In the first reflection, we considered what it means to walk the edge. We considered that the nature of living in the Kingdom of God is to walk the edge with Jesus, to move out of our comfort and security in to the risky, even dangerous places where the Spirit of God moves with healing grace.
In this reflection we continue our exploration of the theme ‘Walking the Edge’ by contemplating the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Author and Pastor, Brian McLaren, describes the Beatitudes as the ‘Manifesto of the Kingdom’ (see ‘The Secret Message of Jesus’).
I would like to begin by providing the context of the Beatitudes within the Gospel of Matthew. In the opening chapters, especially, of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as the new (and greater!) Moses, the liberator of God’s people. There are striking parallels between the opening of Matthew’s Gospel and the stories surrounding Moses’ life and leadership. Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy, typical of that which we see through the book of Genesis. In the ‘Christmas’ story presented by Matthew, God communicates with Joseph through the medium of dreams. In Genesis, Joseph receives and interprets dreams (compare Matthew’s version with Luke where it is Mary who receives the communication from God via the visit of an angel). In both stories, an evil king/pharaoh has all the males 2 years and under killed. In Exodus, Moses escapes when he is set in a basket and found by Pharaoh’s daughter and he is drawn into Egyptian life in the royal family. Jesus’ family escapes to Egypt to avoid the murderous King Herod.
The beginning of Jesus’ ministry occurs following his baptism. He rises up through the waters of the Jordan River and the heavens open up (part) as the Spirit descends upon him. Moses leads the Hebrew people through the Red Sea, which parts for them to move towards the Promised Land. They wander for forty years in the wilderness where they experience a variety of struggles and temptations – both Moses and the people fail. Jesus is thrust into the wilderness for forty days and is tempted – he overcomes the tempter. Moses went up onto the mountain and received the Ten Commandments. In the book of Exodus, we have the Ten Commandments followed by an elaboration of the law for the new community of God’s chosen people as they move towards the Promised Land.
Jesus chose twelve disciples, which represented God’s new people (12 being the number of God’s people – 12 tribes in the Old Testament). He then delivers the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew’s equivalent to the Old Testament lawgiving (compare also Luke’s Gospel where the equivalent sermon is delivered on a plain). The phrase that Matthew uses of Jesus, ‘he went up the mountain’ is a phrase used almost exclusively of Moses – Matthew is directing our attention to Jesus as the ‘new’ Moses’ who will succeed beyond where Moses failed. The Beatitudes are sometimes broken into ten segments to correspond to the Ten Commandments and then follows an elaboration of the ethics, values and ‘laws’ of the Kingdom of God.
The central message of Jesus in the Gospels is the Kingdom of God. His life, ministry and further teaching elaborates on this central proclamation. The Beatitudes are a manifesto for life in God’s Kingdom.
The form of beatitude derives form the Old Testament and is in the indicative mood. The Greek word we translate as ‘blessed’ has the connotation of ‘salvation’, ‘shalom’ or ‘blessing’. These statements are not rules or practical advice for successful living. They are prophetic declarations built on the conviction of the ‘already-but-not-yet’ Kingdom of God. Hence, these statements indicate the reality of the blessedness or peace of God’s Kingdom, rather than exhort the listener to actions that will result in blessedness. The Beatitudes declare what is in the Kingdom of God – this is how the Kingdom is and those who receive the Kingdom or follow Jesus are typified by these beatitudes.
‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit’
The first beatitude, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven’, has often been misinterpreted by suggesting that Matthew spiritualises ‘poverty’. In Luke’s version the Beatitude is: ‘Blessed are the poor.’ He also includes a series of woes and the corresponding woe is: ‘Woe to the rich.’ He speaks more to the literal, economic dimension. It has often been suggested that Matthew is softening Luke’s harshness to embrace those who aren’t poor as well. This is a comforting position for us in the wealthy west where wealth is perhaps our major barrier to life in the Kingdom as Jesus proclaimed it.
