Matthew 5:1-12 Beatitudes
I’m going to confess right from the beginning that this scripture has always stymied me. How is one supposed to preach a sermon about a sermon? So, I’m not even going to try. Today, I am simply going to ask you to stand with me on the sidelines of this crowd and watch.
Let’s stand here for a moment and appreciate Jesus’ audience. 70-90% of the population were living in poverty. It is safe to assume then that the majority of this crowd was poor. Maybe a curious Pharisee or two showed up, even the odd tax collector. But these were people who lived and died never having seen the capital or ever knew of an official who claimed to be working on their behalf. Yet, these were the people who fashioned the wood to make their desks and chiseled the stone to build his palace. These were the people who would be laughed at with such ignorance by the people in Jerusalem, and one had to wonder who was actually primitive. For those to believed that the acquisition of things made you understand the world, always mistake these people as less than themselves until the time comes when they have to rely on them. And yet, I catch a glimmer of what Jesus must have seen. In a place where death met life and stared it in the face every moment, these were some of the finest people in the world. Illiterate, unkempt, harsh on themselves and unforgiving of weakness in order to survive.
I wonder then why they had come. In a labour-intensive society did they not have to work? Was it the Sabbath and were they not required to be at the synagogue? What brought them? Hope, desperation, assurance, the thought of liberation? Were they looking for a leader, another rabbi, a revolutionary, a prophet, even a messiah? Was their need that great their desperation that deep? They came for a reason. This much is certain.
Facing this crowd, what does Jesus offer them? Blessedness. Indeed, his whole sermon is like a benediction, a blessing upon them.
Now, one thing is apparent. We are not part of this crowd, you and me. Jesus is not preaching to us. He is preaching to the poor, both spiritually and literally. We… we’re the privileged. Maybe we’ve had to stretch a paycheque or two but we’ve never looked starvation in the face. And, frankly, would just as soon keep it that way. If this is blessedness, I would just as soon Jesus keep it. Hearing these beatitudes doesn’t make me especially eager to take on more mourning in my life. Ditto for being persecuted. Not big on that. And hunger. Bad enough to be on a diet. So, thanks, but no thanks, Jesus. You can offer these blessings to those who really need them.
I wonder what Jesus wanted to happen in this sermon. What response was he looking for from this crowd of forgotten people? Maybe Jesus wasn’t looking for anything. Maybe this was a simple offering of grace. This crowd probably understood grace as something you paid for at the temple, when you bought your pair of turtle doves at overinflated prices, and offered them as a sacrifice for the atonement of your sins. But a teacher, a messiah, offering grace to those who feel they have done nothing to earn it, and most certainly don’t feel they deserve it…that, to borrow a term from the seventies, must have ‘blown their minds’.
Jesus is one of the few, if any, who is prepared to stand up publicly and say ‘NO’. ‘No’ to the oppression of these people. ‘No’ to the treating people like a commodity. ‘No’ to a system that takes all the privilege of a labour society and gives it to the 1% and leaves the labourers with nothing.
Now we begin to understand. Nowhere in this sermon is Jesus laying down a moral imperative for them to follow, or how to be good little do-bees. Jesus, in pouring out blessings upon them, is beginning the work of transformation. He is asking them to start thinking about themselves in another way, the way God sees them, as citizens of God’s Kingdom. This is so hugely radical. It must have seemed for some a ridiculous vision for the future. Maybe even a few started heading back down that hill. Maybe a Pharisee or two stumbled over their robes running back to their clan informing them of the heresy they were hearing that was threatening their authority. Yet, there stood Jesus, telling these people they were not orphans, forgotten. They were the children of God, blessed and beloved by God. Imagine what it is like to be told you are loved after generations of feeling rejected.
Yet, as I said before. this sermon wasn’t preached to the likes of you and I. So, why do we honour it as we do? Is it possible that God is intending you and I, the privileged, the people who have known graces in our lives, who have never had to suffer starvation, real poverty, or persecution to acknowledge that it is by the grace of God alone we take our place in this world, and ECHO that grace into the world?
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “There was a time when the church was very powerful—in a time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…” Martin Luther wrote those words from a jail cell in Birmingham.
The church will be dismissed, as it is being dismissed today, as an irrelevant society club if we do not echo Jesus’ transformative blessings. So, we need to ask ourselves: Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness or do we look the other way? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness or do we leave that for others to do supported by our pocket change? Do we hunger and thirst after righteousness or do we explain away our indifference because we don’t want people to think we are taking sides? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend or out of the fear of being labelled?
To be honest, and maybe more pastoral, I believe the reason to be something more like this. We who are privileged, and wealthy in property and in spirit, are full of ourselves. We are pre-occupied with our own busyness because ownership comes with responsibilities. We are pre-occupied with multi-tasking, eager to display our competency, how much we are capable of, eager to demonstrate how much we know. Yet, with a life filled with the privilege of owning an inn, there are no rooms left for God to birth a new thing in. Often, it is only in the moments of disappointment, despair, or even tragedy, that we finally abandon the cultural stereotypes of blessedness, which crumble our matchstick castles, and open ourselves to the presence of God. When we, in essence, become poor in heart and mind and spirit, knowing our privilege can no longer save us, it is then we empty ourselves of the clutter and make a room available, even if it is just a stable, for God to do a new thing in us,
which we can echo to the world.
I will leave you with this thought. In 1986, Elie Wiesel said in her Nobel lecture, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time we fail to protest.”