God's honouring - A non lectionary sermon based on matt 5: 1-12
And so today we come to those beatitudes spoken by Jesus with which Matthew begins the Sermon on the Mount. As a means of wisdom beatitudes were hardly unknown at the time of Jesus. Normally they were commonsense sayings which reflected the widely held wisdom of the day. But spoken from the mouth of Jesus they stun us with their audacity for they turn norms upside down. They herald a view of the world that is in essence counter cultural then and indeed now.
But before we go any further we need to pause and look at the word “blessed.” Some translations use the Greek word “makarios” differently. The Good News Bible which has many merits translates it as “happy” which seems a tad trite when talking for example of the poor or those who mourn. It does not work. A French translation of the Jerusalem bible translates it as “debonair” which stretches the imagination somewhat. Even “blessed” seems to give us a less than clear understanding. The translation that seems to me to be both accurate and helpful is “honoured.”
To fully appreciate this, it helps to appreciate that the world in which Jesus lived was dominated by an “honour” culture. Your connections especially family connections determined your own importance. Come from a poor family and live without meaningful patronage and you belonged at the bottom of the pile. Who you were connected to was vitally important. And to lose those connections was a devastating experience both materially and in terms of your social standing.
Remember this was a time when wealth, health and success were seen by the religious professionals and doubtless most people as being evidence of god’s approval.
So when Jesus speaks his beatitudes what people hear stuns them. This is no boring shopping list. This is not the way they have normally heard it. Indeed to many of those listening what they hear makes about as much sense as the glorious mishearing in “The Life of Brian” - you know the one “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.”
So this morning as we hear whom God honours let us prepare to be both stunned and challenged.
The first beatitude speaks of honouring the poor in spirit. I draw your attention to the word for “poor” in the Greek translations. That word is “ptochos.” This word means destitute to the point of being forced to beg. And that was a painful reality at the time of Jesus. After all this was a time when landowners were able to expand their estates by forcing peasants into indebtedness. Commentators reckon that close on 20% of the people were in this state of destitution. Furthermore a good 60% lived with a real danger that a bad throw of the dice would put them in such a situation. The danger of extreme poverty was all around. And given the makeup of those who followed Jesus, we can be in no doubt that such as these were well represented in the crowd that surrounded Jesus. But “in spirit” is something we are often tempted to spiritualise away. We can after all then make it safe. But I think Mark allen Powell probably gets nearer the truth when he writes;
“In Matthew’s Gospel the poor in spirit are not people who trust in God because they have no reason for hope in the world. They are people who have no reason fro hope in this world, period. The presence or strength of their trust in god remains unaddressed in this beatitude, although if anything, the implication of the Matthean phrase would be that it is slight.”
So I suggest to you that what Jesus is speaking of here is the dehumanising effects of poverty. And as an aside this should never be far from our minds as even in our nation and the continent of Europe, people are increasingly experiencing this reality - after all is it not said that most people are but a couple of steps from the poverty that casts them out of community life. So here Jesus speaks in solidarity with the poor just as Old Testament prophets had done so often in their confrontations with the Kings of Israel and Judah. God honours the poor rather than the successes who drive others to poverty!
The next beatitude concerns those who mourn. Certainly by the time Matthew’s Gospel hit the Christian communities, they knew what it was to often be rejected within their own families. Family was important. It was at the heart of identity. So the loss of family, especially parents through death or disownment came with a heavy price. And Matthew’s community would have contained many who had been rejected by family because they were followers of Jesus. Yet Jesus here suggests that they and indeed those whose experience of life is wretched, too are honoured and can rely on his comfort when there are no other arms to embrace them.
The third beatitude addresses the matter of the meek . The Greek word here “praus” can be translated not just as the “humble” but also as the “humiliated.” This may be the result of poverty or rejection amongst other things. But first and foremost this refers to those who have been denied a fair deal in God’s world. They have been the “nobodies” in so many eyes. And yet now they receive the promise that they inherit (no need to earn it) their reward from the God who values and honours them in a proper sense.
