Did I Hear Someone Laugh?January 28, 1996, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Did I hear someone laugh? Were you not listening? That was the conclusion of the 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who at a Sunday afternoon dinner announced that he had read the beatitudes in church that morning and no one had laughed. His sardonic conclusion? No one was listening! How can you listen to the beatitudes and not laugh?
After all, what is fortunate about being poor, grieving, being meek? Don't we consider such conditions a curse? What blessing is there in hungering and thirsting after righteousness, being merciful or a peacemaker? Are not the merciful thought of as pushovers, an easy mark, peacemakers starry-eyed dreamers who have no sense of reality about them, and the pure in heart, a bothersome lot with their single minded devotion? Persecution for righteousness sake? We pity, perhaps even laud the persecuted, but call it a blessing, rejoice and be glad because of what it signifies? How can we read this with a straight face?
Following his baptism, Jesus emerges from the wilderness announcing that the reign of God has come near.1 Having called to himself disciples as well as a large crowd of other followers, and having proclaimed the good news of the kingdom as well as demonstrated it through "curing every disease and every sickness among the people,"2 Jesus sits down to teach what it means to live in the kingdom as one of his disciples. It is anything but what the wisdom of this world would expect. In fact, from the world's perspective it is patent foolishness. As I said, what blessing is there in being poor?
In Luke's version of this beatitude, Jesus says "Blessed are you who are poor."3 Matthew has added the words "in spirit." It is not an attempt to spiritualize poverty as some noble virtue. Rather, from as early as the time of the Psalms the phrase "the poor" had been a phrase characterizing the true people of God, those who knew their lives were not in their own control, but dependent upon God. When Matthew adds poor "in spirit" he brings a new dimension to this promise. It is not the Pharisees, not the learned scribe or rabbis, not the minister or guru who is truly blessed, says Jesus. The people destined for the kingdom of heaven are those who know their own spiritual poverty. Astounding! Have you ever yearned to be more spiritual? Have you ever lamented that the things of the spirit seemed too remote for you to achieve, that yours was to stumble along at the mundane level of life in business, the arts, one of the professions, while others soared into the spiritual reaches of the heavens? Hear this good news: Your's is the kingdom of heaven! Now, I am not going to preach my way through each of the nine beatitudes -- relax! Today, let us step back and grasp them from a broader perspective, so that they can become more than just a laughing matter.
What is a beatitude? The Greek word behind our text can mean "blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged, well off." In a religious context it connotes some kind of special favor by God. Beatitudes were common in Judaism; Jesus did not invent them! They are found in the Hebrew scriptures in two forms, one based on the wisdom tradition, the other on the prophetic tradition. The wisdom tradition declares the blessing of those in fortunate circumstances which all may observe. There is the parental beatitude: "Blessed are those who can rejoice in their children."4 There is the politician's beatitude: "Blessed are those who live to see the downfall of their foes."5 There is the preacher's beatitude: "Blessed is the one who speaks to attentive listeners."6 In these, the blessing is obvious, the kind of beatitude that makes the nine from the Sermon on the Mount sound laughable.
But there is another tradition -- the prophetic beatitude -- which speaks of a future of blessedness for those who are currently in dire circumstances, but who will ultimately be vindicated by God.7 That is the nature of the nine which open the Sermon on the Mount. Before Jesus moves on to describe discipleship, he makes nine extraordinary promises. That is to say, the beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living, much less nine spiritual laws for success. Nor are these requirements for getting into heaven, not even entrance requirements for discipleship. They are simply promises of the kingdom itself.
The circumstance is always simply stated -- poverty, grief, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, persecuted for righteousness sake, persecuted for Jesus' sake -- how things are in the world for a people who strive to live the gospel. The words always appear in the indicative case. They are never imperatives, not even exhortations, demands nor admonitions. They are not moralisms about how to improve or increase our virtue as a people. They are Jesus' straight forward assessment of how things are in this world for a people who, in the words of our first lesson, strive to do justice, love steadfast kindness, and walk humbly with God.
