January 29, 2023

The Gospel for today is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And our Sunday gospel selections for the next few weeks are also from Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside.

It is the conviction of the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus was the new Moses. Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the law and Jesus went up on a mountain to deliver a new word from God. 

These opening verses come to us in the form of blessings, from the Latin word “beatitudo,” meaning “blessedness.” 

The Beatitudes are well-known. You see them written on wall plaques, embroidered on pillows—hear them quoted in many settings and for various purposes. But as with so much in our Christian faith, the Beatitudes have been domesticated. These wildly radical blessings about the eschatological community have been tamed and reduced to wall hangings—curious artifacts from an ancient sermon.

Many of us hear the word eschatology and we think of the end of the world—cosmic destruction. But as understood in the Gospels, Jesus was God’s anointed who revealed God’s intention for human destiny. In fact, Matthew believed that the Reign of God had already begun, so he opened the Sermon on the Mount by describing the signs of this destiny that were becoming apparent in the early Christian community.

Consider these signs of God’s alternative community.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Since the time of the Psalms, the poor have been understood as the recipients of God’s special concern. There’s nothing blessed about poverty, but poverty would not exist to any significant degree if the values of the kingdom of God were in play. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, the principalities and powers of this world exploit, demean, impoverish and enslave. Contrast the conditions of this world with the kingdom of heaven where the poor are as highly regarded as everyone else . . . in fact, there are no poor for all have enough.

St. Luke described life in the Christian community in Jerusalem in the time immediately following the first Pentecost: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

Some have observed that in the Gospel of Luke it says “Blessed are the poor.” Matthew has been accused of trying to spiritualize poverty by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But we can just as easily hear these words and understand that the poor know that their lives are out of their own control; they’re totally dependent upon God. The poor in spirit are humble, not arrogant and full of themselves.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We usually think of mourning in terms of those who grieve the death of a loved one. But the biblical tradition identifies another kind of grief that laments what the world has come to with its violence, selfishness, lusts for power, its greed. The Jesus’ community, at her best, is one that mourns what human sin has done to God’s creation and grieves how far we have strayed from God’s will. We long for the comfort that comes from the vision of God’s reign among us.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The Greek word for meek or gentle is used in Matthew to turn upside down earthly ideas about power. In one sense, meekness is synonymous with poor in spirit. True power comes from the example of Jesus who rejects the temptations of Satan for worldly rule—and is willing to give his life rather than to adopt the ways of Caesar, Pilate, and temple authorities. As the newly freed slaves escaped the oppression of Pharaoh and entered the Promised Land, so the meek will be freed and will inherit the earth when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” 

Righteousness characterizes one who does the will of God. And for the biblical writers, “righteousness and distributive justice” are synonyms. God, as the Householder of the world, will see that everyone in God’s household will have enough to eat and drink. The large majority of people in Jesus’ day (as in ours) were poor—and many were physically hungry and thirsty on a daily basis. Jesus envisions a time when God’s heaven comes to earth and God’s justice will prevail—the hungry and thirsty will be filled. And everyone will have their daily bread.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Mercy here means acts of kindness and forgiveness. This Gospel opens with the story of Joseph showing mercy to his pregnant wife (when he knows that he’s not the father), not wanting to bring her to shame. (Matthew 1:19) Matthew’s Jesus holds mercy in high regard, twice borrowing from today’s Old Testament reading from Micah, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” The opposite of the pure in heart is not an impure heart—it’s a divided heart. It is devotion to one master—the refusal to worship more that one god. It’s a recognition that those who devote themselves fully to God do truly see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This is a direct contrast between the values of God’s kingdom and the empires of the world. The Roman emperors claimed that they were peacemakers and spoke of the Pax Romana—the Peace of Rome. But as we all know, the peace of empires is maintained by large standing armies of occupation and real and threatened violence. 

Not only did the Roman emperors refer to themselves as peacemakers, but also as sons of god. But the Beatitudes claim that in God’s reckoning, the true peacemakers are those who reject violence as a way of solving anything, who work for reconciliation—these are God’s true children.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Be assured, that those who stand for justice and righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, meekness, peacemaking, non-violence, who are grieved over the great gulf between the way the world is from the way God would have it be—be assured that they will be persecuted. Religious and secular authorities will persecute them—some will be killed, others reviled, some accused falsely. Jesus himself is the example here, but it was true for earlier prophets and has been true of prophets ever since. 

Those who follow God’s will and are persecuted are invited to rejoice and be glad—not because of their suffering—but because it signifies that they indeed belong to the community of faith that Jesus has called into being. They are people of God!

A final word here as we leave the Beatitudes and look forward in the coming weeks to pondering other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. These Blessings are not intended to catalogue different individual traits, values, and behaviors. Nor are they imperatives—commands. 

They are descriptive of the eschatological community—the community that God will bring into being as the fulfillment of human destiny. 

But we need not wait for some cataclysmic end-time, because in Jesus, God’s kingdom has already come near. The Beatitudes invite us—you and me and God’s people throughout the world to begin to adopt and reflect God’s will even now.  Heaven is the model of how the will of God appears in its fullness. The more we collaborate with Jesus in living it out now, the more the Lord’s Prayer will be answered: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

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