11-25-18 The Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes Pt. 3
I begin today by sharing with you what for many is a familiar and beloved poem. Hopefully its relevance will become clear in today’s message.
The Road Not Taken - By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I’ve shared with you before that Mark’s Gospel is my favorite book of the Bible. I like it for it’s simplicity of structure, for its basic “just the facts” approach to the stories of Jesus without a lot of theological or doctrinal embellishment, and I like it because, in its original version, Mark had the guts to allow the story to end with the women at the empty tomb frightened by the implications of what lay before them instead of tying it all up in a nice Easter bonnet bow for us. He allowed for the uncertainty that must have been present in the women at that time. And I appreciate the dangling questions and growth that come with a process-oriented theology more than I do the seemingly pat answers of a systematic approach. I can relate more to the simple humanity evidenced in Mark more than I resonate with the piety of John. Although, as with Robert Frost, I do appreciate the poetry in John. That’s just how I roll.
At the same time, if I had to offer my favorite passage of scripture within the Bible, it would be the Sermon on the Mount, and more specifically the Beatitudes, at or near the top of the list. I have preached this passage multiple times in ten years of ministry, each time gleaning something new from a fresh reading, a new context, and access to different sources that either challenge or build upon my previous thinking. And the Beatitudes certainly will challenge many of our staid ways of thinking.
A few weeks ago Lynn and I drove up to Delaware to visit the recently widowed wife of a United Methodist Pastor who had served in Lynn’s parents’ church in Sandusky years ago. Ned had just recently died after a long battle with cancer and Shirley asked if I would be interested in any of his books. Salivating like Pavlov’s dog at the ringing of a bell, we drove to Delaware and I quickly began a deep dive into yet another literary candy store from which to feed my book addiction. Many of the titles were familiar, already having a place on my many shelves. Others were new to me so I grabbed them up and placed them in boxes that I would bring home and allow to acclimate to their new environment before finding homes for them in whatever bookshelf was most appropriate -
or had space.
One of those new books was a gem written by Glen Stassen, a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, titled “Living the Sermon on the Mount.” I knew it would be good both by the number of things that Ned had underlined in the text, as well as the fact that the endorsements on the back cover of the dust jacket were from people who represent both theologically progressive and conservative lenses. That kind of “bi-partisanship” is as rare in the church as it is in politics, so when you see it you grab it and hold tight - which I did.
And one of the things that I loved when I got to the section about the Beatitudes themselves, is that Stassen, after extensive study of not only the original language, but how that language is used throughout scripture, retranslates the verses to what he believes Jesus was actually saying. Rather than “blessed” or “happy” he translates the Greek makarios as “joyful,” because that same word is used 50 other times in the New Testament as “joyful” rather than either “blessed” or “happy.”
So Stassen’s translation says:
- Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God, for theirs is the reign of God.
- Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.
- Joyful are those whose wills are surrendered to God, for they will inherit the earth.
- Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.
- Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.
- Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will be called children of God.
- Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Joyful are those of you who suffer because of restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
- Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you because of me.
- Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
This, according to Stassen, would be the best understanding of what Jesus intended in this message. And he points out that Jesus is saying that these “joys” are not a to-do list to get into heaven, but rather they are signs of the present and future reign of God - that which is present in Jesus Christ and that which is to come when God’s reign is fully in place. The beatitudes, he says, are an experience that is already beginning in Jesus.
Contrary to how we tend to interpret them, these are not high ideals that Jesus is urging us to live up to. That is an ethics of idealism, focusing attention on our own good works and hard effort rather than on participation in God’s grace. It urges us to make a superhuman effort to live up to ideals that are difficult if not impossible for us to reach. And he says, “It often leads people to praise Jesus for teaching wonderfully high ideals, but then to say that in real life we have to live by some other, more realistic, ethic.”
He goes on, “When seen as a type of idealism, Jesus’ teachings are about imposing [a set of principles, moral values, or ideals] on us from above that do not fit our real struggle. They seem to be foreign to our nature, like a pair of pants too tight for our body, or a job that does not fit our gifts and interests.
We try to make our reality fit the ideals, but it simply does not fit. Idealistic thinking is wishful, not realistic. It does not point out the way to deal with problems.
“The more we emphasize these teachings as ideals to live up to, the guiltier and less worthy we feel. Some of us even avoid Jesus’ teachings. Or, if we think we do live up to these ideals, we become self-righteous. [Like Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the Publican,] we thank God that we are not like other people, who are not so virtuous as we are. Our moralistic arrogance makes us hard to live with.”
Stassen reminds the reader that “the gospel is about God coming to deliver us, not our building ourselves up to attempt to reach God’s heights by living out impossibly high ideals.” Now this might be a little confusing to us. “Aren’t we supposed to act in these ways?” we ask. Aren’t we supposed to be humble, merciful, and make peace? Of course we are. The point is why. Are we doing it because we think it will punch our ticket to heaven, or because doing so reflects God’s presence in our lives? Is Jesus saying, “Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God” because being poor and humble makes them virtuous so they will get the reward that virtuous people deserve? Or is he saying, “Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God” because God is gracious and God is acting to deliver the poor and humble? There is a huge difference in those two readings of this one beatitude - and it leads to an entirely different understanding of what God is doing in our lives.
