Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Matthew 5: 1-12, trying to apply
the Beatitudes to our own lives

The Sermon on the Mount, by Cosimo Rosselli, from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week [29 January 2017] is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the Christmas and Epiphany season comes to a close on the following Thursday [2 February 2017] with the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas.

The Revised Common Lectionary provides the option of using the Candlemas readings that Sunday: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; or Psalm 24: 7-10; or Psalm 84; Hebrews 2: 14-18; and the Gospel account of the Presentation: Luke 2: 22-40. But we are celebrating Candlemas here on Thursday next [2 February]. The lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12.

The Sunday Gospel reading (Matthew 5: 1-12) is the most familiar account of the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are familiar to us all, perhaps to the point that we find it difficult to read them afresh and to find new insights when it comes to preaching on them. The Beatitudes will be familiar to those in Church on Sunday week too – perhaps even to the point of familiar irreverence because of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

The Beatitudes are culturally embedded in our society, in our literature, in our arts. But how do we apply the Beatitudes to our own lives? How do we present them afresh again on a Sunday morning?

The text:

1 Ἰδὼν δὲ τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος: καὶ καθίσαντος αὐτοῦ προσῆλθαν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ: 2 καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς λέγων,

3 Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

4 Μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται.

5 Μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν.

6 Μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην, ὅτι αὐτοὶ χορτασθήσονται.

7 Μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ ἐλεηθήσονται.

8 Μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ, ὅτι αὐτοὶ τὸν θεὸν ὄψονται.

9 Μακάριοι οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί, ὅτι αὐτοὶ υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται.

10 Μακάριοι οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

11 Μακάριοί ἐστε ὅταν ὀνειδίσωσιν ὑμᾶς καὶ διώξωσιν καὶ εἴπωσιν πᾶν πονηρὸν καθ' ὑμῶν [ψευδόμενοι] ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ:

12 χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε, ὅτι ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς: οὕτως γὰρ ἐδίωξαν τοὺς προφήτας τοὺς πρὸ ὑμῶν.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

Covenant values

In the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5 to 7, Saint Matthew presents us with a covenant renewal document. About half of this material is also found in Saint Luke’s Gospel, but considerably less of it is found in Saint Mark’s Gospel. Some of the material is identical to the other synoptic gospels, some is similar.

The Beatitudes are a declaration of the happy or fortunate state of the children of God who possesses particular qualities, and who, because of them, will inherit divine blessings.

It is interesting to compare the delivery of the Beatitudes to the delivery of the Ten Commandments. Here we have the renewal of the covenant, and a restatement, a re-presentation, of who the Children of God are.

Just as we sometimes find the Ten Commandments grouped into two sets, so we might see the Beatitudes set out in two groups of four, the first four being inward looking, the second four being outward looking.

We might see the first four Beatitudes as addressing attitudes, while the second four deal with resulting actions.

Are they ethical requirements for the present?

Or they eschatological blessings for the future?

Or are they are statements of present fact, identifying the qualities of a child of God and the consequent blessings that follow?

Few among us, I imagine, are ever going to commit murder.

But we all get ‘angry with a brother’ sooner or later.

The Sermon on the Mount exposes our own present reality in a very stark and real way, and the Beatitudes are a core text for Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship and in the writings of towering Christian figures such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Oscar Romero.

Father Brian D’Arcy quipped on a radio interview some time ago how Dorothy Day once spoke of how her fellow Roman Catholics went to confession regularly and confessed to ‘breaking’ one of the Ten Commandments, but she wondered how often they confessed to ‘breaking’ one of the Eight Beatitudes.

Verse 1:

The scene opens with Christ leaving the crowds and climbing up the mountain, like Moses in the Book Exodus leaving the crowd behind him, and climbing Mount Sinai.

Mountains are so important in so many Biblical stories – Mount Sinai, Mount Zion, Mount Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration, the Mount of Calvary outside the city, the Mountain of the Ascension. They provide dramatic settings for covenantal encounters with the Living God.

Ἰδὼν (eidon), ‘when he saw [the crowds]’: seeing. Perhaps what is being said here is: ‘Jesus went up the mountain because he saw the crowds.’

Τὸ ὄρος (to oros) ‘a mountainside’: the hill, or the mountain. The use of the definite article may indicate a particular hill or mountain. Today, in modern Greek, το Ὄρος (to Oros) or το Ἅγιον Ὄρος (to Ayios Oros), the Holy Mountain, refers exclusively to Mount Athos. In those days, would this have prompted the first readers to make immediate associations with the holy mountain, the mountain of the covenant, Mount Sinai?

