In Matthews’s gospel Jesus’ opening message of open your eyes because the kingdom of heaven has come near is followed by what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount which explains what we need to be looking for, what this new way of being is all about. I invite you to go home, take twenty minutes, get out your Bible and read chapters five to seven of Matthews’s gospel. Just three chapters or 111 verses- 16 verses a day over a week! If you read no other Bible passage in the next few months give this a go. It’s full of practical teaching and even if you are an absolute saint there will be something here that you can learn that will make your life better.
These three chapters, are called the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew has gathered up a collection of Jesus’ teaching that happened in the hills around Lake Galilee. They are teachings for disciples of Jesus, teachings that should shape our lives. They describes the priorities, character, and values of this new age that Jesus came to inaugurate. I see them as a team talk, teaching for the core group. They have to do with money, possessions, power, violence, sexuality, anxiety, security, the way we treat our neighbour, and the way we treat those we don’t like. At the core of these teachings is the idea that living a good life is not just about living by rules and imposing some sort of religious straight jacket on us, but about getting our inner life on the right track. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear so the old saying goes. If fear and ego are alive within us then violence and greed are going to be inevitable consequences. The new earth Jesus proclaimed happens from the inside out – you have to attend to what drives us inside.
We are told to live simply and without hypocrisy. We are told to trust God for our security. We are instructed to love our enemies and not to return evil for evil. We are told to treat every person with dignity and respect, and to be very careful about diminishing the value of another. For example most of us do not think of ourselves as murderers but Jesus tells us we murder someone when we put them down or call them worthless. For most of us controlling our physical actions is the easy part but transforming the inner working of our thoughts and our hearts is a harder thing. We are to turn the other cheek when attacked in some way and go the extra mile when prevailed upon. I need to say this is not doormat stuff for Jesus challenges us to be strong and find a creative way of revealing and combating the power of evil. Getting even is revealed to be fruitless. We are told not to be anxious nor to seek to impress others. Further Jesus tells those who heed his words will be like those who build their house on a rock and when the rains come they will be safe a secure. We will become peaceful people, people who will be like salt or light for the rest of the world. And this is not about a future reality but is about our lives now.
The Beatitudes… It Happens from the Inside Out
The teachings begin with a series of blessings that we often call the beatitudes. The term beatitude comes from the Latin adjective be?tit?d? which means “happy”, or “blissful”. At a first glance they seem bizarre. Happy are those who are poor, happy are those who are gentle for they shall inherit the earth, and so on. You have to be kidding. The gentle inherit the earth….. you have to be joking for the gentle and meek in our world will get kicked in the teeth and miss out on everything. You have to fight and scheme to get things in this world, and as for being poor…. That doesn’t sound like fun!
But remember Jesus is asking us to look inside. You have to look at what’s driving your actions. We have to learn to tame the ego, that power within us which wants to grow and dominate, amassing influence and power. We have to face our fears and anxieties that imprison and keep us from being truly ourselves. The beatitudes take us inside ourselves rather than just offering some moral rules to live by.
So there, let’s look at just the first two to see if we can get the hang of these strange teachings.
Blessed are the poor in spirit the kingdom of heaven is theirs….So what is Jesus getting at. In Luke’s version of the beatitude he simply says blessed are the poor. There are a number of words in Greek dealing with states of poverty. The usual Greek word for the peasant class is tapeinoi, which referred to the great majority of folk in Jesus’ time. But that’s not the word Matthew chooses to use. When he says blessed are the poor he uses the word ptochoi which applies to those at the very bottom, the expendable ones, the untouchables, and the bent over beggars that know they have absolutely nothing. Jesus is saying these people will be happy, and these people will see the kingdom of heaven. What on earth does he mean?
I recall that after the earthquakes many people told me that material possessions were less important for them, sometimes for obvious reason. Prized possessions had literally been shattered. What were we learning? I think we all knew that what really mattered in our lives was relationship. Family and friends were what really mattered. Having lots of things wasn’t much help when it came to the earth shaking. Maybe Jesus would say to us blessed are the poor for they shall see what really matters.
But I think he would also say take it a step further. In our lives we get attached to all sorts of things besides material possessions. I am about to enter retirement and discover that I no longer have a place of privilege and power as a minister. Many struggle with retirement because of this. Loosing a sense of purpose and power. There is a part of us that craves for recognition and admiration and Jesus says we have to let it go. That’s why Jesus would also say you need to become like a child to enter the kingdom of God. You need to become detached from the things that feed our ego.
