Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

Mourning, Blessed, and Sometimes Happy

Week of Sunday February 2 – Epiphany 4
Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew presents Jesus as the new and greater Moses of Israel. Here we have the analogue of the Ten Commandments given to Israel. Jesus/Moses climbs a mountain and presents a list of sayings. Almost before reading the text there is a message to be seen: instead of a list of ten commandments there is a list of nine blessings, with a tenth exhortation to rejoice.

We are not a religion of commandments, but a religion of blessings.

This observation is not to be seen as a denigration of Jewish faith. The faith of Moses' people is ultimately a faith of blessing and grace too. There is promise and grace with the commandments.

Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, 9and so that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. Deuteronomy 11: 8 -9

And it is nothing short of foolish, arrogance, and wilful blindness to think that Jewish people do not know blessing and grace; just talk with them and hear the stories of the same God we know!

No, the story of blessings-not-commandments is a story for us to hear—  we Christians—  for we often seem to fear God as a monster who punishes us arbitrarily or harshly; how many times have those who are sick told me God is "dealing with them" in a tone of grim resignation that indicates they know they deserve it? And how often do we imagine God as a monster, one who visits wholesale, broad-acre, indiscriminate punishment upon whole populations for the misdeeds of a few?

It is we Christians who have not progressed beyond the naivety and scapegoating and immaturity that imagines that God will destroy thousands for the misdeed of one hand, even guiding that hand into the misdeed! (2 Sam 24)

Jesus' God is a God of Blessings, not commandments. Even in Matthew, where righteousness, doing what God requires, is of prime importance, God blesses!

Jesus does not say, "You shall... you shall... you shall not..." Jesus says, " Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." This new Moses brings us blessing and promise. Stern and bitter Christianity, "cold as charity" Christianity, and hardline doctrinal keep the rules Christianity, are all a fundamental misunderstanding of the tone and affect of Jesus the Christ.

We are graced with a Faith of Blessing, not the faith of rule keeping we so often espouse.

...

Some translations suggested the form: Happy are the poor in spirit... This is a failure of translation. I have suffered barely enough persecution to be worthy of the name, but on this I am clear. I was not happy about it. Blessing is not happiness. Someone who is blessed may happen to be happy. It is often a thing of hap, or as we put it today, luck. Blessing is far deeper.

To be blessed in the terms of the Beatitudes is to be fundamentally in tune with the nature of the Universe. It is to be living in the way that makes us fully human; to be "on track" as a disciple; to be faithful— full of faith—  in Matthew's sense, that living out of compassion and mercy which allows one to be listed among the sheep rather than the goats in Matthew 25. Listed not because we deserve it, but because we are blessed; that is, we have grasped the gift and the promise and found ourselves in a new blessed reality which is in tune with the God of all things, however badly we sing.

We will never be happy about persecution, but we will know that it is a sign we are on track— at least that's what I would like to say. But then we twist things.

In American Christianity we love persecution. Like a Rorshach test, we are able to see it anywhere we look. We are so culturally programmed that there “will be persecution” that we develop a persecution complex which causes us to look at any given ink blot and see an intriguing case of anti-Christian discrimination....  Benjamin L. Corey

The beatitude says "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake..." whereas

Being persecuted for our faith is different than being persecuted because we’re acting like jerks. If you are a Christian in America and frequently feel persecuted, please do us both a favor and examine your own behavior and communication style. Benjamin L. Corey

I'm an Australian, but, sadly,  this does not sound unfamiliar.

...

I see three groupings in the Beatitudes.

Central to the Beatitudes are these:

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.'

These five seem to be full of challenge and promise:
There is the challenge of living God's way, which is to be meek. The word did not have the current meaning of "overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame" with which we are familiar. It is much more the quality of Jan Struther's knights: gentle and brave, gallant and bold... in God's service.  
Meekness hungers and thirsts for life to be lived God's way (righteously);
it is full of compassion (mercy);
it is honest and open (pure in heart)
and it strives for justice and understanding and a fair go for everyone (peacemakers.)

Essentially, all these promise the Kingdom of Heaven:
To inherit the earth is to finally live in the promised land of milk and honey;
the hunger for righteousness, life in tune with God and all that is, will finally bring that sort of world;
even in this time when the compassionate are ripped off and taken for advantage, the merciful already harvest a sometimes stunning return of mercy and love, let alone that which comes from God;
those who play it straight, who are pure in heart, seem often able to see good and beauty where the opportunistic see none, or are disillusioned, and the unsung Martin Luther Kings and Nelson Mandelas are equally venerated and loved in their own lunchtimes. All of us know a true, pure in heart peacemaker when we see them.

