Mt. of Beatitudes
Ancient Christians remembered the Sermon on the Mount in the area of Tabgha. Just opposite the Church of the Primacy, on the north side of the modern road, we can still see the ruins of the Church of the Sermon that the great correspondent Egeria described to her convent 1600 years ago (Wilkinson). In 1938, with funds from Italy, the Franciscans built a new church higher up on the same hill in order to escape the noise of traffic.
Facing the lake with our backs to the church, we can see Tiberias on the western shore. To its right and nearer is the Arbel cliff, behind which (in the First Testament period) ran the Great Trunk Road from Egypt, reaching the lake south of Magdala. On the opposite, eastern shore, appear the Golan Heights, including the sites of two Decapolis cities: Hippos (a.k.a. Sussita) and Gadera (today Um Qis in Jordan). East of them ran the other great trunk road, the King's Highway. These roads are relevant for understanding the historical background to the Sermon on the Mount .
Modest dress required.
Opening hours: 8.00 - 12.00, 14.30 - 17.00
A Walk Down the Mountain
At any daylight hour, one may walk down the hill to the area of Tabgha, following a rough dirt path. Good walking shoes are a must. In hot weather: have water, a hat and both hands free. After a rain, don't try it.
In making this walk, we are probably on a piece of the Great Trunk Road from the First Testament period, before the Romans bridged the mouth of the Upper Jordan. This later became a local road joining the shore with Chorazin above us. Jesus probably used it often.
Halfway down the path, looking slightly to the east, we can see how the landscape formed a natural theatre for anyone addressing a multitude from the shore.
The Historical Background to the Sermon on the Mount:
Covenant Faith versus Roman Pincers
Viewing the lake from the Mt. of Beatitudes, we may try to imagine what was in the minds of the Jewish fishermen 2000 years ago, before they encountered Jesus. On the one hand, they had the Jewish covenant faith, as enunciated in Deuteronomy 11: 13-17:
"It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you."
These words appear often in Jewish ritual. Pious Jews recite them twice a day. A scribe writes them on a small piece of parchment, which is placed in a container and nailed to the doorpost of the house. The Hebrew for doorpost is mezuzah, and the parchment got that name.
The covenant as it appears in Deuteronomy 11 is the first written statement of the notion that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Its classic illustration (including background for understanding much of what follows) appears in the account of Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
Such was God's covenant with Israel as the Jewish fishermen on the lake understood it 2000 years ago. That would have been in their minds.
Something else too was in their minds: what they saw around them. Through their control of the roads, the Romans had the land in a pincers. The fishermen saw Hippos and Gadera: two cities of the Decapolis, once under Jewish sovereignty, now dominated by Rome. In the Jordan Valley to the south lay Scythopolis (a.k.a. Beth Shean), patronized by Dionysus. On the lake itself were Tiberias, Magdala and Bethsaida (see map below); these were "mixed" cities, pagan and Jewish. Farther west was Sepphoris, with its cult of Dionysus, and beyond it Ptolemais (Acco), dedicated to Zeus-Jupiter, not to mention Caesarea Maritima, dominated by the divine Augustus. Rome, in short, was everywhere.
On the one hand, then, the fisherman had their covenant faith, and on the other hand, here was Rome. These two things stood in apparent contradiction.
Foreign conquest and the covenant faith hadn't always been in contradiction. In earlier times of suffering (say, when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom called "Israel," or when the Babylonians took Jerusalem) the pain could be seen as God's just punishment, because the people had not kept the covenant. But when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile (530 BC), they had learned their lesson: they no longer worshipped foreign gods. This was even more purely the case after the successful Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks. So given the massive Roman presence, the question arose: Why are we not sovereign in our own land? Why do we not have the place among the nations that God promised us? Why are we in the Roman pincers?
The question had an economic side. The fishermen, as well as the peasants, were kept at a mere subsistence level by the Roman emperor, his client (in Galilee that was Tetrarch Herod Antipas), the urban aristocrats, the tax collectors and the brokers (who sold, for example, fishing licenses).
Why the Roman pincers? Confronted with this problem, religious Jews did then what they have always done: they searched the Bible for an answer.
They found it in Micah 5:
"Now muster yourselves in troops, daughter of troops;
They have laid siege against us;
With a rod they will smite the judge of Israel on the cheek.
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity."
Therefore He will give them up until the time
When she who is in labor has borne a child.
Then the remainder of His brethren
Will return to the sons of Israel.
And He will arise and shepherd His flock
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God.
And they will remain,
Because at that time He will be great
To the ends of the earth.
