It has been a few weeks since we finished our scripture study on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, but I find myself running across passages from other things that I am reading and studying that keep sending me back, with new eyes, to some of those passages. My daily prayer includes short reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, just days before the concentration camp was liberated. Anyone who spends any significant time with me knows how much I think Bonhoeffer’s life and witness under Nazi totalitarianism has to say to those of us today in the United States who are trying to practice authentic discipleship to Jesus.
The reading from a few days ago, in part, said this: “A faith that really keeps to what is invisible and lives by it, acting as if it were already here, hopes at the same time for the time of fulfillment, of seeing and possessing. We hope for it as confidently as the hungry child to whom his father has promised bread can wait a while because he believes. Yet eventually the child wants to get the bread… A faith that does not hope is sick (my emphasis). It is like a hungry child who does not want to eat or a tired person who does not want to sleep.”
The section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which intersects these words of Bonhoeffer’s is chapter 7, verses 7-11. It is a simple passage that we most often interpret as being about prayer and the persistence of prayer. Indeed the bold heading in my bible just before the passage reads, “The Answer to Prayers,” directing us to read the following lines in that context. But I think that it is only about prayer incidentally, that in fact it goes to something deeper than prayer, but something that authentic prayer is rooted in, namely, hope. The passage is about hope and how hope invites us to take the initiative.
Up to this point in the Sermon, much of what Jesus has asked of those gathered can be understood as an ethic that went beyond the conventional religious, personal and social responsibilities of the time. He has expressed an ethic that is incredibly counter-cultural, and in some ways counter-intuitive, especially for the vast majority of his audience who find themselves struggling to survive in a religious, economic and political reality which is oppressive–sapping their strength, destroying their spirit, robbing them of hope. The reality in which Jesus’s followers live is not a reality which rewards those who ask, seek, or knock. Asking, seeking and knocking are sure ways to get a punch to the gut or a kick in the head. What an oppressed people have learned to do is to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and to go about their business.
But this new order of reality to which Jesus is calling his followers is not a reality that will simply assert itself without the action or risk or initiative of those listening to his words. It is a reality that is utterly dependent on the dialectic between God and God’s people. Those who have been taught not to ask must learn to ask. Those who have been taught not to seek must learn to seek. Those who have been taught not to knock at that door must summon the courage to knock. A disempowered people will not bother to knock, or seek, or ask. Experience long ago taught them that there is no response to their asking, nothing which their seeking will find, and no friendly welcome at that door. Those who oppress rely on the fact that those they oppress will one day interiorize that oppression and do the work of the oppressor for them. And therein lies the death of hope. The hope that is essential for change has been beaten out of them.
As Bonhoeffer put it so poignantly above, “A faith without hope is sick.” And Jesus must surely understand that this people, to whom he is entrusting the practice of the kingdom of God which at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, needs to have rekindled in them the fire of hope. Verse 7 states: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This is not a statement of fact. It is, rather, a promise, a promise that goes against every available piece of evidence in the lives of those to whom Jesus speaks. Jesus has been speaking long to this people, and I imagine that he sees in their eyes a spark of hope, yearning to be fanned into full flame, but all too experienced and disappointed by the way things are in the “real world.”
And so as the Sermon winds down, Jesus reaches out to his listeners, inviting them to shake off their paralysis, their despondency, and all that this bitter existence has taught them. This is a new moment. And it is a moment that needs their initiative, their word, their longing–their hope. No longer slaves, no longer sheep, no longer objects, Jesus invites them to see themselves as agents in their own salvation, and the salvation of the world. He invites them to experience that faith which is no longer sick, a faith invigorated by hope, a hope which inspires and motivates and transforms. In the asking and seeking and knocking, they become the very agents of change which the kingdom of God needs. And they are promised that their asking, seeking and knocking will no longer be in vain; that this God is unlike the powers-that-be of this world which have proven to be unresponsive to their cries and their yearnings and their hopes. And while change may not be immediate, these people can walk away from the Sermon knowing that they are empowered to play a part here, to take the initiative; and that they, like the hungry child, can wait a little while longer because they know their father is bringing the bread and the time of fulfillment is near.
