Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fourth Sunday of Ephiphany: Kingdom Vision

Gospel text for today is Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
What familiar words!  Even someone who has a tenuous connection to Christianity has heard these words - at least in some form.  Thomas Jefferson praised them, and the entire Sermon on the Mount, as a marvelous ethical system.  Monty Python’s Life of Brian has the crowds on the outer edge wondering what Jesus means by “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”  On Oprah’s website, you can vote on which Beatitude best describes you.  Wikipedia has no less than 41 songs, movies and books which reference one or more of the Beatitudes – and that’s probably not a complete list! Robert Schuller calls them the “Be Happy Attitudes” and claims the list of eight blessings is “Positive Attitudes that Can Change Your Life.”[i]
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Such well-known words.  Everyone knows them and everyone has an idea of what they mean.  So, I want you to set everything you think you know about this very familiar passage aside for now.  Let’s look at Jesus’ words with fresh eyes.
We have to start with the context.  We sometimes forget that the gospel lesson we hear each week is part of a larger story.  Last week, after Jesus called the fishermen to follow him, we read that he then went around preaching the good news that the kingdom of heaven is here.  He then healed all kinds of illnesses, a demonstration that God’s rule is indeed here.  Today we read that Jesus sits down to do some serious teaching on what the kingdom of heaven is all about.  You could say that the Beatitudes are Jesus’ vision statement.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount will be concrete examples of what it looks like to live under God’s rule – which is what Matthew means by the kingdom of heaven.  
Next, we need to take a closer look at the word we most commonly translate as ‘blessed’ or sometimes as ‘happy’ – the Greek word, “marakio.”  It does not refer to an emotional state, so ‘happy’ as in the emotion ‘happiness’ is not a good translation.  Neither is the typical, everyday meaning of ‘blessed’ – by which we mean we got something good in our lives.  As in, “I am so blessed to have such a loving family.”  “I am so blessed to have my health.”  Rather, we need to think of ‘blessed’ as ‘God’s favor.’ 
God favors those who…..
Just who is it that God favors? 
The Beatitudes have been interpreted as a road map to earn God’s favor.  If you just become poor in spirit, meek, a mourner, if you hunger for righteousness… then God will favor you.[ii] 
Read by themselves, it’s easy to make such an interpretation.  However, this isn’t a stand-alone teaching.   Remember, the Beatitudes are the opening illustration for the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is telling us what the kingdom of heaven looks like, not giving us the entrance requirements.
So what does the kingdom of heaven look like? Who does God favor?
We tend to look at the first four blessings as virtues, good habits to learn in order to please God: [iii]
·        poor in spirit are those who know they need God,
·        those who mourn are grieving over their sins or grieving a loss,
·        the meek are people who are humble,
·        people hungering and thirsting after righteousness are those who strive to do what God wants.
By which we mean:
God favors those who confess their need for God and their sins, and humbly try to follow God’s commandments. 
That’s undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t hold up as a vision statement.  It becomes all about what we do, and not about what God is doing in the world.
We gain more insight when we look at Luke’s slightly different version of these blessings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.[iv]  In Luke’s account, Jesus blesses:
·        the poor,
·        those who weep,
·        those who hunger,
·        those who are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed.

Then to make it perfectly clear, Jesus pronounces woes on:
·        the rich,
·        those who are full now,
·        those who are laughing now,
·        those who are spoken well of.
That paints a very different picture of who God favors!
In the kingdom of heaven, God favors the poor in spirit:
·        those whose spirit is cast down,
·        who have been spiritually beaten up, 
·        whose lives and situations are such that they have no hope.

God favors those who mourn:
·        those who weep for their losses and for the things they never had,
·        who find their lot in life to be only misery,
·        who have no joy in life

God favors the meek:
·        We need to re-define “meek, because it doesn’t have the same connotation today as it did in Jesus’ time.  It’s not ‘meek’ as we mean it – timid or shy, or mild.
·        In Hebrew writings, it means to be humiliated.  The meek are the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the victims of injustice. 
·        In Greek writings, meekness is a virtue for women, slaves, and children (humble, submissive, know your place) – an undesirable trait for citizens. 
·        Matthew most likely used the meaning from the Hebrew Scriptures:  God favors the downtrodden, the oppressed and the victims of injustice.

