- Isaiah 9:1-4
- 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
- Matthew 4:12-23
Epiphany 4, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
Have you ever met someone who said something like, “Yeah, I used to go to church but I don’t believe in God anymore.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Have you ever met someone who felt as though all was lost? A crisis, or a series of crises has slammed their world, altered their reality, and decimated their perception of things. Someone who had lost all hope?
Blessed are those who mourn.
Have you ever met someone who was genuinely poor but lived happily and content? Someone for whom it wasn’t what one had, but who one had become?
Blessed are the meek.
Have you ever met someone who you knew in your heart of hearts always sought to live justly, who treated everyone else as they would treat themselves, with fairness, kindness, integrity and love?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Have you ever met someone who always seemed to be going out of their way to help others? Someone who met the needs of others indiscriminately?
Blessed are the merciful.
Have you ever met someone who had a singularity of focus? Whose focus was to be, by choice, purely authentic, completely transparent before the world? One whose focus was a genuine spiritual odyssey?
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Have you ever met someone whose entire existence was devoted to the healing and wholeness of the other? Who did not simply get involved in stopping conflicts but who actively got to the root of conflict and disease and brought goodness, wholeness, shalom?
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Have you ever met someone who you knew, or perhaps even saw, was completely without fault when they were attacked by another person right out of the blue? (What, you don’t go to those kinds of parties? Well, how about [dysfunctional] family reunions?) Ever met a scapegoat?
Blessed are those who for persecuted because of righteousness.
In the Beatitudes of Jesus, as composed by Matthew, we are given an extraordinary window into how life is to be, and can be, lived. While scholars may debate whether or not the Beatitudes are ‘eschatological blessings or entrance requirements,’ we can be sure that the beatitudes are Matthew’s way of telling us about the character of the spirituality of Jesus. We must remember that Matthew is writing about a person, Jesus, and we can easily see that much of the language of the Beatitudes is predicated of Jesus elsewhere in this gospel.
While we see the Sermon on the Mount (SM) as a text explicitly about discipleship, the ‘how to..’ of the Christian life, the SM is not just about how we are called to live, but how Jesus lived. Scholars often miss this because they fail to connect the dots between Matthew’s Christology and his anthropology. This feels to them a bit of an over-reading, but it is Matthew who explicitly explores the implications of the spirituality of Jesus, how he lived.
This is a wonderful thing, this is what ‘Emmanuel’ means (1.23). Gunther Bornkamm laid the framework for this reading of Matthew in his approach to the miracle stories. Matthew’s use of ‘akoluthein’ as a technical term for discipleship, alerted Bornkamm that for Matthew, Jesus was just as alive in the community as he had been during his time on earth. The community not only shaped the tradition but they shaped it as their own, the gospel records the spiritual journey of Matthew’s community. The gospels therefore are about this dual journey, that of Jesus and his followers. There is no separation. It is all about one and the same Jesus.
We must begin by asking ‘where are the corresponding woes’ like those that Luke has in his sermon on the plain (Luke 6)? They have been completely separated. Matthew’s woes are found in chapter 23. Why separate the woes from the blessings?
When Jesus used ‘woe’, it was virtually always in the context of a ‘city.’ Jesus pronounces woe on the city. Jesus’ woes are not directed at specific individuals but to the institution of the city itself. Jesus knows what makes the city tick, the same thing that made the founding father’s cities tick. Murder and lies. It makes any city, any gathering of humans, tick. From the start. We call this myth. Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel and the fruit of that death is civilization as we know it (see Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City). Woe to the institutional structures, woe to the principalities and powers. Sin is structural, as we have learned from the liberation theologians. Jesus pronounced woes on the mimetic structures of human culture.
Matthew has adapted Jesus woes on structures and institutions and applied them to a perceived threat in his own community, the post 70 C.E. Jewish rabbis who were putting together the pieces of their shattered community and it’s faith. It is a sad chapter to read. But it is Matthew’s way of saying something profound about missing the point of Torah, as he perceived was occurring in the synagogue(s) of his city.
