Pope Benedict on the Sermon on the Mount

Part 3 of Father Raymond J. de Souza’s five-part analysis of Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth.

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 Christian disciple.

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 religious life.

“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.”

The Saints

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 beatitude.”

“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.”

Radically New

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.