This is the message I shared with God's people at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church on Sunday, 11/5/17. The scripture text is Matthew 5:1-12.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. We remember those who have gone before us in the faith as well as the living church of Christ, God’s saints today. Then we get to today’s gospel reading, the Beatitudes, the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It all sounds so beautiful and churchy, but what does it mean? What does it take to be a saint and to be among the blessed of the Beatitudes?
In my pre-Lutheran days, we used to talk about the Beatitudes being be-atttidues. It was how we were supposed to be!
Others put the values of the Beatitudes off into eternity because of their difficulty, while others strive and strive to obey them because they are Jesus’ commands. Luther’s view concerning the Sermon on the Mount is that it represents an impossible demand, much like the law. One may well then ask, “So why bother, since It is simply an exercise in futility?”
The Beatitudes are appointed for All Saints because they describe an unlikely group of people who find wholeness in God’s blessings instead of the values of the world. They are underdogs and true to form, Jesus always turns things upside down, showing that they, not the rich and famous are the blessed. There is more to the beatitudes than meets the eye.
First of all, what does it mean to be blessed? Is it that God loves some people more than others? After disasters we hear people who survived or were unaffected saying that they’re blessed. Does it mean those who died or suffered were not?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, blessing referred to the results of right living. Blessing was demonstrated by material things, good health etc. One who was blessed had more and better things than someone who was not blessed. So, the one who was blessed was above others.
However, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly, the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the meek and the mourning. “The elite in God’s kingdom, the blessed ones in God’s kingdom, are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity” (Brian Stoffregen).
Blessed isn’t language we use today. Another way to translate the Greek for blessed is “greatly honored,” emphasizing God’s great reversal compared to the world’s standards. The world does not revere the meek and merciful, but they are honored by God and by those who follow God’s ways.
The Beatitudes are not to be read and understood as if, then propositions, but unconditionally as those who are x will be y. A Beatitude effects what it says. It brings into being what it states. Because of this, it is not a list of laws, but grace-filled gospel.
Jesus said the poor in spirit are blessed. Although there is an element of it, this is not simply about financial poverty. That’s why Jesus said poor in spirit. They lack arrogance and the sense of their own need. Blessed are those whose only identity and security is in God. The promise that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3) may be translated “heaven’s rule is over them” or “heaven rules them.” The kingdom may be understood as the authority or power to rule as opposed to the place where one rules.
The mourning Jesus speaks of is far greater than sadness. It is that of having lost someone to the point of lamenting them. You have likely seen pictures of MIddle Eastern women who are inconsolable over the death of a loved one. Those who mourn find no cause for joy. They will be comforted, which is why they are blessed. The Greek grammar implies that it is God that will act, so there is no need to continue mourning.
We think of meekness as weakness. The Greek for meek can have a positive sense of humble or gentle, but can also mean the doormats and the powerless. They “inherit the earth.” Their blessing is not a reward one earns, but a gift one must wait for. The meek may have lacked earth or land. “They have been denied access to the world’s resources and have not had opportunity to enjoy the creation that God intended for all people” (Powell).
The Greek for hunger and thirst means continually hungering and thirsting. Righteousness means justice. Those who continually hunger and thirst for a justice they’ve been denied, include those who have no reason for hope or joy and no access to the resources of this world. Their needs will be satisfied by the future reversals God’s rule brings.
Mercy involves concrete actions as opposed to just an attitude. Basically, the merciful are healers, people who seek to put right what has gone wrong. They favor the removal of all that prevents life from being as God intends, such as poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons and debt (Powell).
The merciful will receive mercy. They will receive this on the last day, but it may mean that they will see mercy prevail. The coming of God’s kingdom is a blessing to those who value mercy because that’s what God values. When God rules, what God values will become reality. (Powell).
The pure in heart are those who are truly pure, not just outwardly so. It is not a matter of avoiding impure thoughts, but rather single-minded devotion to God. The real accent is on integrity. Seeing God for the pure in heart is so appropriate because as those who truly please God, they have demonstrated what it is to be godly. “Those who will see God are those in whom something of God has been seen” (Powell).
Who are the peacemakers? They are agents of God actively establishing God’s shalom. In other words, they are “those who work for the wholeness and well-being that God wills for a broken world” (Jack Kingsbury). In the New Testament, peace generally refers to the relationship between people (Carter). Peacemakers make right relationships between people. They will be called “children of God.” People are identified as God’s children when their conduct is like God’s. The acknowledgement that they’ve behaved as God’s children and done as God wills, is reward enough.
Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake refers to our human activity in participating in what God is doing. It is not persecution that is virtuous, but commitment. The promise for them is the “kingdom of heaven,” just like it was for the “poor in spirit.”
Then Jesus suddenly shifts the focus from the anonymous blessed ones to “you.” Up until now, the disciples have been following Jesus and more or less observing from the sidelines. Jesus has been speaking about others, but now he specifically addresses them. Why would they or you be reviled and persecuted and lied about? Because of your commitment to righteousness, to Jesus.
We may look at the Beatitudes as “examples” or “case studies” of “life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign” (Warren Carter).
Do the Beatitudes still seem unattainable? So it seemed to Martin Luther. In the Small Catechism wrote, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” If we cannot even come to faith in Christ by our own efforts, how can we live the Beatitudes on our own? We cannot! It is God at work in and through our lives who accomplishes any good thing.
Will we believe these promises for ourselves or not? Will we believe God will make all things right for us, whether we experience reversals or rewards? If so, we can obey the command to “Rejoice and be glad” because of the great rewards God has stored up for us.
The blessing pronounced on the disciples in the Beatitudes is for the purpose of their becoming the agents of blessing to others. As today’s saints, God calls us to be the means of blessing others. Today’s sending song “For All the Saints,” concerns those of all the earth, including present and future saints of Honduras. I hope you will join us tonight for a wonderful meal and auction as we become change agents for God’s saints in Honduras.
M Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew
Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins
Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel