Sermon: The Beatitudes

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
29th of January 2023

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Today, as we continue our Epiphany journey through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear one of my favourite descriptions of what it is that church believes: ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ It is a perfect description of today’s gospel reading, because today the lectionary takes us to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the foolishness and the wisdom of the beatitudes.

The beatitudes are an ideal example of the foolishness of the gospel, but they have become so familiar that we may need to remind ourselves of just how strange they are. The beatitudes describe the people who are ‘blessed’, a better translation than simply ‘happy’, people who are secure in their relationship with God and included in the kingdom of heaven. These blessed people are not the people that the values of our world would lead us to expect. According to the beatitudes, the blessed are not the rich, the healthy, the happy, the successful, the famous. This should surprise us, but most of us have heard the beatitudes so often that they are no longer shocking. One commentator on Matthew writes: ‘The most dangerous passages of the Bible are the familiar ones, because we do not really listen to them. The sharp stone of God’s word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices, we lean back and savour pretty words’.[1] Maybe it would help to put them in contemporary terms: Blessed are the boat people, for they will find a safe and welcoming home; blessed are those on unemployment and disability pensions, for they will be treated with dignity and respect; blessed are the First Nations people, for they will regain their stolen land; blessed are the do-gooders and trouble-makers, for they will be called the children of God.

Picture from a children's Bible of Jesus, wearing a white robe, red over-tunic, and sandals, sitting on the top of a hill, speaking to a group of men, women and children, all in first-century Palestinian garb.

From The Lion Bible to Keep For Ever (2013), illustrated by Sophie Allsopp.

The beatitudes are Jesus’ first teachings in the Gospel according to Matthew, and they present the theme of Jesus’ ministry. At the very end of the Gospel the disciples are given the great commission: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:19-20) Disciples are made by baptism and by the teaching of Jesus’ commands – commands first given here in the Sermon on the Mount.

One question often asked about the beatitudes is whether they make ethical demands, or whether they describe eschatological rewards. In other words, when Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,’ is he telling us to mourn, with the promise that we will be rewarded by being comforted; or is he saying that those who do mourn will be comforted in the great reversal at the end of time when the kingdom of heaven comes? Should we try to be poor in spirit and mournful and merciful and peacemakers, or should we just accept that those who are, are blessed?

The answer is that the beatitudes are both promises and commands. There are nine beatitudes, and they fall into two parts. The first four describe the reversal that the coming of the kingdom of heaven will bring. When the kingdom comes the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteous will find their situation reversed. When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, the oppressed will receive justice. These first four blessings promise end-time ‘reversals for the unfortunate’.[2]

The second four beatitudes, in contrast, describe end-time ‘rewards for the virtuous’ and so they do make ethical demands. We are called to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and to be willing to be persecuted for righteousness here and now, in this life. True justice can only be established by God, and will only be fully established at the end of time itself, but if we truly seek to follow Jesus then we must play our part by striving for that justice here and now. If we do, if we are, all these things, then at the coming of the kingdom we will be rewarded.

After these two sets of four beatitudes is the ninth Beatitude: ‘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’. Matthew is comforting the members of his own community who were experiencing that very thing at the time he wrote the gospel. The Corinthians to whom Paul was writing would have needed this comfort as well, as Jews mocked them for believing in a crucified Messiah, and Greeks mocked them for believing in any Messiah at all. The church can always expect to be reviled and persecuted for, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, the church is not made up of those the world considers wise, powerful or noble. The church is instead made up of those the world considers foolish, weak, and low and despised, even today, because there is nothing most Australians find more foolish than believing in any god, let alone a God of love who died for us; nothing weaker than sharing all we have with the poor rather than maximising our wealth; nothing more despised than do-gooding. Following Jesus is practically unAustralian!

Is it possible to live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount? We are not going to hear it this year because we only have six weeks after Epiphany before Lent begins, but the very last line of the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew is, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48) It is quite a relief not to be confronted by that this year, because obviously none of us is able to live up to perfection. I much prefer Luke’s version which is: ‘Be merciful just as your Father is merciful’. (Luke 6:36) I may achieve mercy; I will never achieve perfection.

There are some readings of the Sermon on the Mount that use the very impossibility of fulfilling its commands to argue that the point of the Sermon is to teach us all our need for grace. None of us can live righteously, and so all we ‘miserable sinners’ need God. When James Tang was ordained last Sunday one of the things he was charged to do was to ‘diligently teach Christ’s people, reminding them of the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the grace which justified them through faith’. I received the same charge, and hold it to be true; humanity and God have not been reconciled by anything we have done but by the grace of God. Despite this, I do not think that the point of the beatitudes is their impossibility. We know that Jesus was preaching in the hearing of the crowds and that when he finished ‘the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes’. (Matthew 7:28-29) But we also know that Jesus is talking particularly to his disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to those who are already following Jesus and who are already in relationship with the God who is perfect, faithful, loving, and merciful. To the people who have not received the vision of Jesus’ God, who do not daily pray that God’s kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, the idea of living in the sort of compassionate, vulnerable, non-competitive way that the beatitudes describes would obviously be foolishness. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.

As we listen to the Sermon on the Mount over these next few weeks, we cannot sit back and relax, comforting ourselves that its demands do not apply to us because by grace we are saved through faith. We are still called to seek to live the sort of lives that the Sermon on the Mount describes. We are to live as though the reversals of the end-time have already come; in contrast to a world that rewards the rich, happy, healthy, and successful. As Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, we are to love and support the illegal, the destitute, the lonely, the angry, the stranger, and the enemy.

None of us can be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We will always fall short. We are only human. Jesus, however, did not fall short. In Jesus we see the truly blessed one of the beatitudes; the one who for our sake became poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, hungry and thirsty, the one who was merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, and persecuted for righteousness. Because of this, he was reviled and persecuted, and had all kinds of evil uttered against him. Ultimately, he was crucified. His life seemed to be the most complete failure. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, and in the resurrection God showed that Jesus’ apparent failure was in fact the greatest success. As we read our way through the Sermon on the Mount we know that when we attempt to live up to its demands we are following in the footsteps of Jesus and fulfilling our call as his disciples. And we know that Jesus will be with us always, to the end of the age. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] J. P. Meier, Matthew, quoted in David L. Turner, ‘Whom Does God Approve? The Content, Structure, Purpose, and Exegesis of Matthew’s Beatitudes’ Criswell Theological Review 61 (1992): p. 32.

[2] Mark Allan Powell, ‘Matthew’s beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom’ The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996): p. 460.

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