for they reacted “with alarm” to his teaching, as Benedict-Ratzinger notes:
“Either he is misappropriating God’s majesty — which would be terrible — or
else, and this seems almost inconceivable, he really does stand on the same
exalted level as God.”
And if he does, then an entirely new way of living is
announced by Jesus on the Mount.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
served as the Register’s
Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.
He writes from Kingston, Ontario.