THE ‘BEST WE CAN’ BE-ATITUDES…

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 4A, 2017 Matthew 5:1-11

THE ‘BEST WE CAN’ BE-ATITUDES…

In this morning’s gospel story we have the beginnings of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes. Indeed, some have even paraphrased the title as: ‘Be-Attitudes’ or ‘Attitudes for Being’. And the first thing we might say is that we have heard all this before, is there anything else that can be said? The truth is that it is very likely you have but you also know me and I am always on the lookout for the alternative.

The first thing to note is that the core of this passage is thought to be from Q—the source common to Luke and Matthew to which Matthew adds material. These beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first major speech, of five, in Matthew’s gospel. The beatitudes are thought not to be a sermon from the mouth of Jesus but rather a collection of sayings that he may well have uttered put together. Our text follows immediately upon a summary statement of Jesus’ ministry in chapter 4:  “And (Jesus) was going about in all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing all disease and all sickness in the people.” (4:23)

The Beatitudes are not, themselves, the gospel but rather in Lutheran terms, they are “law.”  They tell us what we ought to do.  Matthew has a sequence that he follows. First the gospel is announced, and its effects demonstrated (4:23).  Then, Jesus instructs his followers, or would-be followers, on how to live in its light.  The gospel comes first.  This makes the so-called Sermon on the Mount a response to the gospel and consequently a challenge to ones behaviour.

As with all the stories there is a Hebrew scripture on which it is based. In our reading from Micah, a prophet in eighth century B.C.E. Judah, addressed listeners who were familiar with the proper sacrifices that the law required them to bring to the temple. Burnt offerings, thanksgiving offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings–all these and more were required at certain times of the year or under certain circumstances. The idea behind an offering was that God would be pleased by the sacrifice and forgive sin, grant a request, or give a blessing.

Like the beatitudes, Micah questioned the very heart of their belief system when he challenged them to sacrifice their lives, not their animals: “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?” Animal sacrifices weren’t bad, as long as they accompanied proper behaviour. They were certainly no substitute for right living.

This is the same challenge as that of the beatitudes in that people of all religious persuasions put too much emphasis on either doctrines or peripheral behaviours and put too little emphasis on what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law” (a probable reference to this passage from Micah). Thus is a direct challenge to those who attend church or temple or synagogue or mosque regularly but take no direct action to combat poverty? It is a challenge to those who think they are obeying God by killing others in God’s name? And to those who think of themselves as righteous but who have a cavalier attitude about the sufferings of others, particularly if the “others” belong to a different nation, tribe, ethnic group, or religion?

To do justice means, stand up for the underdog, side with the weak, and oppose the powerful when they use their power to oppress others. To love kindness means to remember the bond that we share with our fellow humans, a bond that crosses barriers of ethnicity, nationality, language, social status, gender, or sexual orientation. To walk humbly with God means to realize that no matter how certain we are about our beliefs and values, we must always allow for the possibility that we do not have the totality of God’s wisdom or truth on our side; in other words, we might be wrong, and our adversaries might be right. If we as people who are serious in our commitment to follow God will observe these “requirements,” and if we can persuade our neighbours and governments to do the same, the world will be a much better place.

All the discussion surrounding the American Election and the new President could be said to be about this concern. Like the President of the Phillipines policy, is absolutizing the law? Is laying down the law by letter the way to create a better world, sure it will purge the cities of the drug dealers but will it make a better world? Is the way to control immigration, globalisation, and encourage growth, about putting up walls, closing borders and encouraging extremism, or is it about seeing the limitations of law and doctrine and finding a non-violent, loving response.

 

Matthew takes a structural and spiritual approach to these texts than Luke when he argues that this new kingdom, or reign of God will be one where more than the hearers will be challenged to take up new attitudes. All in every situation will need to deal with this issue. West Australian Bill Loader offers this suggestion for the change in emphasis: “Love and compassion are the hallmark of the discipleship for which Jesus calls… Perhaps this reflects the kind of people who made up Matthew’s community.  So… the beatitudes have been changed from promises to the poor and hungry to challenges to people to be ‘poor in spirit’ and to ‘hunger after righteousness’… attitudes and behaviours you need to develop”  (Loader web site 2005).

Justice is not just about simple political policy, nor is ot about imposing a rule of law. Justice is more complex because it is a heart thing as well. It is spiritual. For a behaviour to be effective it has to come from the heart and from a holistic well thought through base. Other-wise it will not stick. It will not be lasting and sound. It might perhaps fill the space of rhetoric for four years but it will not shape the nation or contribute to a long lasting character..

