4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011
This may be one of the most familiar Bible passages of all time. It’s right up there with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. Remember the rules about narratives, and looking at the first thing the hero has to say? Well, this is Jesus first preaching in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s worth it to look at where the Gospel writer has Jesus start in his teaching and preaching ministry. Just as Jesus took up John’s call to the religious people of his day to repent instead of congratulate themselves for being so holy, he starts he preaching in a very different place than people would expect.
The way this preaching is structured comes right out of Hebrew poetry. There’s a symmetry to these verses: four and four matching constructs, each of the set ending with ‘righteousness,’ a theme which Matthew is busy defining and redefining in his writing. Matthew sees righteousness not as being ‘right’ by arbitrarily following rules, but as living and doing God’s will, by loving God first and the rest of the world as God loves it.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
I have heard many interpretations of these verses, most of them suggesting that they are a pattern for behavior among God’s own. I would like to suggest something else. Could they not rather be a shocking upheaval of who God welcomes and where God is? God does not show up to reward those who do have great wealth or spiritual gifts. God does not reward those gather and gain, or who flaunt power and connections. God does not promise reward for those whose are the most scrupulous about their own purity. No, indeed. God is most present and honors and blesses those who have the least – who are poor, who are lonely and grieving, who are disinherited and disenfranchised, who long for justice and to do what is right. Jesus tells those who fear that they can never be good enough to come before God that they are blessed. These verses welcome even us, who know we will never be good enough to come to God on our own. We come through Jesus, who shows us how much God cares for those who recognize their inadequacy and depend on God’s forgiveness, won through Jesus’ death. And depend on God’s power to right every wrong, the same power which raised Jesus from the dead.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is what God’s people look like. They are not the ones who stand in judgment of those who are not as good as they. They are the ones who bring in God’s kingdom. Their hearts have been transformed through God’s grace and forgiveness, so that they extend the hand of love to those who are poor, who mourn, who are meek and who hunger and thirst for justice. They are Jesus to those who need to see him.
And then suddenly instead of Jesus’ teaching being for everyone in the crowd including his own new disciples, the word becomes a word directed at YOU. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. You are in good company, he says, because that’s been the fate of everyone who stood up against the system that crushes the poor, the disenfranchised, the compassionate, the merciful, the peacemakers throughout history.
So if you came here today feeling as if you will never get this salvation thing right. If you came here feeling as if you aren’t worthy of God’s love. If you came feeling that you can’t contribute enough to help or apologizing because you can’t do more. I am here to tell you that in Jesus Christ, your inadequacy is forgiven and you are welcomed into fellowship with all God’s people throughout history. God walks with and blesses those who need more and know it. God walks with and blesses those who want to give whatever gifts they have, even if they feel inadequate. God walks with and blesses those who strive to be merciful and pure in heart and peacemakers. God sees to the heart of those who come, blessing those who turn to God in their weakness, and willing to depend on God’s strength to be what God requires. The prophet Micah says it so well: what the Lord requires of you is simply to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.