FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
My first encounter with the “Beatitudes,” the sayings in this Sunday’s gospel lesson, took place in my grandmother’s dining room. From as far back as I can remember, they hung on the wall next to the china closet spelled out in gothic lettering under glass in a tarnished silver frame. I cannot recall when I first took the trouble to read them, but for the longest time I had no idea they were in the Bible. The gist of the Beatitudes seemed to be that you should be happy even when you have no earthly reason to be happy because somehow or another (the Beatitudes didn’t say exactly how) things will get better for you. So if your spouse beats you, grin and bear it. If the cupboard is empty, rejoice anyway. If you are persecuted, put up with it and you will be rewarded eventually. This shallow optimism is about the most sense you can make out of these sayings when they stand on their own.
Which is why the Beatitudes should not be left to stand on their own. They follow the joyful proclamation of the nearness of God’s reign manifest in Jesus’ ministry of healing and casting out demons. They are followed by the rest of the Sermon on the Mount which spells out what that reign looks like as it is embodied among Jesus’ disciples. The kingdom of heaven is God’s future for all of creation. Disciples of Jesus are invited to live in that future now.
We Lutherans have always been a little leery of the Sermon on the Mount. After all, we believe in salvation by grace through faith. The Beatitudes seem to say that God’s good gifts are a reward for poverty, meekness, sorrow and persecution. The body of the Sermon is filled with Jesus’ commands that go beyond even the Ten Commandments. We have tended, therefore, to treat the Sermon on the Mount under the rubric of “law” and, more specifically, the “Second Use of the Law.” According to our Lutheran Confessions, the law serves two purposes. First, the law has a “civil” use. It restrains extremes of evil and violent behavior in society. However imperfect our institutions of justice may be, they nevertheless provide a semblance of order so that we can live our lives in relative peace. Such civil justice is, to be sure, a far cry from the justice and righteousness required of God’s people. It is, nevertheless, preferable to chaos and the law of the jungle.
The second use of the law is principally theological. The law serves to reveal to us our sinfulness and our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Lutherans tend to view the Sermon on the Mount principally as a mirror into which we look and discover our need for grace. While I don’t deny that the Sermon does function in that way, I cannot accept the proposition that this is the only use it has. We ought not to take a look into the Sermon, shout “Yikes! Thank God for Jesus,” settle for middle class respectability and let grace bridge the gap between that and perfection. This is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace:” “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (Second edition c. 1951 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 47.
The Sermon on the Mount was meant to be taken seriously, but not as a set of demands placed upon our backs. The Sermon is to be received as a gift, an offer of participation in God’s future now. It is not a list of conditions we must meet, but the tool by which the Holy Spirit forms the mind of Christ in the church. Obviously, we cannot yet live into the Sermon on the Mount perfectly. That is precisely why we “hunger and thirst” for the righteousness we don’t possess while rejoicing in the knowledge that it will one day be given to us. That is why we can afford to be “meek” in a world that rewards assertiveness. That is why we seek peace, show mercy and endure persecution even when it does not appear to pay off. We know that the powers and principalities ruling the world as we know it will finally be overthrown and the kingdom reflected in the Sermon and embodied among Jesus’ disciples will be all in all. We seek God’s transformative grace in communities shaped by the Sermon on the Mount so that when the kingdom of heaven comes, we will recognize it and be the sort of people capable of living in it.
We know very little about the life of the prophet Micah. He was a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and a contemporary of Isaiah, the Judean prophet who preached in the 8th Century B.C.E. Micah preached against the corruption, oppression and idolatry of the Judean monarchy presided over by descendants of King David. Unlike Isaiah, however, who appears to have been a Jerusalem insider with access to the throne, Micah was an outsider from the obscure town of Moresheth. Micah predicts destruction for both Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a consequence of their sin. Interspersed throughout the book of oracles bearing his name are declarations of salvation and promises of liberation. Most scholars believe that these writings come from a prophet living sometime later than Micah preaching to a generation that had already experienced the judgment of defeat and destruction Micah foretold.
