Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, February 2, 2020 – Epiphany 4A

Epiphany 4A – January 29, 2023

This post on focuses on a study of the Beatitudes. A bird’s eye view of the Beatitudes in English, Spanish and Koine Greek can be found on this 11×17 placemat.

Micah 6:1-8– He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm 15 – Blamelessness defined as doing no slander or evil, not lending money at interest, not taking bribes: O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – Repeats verse 18 from last week and continues: …Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God… God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which will continue for the next five weeks.

Note: February 2 (the 40th day of the Christmas/Epiphany season) is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ (and for some the Purification of Mary per Leviticus 12, 33 days after a boy’s circumcision). Candlemas commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It is based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40. According to the Wikipedia article, On Candlemas, many Christians (especially Anglicans, Methodists,  Lutherans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics) bring their candles to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year.

The Beatitudes: Jesus’ First Sermon

Many of the ideas here come from Dr. Mark Allen Powell in God With Us, Kingsbury in Matthew as Story, and Marty Stortz and Ralph Klein in lectures given to the Lutheran bishops from Canada and the U.S. a few years ago. I also rely upon Stanley Hauerwas’ Matthewfrom the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and David Garland’s Reading Matthew: a Literary and Theological Commentary.

In the placemat mentioned above, I compare the Beatitudes in three languages: English, Spanish and Koine Greek. Feel free to use this for your own study, or to share with a study group. Even though most people can’t read the Greek alphabet, it reminds them that these words were originally written in another language. If not during worship, this tool might be a handy piece for Bible study.

The text is Matthew 5, The Beatitudes, or what Robert Schuller once called “The Be-Happy Attitudes.” Now before you make fun of that, I would point out that while this smacks of self-help gospel, as if Jesus and the Beatitudes were really all about making ME happy, rather than calling me to die to myself and live sacrificially, I have to admit his title has stuck with me for 20 years. There is something to be said for speaking and crafting sermons in memorable ways – ways that stick with people, by using hooks, alliteration, simile and mind-capturing images.

“Happy” does not, of course, capture the sense of makarios. After years of mulling this over and reading so many of interpretations, for me it comes down to this: Jesus is saying to those who are hurting and those who side with them, God loves you too. Although it seems sometimes like God sides with the rich and powerful, Jesus has good news: God cares for those who feel like they have lost in the game of life. So, good news, you who are hungry. God is with you. When you are grieving, God is near.

Jesus is the new Moses in Matthew’s gospel, so as Moses went up the mountain for the Ten Commandments, Jesus goes up the mountain to refocus the Commandments. Hauerwas warns us not to imagine we are hearing a new law for Christians. Does Jesus really suggest we can completely avoid lust? He also wants us to avoid reading a personal ethic here without a political one. No such dichotomy exists anywhere in Matthew’s gospel. The Sermon is directed to a community. Hauerwas says the Reformation ethic reads the Sermon as ideals that drive us to God’s grace. While this gets us closer, Protestants too easily fall into simplistically thinking of Judaism and Catholicism as purely legalistic faiths. Instead Hauerwas invites us to consider the Sermon christologically. Eschatological and existential. Matthew makes no distinction. We cannot depend on our works for salvation, but neither can we cast aside the radical demands of the law. To do so is to cast aside Christ. Powell will help us parse this in a moment.

Likewise, David Garland in Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary emphasizes how Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses. The new redeemer (Jesus) must be like the old redeemer (Moses). Just as Moses’ story involved a dream, so did Jesus’ story. Both involved the slaughter of children (Exodus 1:15-22; 2:1-10). As the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea, and eventually crossed the Jordan, so Jesus passes through the waters the baptism, and crosses the Jordan. As Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, so did Jesus. Jesus rides in on a donkey like Moses and prophecies about the messiah (Exodus 4:20, Zechariah 9:9), and so on.

This is the first of five sermons in Matthew. So I let’s call it Jesus’ First Sermon. The Sermon on the Mount is likely an amalgamation of Jesus’ various sayings, but Matthew puts them together, so I like Jesus’ First Sermon. I don’t know if you remember your first sermon or not. Mine wasn’t this good.

In the lectionary we are about to spend February in first part of the Sermon on the Mount, so we’ll also look ahead a little bit, to the rest of Jesus’ First Sermon.