For any of you who have looked at Buddhism you’ll know that this sounds very Buddhist. Letting go of attachment is central in that faith, but here it is in Christianity as well. But there is something more. Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven belongs to people who have learned to let go of the desire to be noticed or to be admired by others. Notice that word belongs…it doesn’t say will belong but says belongs. It happens now. The poor know they are poor and do not seek to bolster their value and ego by false means. They are set free of the need to impress others, compare themselves with others, and strive to keep up with the Jones’s. They don’t have to defend themselves, or build networks of people to affirm them. They don’t have to learn to play the right games to parade themselves in front of others. The poor can just be, and when you are freed from the desire to impress, to have your say, to be noticed, to seek power and prestige, you will become a beautiful person in the true sense of the word. In a world where image is so important but where anxiety and fears are growing exponentially we need to hear this simple truth and blessing.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth… The word meek is an interesting one. In Jesus’ time the powerful owned land. Most were labourers and workers eking out an existence as best they could. The meek could be translated as the powerless ones. There was a message here for those people. Jesus is saying they will be landowners when God is fully respected by all people and the reign of God or commonwealth of God comes on earth. There will be justice and equality for all. All will own land and have the opportunity that brings in an agrarian society. It is a message of hope. It is also a message of challenge for the wealthy ones, powerful ones. Societies like ours that have seen great divisions of inequality open up need to listen. The meek, the powerless always have a place around God’s table and we have to work and stand up for a world that consigns no-one to the scrap heap to be forgotten or labelled as worthless. There is another side to this coin. My dictionary describes meek as patient and submissive and that sounds decidedly dodgy. The don’t push and shove, they just accept what is. I think we need to get this word sorted. I don’t see Jesus telling people to be submissive and like doormats. I don’t see Jesus saying put up with whatever. Happy are the doormats. Eugene Petersen in his modern translation in the Message translates this verse: “You are blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.” I think we start to see a different view of meekness. It is not about being a doormat and giving into everyone’s demands of you, jumping when someone else says jump. It’s not a recommendation to be spineless, but is about discovering who you truly are. That sounds very different.
But knowing who you truly are doesn’t just happen. I’m still learning. Key is a practice of reflection and reflection is something we could do with a whole lot more of in our world. The reflection requires we are honest with ourselves but what we also need is feedback from others who often see things we are blind to. The trouble is honestly feeding back is something we are often not good at. Sadly Christians are well known for their ability to see faults in themselves and in others while affirmation is another story.. I wonder what our congregation might look like if we saw more readily and celebrated more readily and affirmed more readily each others gifts. …….. you did that really well. …….. I think you have a real gift for……. You seem to have this unique ability to…. Research would tell us that the most successful teams work best on a five to one ratio. Five messages of affirmation to every message of criticism. I wonder if we could ever make our congregation a five to one congregation. St Martin’s the five to one community where we help one another learn who we truly are. A community that notices and affirms the good things in the lives others. A community that helps people know their gifts and encourages people to use their gifts.
There is a danger here also. Affirmation may simply feed our ego instead of bringing us to a truer understanding of ourselves, so the meek also understand that our strengths and gifts are gifts. They come from God. We are not self made, but we are God made. Our strengths well used will make a difference in the world, but our strengths are not mine. Meek people know this well.
“You are blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.” Jesus says when you know this you will inherit the earth. In the original telling this meant you would have some land to build your life on, a place to stand tall, you’ll know your turangawaewaei. A place where we are empowered and connected. Eugene Peterson goes on to say when we discover who we truly are, “That’s the moment you find you find yourself proud owners of everything that can’t be bought or sold.” When you know who you truly are in a community like this you will stand tall, your life will have found it’s true purpose and place, and that is something we all long for deep inside. You are content to just be, to the glory of God.
It starts from the inside out….. You will be happy when you are freed from the desire to impress. You will find heaven has drawn near.
You will be happy when you are content to be who you truly are. You will discover your turagawaewae…. A place of gentle strength.
May the Spirit of Jesus continue to work within each of us, teaching us, transforming us, and building a community where all have a place of belonging and purpose. Dugald Wilson 2 February 2020