Καθίσαντος (kathísantos), ‘sat down’: sitting down. He went up, he sat down. In those days and in that tradition, a teacher sat down to teach. But there is a potential for double meaning or hidden understandings here, for the Greek verb is also used to set, to appoint, or to confer a kingdom on someone. So the new kingdom is being ushered in, Christ is sitting on his throne, his teachings are about kingdom values.

Οἱ μαθηταὶ (oi mathetai): ‘the disciples’ – are the beatitudes for the disciples? Are they the ‘poor in spirit,’ those who mourn … and so on? Are they for the crowd below? The text is not that specific.

Προσῆλθαν (proselthan (προσέρχομαι, prosérchomai), ‘came,’ came, to, approached, draw near. The disciples gathered around Christ to hear his teaching.

Verse 2:

ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ (anoixas to stoma aftou): ‘he opened the mouth of him.’

ἐδίδασκεν (edídasken): he taught. The imperfect may be used here to make the point that the Sermon on the Mount is a summary of Christ’s teachings. In other words, ‘this is what he used to teach.’

Λέγων (légon), ‘saying’: The participle is adverbial, modal, expressing the manner of his action of the verb ‘he taught.’

Verse 3:

Μακάριοι (Makárioi): Does this mean ‘blessed’? Does anyone remember Archbishop Makarios, the President of Cyprus who was deposed in a coup that was followed by the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974? ‘His Beatitude’ is a term of respect for archbishops and metropolitans in the Orthodox Church.

The word ‘blessed’ is not the best translation for μακάριος (makários). ‘Fortunate,’ ‘well off,’ or ‘happy’ might fit better.

Christ is telling those who hear him that they are fortunate to be this way. They are fortunate to possess these qualities of life. Why? Because it means they inherit the blessings or fortunes of God’s promised kingdom.

Οἱ πτωχοὶ (oi ptochoi), ‘the poor’: those in total poverty, possessing nothing and with no means to earn a living other than by receiving alms.

Οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι (oi ptochoi to pneumatic), ‘the poor in spirit’: those who are totally destitute spiritually and so recognise the need for their total dependence on God, ‘who know their need for God.’

ὅτι (oti): ‘for,’ ‘that,’ ‘because,’ or ‘since.’ This conjunction is used throughout the Beatitudes.

Αὐτῶν ἐστιν (afton estin, ‘theirs is’ as a consequence, not as reward. In other words, those who are dependent on God possess the riches of his kingdom.

Verse 4:

Οἱ πενθοῦντες (oi penthountes): ‘those who mourn,’ the ones who are mourning. Is this describing those who mourn for events in their own lives, or those who mourn because of their needs before God, those who are broken before God?

They will be comforted, consoled, encouraged by consolation – αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται (aftoi paraklethésontai) – they will be comforted. Note the resonances with the word Paraclete for the Holy Spirit as the comforter.

Verse 5:

Οἱ πραεῖς (oi praeis), ‘the meek,’ the humble, the gentle, the self-effacing, those of mild of disposition or gentle spirit, perhaps those who do not make great demands on God, but submit to the will of God.

ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν (oti aftoi kleronomésousin tin gen): ‘for they will inherit the earth.’ They shall receive it by lot. They shall possess it.

‘Blessed are the Meek,’ which means the humble, patient, submissive and gentle is misheard in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian as: ‘Blessed is the Greek – apparently he’s going to inherit the earth.’ When they finally get what Jesus actually says, a woman says ‘Oh it’s the Meek … blessed are the Meek! That’s nice, I’m glad they’re getting something, ’cause they have a hell of a time.’

This is soon followed by the political activist and terrorist leader, Reg, saying: ‘What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.’ This perfectly sums up the quickly growing annoyance of the violent with the peaceful attitude of Christ.

Verse 6:

Οἱ πεινῶντες (oi peinontes): ‘those who hunger,’ those who are hungering.

Τὴν δικαιοσύνην (tin dikaiosúnin): ‘for righteousness,’ for justice, for God’s justice.

Many scholars who argue that Saint Matthew never really addresses the Pauline concepts of justification which are grounded on the faithfulness of Christ appropriated through faith. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ introduces us to a righteousness that is apart from obedience to the law. The Sinai covenant too demanded a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, a righteousness that relates to the values of the Kingdom.

Χορτασθήσονται (chortasthísontai): ‘will be filled, will be fed, will be satisfied, to the full.’

Verse 7:

Οἱ ἐλεήμονες (oi eleímones), ‘the merciful.’ The quality of mercy is not strained, as Shakespeare reminds us, and the quality of mercy is illustrated later in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Lord’s Prayer, when we are reminded to pray that we are forgiven as we forgive others. However, we not being told here that those who show mercy will have mercy shown to them. The fortunate, the blessed, those to be congratulated, those who should be happy, are those who have experienced God’s mercy, and as a consequence, find themselves merciful toward others. These people know God’s mercy. I can never be perfect in showing mercy or forgiveness; what little I show can only illustrate, be a sign of, point towards, be a sacrament of the mercy shown by God in the Kingdom.