The Matthean Beatitudes appear twice in this year’s lectionary: this Sunday and then again this Fall, on All Saints’ Sunday A, November 1, 2020. These Beatitudes are the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and some believe the moral foundation for all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel.

Would you like them really to sink in? Consider having the congregation read them a couple different times, a couple different ways. Invite those on the left side to read the boldface print and those on the right side to read the regular print. If you don’t want to use the placemat, consider printing them in the bulletin with paragraphs and boldface in the places I’ve laid out.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

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

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sakefor 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.

Question: Are the beatitudes…

  1. Eschatological rewards for the virtuous? Peacemakers, merciful, pure? In other words, do this and you will be rewarded in heaven. Be a peacemaker, work for righteousness and you’ll be rewarded.
  2. Eschatological reversal for those who are suffering? Poor, mourning, meek, hungry? In other words, if you’re poor now, you’ll be rich in heaven. If you’re mourning now, you’ll be dancing in heaven. If you’re hungry now, you’ll be full in heaven.

What do you think?

Garland likes to read the blessings of the Beatitudes as “congratulations.” Congratulations, you who fear, trust and take refuge in God, you have divine approval. Powell struggles with this a bit.

It’s a bit of a trick question. Mark Alan Powell (God With Us) points out that if we look carefully, neither interpretation really fits all of these. Being poor, hungry or mourning is unfortunate, but these don’t sound like virtues to which we are to aspire. Being a peacemaker is a virtue, but it is not an unfortunate circumstance of suffering that needs to be reversed in the eschaton.

Let’s dig. A closer look reveals the first eight beatitudes (vv. 3-10) are written in the third person (“Blest are they…”), while vv. 11-12, the ninth beatitude is written in the second person (“Blest are you…”).

Notice also, both the first and the eighth beatitude end with “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” underlined for you above, creating a rhetorical inclusio. Verses 11-12 are also different in meter, style and imperative mood.

Look at the placemat. Verses 3-10 can be divided into two sections that have exactly 36 words each in the Greek:

  • The four beatitudes in verses 3-6 (in the yellow) have exactly 36 words, and
  • the second four beatitudes in verses 7-10 have exactly 36 words, and
  • the last beatitude, verses 11-12 have 35 words.

So, let’s call

  • vv. 3-6 in yellow: Stanza 1
  • vv. 7-10 in turquoise: Stanza 2
  • vv. 11-12 in pink: the Conclusion or the Refrain

Matthew has carefully crafted this, quite differently than how Luke’s version is crafted. Immediately you’ll notice both stanza one and stanza two end with the word δικαιοσύνην(dikaiosyne). I have put in a white box for you on the placemat. This word means justice, or righteousness. Notice the NRSV translates it righteousness here, but the Spanish translates it “justicia.”

The symmetry, poetry and parallelism are artistic and clearly intentional. Obviously Robert Schuller was not the only one who could craft memorable sermons. Could this have been an early hymn? Don’t miss the chance to sing this sermon.

Also note the alliteration of 3-6, each verse starting with a “p” word, which I have circled for you on the placemat.

πτωχοὶ             Ptochoi (poor)
πενθοuντες    Penthountes (mourners)
πραεiς              Praes (meek)
πεινωντες       Peinontes (hungry)

Blessed are the pathetic, poor, parched people, to use an alliteration.

Read stanza one, in yellow. If you use this in worship, invite the men to read the bold and the women to read the regular print.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
              for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn,
              for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek,
              for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
              for they will be filled.

Stanza one are those who are suffering.

  1. Blessed are the poor. Ptochoi are the dispossessed, abandoned people of Israel and the world (Isaiah 11:4; 29:19; 32:7; 61:1; Amos 2:7; 8:4; Zephaniah 2:3). Poor in spirit signifies that they are despondent. They are not just poor; they have lost hope. Powell: One might translate this, “Blessed are the hopeless poor.”
  2. The “mourners” in verse four are the miserable and unhappy people because of the losses they have experienced. They have no cause for joy.
  3. The “meek” could be humble, non-violent, gentle or kind. Some versions translate this “homeless.” Praeis is the word the Greek Septuatint uses to translate the Hebrew word anawim, who are the homeless poor (Psalm 36:11). They are the humiliated and powerless of this world. They have been denied basic human needs.
  4. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosyne (righteousness or justice), are those who seek vindication. They have been denied justice.