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners — the community and the magazine — and a best-selling author (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, among others) used to give a stump speech that included a much-told story from his youth that made quite an impression on me. He tells the story of being a seminary student, of taking his bible and systematically cutting out every passage in scripture that had to do with economics, wealth and poverty, money, et al. He then shares that once he had finished, the bible was just tatters, falling completely apart. The lesson he was demonstrating is that the word of God has something to say about the economic relationships between human beings, that it addresses wealth and poverty in depth — as a matter of fact, perhaps more than it addresses any other subject. And most importantly, our own relationship with money and financial security must be held up to the critique and judgement of God’s word. Questions about money and our culture’s virtual worship of it are central to our own understanding of God, discipleship to Jesus, the practice of our faith, etc.
So it should come as no surprise to us that as we get deeper into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, shortly after Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray (6:9-15), he turns his attention to money, and the supposed security that money offers (chapter 6, verses 19-21, and 24-34). In verses 24-34, Jesus states very plainly and clearly that “mammon” (i.e. money, especially in terms of “wealth” or “property” that assures status, security and power) holds the possibility to master us, and that its mastery of us leads us to serve it, rather than serve God. The juxtaposition is clear and stark: We do NOT master money; but it can and will master us, so that we end up being its servant. Jesus sets “mammon” up as in competition for us with God, personifying mammon, acknowledging it as a “god-like” entity, a false idol competing with God for mastery of us.
We live in a time when talk about “idol worship” or “idolatry” might seem a little stilted, or language best left to hard-core fundamentalists maybe. But the truth is that we today worship at the altar of idols as much as or even more than our ancestors from long ago with their stone carvings and pillars and whatnot. Our idolatry has perhaps become more nuanced, or subtle, but it is there nevertheless. And it is most evident in our relationship to money and economics. We talk about “the market” as an entity, how “its invisible hand” guides our economy. We give our trust to it, profess our faith in it, and we acknowledge the power it has over our lives. The irony is that on most of our money it reads “In God we trust,” but trust in God often runs a far off second to our trust in capitalism, our bank accounts, and our 401Ks.
There is implicit and explicit in verses 25-34 a criticism of a culture which manufactures superfluous needs for us which they then, in turn, promise to fill. It addresses the cultivation of anxiety about not having “enough” which is primary to creating a feeling of insecurity, then finding security in our ability to buy enough clothes, or food, and so on. Such anxiety and concern about the various needs of our lives is especially dangerous, not because needing such things as food and clothing is ridiculous, but because our immersion in worry and concern for ourselves steals our attention away from what really matters. And what is it that is most essential, most primary for followers of Jesus? Verse 33 lays it out: “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The business of followers of Jesus is not the business of seeing to all our various needs — real or manufactured; but rather, our business is seeking the kingdom of God. And the verse goes on to say, “and all these things will be given you beside.”
Bob Dylan famously said that everybody serves somebody. At the very least, these passages in the Sermon on the Mount force us to examine our own lives, especially in the light of money’s courtship of us, and ask who is it that we really serve.
Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.
The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now.
We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time.
Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time. In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct.
The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency.
What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.
The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.
The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.
In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept.
Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.
Matthew 5:17-48, part one
“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us.
This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.]
The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.
Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.
In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.
Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions.
The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.
The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts.
Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another.
Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.
There is a short—but incredibly rich—passage which immediately follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 5:13-16 holds several familiar sayings of Jesus, using the metaphors of salt, light and a city set on a mountain. The essence of the passage, which really sets up the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, is that following Jesus is about offering a contrast to the dominant culture or society in which we live. It is the assertion that Jesus’ followers—the Church—are to be a “contrast” society.
The Beatitudes already are leading us in that direction, but it is in Matthew 5:13-16 that this becomes really straightforward. What is most striking about the Beatitudes is how they go against conventional wisdom and basic religious assumptions, both of Jesus’ time and of our own. Now Jesus directs his words to those closest to him, using the second person “you” for emphasis: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
What is salt? What does salt do? Salt adds flavor; its primary property relates to taste. That which is bland can be spiced up with a little salt. We add salt to give flavor to something. In essence, we use salt because it provides a contrast; it adds flavor. The implication for those who follow Jesus is that we are here on earth to provide a contrast to the world in which we live. And if we, as those who call themselves Christians, don’t provide that contrast? Then Jesus states clearly that we are no good to his mission, we are useless to him. Individually and communally, if our witness and way of life in the world fails to offer a contrast to the ways things are in the larger society, then what does our Christianity matter? The Church’s purpose here is to provide a contrast to the larger culture; if it does not, that it has no value at all.
