Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2017
For the Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
I would like to spend a few moments this morning looking with you at the passage we just read for the gospel, the so-called “Beatitudes,” presented by Matthew as the prologue to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Surely it’s one of the most familiar passages in the gospel for all Christians: yet there are ways, I think, in which our understanding of it suffers precisely because of that familiarity.
It’s very clear the evangelist wants us to hear “the Sermon on the Mount” as a speech. What’s more, both the shape and subject matter of the Sermon show that we are intended to hear it as a certain kind of speech. Some time ago the University where I used to teach had a series of lectures called, “How then shall we live?” Well, that is exactly the kind of question the Sermon on the Mount answers. It’s a speech calling us to act in certain ways, to follow a certain style of life. It’s therefore an example of what ancient literary critics – critics contemporary with our evangelist – would have called a “deliberative” speech, because it was intended to influence our “deliberations” about what we should do.
Deliberative rhetoric, according to those critics, involved an appeal to at least one of two things: either to honour, or to expediency. That’s to say, someone who would persuade us to act must convince us either that the course they suggest is the right thing to do, or else that it is the prudent thing. Ideally, of course, they might persuade us that it is both.
Now here, for me, is the first surprising thing about the Sermon. I don’t know about you, but I should have expected Our Lord’s teaching on the way to live to depend mostly on an ethical appeal: “do this because it is right!” Therefore one of the immediately surprising things for me about the Sermon is that its form is not actually to appeal to honour at all, but to expediency. Our Lord does not actually suggest that the way of life he teaches is desirable because it is noble, but because it is intelligent. Consider, for example, how the Sermon ends – with an appeal that, like the “Beatitudes” themselves, is among the best known passages in the New Testament:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!
“Do what I tell you,” Jesus says, “and you will be safe. Ignore what I tell you, and you will experience disaster.” What could possibly be clearer than that?
What then of the Beatitudes? – “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on?
Well – the first thing to note is this – “beatitude” and “blessed” have become for us largely religious words, as when we speak of “the Beatific Vision,” or “the Blessed Sacrament.” But in Matthew’s Greek, the word that Jesus speaks at the beginning of the sermon (μακάριος), the word that we translate into English as “blessed” – that word is, actually, not a religious word at all. In its normal sense it is actually a quite secular, this-worldly, even irreligious word: it simply means “happy,” “fortunate,” or even “lucky.” “How happy,” Jesus says. “are those who are reviled! How happy those who are persecuted!” In other words, at this point, too, Jesus presents us with what is formally not an appeal to our honour, but to expediency. “Live your life this way,” he says, “and you will be happy!” Live some other way, and, by implication, you will be miserable.
But that granted, surely we have a puzzle. Does what Jesus says actually make sense? Does not simple observation of the world as it is tell us that it is those who are well treated, not those who are persecuted, and those who are honoured, not those who are reviled, who are happy? So what does Jesus mean? Was the world he addressed somehow different from ours? In this respect, of course not! These beatitudes would have startled Jesus’ first hearers just as they startle us – and no doubt they were meant to.
Of course not all the beatitudes would have seemed so paradoxical. “Happy,” Jesus says, “are the poor in spirit” – which is to say, those who know they cannot go it alone, those who, as the New English Bible translated this verse, “know their need of God.” Many in Jesus’ audience – and not only Jews – would have agreed with him. The very quality that makes Virgil’s Aeneas the ideal Roman hero (in contrast to, say, a Homeric hero, such as “crafty” Odysseus) is that Aenius is pius Aeneas, faithful in discharging his obligations both to those around him and to the gods. In other words, he doesn’t think he can go it alone. He fears the gods.
Again – “Happy,” says Jesus, “are the meek” – actually, at least in the sense which we moderns use the word, “meek” no longer gets the force of Jesus’ words very well, although it did so better in the sixteenth century. The word in Greek is praus, and it refers to a quality that Greeks, Romans, and Jews alike in the ancient world would have regarded as among the greatest of virtues: we might render it by a phrase such as, “gentle, disciplined calmness.” It is the quality of those who know who they are and are in control of themselves, and who act gently and compassionately even when they have just cause for anger and have the power to punish harshly. It was a quality that the Greek philosophers commended in rulers; it was a quality for which Plato’s Phaedo praised Socrates (Phaedo 115d–117a); and it was a quality for which the Jewish scriptures praised Moses, who was, they said, in this sense more “meek” than any person upon the earth (Num. 12.3 LXX).
Again – “Happy are those who mourn.” On the surface that is false. Obviously, our Lord himself was not someone who always went about with a long face. If he was, how on earth did he come to get a reputation as “a winebibber” and one who (in contrast to John the Baptist) came “eating and drinking”? Why on earth did all those tax collectors and sinners and harlots keep asking him to their parties? Yet Jesus does seem to be saying here that the saints should mourn, at least some of the time. Why? The answer, if we reflect for a moment, is obvious enough. We should mourn because the righteous suffer and God has not yet put things right. We must mourn because God’s will is manifestly not yet done on earth as it is in heaven. We may put it another way – if we can watch the news on television, if we can seriously consider the woes of the world, and not mourn, there is evidently something wrong with us.
We may say the same kind of thing of at least five of the other beatitudes, of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” of the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Of all we can say that properly understood, they do represent a true path to human wholeness and integrity, and therefore a true path to real happiness.
Still, however, there are those last two beatitudes. “Happy are those who are persecuted” and, “Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you!” How can that be? To be persecuted, to be reviled – these are not, after all, ethical qualities or qualities of character. So in what sense do they make us happy?
First, we should note the way in which they are qualified. It is not persecution on any ground that makes us happy, nor is it being reviled on any ground. Jesus does not say that we will be happy if we are reviled for being a pain in the neck. “Happy,” says our Lord, “are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Happy are you when people revile you … on my account.” What is envisioned is not simply hostility, but hostility brought on because of “righteousness,” that is, in the cause of God’s justice, and because of faithful obedience to God’s will. The truth is, Jesus says, to be reviled in such a way as this is to be reviled as the prophets were reviled – and, he might have added, it is to be reviled as he himself was reviled, so reviled that eventually we brought him to a cross. To be reviled for God’s cause is to be in the company of God’s faithful: more, it is to be in the company of the Son of God. To be reviled for God’s cause is therefore to be in the fellowship of Christ’s church.
And here, finally, we come to the real secret of the beatitudes, which is also the secret of the church: for the secret of the church lies in its hope, and the church’s hope is not in itself, but in God. So – the way of life that the beatitudes propose is finally expedient for us, not because of anything we see in the world, nor because of any particular character it may build in us, but because of what God will do. The way of life that the beatitudes propose is finally expedient for us because it is God’s way, and God will not forever be mocked.
Therefore – “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” – not just the Kingdom as we see it now, partial and fragmented by our sin, but Kingdom for which we pray, the Kingdom that God will bring, God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Happy are those that mourn for the sorrows of the world – for they shall know God’s consolation.
“Happy are those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness,” because in the end, “they shall be satisfied.”
“Happy are the pure in heart” – that is, those whose vision is single, who have fixed their eyes and hope upon God alone – because they shall indeed find what they seek: “they shall see God.”
In that vision too, there will be paradox. In its light all other beauty and joy for which we longed, or even which we tasted, will turn out to have been only a promise; and yet, in its light, all other beauty and joy will find its meaning and be more precious than it could ever have been by itself, precisely because it is a promise of the true beauty, God’s beauty, by and for which the heavens were made. God grant us purity of heart. God grant us to see God’s beauty, and to rejoice together in it. God grant us that happiness. Amen.