January 30, 2005 - Epiphany 4
5: • 1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. He sat down and his disciples gathered around him. 2 Then he spoke and began to teach them:
3 Fortunate are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Fortunate are those who mourn, they shall be comforted.
5 Fortunate are the gentle, they shall possess the land.
6 Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
7 Fortunate are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.
8 Fortunate are those with a pure heart, for they shall see God.
9 Fortunate are those who work for peace, they shall be called children of God.
10 Fortunate are those who are persecuted for the cause of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Fortunate are you, when people insult you and persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you because you are my followers. 12 Be glad and joyful, for a great reward is kept for you in God. This is how this people persecuted the prophets who lived before you.
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• 5:1 Jesus went up the mountain. Matthew places this discourse somewhere in the hill country bordering the lake of Tiberias. The reason for mentioning a mountain is to remind us of Mount Sinai where Moses received the Law (Ex 19). In this first "discourse of Jesus" (see Introduction) Matthew presents him as a Master giving to Israel and to all humankind the new and definitive Law. The formula: but I say to you is repeated six times in order to highlight the contrast between the Law of Moses and the New Law.
Fortunate! This first paragraph introduces the new people of God; to them the Law is given. Let us not forget that for the Bible, the Law is not only a matter of commandments; it includes also God's interventions and declarations which have made Israel a special people, called to a world mission. The Law had been given to the "children of Abraham and Israel" who were guided out of Egypt by Moses. Exclamations like these abound: How fortunate you are, Israel! Meaning: What luck to have been chosen! And How privileged you are to be God's people among all other nations! You are indeed fortunate for it is to you that God has spoken (Dt 33:29; Ps 144:15; Bar 4:4).
Right away the Gospel speaks of a converted people of God. No longer the people of the twelve tribes, with their land, their language, their frontiers, their national ambitions, but rather those God will seek among all nations. Who are these chosen ones who surely must consider themselves overjoyed to be so called? They are the poor, those who weep, those who have often been tempted to curse their misfortune, their sins, their personal conflicts.
Here Matthew gives us eight beatitudes, while Luke 6:20-26 has only four. It is not important, however, for they form but one theme. The main difference between Matthew and Luke arises from the fact that their beatitudes are addressed to two different groups.
Luke presents the Beatitudes in the way they were proclaimed by Jesus. In Luke, Jesus addresses the whole assembly of common people, speaking as one of them. Like the prophets he speaks boldly and clearly: you, the poor, are the first beneficiaries of the promises of God.
Matthew instead adapts Jesus' words to his audience of Christian believers. The Church had already spread and Christian communities brought together all kind of people: slaves, ordinary people and wealthy ones. Matthew tells them that the Gospel is significant for each of them. It is not only by being poor that they will please God, but by their inner attitude and way of life. He says: Fortunate are those who are spiritually poor, adding the pure of heart, those who work for peace…
Luke points out those to whom the Gospel gives priority: the masses who are poor, the workers, the peasants and the marginalized. Matthew for his part teaches those already within the Church how they should behave to be worthy of the God who chose them.
Those said to be "fortunate" are not so because of what they suffer: the expression would not ring true. They are fortunate because they are admitted to the Kingdom.
The kingdom of heaven is theirs (v. 3) and following immediately: they possess the land. There is no real contradiction, it is only apparent.
First of all we must understand the term Heaven as used in Jesus' time. Being exceedingly respectful of God, the Jews would not pronounce his name, referring to him with other words like Heaven, The Glory, The Power… The kingdom of Heaven means literally the kingdom of God, like the Father of Heaven means simply: God the Father. On reading the word Heaven, remember that Jesus usually meant by this word, not the reward we will obtain after death "in heaven," but the kingdom of God that comes to us on this earth together with Jesus.
Likewise we translated as a great reward is kept for you in God (v. 12) the sentence that says "is kept for you in heaven."
The real meaning of the land must also be understood. This land, for the Bible, was Palestine, because it was there that God would come to save his people. The Gospel, in turn, does not oppose what is material with what is spiritual: actually, the term "spiritual" is not used at all throughout the Gospel. When God spoke through the prophets, he promised his people a world where all their needs would be satisfied: banquets with wine aplenty (Is 25:6), long life, a land well-watered, freedom from oppression, a kingdom of justice. Over and above all that, God would live among his people and to them he would communicate his Spirit: They will be my people and I will be their God (Ezk 37:27).
In the Beatitudes, the kingdom of God is at the same time the land of Palestine promised to the children of Abraham and the land where peace reigns for God is present there. Those who hunger for justice will be given both bread and the holiness of God, because in the Bible justice also signifies: being as God wishes us to be. Because of this Jesus tells us that we shall be satisfied or consoled. Our consolation on earth is to know and see that God loves us and cares for us and in spite of all, can overturn the situation of the oppressed. It is also to know that even when it seems he does not hear our prayer, our cross has meaning and purpose. Finally we must not forget that in our future life God will give us more than we could ever hope for or merit. It is certain, however, that Matthew more than Luke, has reorientated the language of Jesus, inviting us to look higher than what is immediate.
Waiting lasted until the coming of Jesus. Jesus tells us that a new age has begun: God is with us and his Kingdom is already here for those with a clean heart, meaning that their desires have been purified: they will see God.
Fortunate the persecuted. Matthew, like Luke, develops this last beatitude, for, no matter wherever we are, we cannot live the Gospel without suffering persecution.
[The Community Christian Bible]
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1. We begin this teaching with flat out, "but I say to you" statements. Later there will be examples given that compare an earlier understanding with a broader/narrower way to look at it. Without a comparison these stand as do the words of the preamble of a constitution or other organizing document. These are the statements Jesus understands to be self-evident. Those gathered may not see it that way. That is why this is a teaching intended to engrave these in such a way that a new community takes them to heart and lives them, day in and day out.
2. We have them recorded here in written form. As such it allows us to go back over them and over them to find their nuance, their relationship to this new situation we are face as differentiated from the situation we just came through. They can remain alive.
Consider if you just heard them once in this form. Even in an oral culture they may not have stuck very well. So the image of teaching them is important. Imagine the repetition, the examples, the teaching of three and then going back to redo the first again. I am pleased that I had my first six years of education in a one-room country school where I could learn the lesson three times: listening in on the class ahead of me, focusing on it when it was my class' turn, and reviewing it when the next class came to it.
What will you have to do to get them to stick as firmly as The Commandments? And what is there about us that finds it so much harder to remember these?
3. The "kingdom of heaven" is mentioned twice. When understood as a present state rather than an after death or last resort state it makes sense to have it act as an almost parenthesis. First and last the spirited poor who stand up for justice, even to the point of further persecution, will find their blessing, fortune in the land they stood for.
What issue are you so spirited about that would make a difference in the way we live together in the here and now?