Jesus said blessed are those who are poor in spirit. This is recognition of one’s own personal need. It is the recognition of our need for salvation beyond ourselves, that we are unable to save the world or ourselves. Blessed are those who recognise their own poverty of spirit and need God’s help. This most certainly includes the poor, as they typify poverty of spirit. The poor are those whose personal resources find them stretched to the limits in daily living. They know that they need something beyond themselves because they experience poverty and powerless daily. The wealthy have more resources at their disposal and it becomes more difficult to recognise our need to trust in God for everything. In the Bible, the poor have traditionally been those who have characterised the true nature of the people of God, who are dependent on God. The less we have, the more we know we need what God alone can provide. It is easy for us to be distracted by all the material things we live with each day. We find ourselves worrying about all manner things around us – homes, gardens, cars, pools, boats, caravans, stereos, home entertainment centres, computers, and the plethora of possessions that fill our home and world and the addictions that consume our lives. When we find ourselves in trouble we turn to our money, our educational resources, our personal or positional power, our careers and so on. Ultimately, these things cannot save us. They are distractions from true nature of God’s Kingdom, pleasant though they may be.
Matthew is essentially saying that those who recognise their deep and desperate need of God and can trust their lives completely into God’s gracious love are those who are blessed. The Kingdom of God belongs to them, for that is the true nature of the Kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are those Mourn’
Last week, an old friend passed away. Julie had been part of our congregation several years ago, but due various circumstances she hasn’t been to church for a few years. We kept in contact and shared coffee a few times each year. In catching up, we would more or less take off from where we left off last time.
Julie was one who was interested in people and she listened with an engaged, emotional involvement. She had an eclectic range of friends and experiences and was a very spiritual person. Probably this latter characteristic initially brought us together.
Julie was diagnosed with breast cancer about nine years ago and was treated. She kept very well until about 18 months – 2 years ago, when she was diagnosed with secondary bone cancer. Julie was a strong and determined woman who was adamant she would beat the cancer, as much as anything because she had an 18-year daughter. Julie was a single mum with a dispersed family and she was a fighter. I still shake my head in wonder at the various struggles and battles she has had to endure over the years and her never ending compassion and desire to support others close to her.
For various reasons, some of which leave me with regret, I didn’t get to see Julie in the weeks before she died. I didn’t know she was so ill and wasn’t contacted until too late. I suspect Julie would not give in until it was certain there was nothing more she could do.
I celebrated at the funeral, which was very difficult because of the grief that welled up within me. I’m told it was a very good funeral – I hope it was because Julie’s family and I invested a great deal of ourselves in it. Many peopled mourned. Many felt the deep sadness of a life cut down too soon. Many asked ‘what if…?’ We mourned. Blessed, said Jesus, are they who mourn for they will be comforted.
As I thought about our mourning, it was for more than Julie’s passing. It embraced the sad reality of pain, death, the feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness and all the loneliness, hurt, fear, and death that is part of life. In essence, we grieved and mourned for what we see and experience around that hurts and intrudes on the promise and yearning for life, peace, hope and joy. We yearn for something deeper and life giving, hopeful and joyful.
In the funeral, we declared the ‘Christian conviction that death is not an end but a new beginning.’ It is a transition into the next part of the journey and we commended Julie into God’s profound and wonderful grace. The reality for which we yearned, if not consciously then sub-consciously, was for a realm where there is no death or pain, sadness of despair, a realm of perfect peace where people can live peaceably and joyfully.
There is a deep biblical tradition of lament, grieving the way things are. Matthew draws upon this tradition here. Blessed are those who mourn, grieve and lament the way things are; the present condition of God’s people and the mission of God in the world.
The call of Jesus is for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, to look and listen beyond what is, beyond the values and priorities of the dominant order. We are challenged to believe that the reality around us is not the final, ultimate answer. We are invited to believe that the reign of God, which is not yet here in all its fullness will come and transform the world.
Another way of articulating this beatitude is: Blessed are those who lament the present condition of the world and yearn for the fullness of God’s Sovereign rule – they will be comforted; they will see and participate in the celebration of God’s eschatological Kingdom.
For those of us who will not merely believe in Jesus, but follow him, we are invited into the place of proclaiming and living a reality that is always before us and draws us onward in hope, courage and faith.