So, if we put together this dizzying array of adjectives, in the first four verses Jesus says, “Blessed are the dispossessed, abandoned, poor, homeless – those who have lost so much, mourning, who have no reason for joy – the meek, gentle, humble, kind, non-violent, humiliated, powerless, who have been denied basic human needs, and human rights, who long for God’s righteousness, justice and vindication. Heaven and earth belong to them. They will be satisfied and comforted in the eschaton. God loves them. Can you feel Jesus’ focus?

It would be a shame to not sing this passage, on Sunday, one of the most poetic, yearning and soulful in Scripture.

There is not virtue, Powell says, in being hungry or denied justice. These are not “entrance requirements” for getting into heaven. Jesus is not idealizing poverty. Indeed, he later encourages his disciples to fight it. Also, Jesus is not necessarily describing those who are listening to his sermon on the mount. This portion is in the third person.

In Matthew the Kingdom of Heaven (not the Kingdom of God) comes to us, not vice-versa. This is the Good News both Jesus and John preach: The Kingdom of Heaven has come near you. When God reigns, the poor get a better deal.

In verses 7-10 this shifts. If the first four beatitudes are those who are suffering, the second four are those who help them.

Let’s read this section together. This time the congregation could read the bold face, and you could read the regular print. Starting with verse 7. Ready?

‘Blessed are the merciful, 
             for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, 
             for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, 
             for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, 
             for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  1. Beatitude #5: Blessed are the merciful. Jesus says mercy is one of the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). Mercy is more important than sacrifice (9:13, 12:7). Jesus carries this forward in 7:1, “Do not judge, lest you be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get. Why do you worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye? First focus on the log in your own…”

Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders is that they are too quick to judge and too slow to mercy (18:23-34). God does not like religion that is so moralistic, it keeps people from eating with outcasts.

Note that all these meanings of mercy represent actions that are not carried out in the religious community, but rather out in the world. The reward? They will receive mercy. All boats rise with the tide

  1. Blessed are the pure in heart. The heart is the source of outward speech (12:34, 15:18) and behavior (15:18) and introspection (9:4, 24:48). People lust and love in their hearts. Remember Jesus says if you look at someone with lust you commit adultery in your heart. Your heart is your innermost being. In Matthew, to forgive from the heart is to forgive truly. To understand from the heart is to understand fully.

Katharos doesn’t just mean pure. It can also mean clean. A clean dish is one that is not contaminated. People can worship with their lips, while their hearts are far from God (v. 15). Perhaps a pure or clean heart is one that is turned to God, and God’s wishes. Perhaps it means words and thoughts are congruent. That’s the definition of integrity. The pure in heart will “see God.” Since even Moses didn’t get to see God, this reward is probably eschatological.

  1. Peacemakers: Are the blessed peacemakers to make peace within the Christian community, or out in the world? Some have ventured the former. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says to leave your gift at the altar and make peace with your brother or sister. Is this just within the community of faith? The injunction to love your enemies seems to suggest a larger context. Love those out there.

Eirenopoioi (peacemakers) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament, but in other literature it refers to rulers who establish security and socioeconomic well-being for the people. Eirene is the word the Septuagint uses for shalom (the Hebrew word for peace). Blessed are the shalom-makers. The Semitic community of Matthew would certainly lean towards shalom’s broader sense: wholeness and well-being. Peacemakers are those who work for the well-being and wholeness of all people (Kingbury, Matthew as Story). They shall be called Children of God. You are a child of God when you act like God (5:48).

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosyne (righteousness or justice) were blessed earlier. Dikaiosyne is also used in 6:33, when Jesus teaches people to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s dikaiosyne, rather than worrying about food, clothing and the like. The sense is to seek what is right in God’s eyes. This, of course, runs the risk of being interpreted individualistically in Puritan America. What does God want? For us to not drink, dance or play cards? Or is God more concerned with justice for the orphan, widow and alien, the hungry, the homeless? The call seems to be: seek the well-being of others, and let God take care of you. Test this: serve others and give generously, and see what happens. Blessed are those who hunger for the well-being of others, justice for all.