If we think about this for a second we know that it is deeply, profoundly true. We live in a culture that celebrates rugged individualism, an individualism that states “me first,” “I’m number one,” “it’s all about taking care of me and mine.” But the gospels tell us over and over again that we are to care for others, even at a sacrifice to ourselves, that the common good and especially the rights of the most vulnerable (the widow, the stranger, and the orphan) are to be preeminent in our society. The gospel tells us that we are to love our enemies, but our society says bomb our enemies. Our society encourages us to worship and long for power, status, and privilege – and to find our security in money; the gospels tell us to seek to be the least ones, the ones who serve, the ones who find their security in God and each other, in relationships. The Church is supposed to be that society of people who are living these things out—in contrast to the larger society that surrounds us.
Two other things stand out in this passage. We need to remember that this passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they will be persecuted, that they will stand in the line of those prophets who took to task the kings of Israel and Judah and suffered for it. So when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden,” the disciples must have had mixed feelings. Any thoughts that they had about hanging low, trying to do their thing under the radar have just been addressed. Jesus first tells them they’re salt, now they’re light (another metaphor for contrast) and finally that they are a city of a mountain, nice and high where everyone can see them. Through the values of the Beatitudes and the promise of persecution, he has assured them that if they follow him, they will find that they will not “fit in” in this world. But not only will they not “fit in”—they also are being told that they must “stand out.” Their contrast is not just for themselves; it is for the world. So essentially he tells them: “You won’t fit in, and you’re going to have to stand out.” Any hopes of quietly following Jesus and muting or avoiding the persecution part have just gone out the window. The Church will be that city on the mountain, exposed for all to see, for both good and bad. Verses 15 and 16 echo too that the Church’s witness is not for itself, but for others, for all.
This idea of the Church as a contrast society seems to me to be at the heart of the crisis we find with our Church today. We longer look or act differently. We are just like our neighbors. There is little about being a Christian that seems to separate us out today from the society around us. There is little to no contrast between the Church and the larger culture in which we live. This is certainly not how it was for the early Church, and we find that it certainly is not how it is for those segments of the Church throughout history which have taken Jesus most seriously, and therefore conflicted with the societies in which they found themselves: from anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1700s and 1800s, to the black churches of the civil rights movements; from St. Francis and his movement which eschewed the trappings of power and wealth which gripped the church of his day to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany which resisted Hitler’s rule; to the churches of Latin America that speak out for the poor and suffer martyrdom to the U.S. churches today shielding and protecting undocumented workers.
But for the the majority of Christians in our nation today, the contrast is simply not there.
As the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in the 1800s, critiquing the Church of his time for the very same thing: “There was a time when one could almost be afraid to call oneself a disciple of Christ, because it meant so much. Now one can do it with complete ease, because it means nothing at all.”
Lost to us, who encounter these passages 2000 years after they were first spoken, is the incredibly subversive nature of what Jesus is espousing in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ society, like ours today, took certain things for granted. People consider themselves “blessed” if they have wealth, status, and power. How often have we heard, or said ourselves, “God has really blessed me,” in some reference to our good fortune, good luck, good health, success, etc? And by extension, those who have experienced misfortune, tragedy, hardship, and suffering, many of us privately pass judgment on—thinking that perhaps it is their fault, or they deserve it, or they’re just not good enough, smart enough, strong enough to make it. We even go so far as to chalk it up to God’s punishment or karmic justice. In Jesus’ time, we know that those who were broken, physically deformed, mentally unstable, and sick or those who suffered loss and tragedy were literally considered to be cursed, as in the story of Job. It is a vicious circle and blatant attempt to justify by God the success of a few at the expense of the many. Those who succeed must be blessed by God; and those who don’t…well you can put two and two together.
Think, for a minute, just how twisted Jesus’ words are: The meek or the lowly ones didn’t inherit land; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness experience disappointment, not satisfaction; those who mourned dead fathers and sons, the loss of their ancestral lands and other manifestations of the oppression of the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee did not find comfort, no matter where they looked, including to their own corrupt religious and political leaders; what did it matter to have a “clean heart” to the leper whose physical “uncleanness” marked him as a sinner and put him outside of the bonds of community; and to extol an ethic of mercy when justice, better understood as vengeance, was foremost in people’s hearts toward those who had wronged them?
The Beatitudes undermine the dominant cultural and even religious values of Jesus’ time and our own. They subvert our warped theologies that serve to justify economic, political and religious systems that elevate some of us while placing the blame for other’s lack of success on their sinfulness, their moral weakness, their laziness, or their obviously inherent unworthiness.