In Sunday’s lesson Micah employs a much used literary technique of Hebrew prophets. He places the controversy between God and God’s people of Judah on the stage of a mock court proceeding. The prophet summons his people to answer God’s indictment of their sinfulness, calling upon the mountains to act as witnesses to the proceedings. Vss. 1-2. First God, as plaintiff, sets forth his complaint: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!” vs. 3. God proceeds to recite his acts of salvation for Israel from the Exodus through the wilderness wanderings “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” Vss. 4-5. The prophet weaves together a string of God’s saving acts to illustrate God’s faithfulness to Israel. Verse 4, in which God reminds Israel of his faithfulness in the Exodus, echoes the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2. Obedience to these commands, not mere superficial acts of worship and piety, are the proper response to God’s faithfulness.
The narrative of Balak, king of Moab and Balaam can be found at Numbers 22-24. It contains the delightful story of Balaam’s talking ass. Immediately thereafter follows the not so delightful story of Shittim. Numbers 25:1-5. The people of Israel began to intermingle with the people of Moab, attending their feasts and marrying their daughters. At the Lord’s bidding, Moses responded by hanging the “chiefs of the people” in the presence of the Lord. He then directed the judges of Israel to “slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Peor,” the Moabite deity. You won’t find this little tale in any Sunday School text.
Gilgal was the spot at which Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. See Joshua 3:14-4:24. Thus, the Lord brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness and safely into the Promised Land in spite of her frequent rebellion and unbelief. After such steadfast faithfulness on God’s part, what excuse can the people make for their faithless behavior?
Having no defense to God’s charges, the people respond in verses 6-7, asking what they can do to atone for their sins. They ask whether God will be pleased with more burnt offerings and, if not, whether perhaps the sacrifice of their own children would suffice. The implication here is that the people believe sacrifices, offerings and religious observances can buy God’s favor. They are asking the prophet how much it will take to do the trick. But the prophet replies in verse 8 “don’t give me any of that! You know very well what God wants” (my paraphrase). God is not interested in more offerings or religious observances: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Vs. 8. The power of this response is its stark simplicity. God liberated Israel from Egypt not so that she could become another Egypt oppressing her own people, enslaved to idols and filled with violence. She was given commandments-not because God needs or desires them, but because Israel needs them to preserve the freedom bought for her by her gracious God. These commandments call for obedience to God above all else and love of neighbor. Without such obedience and love, sacrifices, worship and prayer are worth nothing.
It is worth noting that the prophet calls us to walk humbly with our God. Few things frighten me more than people who are certain they know what justice requires. People who are certain have no further need of learning. People who do not learn do not grow. People who do not grow regress to the most infantile level of understanding, i.e., Justice = Retribution. They lose their ability to appreciate ambiguity and to see all sides of every conflict. Every battle is a struggle between good and evil neatly divided along religious, racial, cultural or religious lines. It is always “us against them.” Humble people recognize that genuine learning exposes our lack of understanding and reveals to us how very much more we have yet to learn. Paradoxically, the more you know, the more you realize how much you have to learn. Justice, therefore, must never be done in righteous anger but always with a sober knowledge of the limits placed on human understanding and the flawed nature of all human tribunals and enforcement mechanisms.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world about the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, W, Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self-interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.”
Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”
Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a psalm of “orientation.” Along with the similar Psalm 24, this psalm “reflects only the well-oriented community, one that has not yet addressed a theologically ambiguous or morally disruptive world.” Hence, “it is not inappropriate that access to God be measured in terms of conformity to what is known, trusted, and found reliable.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies, (c. 1984, Augsburg Publishing House) p. 42. As much respect as I have for Professor Brueggamann, I do not share his view of this this psalm. Rather than a naïve faith untested by trials, I believe this psalm reflects a mature prophetic faith. Its message fits neatly into the text from Micah and reinforces the understanding of Israel’s God as one who is interested chiefly in how his people treat one another. Jesus emphasizes this point in his own central teaching: “The first [commandment] is ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31.
This lesson is perhaps the most critical to understanding Paul. Some of his more superficial critics excoriate Paul for ignoring the life and ministry of Jesus to focus only on his crucifixion. Such criticisms ignore the body of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which Paul argues that the life and ministry of Jesus, so far from being irrelevant, are still ongoing within the life of the church. So far from constituting past data, Jesus’ earthly ministry is a present fact in communities where disciples of Jesus continue to break bread in his presence and build one another up in love with the gifts the Spirit pours out upon them.
