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First Impressions: Matthew 5:1-12

January 25, 2011

This week’s gospel lesson presents us with a revolutionary text frequently gelded by our modern sensibilities.  If you doubt this, simply take any recent list of the top ten most influential “citizens” or the most beautiful people or the richest people or best athletes, and compare the people on those lists to those that Jesus considers blessed.  My guess is that the people of the First Century picked the same types of people for their own “Top X” lists as we do today.  The values Jesus emphasized are not the values to which we aspire.

Before jumping off into a verse-by-verse discussion, it is helpful to review some thoughts from Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock in their one-volume The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004, p.26).  First of all, though the Greek word can be rendered “happy,” the better translation is “blessed.”  They note that these pronouncements of Jesus “declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act,” which means that the objective “blessed” is a better choice than the subjective “happy.”

The authors also claim that the language is meant to tell us that Jesus was actually performing a blessing as he spoke.  He wasn’t congratulating the meek and the poor in spirit.  He wasn’t telling the disciples that they ought to be peacemakers.  Jesus was sharing a divine blessing with those who were meek and poor in spirit and actively making peace.

Finally, they wrote that “the beatitudes are not historical but eschatological, not commonsense observations based on this-worldly logic, but pronouncements on the blessedness of those who orient their lives now to the coming kingdom of God.”  Those blessed were (and are) living their lives against the grain of our notions of success and power.  That is revolutionary.

5:1-2 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down to teach.  He did this after he saw the crowds, which means he was either trying to escape them or give them a better opportunity to hear.  Or, perhaps Matthew is elevating the importance of the teaching by placing it on par with other mountaintop experiences such as Moses receiving the Law on Sinai (Exodus 19-20) or the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).  The verse indicates that only the disciples came near, but later, in 7:28-29, the crowds will be amazed at his teaching.  Matthew at least wants us to understand that the crowds overheard.

5:3-10 I am not going to say a bit about each specific beatitude, but will instead make a couple of comments about how they might be preached.  My opening paragraph of this post gives you a clue to the direction in which I am moving.  I will find a list of “most influential” and compare those people to the list of those whom Jesus blessed.  I will attempt to imagine how we might orient ourselves to that odd kingdom way of living.

I am considering using a story from William Willimon’s own experience in a facility for older adults, many of whom exhibited signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia (Pulpit Resource, “The Real World,” Jan-Mar 2011, p.21-24).  He discussed a technique known as reality therapy in which all staff members were trained to ask continuously questions designed to keep the residents grounded in reality: “How many children do you have?  Who is the Governor?  What is your room number?”

Willimon discovered that the reality that was important to the residents did not match the reality that was important to the staff.  One woman responded by saying, “I’m 92 years old.  I feel that, well, the location of this building, the name of this state, and even the day of the week are completely irrelevant to me.”  In the same way, the Beatitudes remind us that the reality that is important to our culture is not particularly relevant to the kingdom of God.

Another way to preach this text is as a statement of faith that God’s justice will not be denied.  Perhaps you feel stomped on and put out now because you refuse to give in to the world, but you are blessed.  You may be seen by your neighbors as weak, but you have a strength that is based in God’s ability to act decisively rather than in your own abilities.  I would be careful not to preach such a sermon as a promise that “you will get what you deserve in the end…and they will get theirs!”

5:11-12 These verses seem particularly directed to the Church, especially if we imagine that Matthew’s church knew some measure of distress and persecution itself.  These words back up the notion that the kingdom will be vindicated, that God hasn’t forgotten.  You are blessed.  It seems to me that in verse 12, Matthew is linking the Church with the prophetic tradition.  I may sum up my sermon by saying that we, too, live prophetically when we live the values of the Beatitudes.  We do not live that way because we ought to, but because that is how life is lived in the kingdom of heaven.

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