God favors those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:
·        those who are starving for justice,
·        who earnestly desire to have what is right done to them,
·        who have been treated wrongly.
·        The same Greek word is translated righteousness sometimes and justice other times (it actually means what both of those words convey).
In the next four Beatitudes, God favors those who work on behalf of the first four:
·         the merciful - who extend mercy to others,
·         those who are pure in heart – having honesty and integrity,
·         the peacemakers –who work to resolve conflict and restore, relationship,
·         Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake - who are persecuted because they took a stand against the evil forces in the world.

This is the picture Jesus is painting: 
Under God’s rule,
there will be no one who is poor in spirit,
no one who is mourning,
no one who is oppressed and humiliated,
no one who is longing for justice and righteousness. 
Because everyone in the kingdom of heaven
is merciful to others,
acts with honesty and integrity,
works to resolve conflict and rebuild relationship and
is so committed to righteousness and justice that they are willing to give up everything to pursue it.
In the kingdom of heaven, everyone will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.[v]
And maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so well known.  They offer a vision of life the way we want it to be – an alternative to the harsh realities of a world that fights the rule of God. The world works on a whole different value system where the strong prevail and the weak go without.  A blog I read this week sums up the world’s version of the beatitudes quite nicely:
·        Blessed are the self-reliant (not the poor in spirit),
·        the cheerful (not those who mourn),
·        the bold (not the meek),
·        the proactive and the ambitious (not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness),
·         those who demand to be treated fairly (not the merciful),
·        those with a single, driving ambition (not the pure in heart),
·        those who stand up for themselves (not the peacemakers),
·        those who have a high quality of life (not the persecuted),
·        those who have a good reputation (not those who are reviled and slandered).[vi]
The Beatitudes reveal the world’s values for the cheap deception they are.   It’s a complete and total reversal of the earthly status quo. It’s good news for those whom the world denies life abundant and for those who work on their behalf.
Jesus offers a vision of life the way God intended it to be, the way we long for it to be.  Most people want life to be fair.  Most people want everyone to have their needs met.  No one is going to say, “No, I think we should ignore the concerns of the poor, or leave the mourners to grieve by themselves, or let the unjust ride roughshod over those unable to defend themselves.”
We long for Jesus vision of the kingdom of God.  We pray for it each week, in the prayer Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: your kingdom come, your will be done. 
Our problem lies in figuring out our part in that vision.
And here’s where Jesus surprises those listening to him.  So far, we’ve only talked about the first eight blessings.  Those are the ones that are so well known.  So far everything Jesus has said is in the third person:  blessed are those people, him, her, them.  Suddenly, Jesus turns to those around him and says, “Blessed are you!” 
Second person – Jesus is talking directly to us. 
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
It doesn’t sound like it, but this is good news too.
It’s good news because when we act with mercy, God’s grace melts the heartlessness of the ways of the world.
It’s good news because when we act with hearts full of honesty and integrity, God’s truth undermine all life-denying lies.
It’s good news because when we work to bring peace and to resolve conflict and restore relationship, God’s love breaks through hatred.
It’s good news because when we steadfastly work for justice and righteousness, we become the very hands of God at work in the world.
It’s good news because when we live into Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven, God’s favor is proclaimed throughout the earth.
Blessed are you,
Familiar words, yet full of meaning -
Do you know you are blest?
Jesus called you to follow,
and in that calling,
gifted you
with the love of God,
the grace of Jesus,
the power of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are you.

[i] The Be “Happy” Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Change Your Life is the title of Robert Schuller’s book on Matthew 5:1-12.
[ii] As Lutherans we may shudder a bit at such an interpretation.  After all, we believe we are saved by grace and every good thing we do comes from God.  This interpretation of the Beatitudes sounds a bit like works righteousness.  Still, this is a popular way of looking at them and perhaps, Lutheran teaching aside, we really do believe that’s what they are all about. 
[iii] I had the privilege to study the gospel of Matthew with one of the top Matthew scholars in the world, Dr. Mark Allan Powell.  The following insights on structure of the passage, and meaning of the Greek were gleaned from my class notes from Dr. Powell’s lecture on the Sermon on the Mount, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, September 23, 2009.  Thank you Dr. Powell for your generous permission to use any and all materials from your classes in our ministries!
[iv] Luke 6:20-26.
[v][v] Micah 6:8, NRSV.
[vi]“Fan or Friends: Reflections on Matthew 5:1-12,” Alyce McKenzie, Patheos blog,

1 comment:

  1. Ramona - we will pray for you. If you want more specific support email me, you can find my email on my blog profile. I am living through, and hopefully coming to the end of similar life experiences.