This One will be our peace."
The decisive hint was in the words: "until the time/When she who is in labor has borne a child." Labor... birthpangs... the birth of the Messiah! As soon as that connection flashed through someone's mind, the Roman pincers became explainable. The thought might have gone something like this: "Just as a woman in labor undergoes pains before the joyous event, so our time is in pain, because the Messiah is about to be born! Indeed we are suffering. But it is not an arbitrary or punitive suffering. It is rather the prelude to God's redemption of the world, which is about to occur: soon, in this generation, tomorrow, next week, next month, very soon!" Compare Mark 13:8 and Romans 8:22.
Various groups took shape around the idea that God was about to re-enter history, establishing His kingdom. Among them were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as John the Baptist and his followers, some of the Rabbis, and the militant groups that undertook revolts against Rome.
The fishermen heard the message from one who walked along the lakeshore, saying to people, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4: 17)
The question is, Did it happen? Was the Messiah born: at this time, in these circumstances? That is the question about which Jews and Christians have disputed ever since.
What starts out looking like a bit of geography (all that about rain and springs and roads) probably has a great deal to do with the fact that we are who we are. Those roads became, 2000 years ago, the Roman pincers. Out of their apparent contradiction with the covenant faith developed the belief that the Messiah was about to arrive.
What has all that to do with the Sermon on the Mount?
At first glance, very little. But notice how the question was set up: If the Jews had still been worshipping foreign gods, there would not have been any contradiction with their covenant faith. Yet they had ceased to worship idols. We hear no more of Baal or Asherah (or their Roman counterparts) among the Jews. For the fishermen on the lake (indeed, for any Jews who took both their covenant faith and their everyday experience seriously) the apparent contradiction was a troubling one. "We are fulfilling our part of the covenant, so why are we in the Roman pincers?"
Yet what if some prophet or rabbi were to come along and change the definition of idolatry? What if it was no longer a question of Baal or Asherah, but rather the idols of the heart? Could one then claim to be fulfilling the covenant?
The re-definition of idolatry is a large part of what I believe is going on in the Sermon on the Mount. The idol that Jesus identifies is the human ego in its tendency to put itself first. He wasn't alone: other rabbis too turned the lens of iconoclasm upon the human heart. Jesus is distinct, however, in at least two respects. First, he carries his critique of self-idolatry to an uncompromising conclusion, more radical than anything in the rabbinic literature. Second, he calls upon his disciples to be a community living in accordance with this iconoclasm, a Messianic community ("the kingdom of God"), capable of thriving and increasing regardless of what Rome does. That is the point (or one of the points) behind the teaching to turn the other cheek, walk two miles when required, love your enemy, and not fret about what tomorrow may bring.
By re-defining idolatry, Jesus undermines the challenge to the covenant faith. On the other hand, he does address the problem of Roman dominion -- by taking the issue to a deeper level, where Rome is powerless.
It is in this light that the beatitudes have their resonance:
Matthew 5: 1-10:
When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
These blessings are spoken before the disciples, who are to be "the salt of the earth" (5:13), "the light of the world" (5:14). Then we find this (v.20):
"For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."
What sort of righteousness is this to be, without which I am excluded from the kingdom? At once we get an indication (vs.21-22):
"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'
"But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."
Under Mosaic law, it is permissible for me to be angry with another person, as long as I do not carry my impulse into harmful action (in other words, as long as I control myself). Mosaic law allows for a division of the self between impulse and action. Jesus ("But I say to you...") allows no such division: I am to be "pure in heart." This comes to expression again in the famous teaching about adultery (5:27-28):
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
I think there is a recognition here of a basic psychological postulate: as long as part of my effort must go toward suppressing my own impulses, I do not have full energy for my relations with those outside me: I am not fully there for anyone or anything; I am not fully present in the lived moment, or in other words, not fully living the life that is given me.
Jesus, on the other hand, presents us with the example of a person who is fully there: all of his energy goes out toward others as love (5:43-45):
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy."
"But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven;..."
Such a person reserves no ray of attention for himself. There is no self-idolatry, hence no impulse to suppress.
This new iconoclasm, as I am calling it, lies behind many teachings in the sermon.
Those who can follow him, ceasing to worship themselves, are beyond the power of Rome, just as he, on the cross, was beyond it (Matthew 7:14).
"For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
The question arises, How can I get from my present divided condition to the wholeness and purity that he is talking about? What is the way to life? That question points us toward Jerusalem, where he walked a way: the Way of the Cross.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (www.Lockman.org)