We just heard the first twelve verses of Matthew’s record of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. This opening passage is known as the Beatitudes because in the Latin each begins with the word beatus meaning, blessed, happy, or fortunate. It is not only an incredible teaching, but also a phenomenal piece of literature set within a historical context.
Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is written primarily for late 1st Century Jewish readers. The author does several things to connect Jesus’ teaching with his intended audience. First, he sets each beatitude in a structure reminiscent of the parallelism found in the Psalms and other poetic writings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Beatitudes 1-3 and 4-6 each contain exactly 36 words in the original Greek. The final two beatitudes contain 35 words. This is not by accident and would not be lost on Matthew’s readers.
He makes an even bolder statement in describing the setting. Jesus is on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee when the crowds gather around him. The text tells us he begins to speak and teaches them. Mathew places the moment in contrast to one of the most significant events in Hebrew history: Moses receiving God’s 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Some 1250 years before the Sermon on the Mount, only Moses can go before God. There, the people must to remain at the foot of the mountain and anyone who transgresses beyond the allotted distance perishes. A thick cloud shrouds the mountain Moses ascends because no human can bear to look directly at God’s glory and live. In Jesus, we have God in flesh and all people are free to approach him without fear or apprehension. This message too would not have been lost on Matthew’s original readers.
The sharpest contrast between Moses and Jesus is found in the content each delivers. God gives to Moses a series of commands – “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” Whereas Moses prescribes the do’s and don’ts of moral and ethical behavior, Jesus describes it. He commands no one to be poor or meek or merciful or pure in heart. He directs no one to search for a reason to mourn or to seek just causes or to make peace or to be persecuted. He simply says as you do these things you are blessed. People who live this way, Jesus says, are happy.
Through his initial teaching on the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does not intend to change the world, rather he intends to change the way his followers see the world. It is as if we are wearing a pair of glasses with lenses designed to filter out a specific light frequency. Jesus invites us to remove these glasses and wear a pair he prescribes; a pair which allows us clearly to see the world as he and God have created it to be. The world is not changed by changing our glasses, but how we see the world is changed.
Jim Barringer, a Christian musician and church teacher, says this is how the world looks if you look at it through the glasses the world gives you:
· “Blessed are the rich in material wealth, because they pull all the strings and have all the nice things.”
· “Blessed are those who put on a stiff upper lip and pretend they aren’t hurting, because vulnerability is weakness.”
· “Blessed are the aggressive, because nice guys finish last.”
· “Blessed are those who have low expectations, because they will never be disappointed.”
· “Blessed are the merciless, for they will become CEOs.”
· “Blessed are the people who only care about morality when it’s convenient, because they will have a much easier life.”
· “Blessed are the winners, because everyone who’s not a winner is a loser.”
· “Blessed are those who don’t take a hard stand for anything, because persecution isn’t fun or easy.”
In the prime of his career, Charles Barkley appeared in a magazine ad clutching a basketball with a menacing look on his face. The caption read, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they’ll never get a rebound.” It is hard to argue against the world’s logic, but we might want to ask if, in the end, is a rebound that important.
This week I watched a PBS documentary about the residents of 740 Park Avenue in New York City, a building home to thirty-some billionaires. Their lives are marked by power and opulence. Residing at various ends of the political spectrum, each contributes millions of dollars to various political campaigns, lobbyists, and think-tanks in order to influence legislation as well as public opinion for their benefit. I cannot imagine what it is like to live in a lavishly decorated, 20,000 square foot New York City apartment or to have members of congress dedicated to doing my bidding. But I do challenge the notion that any or all of the residents of 740 Park Ave. are any happier than I am. Most put on a good public face, to be sure. But I imagine each to be so driven by competition and a burning desire to promote self-interest that the pleasures of their material things – extravagant beyond anything any of us will ever know – are fleeting at best. They spend their lives trying to staple the morning dew to a flower’s pedal; an enterprise that does not make for happiness.
They may say even if their lives are not happy, they are no less happy then ours, and they have all the nice things. I disagree. We have things money cannot purchase. Through this weekend’s Vestry retreat, as each of us shared why this church is important to us, two themes surfaced again and again: first, we find God in this place, and second, we experience God’s love for all people in the common life we enjoy with one another. These are relationships that transgress education, social status, and economic well-being. Our relationship with one another is ground in the Beatitudes. It is lasting. It is real. It is eternal. And it is blessed.
Jesus teaches the crowds out of God’s deep love for each of us.
· While destitution is not a virtue in and of itself, Jesus recognizes there are riches to be found in poverty that no amount of wealth can purchase.
· In a world clutching tightly on to everything, Jesus says letting go and mourning a loss is a path to comfort and healing.
· The world tells us to lash out at our enemies, to have a strong and immediate response to every perceived insult, threat, and attack, but Jesus suggests there is a value to enduring injury with patience and without resentment; a response he calls meekness.
· Jesus says happiness involves recognizing the connections we share with one another and knowing, as Paul says, when one person suffers, we all suffer. This is why we crave for a just world where every person is rightly treated.
· Our Lord suggests happiness does not come from what you can do to others or in what you can make others do for you, but rather in discovering what others might need from you and offering it to them; in doing for others those things they may not be able to do for themselves – being merciful.
· Jesus says happiness comes from having a personal and godly integrity. Our behavior, our actions, and our deeds do not change to harmonize with the situation. Our pitch in life emanates from our Baptismal vows. We are pure in voice and in heart.
· And we work to create harmony among individuals, within a group, throughout our community, and in our world. Happiness is found in peace – in concord, not discord.
· We accept pursing happiness as Jesus describes it at times will not be popular. It will put us at odds with those who define their happiness through the colored lenses of the world’s glasses, which come in many different hues and shapes.
Karoline Lewis, a seminary professor writes, “The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines.” I cannot imagine a more difficult or a more meaningful pursuit in life. The world presents us with so many easier and lesser paths. We are a part of a movement that men and women have given everything for, even their lives, in witness to the truth of and the life inherent in the teaching of God’s Son incarnate.