In verse 7 of the Beatitudes, Jesus promises that those who show mercy will be shown mercy. It is an ethic of reciprocity that Jesus will come to again and again in the Sermon on the Mount (most pointedly in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors;” and the Golden Rule). The practice of mercy is not nearly as common as we might think. Mercy involves entering into a situation, a relationship really with someone, going past the rules and the easy, stock answers which protect us from taking responsibility for the harsh pain such decisions cause. We are more concerned about what is fair, what is just even, rather than showing mercy. And yet, the second part of verse 6 implies that we all shall need mercy someday, and that those who practice mercy, will be shown mercy when their time comes.
As we have already alluded to above, Jesus asserting that those with a “clean heart” will see God subverts every law and disposition which judges people based on outer appearances. Jesus lived in a society of purity codes, where someone’s purity or cleanness was based on physical manifestations of sinfulness—sickness, rashes, deformities, disabilities. This brings up a good question for us, one which we wrestled with on several occasions during our two week study of the Beatitudes—namely, who is Jesus talking to? Who is the audience for the Beatitudes? Is it aimed at the poor and broken and downtrodden? Thedisciples? Those curious folks somewhat invested in the status quo but still intrigued by Jesus enough to come out to hear him speak? The Pharisees? And so on. And maybe the ears Jesus speaks to change from Beatitude to Beatitude… Anyway, in the case of verse 8, imagine being one of the lepers, lunatics, paralytics, diseased ones who have not the standing or money to be made clean again through the proper channels (priests of the Temple system reserved the right to name someone clean or unclean and the ability to make payment to the priest thru sacrificial offerings often played a part in the transaction). Imagine being told that it is the interior, what is inside of a person, that determines whether one may see God? How liberating for the leper! And how threatening to the priest whose livelihood is based on the people’s willingness to cede control to him!
Someone at the study also pointed out the connection between the Beatitude in verse 3 and verse 10. Both the poor in spirit and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness are promised the same thing: the kingdom of heaven. And the tense is different than the verses between these two—no “they will be satisfied,” et al; but rather “theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Right now, right here. And in trying to define that fuzzy term “poor in spirit,” we have a little insight into who those might be—perhaps they are also the ones who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of justice? A friend of mine, a longtime priest in Mexico, once told me that persecution is the sign of the true church; the church that is really being faithful to Christ and the proclamation of the kingdom of God is bound to be persecuted by the powers invested in the status quo, the way things are.
In the final Beatitude, verses 11-12, Jesus changes the object of the Beatitude from the third person to the second person, aiming what he now says directly at the disciples, those who followed him up the mountain and whom he began to teach. The Beatitude states, “Blessed are you WHEN they insult you and persecute you…” No “ifs,” but a resounding “when.” The implication is not to be missed: If you follow this Jesus, if you choose to align yourself with him, “they” will insult you, persecute, slander you, etc. “They” is defined by the next statement: “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus places those who will follow him in the line of the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah. And the “they” who persecuted those prophets were the political and religious powers of their time. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet is set up against either the king or the priest, as well as the systems they represent. This is to be the task of Jesus’ disciples, of the church. To stand with those who are named “blessed” in the Beatitudes, to prophetically speak the truth of Jesus to those in power, and to suffer the persecution that flows from such actions.
“How can the Sermon on the Mount be so fundamental and basic to Christian discipleship, yet so shockingly radical? How can it be so simple and straightforward, yet so endlessly captivating? Jesus’ invitation in the Sermon is not, at its deepest level, to follow a list of moral rules. ‘Something bigger—and indeed more startling—is at work,’ Charles Campbell has reminded us. ‘The Sermon on the Mount offers a vision of an alternative world…that shocks us out of our common-sense, taken-for-granted assumptions so that we might see the world differently…’” (From the Introduction to “Sermon on the Mount,” in the Christian Reflection series from Baylor University)
For the next several weeks (possibly months), we’re going to be looking at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel for our scripture study at the Gainesville Catholic Worker. The Sermon on the Mount is one of those sections of scripture that contains so much that is very familiar to most Christians—indeed to many inside and outside of Christianity—and yet is so confoundingly ignored, passed over, and spiritualized that it loses its inherent power to transform those who hear it. Gandhi, the great Hindu spiritual leader and activist, held the Sermon in the highest esteem while lamenting how few Christians he had met understood and practiced it.