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story about a bright young man who was a pre-med student at an American university. To reward him for having done so well in school, his parents gave him a trip to the Asia for the summer. While there he met a guru who said to him, “Don’t you see how you are poisoning your soul with this success-oriented way of life? Your idea of happiness is to stay up all night studying for an exam so you can get a better grade than your best friend. Your idea of a good marriage is not to find the woman who will make you whole, but to win the girl that everyone else wants. “That’s not how people are supposed to live,” the sage admonished. “Give it up; come join us in an atmosphere where we all share and love each other.”

 

The young man had completed four years at a competitive high school to get into Universty, plus two years of pre-med courses at the university. He was ripe for this sort of approach. He called his parents from Tokyo and told them he would not be coming home. He was dropping out of school to live in an ashram (a spiritual retreat). Six months later, his parents got this letter from him:

 

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know you weren’t happy with the decision I made last summer, but I want to tell you how happy it has made me. For the first time in my life, I am at peace. Here there is no competing, no hustling, no trying to get ahead of anyone else. Here we are all equal and we all share. This way of life is so much in harmony with the inner essence of my soul that in only six months I’ve become the number two disciple in the entire ashram, and I think I can be number one by June!

You can take the boy out of the rat race, but can you take the rat race out of the boy? Here is the subtle change that Matthew brings to the text. His widening of the text to include all human activity he suggests like the story there is concern for people’s narrow and dangerous ideas about success. Achieving more, getting more, becoming number one. Not that there is anything wrong with healthy achievement. It’s just that there is a difference between earning well and living well. A successful life is not always a high-achieving life. Sometimes it is about accomplishing a worthwhile goal, even a private, personal victory. Sometimes it is about improving one’s character. Sometimes success is best defined by living into one’s own personal mission, or finding a meaningful purpose to organize one’s life around. And sometimes it is about learning how to live in peace, happiness, generosity and love.

Someone put it like this: “I spent my life frantically climbing the ladder of success. When I got to the top I realized it was leaning against the wrong building.” Even if she got to the top first, it made no difference. There is no merit in being first to arrive at the wrong place in life. I am personally always challenged by this when I go on holiday. I drive to the speed limit and sometimes over it. I take advantage of most passing lanes and it seems like I am passing lots of cars, only to find that when I get to the next community and all of us slow down all those I passed are just behind me. We can be successful in ways that matter and that is not about always being first. And our life can be truly meaningful and that is not about always being right. If we are leaning our ladder against the right building, it doesn’t even matter if we make it to the top. Any life spent going after things that count, will count as a life well spent.

What seemed to matter for Matthew the storyteller, was the building-up of his young, struggling community. And to do that Matthew had to recruit more followers who would take upon themselves the responsibility for dreaming and for re-imagining the world. But they had little or no inkling how to live out that dream. How to be a ‘kingdom’ of equals. So, Matthew tells a story… of Jesus leading a group of supporters to the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he, Jesus, begins to teach stretch their imaginations.

In conclusion then, Matthew sets the stage.  And he does that in story… A story which has us and the members of his community overhearing a Jesus’ conversation… A story which invites a response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the powerful goings-on of the ‘empire’. And encouraging a response that will want to do away with all that oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and imprisons others.

To borrow some 21st century words of social commentator, Hugh Mackay: “The acid test of the decency of any society [or group] is the way it deals with the disadvantaged, the drop-outs, the criminals and, yes, the ‘aliens’”  (SMH, 2 February 2005. p22).

While the list a disadvantaged for the Americans might seem longer it is the same for us here in New Zealand. The test will be not only how you and I treat the disadvantaged but also how the government administration treats them. While our numbers may be less the issues of equity are very similar.

In all these story suggestions we can sense Matthew’s hope that at least some of the community will reply:  Gosh that risky stuff. If we do it will mean change. But… we can be that!  We can live out that dream! Like Matthew’s community, we are also invited to listen and to respond: The same. But… we can be that!  We can live out that dream! Not perfectly. But as best we can on any given day. Amen.

Notes: Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005. Funk, R. W. et al. 1993.  The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan Publishing. Jerome H. Neyrey. <http://www.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/loss.html&gt; “Honoring the dishonored: The cultural edge of Jesus’ Beatitudes,”

 

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