Can you feel the rhythm of the Beatitudes coming to a climax? In this passage, blessing comes to those who are persecuted for dikaiosyne. Participation in peace-making and justice-making brings with it persecution. In fact, if you aren’t being persecuted for righteousness sake, you might need to ask why? Those who suffer persecution are commended, as opposed to those who fall away (13:20-21). This beatitude ends the second verse of four, completing the thought.

The first and last beatitudes end with the same words (apodosis): “The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” Them.

So, the first four blessings go to those who suffer. The second four blessings go to those who help the suffering, and are even willing to take a few blows to do so. They are blessed for voluntary identification with the suffering of this world. Perhaps this is the most Christian action one can undertake: Voluntary identification with the suffering. The underdog. Even at personal risk.

And then the ninth beatitude socks us in the eyes. It shifts from the third person to the second person. “Blessed are YOU.” Oh, I thought we were talking about someone else. A good sermon brings it home to roost. It gets personal now. Now we’re meddlin’.

Read verses 11-12 together, in unison. Reading interactively with the congregation engages them in the text and keeps them focused.

‘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.

This is pure theology of the cross. Heidelburg Disputation. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. This world is suffering. Open your eyes. Look around. A lot of people are suffering. God cares about suffering. And if we’re the people of God, the body of Christ, guess what?

It should come as no surprise that the first lesson is Micah 6:8. “He has shown you O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Justice and mercy factor considerably in the Sermon on the Mount.

And it should come as no surprise that we have a theology of the cross in the second reading again this Sunday. Jews seek signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… foolishness to the world, but to those of us who are called, the power and wisdom of God… For God chose what is foolish… weak… low and despised in the world to shame the wise and reduce to nothing the powers that be…

Well, Jesus, it’s a pretty good sermon so far. Could use a few more illustrations. Needs more grace, less law, but not bad for a first sermon, fresh out of the waters of his baptism. We’ll give it a B+.

After the beatitudes I would have just sat down, but Jesus goes on. You are salt. You are light. This is what baptism delivers. Jesus names the new creation. He describes it using vivid images. Finally, illustrations.

And then Jesus goes into the law. You have heard it said… But I say to you… Sometimes he intensifies the law. Other times he negates it. You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus invites us to do impossible things!

Then Jesus gives us food for the journey. He goes on to talk about what we will need to do these impossible things:

  • He talks about the practice of prayer. When you pray… Ask for what you need…
  • Then he talks about the practice of generosity. When you give alms… Don’t store up treasures.
  • The practice of self-denial. When you fast…
  • The practice of forgiveness.

These are the very kinds of practices that those who seek a deeper spiritual life are searching for.

Then Jesus spends considerable time talking about anxiety. Isn’t that interesting? Don’t worry about your life. Don’t worry about having enough. Stuff… On fact, share with lavish, prodigal generosity. (This is what Christianity IS.) Consider the lilies of the field… the birds of the air.

How do we preach this stuff? I think we cast an enticing vision of the new world, and offer an imaginative glimpse of how people might live into it here, and now.

Ralph Klein pointed out it takes 18 minutes to read the entire Sermon on the Mount aloud (Matthew, chapters 5-7). That would be a short sermon for a bishop. I got to thinking, why not have the congregation read the Sermon on the Mount together for the sermon one week in February? Take the day that you would have spent preparing a sermon, go to a quiet, soulful place and spend the day reading and praying.

For your reading, consider Luther’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, based on a sermon series he preached. The translator’s introduction reads as follows: “During Bugenhagen’s absence Luther preached a long while for him, regularly, on the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, beginning Nov. 9, 1530. These sermons were then published, first in 1532, at Wittenberg, under Joseph Klug, in quarto; in 1533 at Marburg, in octavo; and in 1539, again in Wittenberg, in quarto, under Johann Weiss. In 1533 they were also translated into Latin by Vincent Ohsopoeus.” So, sermon series are no new idea. Luther himself did them regularly. Consider announcing this Sunday a five-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, the Be-happy Attitudes if you like, or Jesus’ First Sermon, or whatever will capture the hearts and minds of the people in your community.