This love of which Paul speaks is no sentimental ideal. It is a tough, gritty sort of love discovered among people with differing viewpoints, various cultural prejudices and conflicting agendas. We have already seen that the Corinthian church was no happy little commune. It was a place of fragile egos, power hungry factions and loose morals. A person who tries to practice a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7) in such an environment is bound to get his or her heart broken-or crucified. Yet such seemingly “weak” love in the presence of arrogance, pride and coercive force is exactly the life that Jesus lived. Through such “weakness” God demonstrates a love that is so strong that not even death can prevail against it. This “weakness” of God that embraces evil with love is stronger than the divisive forces at work in the Corinthian church seeking to tear it apart.
In this age of polarization in politics and general social discourse, I believe the church is called to reflect an alternative way of living together in community. More than ever, it is critical that we do not become a microcosm of the culture wars raging around us and that our discourse not degenerate to the point of firing the same hackneyed ideological torpedoes dressed in scriptural garb over the familiar fault lines dictated more by political/commercial/social interests than by any recognizable faith commitment. There is a better way to be in community. The church at Corinth, for all of its shortcomings, was such a community. At least the Apostle Paul felt that way about it.
Last week in Matthew 4:12-25 we witnessed the commencement of Jesus’ mission and his proclamation: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Matthew 4:17. Crowds from all over the region are drawn to Jesus and, seeing them, he ascends “the mountain.” Surrounded by his disciples (four at this point that we know of), he sits down and opens his mouth to teach them. It was customary for rabbis to sit when teaching their disciples and the Semitic idiom, “he opened his mouth” adds a note of solemnity to the beginning of this very public address. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 193. The location of the “mountain” or whether it actually was anything like a mountain is altogether beside the point. Matthew’s use of the term is a literary device drawing parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the revelation of Torah, though as with all Hebrew Scriptural parallels we should not push this one too far. Matthew does not wish us to understand Jesus as another Moses or the Sermon on the Mount as another set of commandments. Jesus’ teaching here follows upon his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the shape that kingdom is to take among his disciples as the new age is actualized in the midst of the old.
Thus, the “beatitudes” cannot be interpreted as disembodied sayings printed on a refrigerator magnet. They must be read in the light of the exciting news of heaven’s dawning kingdom that Jesus has begun to inaugurate. For the sake of this kingdom, it is a joy to suffer hunger, mourning and persecution. The hunger for righteousness is a sweet hunger anticipating satisfaction. Persecution at the hands of an unbelieving world only reinforces the disciple’s confidence that the battle has been joined and that s/he is on the victorious side. There is nothing masochistic about the beatitudes. They do not promote suffering for suffering’s sake. They promote joyful anticipation of God’s reign of plenty for all people and a willingness to sacrifice gladly all for the sake of that gentle reign.
For this reason I do not buy into the notion advanced by some scholars that Matthew has “spiritualized” the more earthy beatitudes set forth in the Gospel of Luke at Luke 6:20-23. As in Luke, Matthew sees in the difficult human circumstances he calls “blessed” marks of faithful discipleship lived out in the joyful expectation of the coming reign of God. It is important to understand here that the “kingdom of heaven” is not some otherworldly paradise. “On the one hand, God’s future will not negate his creation; what he has created and done in history will be brought by him to a significant goal. On the other hand, this will not be the result of human efforts and historical processes, but will be entirely God’s doing. It follows that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are deeply interested in what is taking shape on this earth: God is controlling history, and God will bring his Kingdom about in the events on this earth. Therefore our Gospel [of Matthew] closes with authority given to Jesus “in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) pp. 90-91.
The beatitudes constituting our lesson for Sunday are a profoundly significant part of the Sermon on the Mount as Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out: “The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon-precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn and some will be meek.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas) p. 61. In short, the beatitudes are not virtues to be acquired, but the expected consequence of living as subjects in the kingdom of heaven as will be spelled out in the balance of the Sermon.
In many respects the Sermon on the Mount expresses in teaching form the meaning of “love” that is so beautifully expressed in St. Paul’s hymn at I Corinthians 13. In both the Sermon and Paul’s hymn, the cross stands at the center. This is because the cross is the form the kingdom of heaven invariably takes in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. But as Paul reminds us, this seemingly weak and impotent expression of love in the cross is stronger than all the world’s violent hatred.