Scots Church Adelaide
Blessings, not Lists

Lectionary: Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely- on my account.
‘12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

Some churches have bible studies in which they work through each of The Blessings, or  Beatitudes,  a week at a time, but  we preachers are going to sum them all up in  few minutes this Sunday! What might be some of the overarching themes of this densely packed beginning to Jesus’ mountain sermon?

For Matthew, Jesus is the new and greater Moses. Today is the beginning of his teaching... the first sermon we see, if you like.

If Jesus is the new Moses, and he has also gone up the mountain, then these ten sayings we call The Beatitudes are Jesus’ version of The Ten Commandments. How are we to  hear them?

When we listen to the giving of the law in Deuteronomy, we are told repeatedly, not to become complacent in the land (Deut 4:25) or we “will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed.”  Instead, we are told,   “You must follow exactly the path that the Lord (your) God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess. (Deut 5:33)  If we, today, wish to “live long in the land” these Beatitudes are the sayings by which to live, so that we do not become complacent. It also says in Deuteronomy, that “This is no trifling matter for you, but rather your very life.” (Deut 32:47) Or as Matthew says later: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ (17:5)

The Ten Commandments are... well, commands. They are significant claims on how life was to be lived; a codified list. If we actually followed these commandments as a society, things might not be too bad.

Of course a list of commands has limitations. They reflect their milieu; wives do rather seem to be male property in the minds of the writers. Any set of commands, which we are to obey to the letter, rather than in spirit, will always be limited and constrained by their origins. Which is not to mention the common observation that some strident proponents of such lists often fail the practical test of adherence, along with the rest of us.

Read the commandments:

Exodus 20: Then God spoke these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work.

10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days theLord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

The Blessings are different.

Although there is still a certain distance between God and the people, the disciples are allowed on the mountain with Jesus. (cf Matt 5:1, Exodus 19:23)

And the content and form of all these new commandments is utterly distant from that of the old.

God is no longer testing the people with “fire and cloud.” (Ex 20:18-21 etc) God is speaking unalloyed blessing through Jesus.  Each statement, no longer a command, is a blessing. Only the last is any sense a “command,” and it begins, “Rejoice...”  Or perhaps there are only nine commandments, all blessings.

The Blessings are the blessing of a particular style of life. And it is surely significant that they say “Blessed are...” not "Blessed will be..."  We, for in the end they address us, are not commanded how to live; there is no list. The particular style of life is so far from a list of do’s and don’ts, that it is more about a kind of person; meek, poor in spirit, merciful, etc.  As we seek to understand these attributes, I think it is important to be asking ourselves, “What is a merciful person?” I suspect a merciful person is a much more rounded and whole event in Creation than a list of How to be Merciful.

Matthew, with his threats of eternal punishment, always strikes me as the least of the gospels open to any charge of being “soft on the law”. Matthew would be my least favourite gospel if I were a “bleeding heart liberal,” to use a cliché.  Yet, even in Matthew, Jesus speaks in a profoundly different tone from Moses. There is not the assumption of karmic totalling of right and wrong, deed and consequence, that might be implied by Exodus 20:5-6:

I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

By contrast, Jesus is “all blessing.” Which is often not how we preach him.

The confidence of the Exodus narrative, of the chosen people of God on the way into the Promised Land, is also missing.  Matthew’s are a people who have been savaged by the suffering of reality:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

The person who wrote “so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land” might feel a certain lack of confidence in Jesus’ words!

As we approach each Blessing, we need to work carefully to get the full meaning of words like “meek.” The dictionary in Microsoft Word suggests that meek means

quiet, gentle, and easily persuaded by other people to do what they want

which I rather suspect did not in any way fit Jesus, apart from the gentle.  Terms like “poor in spirit” also need careful work, but even a cursory reading shows Jesus teaching a very different reality from Exodus. Indeed, so different is the tone of the two lists, that if we have not been introduced to the idea of the new Moses, we probably won’t make the connection between these two givings of the “law.”

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To finish this introduction, we might note what follows immediately upon this description of the followers of Jesus. These people whom the beatitudes describe, are “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” They are not soft on the law; ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ In our living and being people of Jesus, living in this profound new “different tone,” we are to be fulfilment of the Law. (5:13-17) I take this to mean that when we are living the blessed life we are, in some major way, being and becoming what God intended the world to be. To re-present what I said of the Ten Commandments, if we actually lived as this kind of person in our society things might not be too bad.

Notice that The Blessings are present and promise. Always they say Blessed are...

Sometimes they say theirs is (3, 10, 12), but more commonly, they will... (4,5,6,7,8,9) Our beatification is “now and not yet.”  What is more common in the now, is persecution which gets a double mention in verses 10-12.  But even there, ours is the kingdom of heaven. It is in our persecution that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world.

Andrew Prior Jan 2011
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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