by Father Mike Stubbs
In Kansas, there are no mountains. Sometimes we will honor a very large hill with that title, but that is more symbolic than anything.
For example, the University of Kansas in Lawrence sits on top of a
tall hill, which is called Mount Oread. That names alludes to Greek mythology and suggests the role of the university in continuing the search of the ancient Greeks for knowledge.
As I said, it is a tall hill, but no one would mistake it for a mountain.
On a trip to the Holy Land, I visited the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a fine, tall hill — the tallest around — but no one could mistake it for a mountain, not even a Kansan. And yet, Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 5:1-12, begins with the words: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them.”
In calling the location of Jesus’ sermon a mountain, Matthew’s Gospel appears to favor a symbolic, rather than literal, meaning. The possibility of a symbolic meaning becomes even more probable when we remember that the parallel in the New Testament to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Lk 6:20-49, situates it on a level plain.
Significant events in the Bible frequently take place on a mountain. The higher physical elevation suggests a closeness to heaven, a lifting of the spirit. That, in itself, would explain Matthew’s choice in describing the location as a mountain for the most important of all Jesus’ sermons. But we can go further in finding a reason for that description.
On my trip to the Holy Land, I also visited the place traditionally identified as Mount Sinai. It is one of the highest mountains, 7500 feet, in a range at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, which juts out into the Red Sea. No one would quibble over its right to be called a mountain. But it looms tall in the religious imagination as well. This is the mountain, according to tradition, that Moses climbed to obtain from God the Ten Commandments: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and, while you are there, I will give you the stone tablets on which I have written the commandments for their instruction’” (Ex 24:12).
The “mountain” that Jesus climbs to preach his Sermon on the Mount echoes Mount Sinai. Just as Moses brings down from the mountain the Ten Commandments, Jesus delivers the Beatitudes. Just as Moses was a teacher of the people of Israel, so also Jesus is a teacher of God’s wisdom.
From his position on the mountain, Jesus can see further than we can with our mortal eyes. He presents a new vision, which he articulates in the Beatitudes and develops in the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. That vision, which Matthew’s Gospel labels the kingdom of heaven, is the object of Jesus’ teaching.