Just like the Prophets

Psalm 15:1-2 1 God, who may dwell in your tabernacle? who may abide upon your holy hill? Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from [their] heart.

Introduction

Did you know that the Sermon on the Mount was probably given in the hills?[1] I mention this little detail because there are texts and stories, teachings and preachings that we’re very familiar with, so familiar that we are prone to pay them less attention. We take them for granted and lock them in some form in our memory. We are familiar with the tonality and the cadence of the textual rhythm. We can recite some of them from memory. We may be more familiar with some over others; we may even know the blessed statements show up altered in other gospels. Maybe it’s time we did what Jesus’s disciples did: follow Jesus and sit with this divine Rabbi, [2] listening (again) to these words meant for those who follow Jesus out of the river Jordan, even those of us who sit here these many years later. As we do, may we come into an encounter with the love and passion of God anew, for God’s Word seeks to awaken us from our slumber, provoke to animation calcified hearts, invigorate sluggish souls and exhausted minds, graft us into God’s mission on the earth,[3] and to place us into the great prophetic tradition of God’s representatives bringing God’s love and life and liberation to the captives.[4]

Matthew 5:1-12

Before beginning our dive into the statements, I want to address a little, teensy-weensy textual thing: the word, markarioi is fairly hard to render into English. The complication comes in that “‘Macarisms’ are essentially commendations, congratulations, statements to the effect that a person is in a good situation, sometimes even expressions of envy.”[5] This isn’t “blessed by God”,[6] but “happy”. They are happy who… However, this is misleading in our context because it is not as if the person is happy but that they find themselves in a happy place demanding envy from others.[7] In short, these statements are not merely colloquialisms about happy go lucky, but describe and commend the good life,[8] and not the good life or an ethic for back then but even now, for us.[9] To be envied is to do and be like this…

To be envied are the beggars for the Spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.[10]

The “poor in spirit” are not those who lack God or have weak character. Rather, these are the ones claimed by God but poor, those held captive by oppression, those refused the material liberation of God. [11] These people know their need for God, cry out to God, call on God, and take God as God. It is these who have the kingdom of God because they are with God[12] and loved by God and in this love the kingdom is now and to come.[13]

To be envied are the ones who mourn, because they, they will be comforted.

Like those before who are “poor in spirit” and those who follow (the meek and those who hunger and thirst), those who mourn have comfort in that they are those who are with God because God is in our suffering.[14] And in being with God, having God’s life and love there is the possibility that this heavy grief will not always be so, that there is more to this material existence than what can be seen and touched right now.[15]

To be envied are the meek, because they, they will inherit the earth.

Meekness here harkens back to “poor in spirit”, these are the ones who love their neighbor as themselves, serving the neighbor in their freedom, feeling compassion and sympathy for the plight of their neighbor. The meek live among the sufferers in this life and make it their aim to alleviate that suffering, to bring God close.[16] For these meek ones are servants of all, live by the law of love for their neighbor before God, and are the ones who inherit the earth at the expense of those claiming the earth for themselves now at the expense of their neighbor.

To be envied are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they, they will be satisfied.

Those who are hungry are hungry for justice, those who are thirsty are thirsty for righteousness; and this hunger and thirst fuels the embers of the fires of God’s love and justice.[17] These are the ones who desire earnestly (2x!) to live into the calling of God on their lives made known through their baptism and faith in God, and to participate in God’s mission of love, liberation, and life in the world. These are they who step into the responsibility of representing God in the world and eliminating alienation and isolation.[18] By this activity they satisfy their hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness come.

To be envied are the merciful, because they, they will be shown mercy.

Just like those who judge will be judged and those who forgive will be forgiven, those who show mercy will be shown mercy. In other words, those who are merciful are those who offer grace to other fellow humans trying to get from point A to point B, those who share in the pain in the world and celebrate the joy, those who are willing to let go of societal standards of “an eye for an eye”.[19]

To be envied are the pure in heart, because they, they will see God.”