The beatitudes are not some theological performance improvement plan or Salvation for Dummies checklist. The beatitudes, given primarily to the disciples but also to others who had begun to follow Jesus at a distance, are geared towards people who have already begun to experience being saddened, criticized, or persecuted for choosing to follow him, or who have begun the counter cultural task of making peace. Jesus is talking to insiders about the grace of God that is both present and coming to help ease the difficult journey they’d already begun. Their basis is not on the perfection of the disciples’ activity or actions, but on the coming grace of God.
One way we can see how Jesus is using these teachings is in his use of Isaiah 61. Jesus quoted Isaiah more than any other book. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue announcing his mission, it was from Isaiah 61:
The Sprit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me;
He sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release for the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the broken victims go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
So, is this a passage about human effort to live up to high ideals? Is it urging us to become poor, prisoners, blind, and victims so that God will reward us?
No. It’s a passage celebrating that God is acting graciously to deliver us from our poverty and captivity into God’s reign of deliverance, justice, joy, and salvation.
The beatitudes are not about high ideals, but God’s gracious deliverance and our joyous participation in and response to God’s grace. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says we are blessed, we are joyful, because God is NOT distant or absent; we experience God’s reign and presence in our midst and will experience it even more in the future. Therefore each beatitude begins and ends with the joy, the happiness, the blessedness, of the good news of participation in God’s deliverance. The beatitudes say what Isaiah 35 tells us: “Strengthen the tired hands and revive the stumbling knees. Say to the despairing hearts: Be of good cheer! Do not be afraid! See, your God is coming!”
When we understand the beatitudes prophetically as God’s gracious deliverance, they match up well with Jesus’ teachings of the parables of the reign of God. And that’s what Reign of Christ Sunday calls us to celebrate as well. It is with that understanding then, that we approach our final three beatitudes.
Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
Remember the quote for G.K. Chesterton that I shared with you last week, that “the Christian ideal had not been tried and found wanting. It had been found difficult and never tried?” If there is any Christian ideal that we have never tried, it’s being peacemakers. Our understanding of peace today is often the same as that of the Roman Empire’s Pax Romani - a peace that is aggressively and brutally enforced, with military might if necessary.
True peace is more than the absence of violence or war, but that’s all we know of peace. And we know little of that.
General Omar Bradley, the great military leader of D-Day and World War II, once said, “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. . . . Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” —General Omar Bradley.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the rise of what he called “the military industrial complex,” - that blending of interests that profit handsomely by an ever-growing and ever more engaged military, whether it’s needed for actual security or not. We see the truth in Eisenhower’s warning in the way in which production of nearly every component of every military system is distributed into each and every congressional district in the U.S. With that kind of broad-based manufacturing strategy, even when the military decides it no longer needs a certain weapon or weapon system, they have to fight Congress to get rid of it because it might cost jobs in each member’s district. So when we read Jesus’ words “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” we smile knowingly, understanding that Jesus’ ideas of peace face an uphill battle in our world.
As Fr. Richard Rohr writes about it, “The peace of Christ waits and works for true peace by sacrificing the false self of power, prestige, and possessions.
Such peacemaking will never be popular. The follower of Jesus is doomed to minority status. Jesus, [in the next beatitude] warns us that we will be hated from all sides. When you’re working outside the system, when you work for peace, you will not be admired inside the system. In fact, you will [either look naive and foolish, or you will] look dangerous, subversive, and unpatriotic. One thing you cannot call Jesus was a patriot. He was serving a far bigger realm.”
And Rohr goes on to say, “One of the most distressing qualities of many Christians today is that they retain the right to decide when, where, and with whom they will be pro-life peacemakers. If the other can be determined to be wrong, guilty, unworthy, or sinful, the death penalty is somehow supposed to serve justice. That entirely misses the ethical point Jesus makes: We are never the sole arbiters of life or death, because life is created by God and carries the divine image. It is a spiritual seeing, far beyond any ideology of left or right.”
John Dear writes even more matter-of-factly: “With this Beatitude, Jesus announces that God is a peacemaker. Everyone who becomes a peacemaker is therefore a son or daughter of the God of peace.”
And the assumption then, that follows, is that the opposite is also true - those who do not become peacemakers are not sons or daughters of God.
Dear continues, “With this teaching, Jesus describes the nature of God as nonviolent and peaceful. This one verse,” he says, “throws out thousands of years of belief in a violent god and every reference to a war-making god in the Hebrew Scriptures. It does away with any spiritual justification for warfare . . Instead, it opens vast new vistas in our imaginations about what the living God is actually like, and what God’s reign might be like. With this beatitude, we glimpse the nonviolence of [God’s reign] and join the global struggle to abolish war and pursue a new world of nonviolence here on earth. . . .
