The Rev. Jerry True – February 2, 2020
In the Name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is found preaching a sermon to his disciples; the sermon which is widely known as the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus teaches his disciples a series of eight blessings, which have come to be called the Beatitudes. The Gospel according to Matthew proclaims as its central message the fact that Jesus is the Messiah foretold of in Hebrew Scripture and that in and through him the Kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus offers them, and us, a way of life that promises a better way here and an eternity in God’s presence and love in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus had begun teaching about 30 AD during the hated Roman Empire’s occupation of Palestine. There were four major religious/political groups during the time of the so-called Second-Temple Judaism: those groups were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots. The Pharisees demanded strict observance of the Mosaic law found in the Torah, but also accepted the unwritten oral tradition of Jewish customs and rituals. They believed in the resurrection of the dead, unlike the Sadducees who did not.
The Sadducees were mainly from the priestly families and accepted the Law of Moses but rejected any unwritten tradition The monastic Essenes were looking for a Messiah that would establish a powerful kingdom here on earth which would free the Israelites from oppression. The Zealots were a militant Jewish group who wanted to free their homeland from Roman rule by force. The Zealots were found mainly in Galilee. One of the Twelve Apostles named in scripture became known as Simon the Zealot.
The Ten Commandments, which were given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Exodus, presented Israel with a series of ten “Thou shalt not” commandments or evils one must avoid in daily life on earth. In contrast to the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, including the Beatitudes, emphasize humility, charity, and brotherly love.
Jesus teaches the transformation of the inner person. He presents the Beatitudes, the eight blessings, as a necessary set of goals to respond to the love and friendship of God. With the Beatitudes, which are virtues in life which will ultimately lead to eternal bliss, love becomes the motivation in living as a joyful Christian. All of the Beatitudes have an eschatological meaning, that is, they promise us salvation – not just in this world, but in the next. The Beatitudes initiate one of the main themes of Matthew’s Gospel: that the Kingdom so long awaited in the Old Testament is not a kingdom of this world, but of the next, which is the Kingdom of Heaven. While the Beatitudes of Jesus provide a way of life that promises salvation, they also bring us peace in the midst of our own trials and tribulations on this earth. One early contemplation on the Beatitudes came from St. Gregory of Nyssa, a mystic who lived in Cappadocia in Asia Minor around 380 AD. He described the Beatitudes this way:
“Beatitude is a possession of all things held to be good,
from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.
Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us
if it is compared with its opposite.
Now the opposite of beatitude is misery.
Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings.”
The first four beatitudes all describe what it takes to become a disciple. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the last in that series (Matt. 5:3–6).Let us begin with the first:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Let us begin by considering what the words “poor in spirit” do not mean. We are not talking about a defective or inferior spirit; nor an attitude that is severely lacking in some element of strength, grace, energy, hope or love. To be poor in spirit is to know one’s spiritual neediness and utter dependence upon God, who was, is, and will always be our ultimate wisdom and strength. The spiritually healthy person who is poor in spirit is self confident, Christ-centered, but not self-centered. The person who seeks to be poor in spirit does not exalt herself; she has dignity but is not boastful. She does not obsess over being considered insignificant by some people, but rejoices in all those who work in faithfulness and love for the spread of the Gospel.
Very often the person who is poor in spirit loves to do her work in quiet love and modesty, not seeking honor from others. Her primary desire is to do God’s will from moment to moment of each and every day.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”
In the Gospel of Luke, where the beatitudes are four in number in the Sermon on the Plain, the parallel beatitude is: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh … Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25). The truly blessed mourn their own sin first, then they mourn all sin. This kind of mourning is a blessing, since God will comfort those who mourn for any reason, but most especially those who are sorrowful because of their own disobedience. There is a significant truth embedded within this beatitude. It draws us to consider the relationship between pleasure and pain, between joy and suffering, between sin and salvation. Here is the realization that pleasure and pain are inseparable in this life; and that they follow upon each other with the same regularity as the cresting and falling of waves in the sea. From the very beginning man has made a choice, rendered possible by his freedom. He chooses the faux pleasure experienced in disobedience of God’s law, symbolized by Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So the story goes, God permitted pain and death to arise, not so much as a punishment, but more as a remedy. God wanted to prevent mankind, who, without some kind of guide and hope and incentive, might be moved by his instinct and unleashed egoism, to destroy everything, including himself and his neighbor. Everything that we choose to do has consequences. Thus, we see that suffering adheres to pleasure and sin adheres to sorrow for sin which has been redeemed by the love and forgiveness and sacrifice of Jesus as an anchor against unbridled, thoughtless unloving, irresponsible disobedience.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Meekness is not a word typically seen in your average Facebook status or Twitter post. When people do use this word, they generally mean submissive, easily lead, weak or impressionable. But the word as used in the Bible is very different in meaning from what is typically understood when it is used today. One problem with the English word meek is that it rhymes with weak, and people have incorrectly linked the two words together for years.
Even worse, one popular modern dictionary offers a secondary definition of meek as “too submissive; too easily imposed on; spineless; spiritless.” This last so-called definition is pernicious. It is one hundred and eighty degrees the opposite of the real and historical meaning of the word meek, especially when used by Jesus. Naturally this wrong understanding would cause some people to question why Jesus would say, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Jesus was meek and lowly of heart, yet he drove the money changers out of the temple with violent zeal and righteous anger. So what does it actually mean to be meek? Greek scholar W. E. Vine says that meekness in the Bible is an approach toward God “in which we accept as a matter of faith that God’s dealings with humankind are loving and good, and therefore we can follow his lead by trusting in his love without fear, distrust or resistence.” We see this in Jesus who found his delight in doing the will of his heavenly Father. Vine goes on to say that “the meekness manifested by the Lord and commended to the believer is [in part] the fruit and result of the power and strength available to him. The Lord was ‘meek’ in part because he had faith that he had the love and infinite resources of God his Father at His disposal and command.” Had he chosen to do so, he could have called upon all the powers and angels of heaven to come to his rescue, but that was not consistent with his mission and message.