...

And then there is consequence. This is the third grouping.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

There is no if in these sayings. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you. Blessed when it is for righteousness sake, rather than for "being a jerk."

I read somewhere (Bill Loader or Richard Beck?) that life is lived dodging among the powers...

There is a reason dictatorships persecute Christians. If the dictator reads the Bible his or her condemnation is clear. Dictatorship is unrighteous by definition; the dictator is the god of the nation. A dictator is the little god who has acquired many horses and many wives and whose heart has turned away from God. (Deuteronomy 17:11-20)

What we forget in our democracies is the adage that a democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for tea. (Not Benjamin Franklin) The ugly truth of majority rule is seen in this saying. Majority rule democracy, our system of government and culture is NOT Christian. It does not inherently consider the orphan, the widow and the stranger, which are the touchstone or litmus test of our faith. So our Australian gulags, concentration camps, or Guantanamo Bays are thoroughly democratic; the majority has assented to the inhumane, and unrighteous, and unchristian, demonisation and imprisonment of refugees. They are democratically established concentration camps, but completely unrighteous.

Righteousness calls us to repent of this and follow the ways of God. As I said in my Sunday sermon last week, for Australia Day, the more faithful we are, the more it will cost us... If we get enough traction to be heard, and are clear enough to make a difference, the powers will [move to] shut us down ...

Democracy is a power or principality. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a system outside of our control. It does things that are stupid and evil; even though the majority often know this and are sometimes outraged by "the system's" failings, it is often difficult to reverse or correct them.

We are told that hunger and thirst after righteousness is what fills us with blessing; that is, what brings the Kingdom of Heaven near. It is not democracy which will bring the kingdom near. And democracy will, like all things of human origin, strike back and persecute when faced with its failings.

Jesus could well have said, "I desire mercy, not democracy." (Matt 9:13) The sacrifices by which both he and Hosea (Hosea 6:6) were outraged were the same diminution or even complete removal of mercy and humanity that happens under majority rule. The life of the poor was, and is, sacrificed for other ideals. (cf John 11:50, 18:14)

...

The love and grace of God is seen in the first grouping of the beatitudes.

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I mourn. I mourn for my little friend, for I know what innocence I have lost, and what awaits him:

Talking with [my son] today about Australia Day and he asked why so many people want to come to Australia. I said because it's a lot safer here than in many other countries. "Yeah", he says "but have they heard of our wildlife? We have the world's deadliest snakes and spiders. And sharks. And crocodiles. It's dangerous here!". Too cute to fill him in on the terrors of the world out there... (Sarah)

I mourn that a country of which I was once so proud has degenerated into prejudice and hatred fuelled by our leadership for the sake of votes; where the evil of One Nation, has been coopted by the powerful for their own purpose.

I mourn that some listeners to my Sunday sermons think refugees deserve it! Lord have mercy. That they, recipients of child endowment, housing trust homes, free health care, free education, sick leave, long service leave, 25 years of a widows pension, complain that we give so much to refugees when the government has given us nothing! And this is why we should turn them back to the non-existent queue. Christ have mercy.

I mourn that I am so poor in spirit. Systematically bullied as a child, and fifty years later still struggling everyday not to respond with bitterness and defensiveness, my effectiveness as a pastor is constantly compromised by that intractable scarring. Yet I know from that same pastoral experience that I am one of the most fortunate of people!

I mourn because a counsellor once said to a friend, "I don't know how it is that you have not taken your own life or been committed to a mental hospital," and it took me years to understand that was no overstatement. Lord have mercy.

And the Lord does—  before we begin. Before any command of "no other God but me," (Exodus 20:2) or any call to righteousness, there is sheer grace:  ‘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."

Who are the meek? Those who try, simply try; those whose trying cannot even get beyond a desire to do what God wants; in short, those who mourn. They will be comforted. Earth will be what God desires; they will inherit the earth. Thanks be to God.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Kathy 30-01-2014
Great piece, Andrew! I resonate with what you said about twisting the concept of persecution, especially in American Christianity which is my context. I've been reading some scholars who translate "blessed" as "joyful." I appreciate that because "joyful" is not the same as "happy" in my book, and it puts a different nuance on the usual way I hear the Beatitudes. "Joyful are those who mourn" makes me stop and think.

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