The Beatitudes were so important that Jesus taught them to his largest gathering of people, five thousand men not including their wives and children who had followed him into the hills of Galilee. They had not eaten for three days. Jesus fed them with a scant five loaves of bread and two fish so he could teach them the Beatitudes. (Mark 6: 34-44). We learn that none of them took him seriously. They were moved more by his power to feed so many of them from one basket of bread and fish that they tried to “seize him and make him their king”. (John 6: 14-15).
Jesus could not have been more disappointed. They were no better than Satan who had tempted Jesus driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit at the start of his ministry. There Satan offered Jesus not a throng of wanderers on a mountainside but the entire world if he would just worship him. ‘The world is yours’, Satan told Jesus, ‘take it’, but Jesus refused. Ironically, in that desert Jesus had also not eaten for forty days, and Satan tempted him to command that nearby stones become loaves of bread, but Jesus replied, “One does not live by bread alone but by every word which comes from the mouth of God”. (Matthew 4: 1-11 ).
The five thousand were not interested in the Beatitudes but Jesus’ patronage. Jesus would not again exhort such a large gathering to accept the Beatitudes. Others later would accept. Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, was happy in a way we may never understand serving “Lady Poverty” and the other beatitudes. Jesus alone then lived the life of a perfect man to convince us that we can live as he did which the Apostles did accept after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Jesus proffered the Beatitudes as the ideal “perfection of the law” (cf. James 1: 25) which included “love of your enemies, and prayer for those who persecute you . . . to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”. (Matthew 5: 43-48).
Jesus prayed that his Apostles would come around to his way of thinking and living after his resurrection and ascension into heaven when they would finally understand that his way was the only way to heaven, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 29-30).
Jesus spent his life’s blood to the last drop to prove that he knew what he was talking about. Jesus would finally achieve his goal, the proclamation of the gospel to the world some three years later when Jesus would enter Jerusalem for the last time for the Passover feast where he would become the sacrifice, the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” which John the Baptist had prophesied to Jesus’ first Apostles, Andrew and John. (John 1: 35-36).
When Jesus eluded the crowd who wanted to make him king, he escaped the only way he could by “walking on the sea of Galilee to meet up with his Apostles whom he had dismissed earlier and who were crossing the Lake of Galilee when Jesus appeared “as a ghost”, we are told, and they “were terrified”. (Mark 6: 49). Peter, often impetuous, stepped out of the boat to walk on the sea to Jesus until he realized what he was doing and began to sink. (Matthew 14: 28-33).
Once more Jesus bore him up and both of them got into the boat safely. (John 6: 15-21). Even Jesus’ Apostles did not comprehend the significance of the multiplication of loaves that they had witnessed, “They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary their hearts were hardened”. (Mark 5: 52). A short time later Jesus fed four thousand others “when there was again a great crowd who had nothing to eat”. Jesus choose “not to send them away to their homes. They will collapse on the way”, he said. And again he miraculously multiplied a few loaves of bread and fish to feed all of them.
Later continuing his travels on Lake Galilee Jesus was confronted by some “Pharisees [who] . . . began to argue with him . . . seeking a sign from heaven to test him. He left them, got into the boat, again, and went off to the other shore.” (Mark 8: 1-13). Aboard in the boat Jesus warned the Apostles, “Watch out, guard yourselves against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. [The Apostles] concluded . . . that it was because they had no bread” – completely missing Jesus’ meaning. (Mark 8: 14-16). “Do you not understand or comprehend?”, Jesus asked. “Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” (Mark 8: 17-18).
Jesus’ Apostles were not much different from the crowds on the mountainside, but Jesus continued the work he had begun, first things first, the repair of the commandments after he taught them the Beatitudes. Jesus delved into the basis of the commandments against murder, adultery and lying where evil and sin reside. The people lacked any real moral leadership from their rulers who had reduced the commandments to external rituals without considering their interior dispositions, their thoughts and desires. It was not enough for Jesus to repeat “you shall not kill”, “commit adultery”, exact revenge, “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth”, justify “hatred for your enemy” and perform righteous deeds so people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from you heavenly Father”, Jesus said.
Most of all Jesus decried their false piety, prayers and empty rituals:
“If you bring your gifts to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5: 23-24).
The prayer Jesus taught them and us: “Our Father, who are in heaven hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. . . forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” are words to live by not words to say, only. (Matthew 6: 9-13). To achieve this Jesus had to break through the “hardness of the human heart”. We often speak of a person with a ‘cold’ or a ‘soft heart’. “I will remove your heart of stone”, God said through the prophet Ezekiel, “and give you a natural heart” which the Psalmist claimed was a heart God approved. He “will not spurn a broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51: 17).
The seat of either virtue or vice resides not in the visible body but in the secret chambers of a person’s heart, in his mind and free will. Invisible festering anger, Jesus taught, leads to murder or it brings ‘death by a thousand cuts’ especially to the one who harbors anger. Adultery, Jesus taught, infects first the heart, one of the deadliest of sins affecting both husband and wife and their relationship with their children. Today that would include contraception and abortion. Destroy God’s gift of life in our bodies and destroy his gift of love in a heart growing cold.
Perhaps, Jesus’ hyperbole is not so extreme considering the devastating effects of adultery, contraception and abortion have had in so many lives. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna [Hell]”. (Matthew 5: 31-32). Jesus’ teaching on divorce carries the same indictment “unless the marriage is unlawful” which occurs rarely,“let no man separate what God has joined together”, Jesus said. Civil divorce in Mosaic law or in any other human jurisdiction does not have the power to dissolve marriage, what God has created, as Jesus emphatically stated. (cf. Genesis 2: 24) (Matthew 19: 3-6).
Jesus knew that words and explanations alone have their limits. The multiplication of precepts derived from the Ten Commandments consumed many of the rulers of the law in Israel (like the multiplication of loaves), but no amount of nuance they derived from the law worked out well “because of the hardness of their hearts.” (Ibid.) It was a problem which nagged Moses leading the people of Israel to the land God had promised them. As Moses passed on his work to his successor, Joshua, Moses left the people with these parting words which we should also consider:
When you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God . . . then you shall live . . . and the Lord your God will bless you . . . . (Deuteronomy 30: 10-16).
Well along in his journey and ministry we have the extraordinary event of Jesus’ transfigured person and clothing appearing “white as light” during his meeting with Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop. (Matthew 17: 2-4). I believe Jesus, transfigured there in his glory, discussed with Moses the trials ahead of him which Jesus would endure to change the hearts of many which Moses had earlier promised – that they “shall live and the Lord God will bless”. “It is in your heart, so you can do it.” (ibid.).