This is less about being sinless and more about being declared pure apart from your material and social circumstances that would render you “unclean” for lack of “outward purity”.[20] Godliness is about one’s trust and faith in and love of God made most manifest in love of one’s neighbor; it’s not about being ritualistically clean and upright thus removed from being able to love one’s neighbor no matter what.

To be envied are the peacemakers, because they, they will be called children of God.”

Those born of God are born of love, of life, of peace. Thus, the peacemakers are not those who merely present a peaceful demeanor in the world, benefitting only themselves. These are they who “make peace” by causing reconciliation where there is estrangement, reuniting others, and letting love do what love does: turn the enemy into the beloved.[21]

To be envied are the ones who are persecuted on account of righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are to be envied whenever people revile you both persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be fully of joy, because your reward is great in the heavens, for in this way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Of interest here are those who are blessed because they are persecuted and not only because they’re upright, but upright specifically related to following Jesus.[22] It’s not a lifestyle that is good, but one that adheres to the authority and principles of Jesus; this is the reason for the persecution. In adhering to the radical demands of Christ by pursuing justice, peace, mercy, and love in the world,[23] the disciples will end up challenging the self-conceptions of others who live according to the world[24] and persecution will follow. Then Jesus does something at the end of the text, according to Matthew, he draws a correlation between those who do his will with the prophets. Those who follow Jesus and do as he did are grafted into the great line of prophets, those who declare God’s kingdom come, those who advocate for the sufferers and oppressed are those who share in the great prophetic tradition and participate in the prophetic voice.[25]

Conclusion

Beloved, the “sermon among the hills” is the foundation of our ethical activity in the world. Loved by the radical God of Love made known to us in Christ, we love radically like God, risking our creaturely comforts and daring to stand out[26] we bring and declare this love into the world.[27] We’re called by and in faith to be born anew into a new life defined by God’s will and desire to seek and save the lost, to liberate the captives, to bring good news to the poor and destitute, those struggling to live and exist. We are created anew to be God’s representatives in the name of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the world. We are to feel our discontentment with the world because God is discontent with the way the world is for God’s beloved.[28] We’re to press into God by pressing into the plight of our brothers and sisters, in this the light breaks through the darkness, hope defeats hopelessness,[29] and love births life.[30]

The following is taken from Ernesto Cardenal’s poem, “Coplas on the death of Merton”,[31]

Love, love above all, an anticipation
of death
            There was a taste of death in the kisses
                        being
                                    is being
                                                in another being
            we exist only in love
But in this life we love only briefly
and feebly
            We love or exist only when we stop being
when we die
            nakedness of the whole being in order to make love
                                    make love not war
                        that go to empty into the love
                        that is life


[1] RT France, in his commentary, makes the compelling case that the location where Jesus sits and teaches his disciples in this pericope are “hills” rather than a mountain (which is the technical translation of to oros). France uses the corresponding text in the gospel of Luke which describes Jesus as going down to this location…

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 157-158.

[3] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 71-72. “The Sermon on the Mount, in its clarion call to a radically different way of life, does unmask the sinfulness of the life we now live—turned in on ourselves as we are. Indeed, it makes our need for God’s grace very clear, but the message also moves and motivates us toward the higher righteousness to which Jesus calls us. It does so not by giving a set of prescriptions to be followed in a legalistic manner but rather examples of life oriented by the love of God and neighbor.”

[4] Cardenal, Solentiname, 89-90. “WILLIAM: ‘And Jesus compares us with the prophets. The prophets in the Bible were not so much people who predicted the future as people who denounced the present. They were protesting against the celebrations in the palaces, the cheating on the weights and the coins, the things that they bought very cheap from the labor of the poor, the swindles of widows and orphans, the abuses committed by the mafias of priests, the murders, the royal policy that they called prostitution, the dependence on foreign imperialisms. And it’s true they also predicted something for the future-the liberation of the oppressed. Christ says that our fate has to be like the fate of those prophets.’”

[5] France, Matthew, 160-161.

