A congregation of the United Church of Canada
(This is a repeat/revision of a 4-part series I did back in 2017. Hopefully things go deeper with repetition!)
Yr A ~ Epiphany 3 ~ Matthew 5:1-12 (part 1 of 4)
One challenge with a passage of scripture like we have today is that it’s so well known it can be difficult to engage in a fresh way. “They’re the Beatitudes. The blessings. Everybody knows what they mean.” Hmm! We’ll see!
To begin, let’s set the stage. In Matthew’s gospel the Sermon on the Mount is the very first bit of real teaching that Jesus does. He’s born, gets baptized, does the temptation thing, declares that the kingdom of heaven is near and people ought to change the way they see the world and open themselves to receive it, taps a bunch of disciples on the shoulder and says “Follow me” and they do, and then we get the Beatitudes.
The text mentions a crowd, but a careful reading suggests that it’s probably only the disciples that are hearing this teaching. Now that’s sad if you’re a Monty Python fan (remembering Terry Jones who passed away this week) and you can’t help but see the scene from “Life of Brian” and are imagining a crowd of hundreds and the people way at the back mis-hearing Jesus and causing all kinds of comedy. Instead of “blessed are the peacemakers” they hear “blessed are the cheesemakers” and then have a theological debate where they decide he meant makers of dairy products in general. Funny! But the way Matthew reads there was no crowd – just disciples.
And that’s important because this is a pretty heavy teaching. It probably isn’t appropriate for a passer-by. Even these insiders would have some trouble taking it all in – and maybe we will too, I don’t know.
Jesus has just launched his ministry and just called his first disciples and now he’s telling these key insiders what it means to be a part of this movement – the goal of which is residing in the kingdom of heaven.
He’s going to lay out what we might call Christian values, or more specifically ‘kingdom values’.
And these will stand in stark opposition to the world’s values, as you’ll soon see.
Now, as usual, there are some things we’re going to have to unlearn. This is one of the downsides of a very familiar text. We’ve heard the words for so long that we don’t really question what they mean anymore. And more than that, some of the words may not mean what you think they mean! No, I’m not saying everyone has had it all wrong and now we’ll get it right. But I am saying that once you hear this, and wrestle with it, you probably won’t read the Beatitudes in the same way.
The very first thing we need to be clear about is what the word blessed means.
If someone is blessed it means that they are enviable because they’ve received God’s favour.
Literally it means to become large, like you do when you receive compliments or affirmation.
And so, as we begin, we instantly hit a landmine because it’s hard to imagine how being ‘poor in spirit’ makes one large, or enviable, or favoured.
Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Notice that unlike the other Beatitudes this one is present tense and not future tense. All the other blessings are “will be, will inherit, will receive.”
But this one is “theirs IS the kingdom. These folks have it!
Which folks? Those poor in spirit.
We like the idea of having the kingdom of heaven, but how do you feel about being poor in spirit?
On the surface that doesn’t make sense. Don’t we all want to be rich in spirit? Filled with spirit? Why would we want to be poor in spirit?
The problem is that we’re not hearing the word ‘poor’ correctly. The word in Greek is ptóchos and it’s kind of a word picture.
Literally it means bent over, as in one who crouches or cowers – like a beggar would – hence the translation of poor, but it means much more than just lacking!
It doesn’t describe a level of spirit but an orientation of spirit.
The first audiences literally heard “blessed are those bent over and begging” – in spirit.
It means to be bent over like a beggar who knows that their own resources are utterly insufficient for the task at hand.
Beggars are prostrate on the ground throwing themselves at the mercy of the kindness of others.
In other words, to be poor in spirit is to be utterly surrendered to God – utterly open to God’s Presence – utterly accepting of God’s way – utterly trusting in God’s sufficiency.
The kingdom value of utter surrendered-ness completely flies in the face of how we think the world ought to work – fend for yourself, stiff upper lip, try your hardest, climb the ladder, be successful, make money, acquire possessions, never give up, outwit, outplay, outlast, you can do it!
But you can’t earn, or fight, or strive your way into the kingdom of heaven.
You can only receive it.
And you can only receive it if you are surrendered enough to let go of your vice-grip hold on the steering wheel.
There’s a great bumper sticker that asks “Is God/Jesus your steering wheel or your spare tire?” But while that puts God as part of your everyday life, which is good, instead of just being a first aid kit that you reach for in hard times, it doesn’t go far enough. If God’s just the steering wheel…you’re still steering. The metaphor breaks down because you would still be in control – trying to push God around for your own purposes.
That’s not surrendering, and that is not the kingdom of heaven.
This first Beatitude about being poor in spirit is actually probably the only one you need, if you really followed it.
Chances are if you are utterly surrendered to God and God’s way then you’d embody the other kingdom characteristics as well.
And if you can’t get past the first one you don’t have much hope of pulling off the rest.
