Matthew 5:1-12 (Epiphany 4A)
by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon
“Happy are people who are hopeless. Happy are people who grieve. Happy are people who are humble. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness.” (CEB) The teachings of Jesus sound every inch contrary to what many of us are taught to define “happiness” in this world. Happy are people who are poor? No, they are miserable and need to rely on the generosity of the rich. Happy are people who grieve? No, grief is for people who are weak. You just need to move on and get on with your life. Happy are people who are humble? No, being humble makes you look small and even pathetic. Just pretend that you are more knowledgeable, powerful, and affluent than others and even humiliate them before others, if necessary.
The message of the Beatitude could sound not only counter-cultural but also divisive among the listeners, as the animosity, resentment, and frustration between the conservative and progressive in our society grow against each other. In The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Peter Gomes shares the sermon he preached after the 2004 presidential election in which George W. Bush was elected as the next president of the U.S. As he preached from another version of Beatitudes found in Luke, Gomes sensed that the Republicans in his congregation took offensive that he was “trashing their recent victory in general.” Meanwhile, the democrats were “delighted by the prospect of a biblically mandated reversal of fortune,” thinking that their preacher was taking side with them. He corrects both sides as wrong saying, “I preached simply what the gospel presented and, alas, situational listening did the rest” (30).
Gomes points out that the gospel message comes as scandalous to everyone, regardless of our political parties or theological spectrum, if we feel comfortable with the way thing are in the world today. People who are satisfied with the status quo would not only find offensive the radical vision that the gospel presents but also even rejects Jesus and his teachings, finally leading to the scandalous news of the cross. So, many preachers and Christians may wish to present the gospel eliminating its “rough edges,” trying to find the middle ground and eventually worshipping “niceness” as their God (30). When people stop at the door and comment to their pastor, “You preached such a great sermon today,” what do they mean by such praise?
Many biblical commentators seem to smooth the rough edges of the Beatitudes in Matthew by saying that the teachings of Jesus are not necessarily imperative but indicative. For example, Roland J. Allen, a distinguished scholar of homiletics, is not the only one when he comments, “The Beatitudes are not imperatives (commands) but are indicative statements – descriptions of the way things are (Feasting on the Word: Year A, 740). Such an interpretation reflects an effort to avoid moralistic or legalistic preaching in the pulpit. However, when it comes to life, death, and resurrection of Christ, what is indicative seems to imply imperative as well. After Jesus gave a parable of the Good Samaritan, he also commanded the legal expert, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Our witness to who Jesus is and what he did is bound to guide us in our moral lives.
Several years ago, a group of people from my former church in CT went down to Philadelphia for a mission trip. Both youths and adults slept in a dormitory without an air conditioner for a week. During the day, we worked at houses in impoverished areas, doing some simple construction work. I remember one of the youths commented, “Watching these underprivileged people makes me realize how privileged I am.” Well, she is not wrong about her interpretation. Sometimes, we need to step out of our comfortable space to learn about other people who do not enjoy the same privilege as we do. However, the Beatitudes are more radical than realizing how fortunate we are. They turn upside down our notion of who is happy and who is miserable in this world. Jesus looks at the poor, victimized, oppressed, and stupid enough to show mercy, have hope in God, and pursue peace, and tells them, “Blessed are you…”
2 thoughts on “Lectionary Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12 (January 29, 2023)”
This reminds me of several things I’ve read:
– That people in the average migrant labor camp have a better sense of community and less loneliness than people in the average suburbs.
– In the book CIty of Joy, by Dominique Lapierre about a rural family moving to the city slums in India, there truly was joy in that community. There was heartbreak and tragedy, too, but joy was there.
Both of these lead me to reflect on joy vs. pleasure. The former runs much deeper and seems to apply to the attitudes described by Christ. This is much what C.S. Lewis was writing about in his book Surprised by Joy about his conversion to Christianity.
I think the aspect of community is one thing these examples have in common.
Bryan Stevenson of Just Mercy. has said that we must be informed by proximity, being close to the conditions and people we want to help. He has a good interview in the archives of One Being, a radio show I hear on the computer.
Stevenson won an award we seldom hear about- The Right Livelihood Award, described as the Alternative Nobel prize. https://rightlivelihood.org/
I like Peter Gomes, too. He came to Ocean Park as a guest preacher for one week each summer. We were lucky to hear him there.
Thank you for this excellent comment, Melinda.