[6] France, Matthew, 160-161. The Hebrew equivalent of Makarios is asre rather than the more theologically loaded baruk, ‘blessed (by God).’ The traditional English rendering ‘blessed’ thus also has too theological a connotation in modern usage; the Greek term for ‘blessed (by God)’ is eulogetos, not makarios.

[7] France, Matthew, 160-161. “The sense of congratulation and commendation is perhaps better convened by ‘happy,’ but this term generally has too psychological a connotation: makarios does not state that a person feels happy … but that they are in a ‘happy’ situation, one which other people ought also to wish to share.”

[8] France, Matthew, 160-161. “The Australian idiom ‘Good on yer’ is perhaps as close as any to the sense, but would not communicate in the rest of the English-speaking world!…Beatitudes are descriptions, and commendations, of the good life.”

[9] Case-Winters, Matthew, 71. “I would propose that the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount is a fitting ethic nor just for ‘the interim’ and not just tor an inner circle, but for followers of Jesus in all times and places. It has been pointed out that a new way of life is at the heart of the gospel call.”

[10] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[11] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 82. “I said that in the Bible the poor are often called anawim, which in Hebrew means ‘the poor of Yahweh.’ They are so called because they are the poor of the liberation of Yahweh, those that God is going to liberate by means of the Messiah. It’s like what we now understand as the ‘oppressed,’ but in the Bible those poor people are also considered to be good people, honorable, kindly and holy, while their opposites are the oppressors, the rich, the proud, the impious.”

[12] France, Matthew, 165. “‘Poverty in spirit’ is not speaking of weakness of character (‘mean-spiritedness’) but rather of a person’s relationship with God. It is a positive spiritual orientation, the converse of the arrogant self-confidence which only rides roughshod over the interests of other people but more importantly causes a person to treat God as irrelevant. To say that it is to such people that kingdom of heaven belongs means (not, of course, that they themselves hold royal authority but) that they are the ones who gladly accept God’s rule and who therefore enjoy the benefits which come to his subjects.”

[13] Cardenal, Solentiname, 83. “And OSCAR’S MOTHER: ‘It seems to me that the kingdom is love. Love in this life. And heaven is for those who love here, because God is love’”

[14] Case-Winters, Matthew, 76-77. “The first four beatitudes declare blessing for those who were traditionally understood as being defended by God: the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, justice.”

[15] France, Matthew, 166. “For those who, as God’s people, find their current situation intolerable and incomprehensible, there are better times ahead.”

[16] France, Matthew, 166. “‘Meek,’ like ‘poor in spirit,’ speaks not only of those who are in fact disadvantaged and powerless, but also of those whose attitude is not arrogant and oppressive. The term in itself may properly be understood of their relations with other people; they are those who do not throw their weight about.”

[17] Cardenal, Solentiname, 86. “MARCELINO: ‘He blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice. Hunger and injustice amount to the same thing. Anyone who hungers for food also hungers for justice. They are the ones who are going to make social change, not the satisfied ones. And then they’ll be filled with bread and social justice.’”

[18] France, Matthew, 167-168. Dikaiosyne “It is thus better understood here not of those who wish to see God’s will prevail in the world in general or on their own behalf in particular, but of those who are eager themselves to live as God requires, those who can say, as Jesus himself is recorded as saying in John 4:34, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who me.’”

[19] France, Matthew, 168. “‘Mercy’ is closely with forgiveness, but is broader here than just the forgiveness of specific offenses: it is a generous attitude which is willing to see things from the other’s point of view and is not quick to take offense or to gloat over others’ shortcomings (the prime characteristic of love according to 1 Cor 13:4-7). Mercy sets aside society’s assumption that it is honorable to demand revenge.”

[20] France, Matthew, 168. “In the context of first-century Judaism, with its strong emphasis on ritual ‘purity’, the phrase ‘pure in heart’ might also be understood to imply a contrast with the meticulous preservation of outward purity which will be condemned in 23:25-28 as having missed the point of godliness…”

[21] France, Matthew, 169. “This beatitude goes beyond a merely peaceful disposition to an active attempt to ‘make’ peace, perhaps by seeking reconciliation with one’s own enemies, but also more generally by bringing together those who estranged from one another.”

