SCRIPTURE STUDY – The Beatitudes, part 1
“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.