Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jesus' Great Instruction

In commenting St. Matthew’s narrative (5:1-12) on the Beatitudes or The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps a few preliminary observations will be helpful. First, though we’ve come to know these sayings of Jesus as “The Beatitudes”, from the introductory word most often translated as “blessed”, it seems that, for St. Matthew, a more accurate title might be “The Great Instruction”. Second, Jesus gives this Great Instruction to the inner circle of his disciples, NOT, as is so often taken for granted, to all the people: Jesus’ hearers and us who read it centuries later. Finally, there also seem to be a number of common misinterpretations abroad: one is that the writer had in mind a comparison between Jesus and Moses, because of “the mountain”/”the giving of the Law”. Matthew, however, seems to give no apparent indication of this. If anything, he might’ve seen more of a parallel between Jesus and Joshua, their names in Hebrew being virtually equivalent. Just as later rabbis contrasted the prophet Elisha with Elijah, with the advantage going to Elisha, so also with John the Baptizer and Jesus. John is more apt to be compared to Moses: neither lived to enter the Promised Land; and as Moses was rebuked for his lack of faith (Nm 20:12), so Jesus seems to have mildly rebuked John in his enquiry from prison in Mt 11:2-6. Jesus is the proclaimer of the reign of God and, therefore, of the true hope of Israel, even as Joshua was seen by later sources as keeping alive among the people the hope of the Messiah. The other misinterpretation is that Jesus, in The Great Instruction, was setting up some sort of new moral code with universal applicability. In fact, Matthew arranges Jesus’ instruction in an orderly grouping of material in order to make it easier for those who would be teaching it later. The Great Instruction is aimed at the Messianic community of Jesus’ disciples, and then to those whom they would teach.

If you compare Matthew’s narrative in this passage with Luke’s (6:17-22), it’s obvious that there is a difference. This is probably because they are two versions, spoken by Jesus on two different occasions. Matthew’s may have been a series of explanations in response to questions raised by Jesus’ disciples. Whereas in Luke, Jesus says in 6:24-26: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” It could be that here that Jesus was directly addressing his disciples.

What was it that Jesus conveyed to his disciples, as Matthew narrates it? First of all, Matthew uses the Greek word makarios, which bears a number of “flavors”. It can mean blessed/supremely blessed/fortunate/well-off/happy. In classical times it meant “the state of gods in contrast to humans”. The Hebrew word asher has the sense of “the good omens of…” In Matthew’s context, it’s a Messianic term because of its connection with the reign of God, of which Jesus, in his Person, is the bearer. Whoever’s life is characterized by these eight or nine qualities mentioned, is blessed, to the highest degree, by the salvation which only God can offer.

If we stick with the English term fortunate, what Jesus says is:
- Fortunate are the humble in spirit, i.e., those who live uprightly, in perfection. They’re virtually synonymous with the poor/afflicted/humble -- in Hebrew, the anawim -- the ones pushed out to the margins of society; those who, throughout Scripture, are the special, favored ones of God. God’s reign is made up of people “fully conscious of the poverty of all human resource, and knowing [their] need and desire for God…
- Fortunate are those who mourn and grieve over humanity’s selfishness and disobedience to God. These are the souls who feel and lament over the “pain of the world”.
- Fortunate are the meek who, because they’re humble and poor will be welcomed and admitted to God’s realm, God’s presence.
- Fortunate are the ones who hunger and thirst, who desire and pray that God’s purposes for humanity will be vindicated. The Old Testament cites many examples of fasting as prayerful desire, which is the present state of these who hunger and thirst, even as they anticipate the great Messianic feast with which they’ll be fulfilled in God’s reign.
- Fortunate are the merciful who haven’t allowed their hearts to clench or to become blind to others’ need. And because of that they’re welcomed into the reign of that God whose tender mercies are always new every morning.
- Fortunate are the pure-minded, i.e., the spiritual equivalent of those who are ritually purified. To see God one is called to be single-minded in handing over to God one’s whole heart, mind, body, and soul. Those who live thus are promised life as daughters and sons of the Son of God in his reign.
- Fortunate are those who make peace, who pursue it throughout society, and who pay the price and suffer for it, sometimes greatly. They can look forward to being admitted to the reign, the realm of God’s shalom, God’s peace.

These sayings, known as The Great Instruction, constitute “the spiritual charter” of the reign of God. Earlier, in 4:23, Matthew speaks of Jesus going about the whole of Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the Freedom of the Kingdom.” In today’s passage Matthew shows how Jesus proposes that his disciples bear this message as they proclaim the Good News to others. With Jesus’ coming among us, the long-awaited reign of God has already arrived, and the message has taken on new urgency. Jesus proclaims the demands of the Covenant for any who would share in God’s reign, though exactly how that plays out in each of our lives will depend on our vision and generosity.

The one thing which Jesus does promise is that, if we take God’s reign seriously and help others to do so, you and I must prepare to suffer for it, to endure push-back and opposition. Nevertheless, Jesus says that we’re to “rejoice and be glad, because your reward in heaven is great…” Now, please don’t misunderstand that statement! Jesus isn’t promising “pie in the sky, bye and bye”. This isn’t the “Be-Happy Attitudes” promised by one prominent TV evangelist, as if by doing these things, you’ll get the “Great Reward”. Yes, some sort of responsive action on our part is asked of us for God’s generosity. But it’s God’s generosity which is supremely far beyond anything which you and I can ask or possibly earn on our own strength. When Jesus speaks of a “reward in heaven”, he’s really saying “a reward in God, a reward with God”: indeed, a reward which is Godself.

You might want to check out Dylan’s Lectionary Blog online for another take on today’s Gospel. The blog is written by Sarah Dylan Breuer, who calls herself a “public theologian”. In place of the word “blessed”, she favors a translation by K.C. Hanson, viz., “honored”. She takes the same approach as Jesuit scholar, Fr. Jerome Neyrey, who thinks that the last “beatitude” should actually be the starting point for The Great Instruction: “Honored are you whenever men vilify you, persecute you, and falsely charge you with evil for my sake; rejoice and be glad, because your reward in heaven is great, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.

Breuer goes on to develop how “in the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you ‘your own man’; it made you nobody...nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position…

Putting the last “beatitude” first, she feels, makes Jesus’ listing of the qualities of those who qualify for the reign of God more plausible. Whether or not her thesis is valid, I don’t know. I saw nothing in commentaries which I consulted to confirm that, but it does make some sense. Nevertheless, her point is well taken, particularly in a society like ours, and at the end of her blog she challenges us with some valuable questions: “What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not achievement or respectability: just justice, and mercy, and humility…What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors? What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture's games for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings await us on that journey?…

Another, and perhaps the main, reason why I mention Sarah Breuer, however, is to borrow from her and to share a prayer poem to which she alludes, written by The Very Rev. Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Alban’s in England. Dean John isn’t at all known for shying away from being outspoken. His prayer may or may not strike us as a bit harsh, but it certainly encourages us think seriously about Jesus’ Great Instruction:

Lord, do something about your Church.

It is so awful, it is hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it.

Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned:
hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical,
respectable, comfortable, moralising, compromising,
clinging to its privileges and worldly securities,
and when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.

Lord, we need your whip of cords.

Judge us and cleanse us,

challenge and change us,

break and remake us.

Help us to be what you called us to be.

Help us to embody you on earth.

Help us to make you real down here,

and to feed your people bread instead of stones.

And start with me.

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