When Herod questioned Jesus at some length, Jesus did not answer him. When Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ Jesus would not answer him. Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ This time, Jesus did answer him by saying, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.’ This reticence, this meekness on the part of Jesus was not the result of timidity, fear or weakness; it was a sign of strength and courageous love. In effect, Jesus is saying to Pilate, the one earthly authority who ultimately would decide Jesus’ fate, “Talking to you would be pointless and I am not going to waste my breath trying to convince you. I could have called on all the powers of heaven to come and rescue me, but that is not in accord with what I plan to do.” As Teddy Roosevelt many centuries later would say concerning the diplomacy of true meekness, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
In this case for the believing Christian, the “big stick” is the power of faith, hope and love, the loving, supporting, sustaining and life-giving power of Almighty God himself.
Jesus told His weary, burdened followers, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29). Jesus Christ was, and is and always will be the perfect model of meekness.
Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
The first four beatitudes all describe the qualities and work of a disciple. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the last of the first four(Matt. 5:3–6). “Hunger and thirst” is a metaphor that doesn’t resonate today with the average person in most developed countries, such as the United States, as it did with the people in Jesus’ day where food and water were scarce and people were hungry and thirsty. In our culture, food and water are plentiful, so we miss the urgency Jesus intended. Hungry, thirsty people work hard to survive, and so this beatitude calls us to pursue righteousness with that same sense of urgency. Righteousness has several meanings in Scripture. Paul emphasized the lawful and redeeming righteousness that we receive through the atoning work of Christ. Matthew refers to Jesus as a “ransom for many.” In Matthew 5, Jesus primarily outlines the personal righteousness required of disciples, who must put aside murder, anger, greed and adultery. They give gifts to their oppressors and they love and feed their enemies. The language of hunger and thirst is well known in Scripture. In Isaiah God says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! You will delight in the richest of fare” (Isa. 55:1–2). Jesus tells us, “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
But since our quest for righteousness always falls short, we think next of the righteousness of Christ, bestowed upon us when we come to believe in Him. This is called justification. Justification confers legal righteousness in the eyes of God so believers can stand before God the Judge on the last day. Justification wipes away all sin and guilt, whatever our level of spiritual maturity.
True disciples long for social righteousness, for God’s cleansing of society. When Satan will be overthrown, and God’s righteousness will cover the earth.
The next three Beatitudes are more obvious and more easily understood and so I spend a bit less time with them.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Mercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy. Mercy, loosely speaking, is most often to be found in the broken heart of someone who has been wounded and has received mercy. Theological writer Henri Nouen calls such a ministry that of a wounded healer. The mercy that God gives us is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like a healing balm in a broken heart. A merciful heart, spirit, and soul hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”
Pope John Paul II wrote that the Beatitudes are in a sense a self-portrait of Christ! Moses (Exodus 33:20), John (1:18), and Paul (I Timothy 6:16) all say that no one can see God here on earth. God is hidden. But Jesus says the pure of heart shall see God! To be pure of heart means to be freed of all selfish intentions and self-seeking desires. What a beautiful goal! How many times have any of us performed an act perfectly free of any personal gain? Such an act is pure love. An act of pure and selfless giving brings joy and happiness to all, most especially to the giver.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Jesus gives us peace – “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Peace is also a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Peacemakers not only live peaceful lives but also try to bring peace and friendship to others, and to preserve peace between God and man. But one cannot give someone else what one does not have. Praying for peace will help change your heart. The Lord wants you first to be filled with the blessings of peace and then to pass it on to those who have need of it. By imitating God’s love for mankind and the world, the peacemakers become children of God.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The biblical passage continues:”Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Jesus said many times that those who follow Him will be persecuted. Stephen, Peter and Paul, nearly all of the Apostles, and many Christians in the Roman era suffered martyrdom. Even now, oppressive governments and endless conflicts in the last one hundred years, such as World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and in the Middle East wars in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan have seen their share of martyrs, such as Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Latin American martyrs, and many Middle East Christians. St. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life in place of a stranger at the Auschwitz death camps on August 14, 1941. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who was hanged on April 9, 1945 for condemning the leadership of Hitler in Nazi Germany. The Latin American Martyrs include the 38 martyrs of La Cristiada, the Cristero War in Mexico from 1926 to 1929. Another Latin martyr was Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated while saying Mass at Divine Providence Hospital on March 24, 1980 for speaking out against government’s human rights violations.
Middle Eastern Christians have suffered severe persecution since the crises in Iraq and Syria. At least 58 Christians were slaughtered during Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Eastern Catholic Church in Baghdad on October 31, 2010. In July 2014 the terrorist Islamic State marked remaining Christian homes in Mosul with the Arabic letter Noon – for Nazarene, Nasrani, or Nasara – and advised residents that they had 24 hours to leave, convert to Islam, or die. Sixty thousand Christians in Mosul were displaced from their homes, and over one million Christians have fled Iraq since the Iraq War began in 2003. The present turmoil in Syria has resulted in over 700,000 Christian refugees escaping to Jordan, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern countries. But the Lord promised those that suffer for his sake will be rewarded with the Kingdom of Heaven!
Obviously, there is much, much more that could well be said concerning the Beatitudes. You will be relieved to know that I have said all that I intend to say today. Thanks be to God for all his merciful love, power, strength, meekness, self sacrifice, forgiveness and for all the beatitudes we find in Christian living! In Jesus’ Name. Amen