The Delightful Economy of the Beatitudes
Week of Sunday February 9 - Epiphany 5
Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Salt of the earth and light of the world are two images to be interpreted by the Beatitudes. We could argue that the reading of last week should have gone through to verse 16. Because we are blessed we should let our light shine before others. This is the purpose of blessing.
What does it mean to be blessed? I think it is the gift of understanding that the fundamental economy of the world— at all levels, not just human interaction, but especially human interaction— runs on compassion; that is, mercy, and love. The world does not run on riches and hard power. The world completely misunderstands what real power is, and ridicules the power of the cross and Christ crucified.
But blessedness is not only— cannot be only— an understanding. Blessedness has an element of experience. Blessedness experiences the "now" of the kingdom, as well as its "not yet." In blessedness, the kingdom has come near. (Matt 4:17)
There is one final aspect to this. Blessedness is not for profit. Blessedness, we might say, is a side effect of virtue; an unexpected gift. To do good for reward; to do right to be blessed, is to miss the point. In fact, it is to insulate ourselves from blessing! We do good simply because it is good. (Kant) We are virtuous because it "gives glory to our Father in heaven." (Matthew)
It is not that God rejects us when our faith is "Mythic-Literal" faith [which has] a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, [with] deities [that] are almost always anthropomorphic." That's where I came from, and my blessing had already started well before! But in the later stages of faith that Fowler outlined, "Conjunctive" faith ...[where we acknowledge] paradox and transcendence, relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems" we finally become free of the sense that there should be " justice and reciprocity [in] the universe," and have the kind of blessedness I call "grace-plus." It is an immense freedom!
Blessedness is a sheer joy at goodness, which looks for no reward— does not even think of it— and yet sometimes receives more than it could ever have hoped for.
Last week, in the heatwave, one of our members, who is way too old to be out in the heat, was gardening at the church. He was approached by a young Sudanese woman distressed and struggling in the heat with too much luggage to carry. She asked where a certain main road was located. Her face fell at his reply; "I have taken the wrong bus!"
He said, "Would you trust me?" and with her assent, drove her the long way to the required road. And then asked which bus stop; another kilometre; and then, "But where is your house?" and drove her there. "The smile on her face... I was so delighted!" That is blessing, the unexpected joy from doing what is right, despite the risks in a climate of suspicion about old men and young women; his friends chided him for his lack of caution.
The beginning of reading this week is a rhetorical question. If you are blessed; if you have seen and felt the gift of God— kingdom now, kingdom at hand— how could it possibly be that you would light your lamp and put it under a bushel basket!? Why on earth would you hide your blessing!?
People put a bushel basket over a lamp to put it out!
It is (a peasant's) one-room house that is envisioned in the parable here, since all who enter can see the light stand. The normal way to put out and oil lamp was to put it under a bushel basket so as not to fill the house with smoke and fumes before retiring. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Malina, Bruce and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (May 31, 1993)
Our blessedness is to salt the earth; to give it flavour, drawing out what is always hidden within it. Our blessedness is to light the way; to give glory to our Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16) People get all mystical about giving glory to God; I sometimes wonder if they understand what it means. It is not about singing in a minor key and swaying, hands raised, flattering God. It is about showing the world who God is.
If we take the last verse for this week we might paraphrase how this is done. It is done with a righteousness [which] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. (Matt 4:20)
We could categorise Matthew as the "interpreter of righteousness." In Matthew the first words of Jesus are, "... it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness." (3:15) First words are important; Jesus didn't talk about the weather, his first words are about righteousness!
Matthew is writing after Mark and Paul. Mark scandalised many, I am sure, by saying, "By this he declared all foods clean." (Mark 7:19) Matthew leaves that saying out! Paul did away with circumcision for Gentiles. Whatever he knew of Paul, Matthew wants us to be clear on what Jesus was on about.
Just in case you don't understand this, he says...
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
We are not talking about "slacking off," an Australian preacher might say; the Law stands— and there is more! There is a wonderful rendition of the sense of Jesus' words at Holy Textures.
Don't think that my teachings replace or reduce the law and the prophets. And don't think you can skip the details. Details count. But something more than the details is also needed. You must align your whole self with what God desires - that is what those in Heaven are like.
A key aspect of the Holy Textures quote is to understand that "abolish" has two sides to it. Abolish could mean to "tone down," or lessen, even "get rid of." "No way! " says Matthew, not one iota. The iota is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. "Not even the dot on the 'i,'" we might say.
Abolish could also mean "replace." "Not that, either," says Matthew. "Jesus does not have a new law. What we are talking about is fulfilment."
Jesus comes to complete the law, not so much in the sense of finishing it as in the sense of "topping it off, or "being the cream." Even, perhaps, to help us finally get it right! It's not that he is bringing something that Jewish people were ignorant of— that's a Christian prejudice— but that he is again focussing people to the purpose— dare we say, the crux— of the law. As he says later in Matthew, "Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He is quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, and refocussing our attention on what is already in them.
"You will not understand what I am on about by lessening the law; that's the wrong direction. You have to be better than the scribes and the Pharisees."
As Bill Loader puts it, "Jesus, says Matthew, did not come to lead people away from scripture but to lead them to take it seriously." This is important for we who may think there is a lesson for fundamentalists here. (There is.)