“As peacemakers,” he continues, “we are nonviolent to ourselves, nonviolent to all others, all creatures, and all creation, and we work publicly for a new world of nonviolence. . . .[We are called to] speak out against every aspect of violence—poverty, war, racism, [sexism], police brutality, gun violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction—and at the same time call for a new culture of peace.” Truly, peacemaking is the Christian ideal that has been found difficult and left untried.
Joyful are those of you who suffer because of restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
We shouldn’t be surprised that this Beatitude follows the previous ones. We talked last week about the difference between our thinking about justice as retribution, while God’s view of justice is solely about restoration. The first and last Beatitudes are present tense: Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Until this statement, Jesus has said “joyful are the . . .,” speaking generally. Now he says joyful are “those of you. . . .” Very likely Matthew is suggesting that this scene is happening directly in front of Jesus. His small community of disciples and followers is being persecuted for pursing justice, and Jesus tells them to “rejoice and be glad!” Persecution for the cause of justice is inevitable. Instead of seeking to blame someone for their well-earned scars, he is telling them two clear things: You can be joyful—and you can be joyful now - for the Reign of God is at hand!
And finally, Matthew 5:11-12 could really be called the ninth Beatitude, although it more likely is an explanation of the eighth:
Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.
The disciples’ response is a prophetic action itself. To live joyfully amid misunderstanding and slander points to the Reign of God. Goodness can never be attacked directly; the messengers or the motivation must be discredited.
Luke’s Gospel presents the same message in the opposite form: “Alas for you when the world speaks well of you! This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Too much praise is probably an indication that it is not the full Gospel. In either case, Jesus himself clearly knew that his teaching would turn conventional values on their head.
Jesus taught an alternative wisdom rather than the maintenance of social order - a wisdom that got him killed. Yet most of Christian history tried to understand Jesus inside the earlier stage of law and order. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is anything but about maintaining the status quo!
Theologian Marcus Borg wrote:
“The gospel of Jesus—the good news of Jesus’ own message—is that there is a way of being that moves beyond both secular and religious conventional wisdom. The path of transformation of which Jesus spoke leads from a life of requirements and measuring up (whether to culture or to God) to a life of relationship with God. It leads from a life of anxiety to a life of peace and trust. It leads from the bondage of self-preoccupation to the freedom of self-forgetfulness. It leads from life centered in culture to life centered in God.”
Jesus says that the people who live these blessings, these joys, these Beatitudes, will be “the salt of the earth” (Mt. 5:13). For ancient people, salt was an important preservative, seasoning, and symbol of healing. What does Jesus mean by this image? First, to repeat, he’s not saying that those who live this way are going to heaven. He is saying that they will be a gift for the earth. Conventional thinking is that Jesus’ teaching are prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them), not accepting or grasping that salvation is a gift from God and not something we can earn. Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life - here and now - centered in God.
Jesus’ moral teaching is very often a description of the final product rather than a detailed process for getting there. When you can weep, when you can identify with the little ones, when you can make peace, when you can be persecuted and still be joyful . . . then you’re doing it right. He is saying, as it were, this is what holiness looks like. When you act this way, “The Reign of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about control, enforcement, or uniformity. His priority is proclamation, naming, and revealing. Then he trusts that good-willed people and a reliable and patient God will take it from there.
“If salt becomes tasteless, how can we salt the world with it?” asks Jesus (Mt. 5:13). That message seems especially true today. If Christians—Jesus’ self-proclaimed followers—no longer believe the Gospel, if we no longer believe in nonviolence and powerlessness, mercy and grace, then who’s going to convert us? We’re supposed to be the leaven of the world, yet if we no longer believe in the Gospel, if we’re unwilling to follow Jesus’ teachings, what hope do we have of offering anything new to anyone else?
Finally, Jesus says, “You are light for the world; a city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5:14-15). Our job is to be a shining truth, to live the truth as best we can, and let it fall where it may. As Richard Rohr put it, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
Jesus is telling his disciples, then and now, “I’ve given you a great truth. I want you to hold the light and the leaven in the middle of the world. As light or leaven it will do its work, and God’s purposes will be achieved.”
What a relaxed and patient trust Jesus has in God!
Jesus is quite content, it seems, with such a humble position. He enters the Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday from a place of utter powerlessness, mounted, not on a war horse but a humble donkey.
His Sermon on the Mount has to do with an alternative understanding and strategy of power. Jesus is leading us to participate in God’s power, which to us feels like powerlessness, but when embraced surrounds us with joy. It is a way that has been left untried, a road that has not been taken.
The road that Jesus offers may not initially look as appealing, but the farther down the road of faith one travels, the more truth one finds. We discover that humility, unlike power, needs no defense. We realize that doing justice is its own reward. We find that a pure heart is much easier to live with than one filled with jealousy, resentment, and cynicism. Step by step, we learn that following Jesus - even if we are persecuted for it - leads to a joy that nothing can take away.
As Frost’s poem concludes:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
May you choose the road, the way of Jesus, that has been left untried. And may it make all the difference for you. Amen.