Luke, we know from David Moessner and others, is modeling his narrative from the book of Deuteronomy. Luke brings together the blessings and the woes as the Deuteronomist did. We think that Luke used Matthew and obviously Luke’s community does not have, or may not even know, scribes and Pharisees. For Luke, more so than Matthew, the Jewish ‘two-path’ genre of blessing and curse (echoing a dual yetzer anthropology) is clear. Yet we would note that Luke’s Jesus addresses his woes to the ‘leaders’ of the cities, the places of the mighty, the rich, the powerful, the elite. These are all ‘A’ list people. Mimetic structures embody themselves in certain people. These kinds of folks have no needs. They get whatever the want. They are insatiable. So, like Matthew, Luke has directed his woes in a ‘contemporary’ fashion. But neither Matthew nor Luke name names, they address the authorities who govern the institutions, the earthly counterparts of the spiritual principalities and powers.
For Matthew, there is no discipleship without blessing. What is ‘blessed’ is not we ourselves but the condition we are in. The blessing comes before discipleship, it is not earned; it is simply recognized. And if we skip over this lightly, we may find that we experience the post-Beatitude portion of the SM in a rather legalistic fashion or that we treat what is given regarding life instruction as an impossible ethic. These two fatal hermeneutic errors arise from not perceiving the crucial relation of the Beatitudes to the rest of the sermon. The SM will only make sense to the poor in spirit, the mourning, the hungry, etc. These are types of folks who have been brought to liminal situations, they are ready to hear God give his blessing to them.
The SM is not for those who are satisfied, sated, comfortable. Everything that is said following the Beatitudes will only bring discomfort to those who seek to ‘practice the SM’ without recognizing that certain ‘conditions’ are essential, these conditions being poverty of spirit, grief, humility, etc. The blessing given to these is hope, a way out, and this way out is the SM. These ‘conditions’ come in many shapes and forms through many different circumstances. They are ‘marginal’ conditions. Jesus ministry is to people in these conditions. Those who have nothing or have lost everything or have given up everything and have nothing left to lose. These bring nothing in their open hands. These are blessed by his presence, by his touch.
There is a gladness inherent in ‘blessing’ (makarios). A blessing is a healing
. Try to live up to the SM without being healed (blessed) and you will rarely laugh as you live life as depicted in the SM. It will be dreary, difficult, you have to stop and catch your breath all the time. But examine your ‘condition’ and recognize that ‘condition’ as blessed, and everything makes sense and you will find yourself laughing and enjoying whatever life brings your way. The joy of the Lord is strength, our strength.
We might say that if the Beatitudes are about intent and direction, the SM is about choice. The redirecting of our intent to recognize conditions as blessed that don’t feel blessed is the liberation that brings the freedom and power of choice. These instructions are livable, concretely and fully and the entire Sermon is a description of spirituality, not ethics. Jesus didn’t have ethics. Jesus knew the will of God. Jesus lived the will of God. And he did this by God’s Spirit. What was Jesus’ condition, how would you describe it? Poor? Humbled? Hungry? Poor in Heart? Persecuted for Righteousness sake? Sound familiar? So too we, who follow him, have this opportunity to share in his blessing if we will ask ourselves about our own personal condition, our intention and our choice.
There is great exegesis to be found in the commentaries, particularly those of Davies & Allison and Luz. Gundry has important research demonstrating the explicit takeover of phrases from 2nd Isaiah and the Psalter. I decided against getting involved in a lot of the debates, rather wanting to focus on the hermeneutic implications of some of these discussions. Why rehash something that others have done better? Karl Barth was once asked about important theological tasks to do. Barth replied, “exegesis, exegesis, exegesis” in that order. Well, we have exegesis up the wazoo. Today we must say the most important theological tasks to do are “hermeneutics, hermeneutics, hermeneutics”, in that order.
It is essential as we preach Matthew to be aware of the truly unique spirituality that is being born and being borne witness to, that of Jesus. Spiritual awareness is everything, it guides life, it brings hope, it energizes. If we approach the Beatitudes, the SM or Matthew’s gospel apart from connections between Christology (Jesus the human and his thinking) and anthropology (us and our thinking), we will limit their power as Word. Word creates. Word empowers. Word incarnates. The SM functions in Matthew’s Gospel the same way the ‘imitatio Pater’ functions in the Fourth Gospel. They both speak of Jesus’ life as an imitation of God and they both draw a line to our horizon of an ‘imitatio Jesu.’ This is the positive side of mimesis, the redemption of mimesis (Walter Wink). This is the ‘how to’ of discipleship. It is the empowerment of mimesis by the Spirit, both for Jesus and for us.
“May be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”