In our determination not to be literalists or "law bound," and to take seriously the freedom that Mark has experienced— by this he declared all foods clean— we face another danger. We could think the Law is a time and culture bound thing, which it is in its details, and leave what is no longer appropriate behind. And then, foolishly and dangerously, leave behind its attitude and purpose, as well. The purpose of the law is to be light to others. It is a gift— grace— to all people, which is shown and received in love and service, and which is exemplified most of all in our protection of the orphans, the widows and the strangers. (eg Jeremiah 22:3) This attitude is rather less time bound, than some of the details. It shows our shortcomings as human beings!
We could say that in our reading and what follows, Matthew is setting us up to understand his conclusion to this part of the gospel: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Matthew was the first gospel I read. It stung me: "If this is true, I am on the wrong side of the fence!" And I understood the height of that fence very clearly on that first reading: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I now understand I built that fence; Jesus breaks down the dividing walls, Paul said. (Ephesians 2:14) All is gift. God will reject no one. But how are the words be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect, words of blessing rather than an unclimbable fence or an unbearable burden?
Let us put aside the word righteousness, for a moment. Its root in the Greek is justice. John Petty puts it like this.
"For I say to you that if your justice does not abound more than the scribes and pharisees, you may surely not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
This does not mean ratcheting up our piety to a pitch higher than that of the pharisees. It is justice that must abound, and more than the scribes and pharisees are able to muster. Since the scribes and pharisees are purveyors of anti-justice--see chapter 23--fortunately, this is not that difficult.
Really, John? Not that difficult!? We are all compromised. We all fall short of the glory of God. We are all enmeshed in our cultural system.
Matthew's anger at 'Pharisees gone bad' is a call for self examination for church leadership. It's here in this reading too, by the way. Twice he condemns those who teach others to do the same. Matthew uses Pharisees gone bad as a challenge to Christian leaders who risk doing the same, or who have even done so. Try reading Matthew's condemnation of the Pharisees without feeling compelled to take stock of your own behaviour!
But for the most part, Pharisees are good.
According to Josephus, the first-century historian and Pharisee himself, the Pharisees "cultivate harmonious relations with the community" (War.II.166) and receive respect from the community because of their virtuous lives (Ant.XVIII.15). Jesus' followers must be more committed to God's justice in the world than these prominent leaders. (Powery)
"In other words," says Craddock,
consider the standard set by those Jews most concerned with understanding and obeying God’s commands and then surpass that standard.
According to Matthew, Jesus elaborates on this expected righteousness in a series of six "for instances." Unfortunately, many commentators have called this section of the Sermon on the Mount the "six antitheses" (Matt. 5:21-48) as though Jesus were setting his teaching over against that of the Jewish tradition. However, in the preceding paragraph Jesus makes it clear that he came not to abolish that tradition but to bring it to completion (vv. 17-20) . Therefore, Jesus’ "But I say to you" builds upon rather than opposes his "You have heard that it was said." It is most important to notice that Jesus spells out the higher righteousness in these six instances in terms of relationships: with a brother (or sister), with those of the opposite sex, with one’s spouse, with oneself, with aggressors and with neighbors and enemies. [I have added the emphasis.]
Entering the Kingdom of Heaven, knowing our blessedness, is a matter of being better than the best! "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20)
I began by saying Salt of the earth and light of the world are two images to be interpreted by the Beatitudes. I said to folk at church on Sunday that the Beatitudes
are paradoxical sayings, and kōan like. To be blessed is to have the kōan break open our logic, and to see the reality of the universe— and to begin to enter into it. It is to see the fundamental reality of weak power, the power of Jesus' cross.
We will not logically get to understand what "I entering the Kingdom of Heaven, knowing our blessedness, is a matter of being better than the best" means. We will only experience it. It will be messy, as I wrote in Sunday's reflections. There is no formula for this.
The Beatitudes invite a profound trust that if we begin to mourn, if we determine to be meek— Meek is strong, determined adherence to the ways of God; a hungering and thirsting after righteousness— if we determine to do this, we will find we are no longer simply determining by an act of will, as it were. We will find we simply hunger and thirst after righteousness, a justice that is "right" because it measures itself by the standards of God. It will burn in us like desire.
And then, in my experience, the logic cracking kōan-like nature of Jesus' words open me up. Craddock concludes the essay I have already quoted by saying
... Jesus says that one’s life is not to be determined by friend or foe but by God, who relates to all not on the basis of their behavior or attitude toward God but according to God’s own nature, which is love. God does not react, but acts out of love toward the just and unjust, the good and the evil. God is thus portrayed as perfect in relationships, that is, complete: not partial but impartial. God’s perfection in this context is, therefore, love offered without partiality.
Jesus calls on his followers to be children of God in this same quality. "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." In other words, you must love without partiality, as God does. Thus understood, perfection is not only possible but actually realized whenever and wherever our relationships come under the reign of God.
It's logical. I "get" what he is saying. But something has also "opened me up," something beyond logic. The imperative to be perfect is not demand. It is blessing. The world, the whole reality, is different. There is no fence to climb, no wall between me and God, or me and anyone else. As my friend at church said, "I am so delighted!"
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!
I have been helped to prepare this post by
Bill Loader: First Thoughts on 9 February Matthew 5:13-20
Emerson Powery at Working Preacher
John Petty: Lectionary blogging: Matthew 5: 13-20
Fred Craddock: You, Therefore, Must Be Perfect (Matt. 5:20)
I have previously posted on the text at: Matthew - 5:13-20 - Fulfilling the Law, and at Matt 5:13-20 - The Sermon Draft: Love, not duty. Since I start fresh each time, you may even find I disagree with myself!