Sunday, February 2, 2014
Texts: Matthew 5: 1-12 and Micah 6: 6-8
Each of the New Testament gospels paint a slightly different portrait of Jesus. We’re hoping to appreciate Matthew’s version of the Jesus story on its own terms. So we ask ourselves this evening two important questions: “Who is the Jesus we’ve met so far in the first five chapters of this particular Gospel account?” and “What kind of ‘kingdom’ does he invite us to help create?”
As we make our way through Matthew, it’s important to read each pericope mindful of what has gone before. Some scholars see the Gospel According to Matthew structured around five major discourses or teaching segments—which are themselves sandwiched between the story of his birth and the story of his death and resurrection. Today we begin the first and probably best loved of the five Matthean discourses. We call it the Sermon on the Mount, and that sermon starts with a list of 8 or 9 statements of blessings we call the Beatitudes. To make sure we have the context for this important first teaching session of Jesus, let’s review the way the writer of Matthew has led us to this point.
Chapter 1 of Matthew provides Jesus’ genealogy, which as our 4:00 Bible study group has learned, was artfully composed to contrast the authority of Jesus (descendant of King David—and a few less noble figures from Hebrew scriptures) with the authority of tyrannical kings like Herod. Then Matthew’s nativity story compares Jesus to Moses. Both as infants survived a tyrant’s death order (Matt. 2). Both later left Egypt, came through “baptismal” waters (Matt. 3), and wandered in the wilderness (Matt. 4) for a long period of time (40 days/40 years). Like Moses, Jesus was a liberator, a new type of leader who defied the Powers That Be, a leader who could have been enticed to rule with might but who instead directed others to God, the ultimate ruler (Matt. 4).
During Jesus’s wilderness wandering, he was tempted—as were the children of Israel in the desert—to depart from a reliance on God. In the last of Jesus’s three temptations, he looked down on “all kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matt. 4: 8) and decisively resisted the lure of earthly, forceful power. At that point Jesus chose to “serve only [God]” (Matt. 4: 10) and began his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.
You’ll recall he preached a message of repentance; that is, Jesus announced that a whole new way of thinking was necessary in order to perceive and prepare the way for the “kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven did not exist in some future time or remote place but instead was already unfolding in the here and now. But the imminent “kingdom of heaven” looks very different from “the kingdoms of the world.” Jesus’s 8 or 9 blessings, in contrast with Moses’ 10 commandments, will tell us more about God’s alternate kingdom. But before we examine the 9 ways Jesus spoke God’s “yes” (in contrast to the 10 ways Moses expressed God’s “no” as a list of “thou shalt nots”)—let’s see why Galilee among fishermen was a strategic if ironic and dangerous site for launching God’s kingdom.
Galilee was the outback, a place away from the center of power, and the liminal sea of Galilee symbolized the edge of the empire’s control, a place where God’s spirit might break through in all that wildness. Nevertheless, Roman economic and political policies had hit the lowly fisherman hard. Rome had begun requiring fishermen—already among the most vulnerable workers—to buy a lease to fish in the lake and then pay taxes on their catch as well. The imperial economy was systematically enriching the rich by taking land and revenue from the poor to expand the empire. Subsistence fishing was becoming almost impossible. Maybe it’s no wonder that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were willing to put down their fishing nets immediately after Jesus invited them to follow him. As the Roman writer Juvenal put it, “Every rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean. . . belongs to the imperial treasury” (Juvenal, Sat 4.51-55 qtd. in Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins).
Galilee was also the very region controlled by Herod Antipas, who’d just imprisoned John the Baptist. Upon hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus entered Herod’s territory, perhaps as John’s successor, and approached fishermen, who’d been hit hard by the empire’s injustice. In such a time and place Jesus, who’d just rejected Satan’s temptation to participate in imperial tactics, started preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven (not the kingdom of this earth) is near at hand.” Repent—change your whole way of thinking—because God’s way can be lived out here and now. Repent by seeing that you’ve been swimming in a sea of imperialism and militarism that you assumed was the only reality. Follow me, said Jesus, and we’ll catch people drowning in that sea, fish them out with gospel nets, and show them another reality. Repent—because the system in whose net we’ve been caught can be overcome by God’s way of doing things. Repent—because what God requires is simple justice—as the prophet Micah taught: God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in God’s ways (Micah 6:8).
So Jesus cast his vision of an alternate kingdom and “caught” fisherman like Peter, Andrew, James and John.