But next comes an unconditional declaration of what will be. The grieving will not be only comforted, but given strength. The meek will inherit the earth. It is an euphemism for living in the coming new heaven and new earth. Jesus is quoting Psalm 37:11, which goes on to say the meek shall "delight themselves in abundant prosperity." Those our world regularly walks on will, in the coming world, delight themselves in abundant prosperity. Those, who have renounced the politics of violence, who go about the vexing, exhausting, and in today's world, life-threatening business of trying to make peace will hear this word spoken to them from the throne of grace: "You are my own dear child, enter the joy prepared for you from before the foundation of the world." Those who have sought a righteous world, who have deflected discouragement, and refused to abandon their earnest search for a just order of things, are promised they will one day live in just such a world. Those, who have devoted themselves to acts of mercy will themselves receive what they have given. Each is a divine promise, nine declarations about the blessing awaiting those who seek to live out of God's reign in this world.8
As God's reign is breaking into our world -- especially among Jesus' people -- it is only natural that we should catch glimpses of such living within the people of God. Each is a sign reminding us that God's reign is already at hand, signs that have power to draw each of us into such living as well. Let me illustrate what I mean. Not all in this community are "poor in spirit." But some are. You who are, keep the rest of us honest about our doubts, and less triumphal about our accomplishments. You remind us that all of (the) truth that Christian life is finally, not achievement, but a divine gift to be received in gratitude and joy. Not all of us are mourning, but you who are, discover in this community a power which not only comforts, but gives strength to continue. Not all of us hunger and thirst for righteousness, but some of you do, becoming the leaven that continues to call all of us to share more purposefully in God's work in this world. The humble generosity of one of you always challenges me to go and do likewise, while the ravenous hunger and slakeless thirst for righteousness by another of you is a constant reminder that being Christian is about more than simply accepting God's grace. Not all of us pursue God with the single minded devotion which the scriptures label "pure of heart." Most of us can say of ourselves, as Augustine did in his confession, that we regularly turn from God only to lose ourselves among a multiplicity of other things.9 But the single-minded among us -- the pure in heart -- call us back by their devotion to God, and remind us that all of life is fundamentally about walking humbly with God. And as each of you reveal the breaking in of God's reign in your own life, you draw the rest of us more deeply into that reign as well, and we become more single minded, more merciful, more ravenous for justice. Your life becomes a reminder that God's reign is already at hand, to enable us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Jesus sat down to teach the church as more than a learned rabbi, eastern master, spiritual guru, or even a second Moses on the Mountain top, passing on the law from God. Though Matthew portrays him as each of those, he tells us Jesus is more. He is God's Son, speaking God's Word to the church, making nine promises in the future tense.10 In the future tense they remind us, this is not a philosophy of life, much less a program for how to become spiritually successful as a precondition to all forms of other success. These are nine blessing of the gospel which remind us that God's future is a time of blessing not curse, a time of mercy rather than punishment, a time when all will finally have what they have so yearned for and needed in life. That's no laughing matter -- that's good news!
- Matthew will regularly use "heaven" as a way of avoiding having to use the name of God. He is simply following the Jewish custom of the day, which refused to speak God's name as a sign of deepest piety and respect.
- Matthew 4:23-25
- Luke 6:20
- Sirach 25:7
- Sirach 25:7
- Sirach 25:9
- Isaiah 30:18; 32:20; Daniel 12:12, and in the New Testament, beyond the gospels, predominately in the Book of Revelation: 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7 and 22:14.
- M. Eugene Boring, "Matthew," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 170.
- Augustine Confessions 2.1 "While turned from Thee, the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things."
- M. Eugene Boring observes that all have the future tense in the second clause, except 5:3 (the poor) and 5:10 (persecuted for righteousness sake), which have the futuristic present; a suggestion that God's presence and power is a greater present reality to those in such circumstances. Boring, Op Cit., p. 178
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