Sermon preached at Enmore, Epiphany 4, January 29, 2017
Readings: Micah 6.1–8, Psalm 15, 1 Cor. 1.18–31, Matthew 5. 1–12
The Sermon on the Mount as we have come to call it is Jesus’ first significant act in the book of Matthew. It is interesting to compare each of these first events in the different Gospels because they gave us some insight into the picture of Jesus that the individual writers wish to paint. Mark’s Jesus is the man of action who comes to set people free from the chains that bind them, so in his Gospel Jesus’ first public action is the healing of a demon possessed man who has come into the synagogue.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches a sermon. In the sermon he quotes from the prophet, Isaiah: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.” Jesus then claims that he has come to fulfil those very words. This does not go down well. In the riot that follows Jesus only just escapes with his life.
John has a very different opening event. Jesus goes with his mother and his newly appointed disciples to a wedding where the wine runs out, a serious situation in a society where a wedding feast went on for a few days. Jesus comes to the rescue and turns water into ‘Grange Hermitage’ quality wine, enough to keep the party well hydrated for days. For John, Jesus is the manifestation of God’s abundant grace and provision for his people.
So we come to Matthew. Who is Jesus for Matthew? He is the teacher of all righteousness. And whom does he teach? First and foremost his disciples. Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus in Matthew means recognising Jesus as teacher and being willing to learn. Matthew will go on to give us five blocks of teaching in his Gospel, The Sermon on the Mount being the first. If you time yourself reading the actual words of Jesus in each Gospel you will find the Matthew gives you the most words by far: roughly an hour and twelve minutes. (Mark, by contrast has only 22 minutes).
It is easy to read the beatitudes as we have today and to come away with the impression that Jesus is giving a list of requirements, a new set of moral guidelines to live by. A kind of upgrade of the Ten Commandments – if you thought they were difficult, try these for size. Read that way we are left thinking, I must try harder to be more ‘pure in spirit’ or I must work harder to be a peace maker. And while it is comforting to be told “blessed are those who mourn” particularly if you have just lost someone you love, the reality is that we are not eager for additional mourning.
But to read the beatitudes in this way is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not setting up the conditions for blessing rather he is announcing that these people are already blessed. If our picture of God is a demanding law giver then we find it hard to imagine that God should want to bless us without conditions. Most of us are well aware of our faults, weaknesses and limitations so we are challenged by the idea of a God who loves us unconditionally.
The beatitudes, of course, are the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and help to make sense of what is to come. It was Bonhoeffer who stated most clearly that this sermon only makes any sense when it is remembered that the preacher is the Son of God, the Messiah who makes all things new. He said that the Sermon on the Mount “is to be understood and interpreted as the Word of God who became human.” So the sermon becomes not a list of rules but a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. Jesus did not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes but we can be sure that some will be meek, some will be poor, some will be peacemakers and some will mourn. Many of the characteristics listed in the beatitudes are rather overlooked in our world which so often exalts and values the rich, the famous, the powerful and the well connected. Jesus did not suggest that his beatitudes were timeless truths about the way the world is: clearly they are not. We live in the world where those who mourn are not always comforted, where the meek rarely seem to inherit the earth, where those who long for justice don’t always see it realised and where a misogynist, racist, tax- evader can become the President of the U.S.A.
The beatitudes are an announcement, not a philosophical analysis of our world. It’s about something coming into being, something new and radical. It is gospel, good news, not good advice. The sermon Jesus preached on that mountain was about life in God’s new kingdom. The kingdom that was being revealed in the life of Jesus and that would be further revealed through his death and resurrection. It is also worth remembering that Matthew’s Gospel was first addressed to a community that was experiencing persecution and eventual expulsion from the synagogue-for these early Christians these words had a sharp focus.
The term, “poor in spirit” actually referred to the persecuted people of God in the Qumran literature. In God’s new, ‘upside down kingdom’, a new identity is granted each group of individuals. The poor in spirit become kingdom members, those who mourn become the comforted, those who are gentle, become the inheritors of the earth and those who hunger for righteousness and justice are satisfied.
The fifth blessing or benediction – ‘Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy’, marks a change in that it is a blessing conferred not on one of the suffering groups but on the merciful. The concept of mercy, (hesed in the Hebrew) is the defining characteristic of God found in the Old Testament. It was a word associated with God’s covenant faithfulness- God continued to show mercy to his people despite their unfaithfulness and breaking of the covenant. It is the word God uses to define himself in several passages in the Old Testament. (Ex.20.6; Deut 5.10; Num.14.18–19). Twice in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will challenge the Pharisees with the words, “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ quoting Hosea 6.6. Mercy is always reciprocal; if you are shown mercy, you are expected to respond with mercy. In Jesus’ sermon, the promise is given that in the kingdom those who show mercy will become the recipients of mercy. Mercy also makes an appearance in our Old Testament reading today where we have those well- known words, What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. The word translated kindness is the Hebrew word, hesed.
Time prevents us from looking at all nine of the blessings but what is common to them all is that they are subversive words which stand on their head many of the values of our society. When Jesus called his little band of followers together he gave them a new way of life to live. He summoned them to live in the present in the way that would make sense in God’s promised future, because that future had already arrived in the person of Jesus. Jesus brings to life all the beatitudes he speaks in the Gospel and in Origen’s words, “he justifies his teaching through his own example.”
In the troubled and uncertain world of 2017 Jesus calls us to follow him just as he called those men and women gathered around him on that mountain two thousand years ago. It was a challenge then and it remains a challenge today to be peacemakers in the face of provocation; to be merciful, not vengeful and to hunger for justice and righteousness rather than wealth and prestige.