Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: The reversal at the end of time

Sermon for Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, 6th of February 2011

Matthew 5:3-6

Last week, some of you will remember, we began to read the Sermon on the Mount. One of the ways in which Matthew presents Jesus is as the new Moses, the one able to give the authoritative interpretation of the law; and so in his gospel Matthew gives us five blocks of Jesus’ teaching, paralleling the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The Sermon on the Mount is the first of these, given from “the mountain” to match the revelation of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

As I mentioned last week, there’s been controversy for centuries over whether Christians are actually expected to do what the great commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew says, and make disciples by teaching people to obey everything that Jesus commands. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), and various people have argued that he can’t really expect perfection from us. Some people suggest that the commands of the Sermon on the Mount are directed only at special types of Christians; others that our inability to obey Jesus’ commands is simply meant to teach us to rely completely on God’s grace.

As I said last week, I don’t agree with either of these arguments. I think that people who have received the vision of Jesus’ God, who are looking forward with longing to the breaking in to the kingdom of heaven, are called to try and live in the sort of compassionate, vulnerable, non-competitive life that Jesus describes. We won’t succeed, but we’re still encouraged to try. And, as he promised, Jesus will be with us as we do.

That was last week’s sermon. The week I want to focus on the first four of the eight beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; and  are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. I’m looking at these first four today, and the other four next week, because most commentators agree that the two halves of the beatitudes differ from each other. They just don’t agree on how and why they’re different.

There are two versions of the beatitudes, this one in the gospel according to Matthew, and another in the gospel according to Luke. Luke’s version contains three of the four beatitudes that we’re looking at today, but in slightly different forms. Where Matthew has: “blessed are the poor in spirit”, Luke has “blessed are you who are poor”. Where Matthew has: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, Luke has “blessed are you who are hungry now”. And where Matthew has: “blessed are those who mourn”, Luke has “blessed are you who weep now”. As well as beatitudes, Luke also has woes: “But woe to you who are rich … woe to you who are full now … woe to you who are laughing now”. (Luke 6:20-26)

What do the differences between Luke and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes mean? One argument is that Matthew has spiritualised the beatitudes, and so made them relevant to those people who follow Jesus but who are not the poorest of the poor. While Luke’s first beatitude describes the literally poor, Matthew’s reference to “the poor in spirit” describes those people who are aware that they have nothing without God, and look to God alone for salvation. Those who mourn are those who are saddened by the current state of the world. The meek are those who are humble and gentle, the opposite of the grasping and demanding. Luke described the literally hungry as blessed; Matthew talks about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; people who eagerly await the day when God’s kingdom will come.

If this is the way Matthew’s first four beatitudes are to be understood, then they make ethical demands on us; they call us to be poor in spirit; oppressed by the world’s injustices; meek; eagerly anticipating God’s justice. These four beatitudes tell us how to conduct ourselves towards God, with humility and an awareness of spiritual poverty.

For those of us who are not the literal poor, Luke’s version with its added woes can seem frightening. Matthew’s version is much more palatable. We might not be poor, but we can be the poor in spirit. We might not be literally hungry, but we do hunger and thirst for righteousness. We can look to God with humility, no matter how much we have in the bank. And so we, too, are blessed.

That’s one way of understanding these first four beatitudes. If we understand them this way, they differ from the second four only in their object – they’re about how we relate to God, while the second four are about how we relate to other people.

The other way to interpret them is to see the people described as blessed in the beatitudes according to Matthew as the very same as those blessed in Luke’s version. When Matthew refers to the poor in spirit, he doesn’t mean people who may be rich, but who trust in God rather than in their riches. Instead those who are “poor in spirit” are those who are not only poor, but whose poverty has also caused them spiritual anguish, people whose poverty is so extreme that they have no hope. One commentator writes: “The poor in spirit are not people who trust in God because they have no reason for hope in this world. They are people who have no reason for hope in this world, period.”[1] Similarly, those who mourn are not those who are distressed by the state of the world, but those who are mourning real deaths. Jesus was speaking to people for whom brutal and violent death was a constant companion. In the third beatitude Jesus is quoting Psalm 37, which says: “But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight in abundant prosperity” (Psalm 37:11) and in that psalm “meek” refers to those who are oppressed by the wicked. In the fourth beatitude, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who long for God to put things right, those who are starved for justice, even those who are hungry because of injustice.

If this is true then in these first four beatitudes those who are blessed are the same group of people described as blessed in Luke’s version. Another commentator writes:

Jesus addresses people who are poor, who mourn and who hunger and thirst. These are in fact variations of one and the same theme. These beatitudes deal with people who in one way or another live in a miserable situation. They are called blessed, not because of their virtue, their internal disposition, their openness to the kingdom of God, but simply because they are poor and as such benefit from God’s disposition towards them.[2]

When God’s kingdom comes, when the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is inaugurating is fully realised, no one will be hungry or poor or oppressed. Those who are now will be blessed at the eschaton, the end time, when their circumstances will be reversed. In these first four beatitudes we’re not being asked to be poor in spirit or meek or mournful or hungry and thirsty for righteousness. We’re being reassured that when God’s will is done no one will be in these situations. People who now have no reason for hope or joy, who are currently denied their share of God’s blessings, will benefit when God’s reign as described by Jesus comes to fruition.

These first four beatitudes don’t make ethical demands on us. They give us a vision of the kingdom to come. But the second four beatitudes that Matthew gives us are very different. And those I’m going to talk about next week.

[1] Mark Allan Powell, “Matthew’s beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996): p. 464.

[2] H. Hendrickx, quoted in W. R. Domeris, ‘Exegesis and Proclamation: “Blessed are you …” (Matthew 5:1-12)’ Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, p. 71.


February 7, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , , ,

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