We Are To Be!

Posted: January 26, 2023 in Uncategorized

We Are To Be!

In today’s gospel story we have the beginnings of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes. Some have even paraphrased the title as: ‘Be-Attitudes’ or ‘Attitudes for Being’. It is a very well-known section of the gospel story and we probably have heard a similar story – from Luke, and most probably last year. But Matthew’s story is not the same as Luke’s.  However, Luke’s version is written after Matthew, and it is likely that he is using earlier material. That said, the Luke story is about the poor, the hungry and those who weep. He is clearly talking about human need and he reflects Jesus’ sayings that when God’s reign is enacted, there will be change but it will be good news for only certain people. The poor. The hungry. The depressed. Whereas in Matthew’s story we find that these promises have undergone some change.  Matthew’s focus is less on the needy, and they have been somewhat ‘spiritualised’. Matthew’s focus is more on the hearers who need to be challenged to take up new attitudes.

[Former] 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 behaviour you need to develop”.  (Loader web site 2005).

Now, whether Jesus actually preached a so-called ‘sermon’ like this or not, is debatable. Much recent scholarship reckons he didn’t, and that what we have here is an edited collection of sayings. What seemed to matter for Matthew the storyteller, was the building-up of his young, struggling house-churches. 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 and stretch their imaginations.

The Inclusive Language Lectionary from which we gained our version today uses the words “Happy are…” ‘Happy’ is a word which seems to jar as somewhat strange and even superficial and not everyone is happy with the ‘happy’ translation. A few commentators reckon it makes Jesus out to be some kind of “pop psychologist”.  (Sarah Dylan Breuer). However, I like Rex Hunts response to that when he asks, “doesn’t everyone strive to be ‘happy’?” And besides, doesn’t the more familiar translation, ‘Blessed’ open to the irritating touch of the pious. There is a third suggestion around and that is to replace ‘blessed’, the traditional term derived from the Latin, with its modern equivalent ‘congratulations!’ For in these sayings “Jesus declares that certain groups are in God’s special favour”. (Funk 1993:138) And then there is a fourth one which is to translate the Greek as ‘honoured’ . (J H Neyrey). Honoured are you when you make the greatest claim for others; Honoured are you when you bring peace rather than being a source of dissension; Honoured are you when you act non-violently in the face of violence.

Matthew sets the stage and he does that in story… A story which has us and the members of his collection of house churches, 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 is more an incentive to want to do away with all that oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, imprisons others. The challenge is one of attitudes, assumptions and systemic culture akin to that which we call colonialism, inculturation and a number of social, political and economic isms. 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’”.

In all these story suggestions we can sense Matthew’s hope that at least some of the house-church membership will reply: Yes, we know that’s risky. Yes, we know that means change. But… we can be that!  Our hope for the future lies with us in this. We can live out that dream! We can make that happen. And like Matthew’s house-churches, we are also invited to listen. To discern, to hear the alternative, to seek the better, the alternative. Like Matthew’s house-churches, we too can respond: And yes, that will be risky because we will be changed. And like the members of Matthew’s house-churches, we can. accept that we will not get it all right first time, that we need to adapt and move during the change. It will not be perfect. But it will be with the strongest of intent because it is about the attitude of the common good, the compassionate and the loving..

One of the challenges we in New Zealand face at this time is the upcoming 2023 national elections. In my view we have had a leader who took on a challenge to change attitudes to the poor and disadvantaged, and to the adversarial attitudinal them and us approach. The stigmatization of difference, and to the individualist propensity to isolate the frightening. Some argue that this last battle was hugely difficult and even divisive. What was possible lost in this was the theme of the search for wellbeing. The nation was once again sucked into an adversarial mode and we know now of the vitriolic, bigotry, the racism and stereotyping that such an approach revealed and we were reminded of the challenge of the beatitudes. Happy are the  poor that, Blessed are the poor, Honoured are the poor. We are forced to ask: how does that happen without a change of heart? How does a nation change its attitude? Can it change? The danger of the election process is that we lose sight of who are we to be and get caught up in the need to win and to control our world as if our ideals are absolutes of right when the reality is that life is dynamic and can only succeed with attitudes of compassion and love. The task of politics is the wellbeing of the people ad it can only happen within an attitude of love, Love for the people, Love for those who struggle to be able to be who they are called to be. Fully functioning members of the society that we name New Zealand. It wasn’t called the ’team of 5 million’ for nothing. It wasn’t about the battle between the centralization verses the privatisation of resources and control, it was about the attitude towards each other as human beings on this populated planet called Earth. Surely we have learnt that the way we have been doing things, the attitudes we have towards each other, towards the planet and to wards the cosmos cannot be sustained. Time to read the beatitudes again it seems? Amen.

Bibliography: Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005. Funk, R. W. et al. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan Publishing, 1993. Jerome H. Neyrey. <http://www.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/loss.html&gt; “Honoring the Dishonored: The Cultural Edge of Jesus’ Beatitudes,”

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