[22] France, Matthew, 172. “A significant new note in comparison with v. 10 is that the cause of persecution is not simply ‘righteousness,’ the distinctive lifestyle of the disciples, but more specifically ‘because of me,’ a phrase which makes it clear that this discourse is not just a call to conduct but is grounded in the unique authority and radical demands of Jesus himself.”

[23] Cardenal, Solentiname, 88. “ALEJANDRO: ‘And he says that they are going to be persecuted because they seek justice, and for that also he blesses them. Because it’s clear that people who look for this kingdom have to be persecuted.”

[24] France, Matthew, 169-170. “The pursuit of ‘righteousness’ (v. 6) can arouse opposition from those whose interests or self-respect may be threatened by it. Already in the commendation of the merciful and the peacemakers these beatitudes have marked out the true disciple not as a hermit engaged in the solitary pursuit of holiness but as one engaged in society, and such engagement has its cost. As the following verses will spell out more fully, to live as subjects of the kingdom of heaven is to be set over against the rest of society which does not its values, and the result may be – indeed, the uncompromising wording of this beatitude suggests that it will be—persecution.”

[25] France, Matthew, 173. “Those who have spoken out for God have always been liable to the violent reprisal of the ungodly. In the light of that heritage, to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus is a badge of honor. The phrase ‘the prophets who came before you’ perhaps suggests that Jesus’ disciples are now the prophetic voice on earth (cf. 10:41; 23:34).”

[26] France, Matthew, 159. “The sharply paradoxical character of most of its recommendations reverses the conventional values of society—it commends those whom the world in general would dismiss as losers and wimps; compare the presentation of disciples as ‘little ones’ in 10:42; 18:6, 10.14; 25:40 (cf. the ‘little children’ of 11:25). The Beatitudes thus call on those who would be God’s people to stand out as different from those around them, and promise them that those who do so will not ultimately be the losers.”

[27] Case-Winters, Matthew, 77. “In a way the beatitudes are ‘more description than instruction;’ they are a kind of report from the other side of radical commitment for those who have entered into life within God’s community of love and justice. For those who have ‘crossed over’ there is genuine blessedness. They are living-even now-in the reign of God.”

[28] Case-Winters, Matthew, 78. “If we would-even now-live under the reign of God, there are implications. The alternative reality will chaff against the present reality. To love as God loves is to be discontented with the present reality. ‘Until the eschatological reversal takes place, it is not possible to be content with the status quo.’ In our discontent, we may pray with William Sloane Coffin, ‘Because we love the world. . . . we pray now… for grace to quarrel with it, O Thou Whose lover’s quarrel with the world is the history of the world…’”

[29] Dorothee Soelle On Earth as in Heaven: A Liberation Spirituality of Sharing Trans. Marc Batko. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993. 50-51. “Christian hope in the tradition of the supernatural virtues, that is, of virtues poured into us by grace, is distinguished from the hope of the observer by sharing, cooperation, and participation. Chrisitan hope is hope in which I share in the production of another state. The hope of peace lives with the peacemakers and not beyond them. Participation in the struggle distinguishes this hope form the contemplative observation that is optimist once moment ad resigned the next.

[30] France, Matthew, 171-172. “Light is of no use under a bowl. It is the town conspicuously sited on hill which people notice. And the outcome of distinctive discipleship is intended to be that other people will notice and, though sometimes they may respond with cynicism and persecution, ultimately the light will have its effect and they will recognize and acknowledge the goodness of the God is its source, Disciples, therefore, must be both distinctive and involved. Neither the indistinguishably assimilated nor the inaccessible hermit will fulfill the mandate of these challenging verses.”

[31] Ernesto Cardenal Apocalypse and other poems Trans. Thomas Merton, Kenneth Rexroth, and Mireya Jaimes-Freyre. Eds. Robert Pring-Mill, Donald D. Walsh. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1977. 47.

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