2nd February 2014 Year A
The great Indian independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi was one who made a thorough study of Christianity, though never becoming a Christian himself. In that study he saw ‘The Beatitudes’ as lying at the heart of the Christian message. Of those words he wrote they’ ‘delighted me beyond measure.’
Thus here we find then that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. As such Matthew has Jesus say several times in this chapter as he expands the new Law that ‘you have heard it said….but I say to you.’ This is a momentous claim as what Jesus is claiming to supersede is the Mosaic Law, that which lay at the sacred heart of Judaism. Indeed Matthew understands Jesus as strengthening and deepening the Law, making it more rigorous. Matthew has Jesus say, ‘Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away not an iota will pass from the Law’ (5:17-18). Such an understanding of the Law reminds us of the wide variety of views found in the early church and in our Scriptures for Paul understands the Law as something which in Jesus is abolished. He claims ‘for we are justified by faith apart from the Law’ (Romans 3:28) for we are ‘not under the Law but grace’ (Romans 6:14). Paul understand the Law as being ‘a custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith’ and that ‘now that faith has come we are no longer under a custodian, for in Jesus we are all children of God through grace’ (Galatians 3:23-26). Our Scriptures are of course full of such differences and therefore should never be read in some sort of flat literalist manner. To do so suppresses their variety and riches.
Let us turn to the specifics of these words held by many, including Gandhi, to be the most beautiful of Jesus’ words. What they basically tell us is that there can be no dividing of one’s religious duty, one’s homage toward God, from one’s daily service to their neighbour. There is no peculiarly religious only pathway to God. God’s blessing is poured out not on those with the right homage to God, nor with the right theology about God. Rather it is given to those that are poor, who mourn, those who are meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for justice, those having a purity of heart, the ones who work for peace and among the increasing numbers in the Matthean church who were suffering persecution for holding to Jesus’ way. Those so afflicted and those identifying with them are promised God’s blessings and succour.
The poor promised blessing are those the biblical tradition knew as the ‘anawin’, those without means of sustenance and completely dependent on the mercy of God as expressed though others. Having no stake in any kingdom here they are promised that of God’s. To be able to mourn is an essential part of real human living. So often we immure ourselves to the suffering of the world by closing our eyes or by drowning out the cries of those that mourn in a satiating consumption. Walter Bruggemann in his writing, ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ tells us that the first step to living a prophetic lifestyle is to be able to feel, to be able to grieve, to have the ability to weep. In an age of violence and self-assertion what need is there for those who are gentle. The economy of the time of Jesus was based on land holding wealth. More and more the land, contrary to the codes of the Torah or Law, was being abrogated to fewer and fewer. The gentle were left without and being left without land meant usually that one was a share-cropper, a landless serf, battling to survive with bread for just this day. One was subject to the real risk of selling oneself and one’s family into slavery. At the heart of the Jewish tradition which informed Jesus was the concern for justice. The concern for what Hebrew calls ‘mispat’ (justice) lies at the very heart of the Scriptural tradition. God was understood as one who ruled with justice. All sorts of rules were codified to ensure that justice should be done. There was to be a general concern for the poor, an idea that none should go without and that all injustice must be challenged. Those that have such a hunger for justice, a hunger who elsewhere cry out, ‘your kingdom come’ are promised their fill. Mercy is understood reciprocally. How can one expect mercy from God when one refuses mercy to another? Elsewhere Matthew makes this clear in the parable he has Jesus give of the ‘unforgiving servant’ where the one forgiven a huge debt is then unable to forgive the pittance owed to him by his neighbour (18:23-35). Next the vision of God, that vision to which so many aspire through all sorts of practices is promised for those with pure hearts. It is that simple says Jesus. The Shalom, the peace about right relations, one far deeper than the mere absence of overt conflict, lay again at the heart of the biblical tradition. Jesus affirms that tradition of peacemaking calling those so committed as being ‘the children of God.’ He has already had John the Baptist tell those who think their mere heritage is enough to make them children of God, that ‘from these mere stones I could raise children for Abraham’ (3:9). To be truly a child of God is to be doing the will of God. Of course such peacemaking runs far deeper than the mere keeping of the peace, something which may cover up all sorts of injustices. Lastly Matthew has Jesus offer comfort to those being persecuted. Matthew’s gospel is written at a time when the infant church was being increasingly persecuted so he has Jesus offer his comfort. Rejected by the empire which is persecuting them Jesus promises them another, that reign which is God’s.
The Beatitudes of course represent a reversal of the world’s wisdom and way of doing things calling those who follow Jesus to a counter-cultural lifestyle. Little wonder those who were the first followers of Jesus were known before they were called Christians, as ‘followers of the way.’
That counter-cultural wisdom is picked up in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. They may have differed, as I have shown on their understanding of the Law, but both Matthew and Paul understood that to follow Jesus was to place one at radical odds to the way and wisdom of the world. To a Corinthian church divided into factions by the ‘wisdom’ and values of the world Paul writes, ‘Has not God turned the wisdom of this world to folly?’ In terms of the world’s wisdom this message of Jesus is foolishness, an affront to both Jews and Gentiles. Surveying the Corinthian community he speaks of how God has chosen those ‘not wise by human standards…the world’s lowborn and despised.’ In the Roman Empire these first followers of Jesus are not to be conformed to the world but rather to represent a counter-cultural witness. This likewise is to be our witness. We are to represent a true counter-cultural community, a witness to the very different values, the true wisdom to which God calls us.