Verse 8:

Οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ (oi katharoi ti kardía), ‘the pure in heart.’ The desire to touch the divine probably best describes this quality. Those who possess it will ‘be like him,’ and ὅτι αὐτοὶ τὸν θεὸν ὄψονται (oti aftoi ton Theo opsontai) and ‘see God,’ they will find themselves in God’s presence.”

Verse 9:

Οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί (oi eirenopoioí), the reconcilers, those who make peace between warring sides. This is one and only use of this phrase in the New Testament. How unique and unusual a beatitude, yet, while it leaps off the pages, we try so often to scale down, to water down, its significance and its demands.

The verse saying ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ was famously misprinted in the second edition of the Geneva Bible as ‘blessed are the place makers.’ This typographic error is parodied in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where those in the crowd listening to the sermon hear Christ as saying: ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.’

‘Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.’

Christ is not talking about those who seek or wish for peace, but those who make peace.

What is the difference between a peacemaker and a conflict-resolution counsellor?

When there are two conflicting demands, have they got to be given equal weight or respect?

How do you make peace between the oppressor and the oppressed?

Is conflict resolution enough?

Are there times when the demands for justice demand to be heard despite those who call for ‘peace and quiet’?

ὅτι αὐτοὶ υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται (oti aftoi uioi Theou klethísontai): for they shall be called the sons of God, the children of God, those generated by God. If we are clones of God, then we act like God. And if we act like God, others may see what God is like, and may answer the invitation to be members of God’s family.

Verse 10:

Οἱ δεδιωγμένοι (oi dediogménoi), ‘those who are persecuted,’ the ones being persecuted. The perfect tense indicates persecution that began in time past and that continues into the present. The meaning of the word is usually ‘persecute’ in the New Testament, or ‘to put to flight,’ ‘to drive away.’ But it also carries a positive sense: to follow with haste, and presumably with intensity of effort, in order to catch up with, for friendly or hostile purpose – to run after, to chase after, to pursue, to hasten, to run, to press forward, to press on, to follow without hostile intent.

ἕνεκεν (eneken), ‘because of,’ for the sake of.

Verse 11:

Μακάριοί ἐστε (makárioí este): ‘Blessed, happy, fortunate are you.’ Did you notice the change here from the third person found in the previous verses to the second person in this final beatitude?

ὅταν (otan): ‘when.’ We have here an indefinite temporal clause expressing general time, ‘whenever.’

ὀνειδίσωσιν (oneidísosin): [whenever] people insult, reproach or upbraid you.

Ψευδόμενοι (pseudómenoi: ‘falsely,’ under false pretensions, lying. The Greek word here, ψευδόμενοι, is not found in many of the early manuscripts. It may have been added in the process of redaction to reinforce the evil nature of the slander. Although when I am insulted as Christian, it often matters little whether I am being insulted for the sake of insult, or I am being insulted falsely.

ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ (eneken emou): because of, or for the sake of me; in other words, because of, or for the sake of Christ. Possibly because of their testimony to Christ, but – probably better said as: because of their identification with Christ.

I digress for a moment as I think of what it would be like to be insulted falsely for being a Christian, to be accused of being a Christian. At one time, we had a poster in our kitchen that asked: ‘If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’

Verse 12:

Χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε (Chaírete kai agallasthe): ‘rejoice and be glad’ – in fact, ‘rejoice and be exceedingly glad.’ Not merely you are blessed, but it’s also worth rejoicing and being glad, a pair introduced here, because we are going to be given two good reasons for such a joyous response.

Why? Because (ὅτι, oti).

The first because is: ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς (ho misthos hymon polis en tois ouranois), the reward, the payment, the wage for you is great in the heavens. Present suffering is going to give way to something in the future that is exceptionally rewarding.

The second because is: οὕτως γὰρ ἐδίωξαν τοὺς προφήτας τοὺς πρὸ ὑμῶν (outos gar edíoxan tous profítas tous pro imon), ‘in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

So, we can look forward to being in good company.

Some closing thoughts:

I said earlier, the Beatitudes are culturally embedded in our society, in our literature, in our arts.

Writing on the Financial pages of The Guardian some years ago (17 January 2011), Terry Macalister wrote: ‘From Tolstoy to Dostoevsky to Chekov, if anyone can tell a good story it’s the Russians.’ Well, in Chapter 2 of Boris Pasternak’s great Russian novel Doctor Zhivago, we meet Larissa Feodorovna Guishar, who ‘was not religious’ and ‘did not believe in ritual,’ but was startled by the Beatitudes, for she thought they were about herself.

How do we apply the Beatitudes to our own lives?

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group of MTh students on 18 January 2017.