This following Jesus stuff is hard!
The whole point is that this is Jesus teaching kingdom values.
If one cannot see themselves bent over like a beggar and utterly surrendered to God then the list just becomes a “be nice” list – which is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go to the kingdom of heaven! (which is, as Jesus says in Matthew 4:17, right here, right now, the kingdom of heaven has drawn near).
Can you imagine those poor disciples sitting there with their mouths hanging open trying to take in what they just heard?
And we’re only at the first blessing!
We have a tremendous advantage of knowing the whole rest of the story and wrestling with it for thousands of years. But they were hearing it fresh.
“Welcome to the club boys and girls. I’m glad you took the risk and left your livelihoods behind to follow me. Now all you have to do is utterly surrender your entire being to God in order for us to get started here.”
Then he says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted! [Mt 5:4]
And the disciples said, “Yeah, well I’m kinda mourning leaving everything behind right now and I need some comfort!”
The good news here is that this is a very straightforward blessing. Those who mourn will be comforted. Nice. But I wonder if it’s actually more of a call for us to really feel things. The world’s values do not celebrate sensitivity or the need to accept comfort.
How many of us, when something goes amiss in our lives, have all sorts of people saying “if you need anything, call” or “what can I do for you?” and we almost invariably answer, “Nothing thanks, I’m fine.” Even though we’re not. Part of that is that we don’t want to be a bother (even though if the shoe were on the other foot we’d totally be thrilled to help our friend).
But maybe a bigger part is that if we admit we need help we have to admit we can’t control the world and handle everything on our own.
(See beatitude #1).
I think Jesus is saying that kingdom people are allowed to have all the feels. Being sensitive is ok.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. [Mt 5:5]
I have bad news for you. That’s not true.
That is a really catchy phrase, but that is not what Jesus said.
Perhaps a few hundred years ago when this got translated into English the word ‘meek’ meant more than it does now, but for us it instantly brings three things to mind: weak, timid, powerless.
The actual meaning is in some ways the opposite.
The Greek word praus actually means gentleness, mildness, possessing the power but humbly choosing not to use it.
To be meek suggests you have no power and no choice, but what Jesus is saying is “blessed are those who have power but in their gentleness choose not to wield it for gain.”
Christians are not called to be pushovers or doormats; we’re called to understand that ‘power over’ is the world’s values so when we exercise our power (and make no mistake, we have a lot of it – economic power, political power, autonomy, we are powerful individuals, every one of us) …when we exercise our power we are to do so with generosity, restraint, gentleness, mildness, thoughtfulness, compassion, and love.
The more power you have the harder that is.
Being weak is not a blessing or a kingdom value – being gentle with your power absolutely is.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (for justice), for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful (the compassionate), for they will receive mercy (and compassion). [Matthew 5:6-7]
See, once you’re by the surrendered part they all fall into place!
Blessed are the pure in heart (not necessarily those perfectly clean but those with pure intentions), for they will see God. [Matthew 5:8]
Presumably because those with impure intentions wouldn’t think to look for God!
Blessed are the peacemakers (those who are diplomatic and speak calmly and thoughtfully) (or maybe that’s about those who spread shalom), for they will be called children of God. [Matthew 5:9]
And blessed are those who because of their faith have a hard time in life, because following kingdom values means that you’re pretty much kicking the world’s values right in the shins – and generally speaking people don’t like being kicked in the shins.
Kingdom values are to live surrendered, sensitively, gently, living justly, being compassionate, with pure intentions, being diplomatic, staying on the path even when facing obstacles.
The world’s values are not exactly the opposite of those characteristics but pretty close – and if you live in opposition to the world the world will respond with persecution.
They’ll put you down, insult you, look down on you, and dismiss you.
They’ll react this way because you’re kicking them in the shins – because as you live those kingdom values light shines, and it exposes the world’s values as inferior. Jesus’ way subverts and inverts the way of the world.
The kingdom of heaven is nothing less than a full-blown reordering of reality with God and God’s values at the centre. Jesus is inviting his disciples, his followers, us, into that kingdom right at the start of the journey.
We don’t have to put in our time, or earn it, or show we’re worthy – those are all world values.
All we have to do is embody that list that starts with surrendering.
Thankfully the disciples, and us, have Jesus as our guide – a person who absolutely and completely embodied and lived out every one of those kingdom values.
All through Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom he uses a really catchy phrase – “You have heard it said…but I say.” He doesn’t explicitly use those words here, but he may as well have.
You have heard it said that power over, and self-sufficiency, and survival of the fittest are the ways you should live in this world – but I say God calls us to live surrendered, sensitively, gently, justly, compassionately, with pure intentions, being diplomatic, staying on the path even when facing obstacles.
You have heard it said that people like us, who live this way are stupid, or weak, or losers – but I say we are blessed, for ours is the kingdom of heaven!