I hope you can see why the set up for the beatitudes and the setting for this first teaching session are important. The first readers of Matthew would have understood the significance of this context just as you and I would understand the significance of a national politician today coming to Prichard, Alabama, to announce his/her campaign—should that ever happen.
And so today we move from the shoreline up the mountain with Jesus to hear him mediate God’s ways to us. Whether Jesus taught these lessons from atop a mountain, as Matthew says, or on the plain, as Luke describes, is not important. What is important is that the mountaintop setting for Matthew’s story reinforces Jesus as the new Moses, who climbed Mt. Sinai to receive God’s commands and share them with the people. The mountain setting also elevates Jesus to underscore his relationship to God, whose presence in Jewish and other ancient traditions was often encountered on a mountain. So Jesus sits (the posture of a teacher addressing disciples in that day), and we readers sit at his feet, ready to learn about this new way of being, this new “kingdom” that turns the earthly imperialistic kingdom on its head.
I’ve taken a long time to recap the first 4 chapters of Matthew because it’s important to keep our focus on Matthew’s key themes: Jesus is a new kind of king—the anti-king, really—and he’s revealing how we live as citizens of this new, this oddly blessed anti-kingdom that defies the injustices of earthly powers.
There are many different understandings of the Beatitudes. Many debate whether or not the Beatitudes are attainable goals or an idealized, impossible vision. I always feel on more solid ground in explicating Luke’s version of the beatitudes because Luke offers a less spiritualized, more politicized version. Instead of saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke says concretely, “Blessed are the poor” and then follows with a list a “woes” beginning with “Woe to the rich” which can be translated also as “Cursed be the rich.” You know where you stand with Luke.
Maybe we should feel Matthew’s Beatitudes and internalize them more than think through them and sermonize them. But since you’re expecting a sermon, I’ll venture what I think Matthew’s Beatitudes are not.
The beatitudes are not patronizing pats on the head for poor folks who’ve been mistreated.
The beatitudes are not the promise of rewards in a hereafter for those who suck it up now.
The beatitudes are not promises of some ultimate compensation in this life for those who suffer, grieve, or struggle.
The beatitudes are not entrance requirements for the kingdom.
The beatitudes are certainly not a simplistic formula for being successful in this world’s terms.
The beatitudes are not a first century version of blogs that give enumerated tips on being happy.
I found the following lists online:
- 15 things you should give up to be happy
- 14 things proven to make you happy
- 13 things mentally strong people don’t do
- 12 things happy people do differently
- 11 things that make workers happy
- 10 things remarkably successful people do
I suppose someone could post Matthew’s beatitudes as “8 or 9 things proven to make you happy, get you into heaven, bring you good Karma, help you succeed, let you know God’s rooting for you.” But I think Jesus had in mind something that’s less a list and more a vision.
My best guess is the Beatitudes are a description of the blessed kingdom that we can co-create with God, an un-kingdom made by folks whose spirits have been crushed, who mourn deeply, who live meekly and modestly, who fight for the right, who show mercy, who pursue God purely, who are committed to the ways of peace, and who live in these ways despite ridicule and even persecution—and in the process learn a more mature love and trust of God. When we learn the way Jesus taught, the kingdom will be here. The upside down kingdom of heaven implicitly critiques and just may eventually undo the unjust kingdoms of the earth.
Sure. Our tendency is to elevate the privileged and talented and rich and mighty. Over and over again in human history we accomplish what we hope is a once and for all liberation—the ultimate exodus from Pharaoh’s clutches—the final overthrow of Rome—and then a new hierarchy replaces the old and we’re caught again in the invisible nets of laws and prejudices, of fear and greed, that limit how we view one another and give ourselves to one another. But the Spirit of Mercy and Justice keeps breaking into systems of this world to expose the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the prophets who are arrested for telling the truth, the fisherfolks who can no longer earn a meager living while a few live in palaces.
The beatitudes—and our scripture from Micah today—are not merely ethical guidelines or a political critique but a poetic vision of what is possible in our common life and in our relationship with the Sacred that is beyond what we can fathom directly.
Catching this alternate vision of our common life depends upon our reverence for that which we call God and a worship practice that helps us figure out what deserves elevating in this world. Micah told us: justice, kindness, humility. Rather than turn God into another Pharaoh or another Emperor, we are to worship God not with burnt offerings, not by sacrificing our firstborns on the altars of empire and militarism and planetary suicide, but by working for justice, being kind, and walking with/working with God toward the loving aims with the Source of Life.
Blessed will we be, blessed will our children and grandchildren be, when we help usher in the realm of God.
PRAYER: God of all blessings, use us for the coming kingdom. Amen.