And then Jesus turns in the fourth beatitude to those who long for justice to the point of literally being hungry or thirsty. In a way this beatitude underlines those that have gone before. This sums up all that is in the previous three beatitudes allied to a dream of a world in which all are honoured and none are put to shame.
These first four beatitudes speak in terms of God honouring those who lack justice and a positive experience of life. But now comes a change of emphasis. Jesus turns his attention to those who dare to work for justice.
So the fifth beatitude speaks for the merciful. Mercy is sometimes in short supply in our world. During the past week we have seen reports of the execution in Georgia of Troy Davis for a killing 2 decades ago concerning which most of the prosecution witnesses had changed their mind. But mercy there jolly well wasn’t - only cold blooded state murder from a justice system that sets itself against justice! But mercy is a much wider concept than the commuting of a death sentence. It is about the active compassion that doesn’t just feel sorry for the sufferings of others but which actively seeks to alleviate it. It is about the active compassion that is for the undeserving as well as the deserving. Think for a moment of Sister Helen Prejean an American nun who has been alongside many on Death Row, both the guilty and the innocent, whose desire that their final experience in life be of love, a woman whose story is told in the book and film entitled “Dead Man Walking.” Yes here we see Jesus telling us that those who exercise this active compassion are honoured by God.
The sixth beatitude speak of the pure in heart. Now please do not get excited. This is not so much about naughty thoughts and the likes which when preached on tend simply to leave people with awful guilt complexes. The Greek word “kardia” is more about resisting pretence. It is about having an undivided heart or a single passion for God and God’s ways. It is in reality about resisting the drumbeat of conformity to tattered and destructive orthodoxies but being open to the mind and heart being transformed by God into a whole new way of being.
And then the seventh beatitude speaks of the peacemakers. This is those who bring god’s shalom into the world. But once again we find the Jesus way is a challenge to the orthodoxies of the day. You see at the time of Jesus the myth was that the real peacemakers were the Roman army. “Peace through victory” was advocated - about as coherent a philosophy as chastity through ceaseless promiscuity! Octavian who became Augustus Caesar had been proclaimed a “peacemaker” after his victories ended the Roman Civil War. But this view was not the peacemaking of Jesus and his followers. For at least until it was subverted by Emperor Constantine’s takeover of the church in the fourth century, Christian came to see peacemaking as being about the righting of wrongs and the treating of all peoples with dignity. And that remains at the heart of true peacemaking today.
As for eighth beatitude it speaks of those who are persecuted for the cause of justice, the ongoing story of those who work for the dignity of others. It was his speaking for justice amongst other things that made Jesus some very dangerous enemies who would ultimately execute him. And the pursuit of justice has always meant colliding with vested interests. Think for a moment of the violence meted out on the early campaigners against the transatlantic slave trade well before the Willberforce Act went through Parliament. Or think of the American nuns who helped the poor of El Salvador in their struggles againt gross exploitation by the dominant landed families and the death squads, nuns who were eventually raped and murdered for being true followers of Jesus. On that dark night when they were slaughtered, talk of them being honoured must have seen hollow but that is precisely what Jesus says they are by God.
And then finally in the very last of the beatitudes, Jesus turns his attention from the third person to the second person. Now he tells them and by implication Matthew’s community that they are honoured when reviled and persecuted on his account. To Matthew’s community this must have been precious. In so many ways the practices of the early community of Jesus followers had moved far away from many of the hitherto norms of society and historical writings suggest that Christianity was regarded as a “despised sect.” But through the many trials they could know that they were honoured by God. And as we follow Jesus that may well become precious to us.
So here is Jesus offering a new and counter cultural vision. His followers are set free to see the world in a new way. The poet James Russell Lowell puts it well:
“They are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who fear to be
In the right with two or three.”
This morning we gather as those granted freedom by God revealed in Jesus. So I ask you but two simple questions. Firstly, will you honour those whom God honours? And secondly will you be those whom God honours?