Last week we began with Matthew 5:1-12, the passage which opens the Sermon on the Mount with the stunning sayings of the Beatitudes. In the verses immediately prior to the Sermon, we learn that Jesus has begun his public ministry, taking on the mantle formerly worn by John the Baptist who has just been arrested. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ fame spread throughout the region, and that those who were sick, those in pain, those who were possessed, were lunatics or paralytics flocked to him. So when chapter five opens with a scene that includes a great crowd, we immediately imagine a crowd made up of those who are broken and bedraggled, outsiders and the marginal, those who have been rejected and scorned. Their various illnesses of mind and body mark them as fallen, sinful, and cursed.
In response to the crowd, Jesus ascends a mountain Matthew tells us—and our minds jump to that other great figure from early Judaism who ascended a mountain, Moses. Moses is the teacher-par-excellence in Israel’s history; he is teacher, law-giver, and prophet. And we wonder if Matthew, with this subtle remark about geography, is trying to place Jesus in a similar role, a new Moses perhaps.
Jesus’ disciples come to him on the mountain and he begins to teach them. First, he tells them, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who surround Jesus and the disciples—the lunatics, possessed, paralytics, etc.—what do we suppose their state, financially and spiritually, to be? Their neighbors and family consider them to be cursed. Yet, Jesus starts his sermon off by elevating as “blessed” those very ones his culture, religion, and society say are“cursed.”
We might spend much time puzzling out this term “the kingdom of heaven.” In Matthew’s gospel, it functions in the same capacity as the “kingdom of God” does in Mark and Luke, as the focus and horizon of Jesus’ preaching, teaching and action in the world. Most of us would answer that the opposite of heaven is hell, but what is the opposite of the kingdom of heaven? What is Jesus calling his followers to leave behind when he speaks about the kingdom of heaven? Rather than hell, the kingdom and kingdoms of this world are juxtaposed to the kingdom of heaven. The kingdoms of this world may not belong to the poor in spirit, but the new order which Jesus is proclaiming, the kingdom of heaven, belongs precisely to those—the poor in spirit—shut out of the kingdoms of this world.
When Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” we must ask: Who mourns? In the Israel of Jesus’ time, mourning was endemic. Israel was a conquered nation, occupied and oppressed by a foreign power, with corrupt and accommodating political and religious leaders. It was a situation of hardship, suffering and sacrifice for the vast majority of the population. So much had been lost—lives of loved ones, lands, livelihoods. The very people coming to Jesus represent that brokenness, the cause of mourning, and their hunger for restoration and comfort. We think of those who mourn today: American parents and spouses of soldiers dead or broken in Iraq; Iraqi fathers and mothers mourning their dead children; victims of war, homelessness, poverty, treatable diseases the world over—all mourning. In a situation of widespread grief, Jesus promises comfort, not more pain, division, war, or suffering.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Meek is such a funny word for us, not one we use much. Together at the study last Tuesday, we offered up other words for meek: the humble, but also the humiliated; the quiet, or passive, the weak, the reserved. And what does the promise of land mean, especially in Jesus’ time? Land meant everything. It was the basis of wealth, status and one’s stability. In Israelite religion, the promise of land was preeminent. The history of Israel is the history of having the land, falling away from God and thereby losing the land, being sent into exile, and then being forgiven and returned, restored to the land. Now they were living in exile in their own land, occupied by Rome, the land turned over to the needs and desires of the Romans and their Hebrew collaborators. For farmers, it meant working land that most often did not belong to them, land owned by absentee landowners, who nevertheless reaped the profit of the laborers’ work and the land they worked and cared for. In a time of economic hardship especially, people were losing their land as their debts mounted and corruption ran rampant. So the promise of land for the meek, the humble and humiliated, was another reversal of the way things were. It was a turning upside down of how things were currently arranged: the strong took the land from those they humiliated, those too quiet and weak to resist.
Next Jesus proclaims that “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” We pondered together what it is that people typically hunger and thirst for. Hunger and thirst are basic to being human. But we often go way beyond our basic needs. In our culture, we are taught, encouraged and rewarded for hungering and thirsting after power, status, prestige, money, success, etc. These hunger and thirsts are bred in us from the time we are born. And yet we find that these hungers and thirsts are never satisfied. There is no amount of money that is enough; no amount of power that is enough, no amount of status that satisfies us. None of these satisfies. But the promise that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, or as other translations have it, justice—this hunger and thirst Jesus promises can be satisfied. What should we hunger and thirst for?
Next week we continue with the Beatitudes, chapter 5, verses 7-12.