4th Sunday after The Epiphany

February 2, 2020


1 Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12 ESV)

To hear our Gospel for this Sunday is to hear poetry and promises and maybe tasks – hard tasks. Matthew recalls a lot of Jesus’ teaching up on a mountain – we can read it over three chapters in what we call the Sermon on the Mount and it begins with the Beatitudes – the ‘Blesseds’ – which today can also be translated ‘Happy’ and who doesn’t want happiness?

Or as Jesus said, who wouldn’t want – the kingdom of God – to be comforted – to inherit the earth – to be righteous – to receive mercy – to see God – to be a child of God – to have a great reward in heaven? My guess is few people. My guess is also that people will want to say, ‘How much?’. Because that’s how we are – transactional – unless we choose otherwise.

A quick look at the recipients of these blessings or happiness and people might be cautious – the poor (and definitely the poor in spirit) – the mourners – the meek – the merciful – the pure in heart – the peace makers (not, note the peace keepers or the peaceful) – the persecuted (note not any persecuted but those persecuted for righteousness’ sake and then Jesus clarifies and intensifies things with ‘they will call you evil because of me’). I suspect no one wakes up in the morning and looks for a dose of poverty in anything, wants to grieve over a loss, be meek in a world in which it is despised and walked over, and be persecuted – at all. I did skip the pure in heart – and maybe we do wake up in the morning and want it – precisely because any honest assessment of life is that it is far from us. I did also skip the hunger and thirst for righteousness or making peace – and we may want these things – but I suspect we also want the fine print, the details – whose righteousness? – whose peace? – and will this be in our interests?

The Beatitudes do sound lovely until we stop and think about them. When will I be blessed? Now? Or just in heaven? Are these blessings help for me when I’m in these situations or are they directives about how to live and the rewards that are offered?

The world has always wrestled with these sayings. What do they offer? When do they apply? How do they affect me? Are they meant to comfort me or stir me into action? Are the Beatitudes the blue print for kingdom of God living? And if the preacher says, ‘Maybe it’s both’ then we groan and say, ‘Stop being a politician!’.

Other people wonder whether Matthew got the words right. What if he was at the back of the crowd as in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ when the people at the back hear ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’ and someone asks, ‘What’s so special about the cheese makers?’ to which the reply comes that it was obviously not meant to be taken literally and it refers to any manufacturing of dairy products!? So far away from the
author, people can say that the meaning they give or they find are what counts not the author’s original meaning.

So we are here now nearly 2,000 years after these words came onto Planet Earth hearing again Jesus’ words at the beginning of his sermon. And whether we categorise these words as slogans – maybe they can be put on coffee mugs, tea towels and sprayed on walls – or propaganda – or the summary of Kingdom rules – or nice but unrealistic sentiments – I am going to go against the words being stand alone or existing only in our interpretation by returning to the context and the person.

Mountains in the biblical world are associated with God – intersections with Heaven and Earth – God comes down and we go up so to speak. But viewed from above looking down a mountain is a point around which might be concentric circles.

Matthew says: 1 Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

People are the ‘them’. It seems to me that there are two concentric circles here – the disciples and the crowds. To whom does Jesus speak? Who are the ‘them’ that Jesus taught? I wonder whether as Jesus taught the crowds through parables but spoke plainly to the disciples whether what we have here are teachings – everyone can learn – but some are overhearing? How you hear the words then very much depends on how you understand the teacher.

Let me jump to the end of Jesus’ sermon. Jesus spoke about not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ and who did all sorts of things in Jesus’ name know him. The deeds alone don’t save (Matthew 7:21-23). He then spoke about a house being built on rock or sand – hearing his words and doing them or not doing them – so he is expecting people to hear him and follow him (literally ‘do his words’) – Matthew 7:24-27. Deeds without Jesus are a problem but hearing Jesus with no deeds are also a problem. Who is Jesus?!

And that’s always the issue!

So who is Jesus? Who do you say Jesus is? Whom do you follow? You know the answers within. You know how hard it can be at times for you – for all people – to follow Jesus – to do his words. And yet Jesus tells his followers that they are blessed – we do prefer it to ‘happy’ because it suggests a bestowal, a gift, rather than something we do from within – and people are blessed when they know this Jesus and follow this Jesus in a world that is hostile to this Jesus and his followers. The Beatitudes are promises of presence and then they are guides for doing – and not the other way round. They are not programmes to change the world but they bring blessings to people which does change the world. They challenge the narratives people have, societies have, and civilisations have that it is vital to ‘seize the day’ with something that seems weird – ‘receive the day’ and respond by following Jesus in it. These blessings are for everyone. But the rich and powerful can have their hands full already with what they think are important – and they hold tight to what they have. But these blessings can fill the hands of beggars – who today still receive words, water, bread and wine – and such words can accompany us through our lives – because Jesus accompanies his followers through their lives.

Those people on that mountain listened and as we read in the rest of Matthew they struggled to understand what was being said and, more to the point, who was saying it. It would take a cross and an empty tomb to give followers of Jesus the understanding they needed to follow him and to g out into the world. But even the Eleven on the mountain when Jesus departed had some of them still struggling with doubt. It is part of following Jesus that there can be the ups and downs of our inner struggles and the struggles we have with a world that regards Jesus or his Church as evil and the struggles we have when we as Church just do deeds without Jesus or build on sand. But this pierced man – this risen Lord – is our all because he has given his all – his life – to us and he promises to help as he guides us to live. And that is why we can say we are ‘blessed’ as we follow him – and sometimes we might even say ‘happy’.

Bible References

  • Matthew 5:1 - 12