Looking West from The Jump Up, north of Itjinpiri on the way to Amata, 1995

Blessed are you

This is the first Draft sermon for Matthew 5:1-12, which is the Gospel for January 30 2011. I also write it for my friend, and I mean every word. The Ten Commandments, to which the sermon also refers, are listed (Exodus version) at the end of  the sermon.) You can find more commentary on these texts here.

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.’

Recently a friend told me a story of pure evil, of carefully calculated and coldly premeditated evil. It was a story of appalling betrayal, and utterly debilitating deeds whose consequences may last for decades. My friend and his family, and some of their friends, were the victim of this evil for only one reason. They were victims because they sought to be faithful to the gospel. They were crucified for Christ. If they had not sought to be Christlike, then it would not have happened to them.

These are not naive people. They had their eyes open. To be sure, they were as innocent as doves; loving and kind and forgiving. But they were wise as serpents. They took all the protective precautions one should take in such a ministry. Evil still triumphed.

And Jesus said,

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.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

--

In the Hebrew scriptures, Moses went up the mountain and received the Law from God. He taught the Law to the people.

There are five whole books of the Law, which the People of Israel call Torah, and we call Pentateuch. They are the first five books of our Bible.

But if you want the summary of the Law, what you read is The Ten Commandments. They are a shorthand, back-of-a-postage-stamp, kind of summary of the whole Law.

If we, as a society, really actually followed the Ten Commandments, we’d probably be a whole lot better off!

--

Let me say one more thing before we look at Matthew.

The Ten Commandments were, in one sense, well... over-optimistic about life. You see, the people who wrote down the traditions of  the Law were very clear on the consequences of not keeping the Law.  We are told repeatedly, not to become “complacent in the land,”  not keeping the Law, (Deut 4:25) or we “will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed.”

But they also said this:

You must follow exactly the path that the Lord (your) God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess. (Deut 5:33)

In other words, they thought: Do the right thing and God will look after you. We know from the story I’ve just told, that life doesn't work like that. You can Do the Right Thing, and still get clobbered. The whole book of Job, also in the Hebrew scriptures, struggles with that issue. It's sad that so many Christians seem to thing that life is about Do the right thing and God will look after you.

Now why am I telling you all this about the Ten Commandments?

I'm telling you because there is secret that is hidden in plain view in the Gospel of Matthew. We don't see it so easily in our time, but the scholars say the way he writes, the numbers he uses, and so on, all point to this: Jesus is the new Moses. We Christians, says Matthew, are to follow  Jesus, not Moses. Jesus fulfils the law which Moses brought. (5:17) . If we want to read the Law and understand it,  says Matthew, we need to read Jesus.

Now... if Moses went up the mountain and received the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone, what happens when Jesus goes up the mountain?

He gives us his "commandments" (in inverted commas) for Christians. But they are not written on stone. He asks us to write them on our hearts.

As the Prophet Jeremiah once said

...this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Cf. Jeremiah :cf17:1,31:33)

You see the Ten Commandments is a list of things to do- or not do.
The Blessings in Matthew are a picture of a person. They are the picture of a person who has Jesus in their heart. .

And they're not over-optimistic. There are two of them which say- in fact, they assume-  we will be persecuted!

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

These Blessings are not some sort of religious formula for getting God’s protection. It’s not like, do the right thing, don’t do the wrong thing and then God will look after you.

These Blessings are REALISTIC about how life is.

And yet, they make an astonishing claim. All the way through, they say Blessed ARE...
And they say Yours is... the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are a Promise of a future which is grounded in the present: You will see God, and you are blessed now. Yours is the kingdom of heaven now.

Now...  I think my friend, not surprisingly, has a fair few days, where all this must feel laughable. There are too many days, I suspect, where he does not feel blessed, but deals with pain and emotions I can barely imagine.

But he is blessed, and he is part of the kingdom. It leaks from where it is written on his heart to the outside. You can see the colour of the kingdom all over him. He is a desirable person. You want to be with him.

I went to fix his computer (which is my other job) and ask for his wisdom. And then learned of this appalling story he is living through. I value his wisdom, and friendship, and example, all the more. He has, in an odd way been blessed, and is even more of a blessing. More than before, I appreciate the goodness of my friend. He inspires me, and he challenges me.

I have a question.

What kind of person do you wish to be?

Do you want to be a person, a good person, who lives by the ten commandments, and keeps a list of rules? Because I tell you, if you do this- if this is your life-, it will not go well with you in the land. Evil will still come. It comes on sinners and righteous alike, Jesus said. God does not prevent evil happening to us. God takes us through evil, and heals us, and grows us, and purifies us like the best of gold.

But the mindset of keeping the rules,
which so easily becomes a keeping score, and expecting a fair return from God,
hardens our hearts to the grace of God.

We become stern Christians, and sometimes bitter at the apparent lack of God's love for us. We resent the lack of a fair return, after we have struggled to keep the rules, and evil still comes. And all the time, the problem is us. In keeping a list, we harden our heats to the love of God!

Or will you be a person who won’t keep rules? Will you simply be a person who is merciful, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, who is a peacemaker, and who is pure in heart?

Will you be meek, which means seeking to live like Jesus lived?
And will you be poor in spirit, which means risking being hurt as you love people, and having to limp back to God as your only comfort ?

Because ... if you risk this, and the risk is real, and the risk is great,
you open your heart to God.
And God will colour your whole being.
God will change your life.
God will change your world, and you will be blessed. Yours will be the kingdom of Heaven. And you will not get a fair return; it will be a return of undue riches,
more than you deserved or dreamed of.
This... is my witness.

We are not the people of The Ten Commandments; they are but a bare beginning to life. We are the people of Jesus.

I ask you are simple question: Does your heart long for blessing, and the deepest peace? -- then follow Jesus.

Andrew Prior Jan 2011
With thanks.
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!

 

The Ten Commandments according to the Book of Exodus

Exodus 20: Then God spoke these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation* of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work.

10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days theLord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

Jack Spong gives a synopsis of the New Moses. It is a standard scholarly understanding of Matthew's Gospel. I have quoted part of one of Jack's chapters of This Hebrew Lord, which you can read in full on the net, below.

Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, deliberately sought to present Jesus in Jewish images. He was the heir apparent to the throne of David (Matt. l:lff). He was the fulfillment of all Jewish prophetic expectation (Matt. 2:23). (Matthew was overly enthusiastic in this enterprise, acting very much like a fundamentalist preacher citing all sorts of proof texts with little or no attention to their context, and sometimes with incredibly farfetched results.) The life of Jesus that Matthew portrayed repeated the life cycle of the whole Hebrew nation, including a sojourn in Egypt (Matt. 2:1 5). Lastly, Matthew went to great lengths to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses. The portrait began very early.

According to the tradition of Israel, at the time when Moses was born in Egypt the Egyptian authorities were fearful of the latent but growing power of the enslaved Jews. Responding to this fear, Pharaoh ordered that all Jewish male babies be destroyed at birth. Under this sentence of death, Moses entered life. He was hidden by his mother until he was too big to hide any longer. Then, said the story, his mother placed her infant son in a basket and put him in the bulrushes of the Nile River where the Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe. The result was not only that Moses’ life was spared, but also that he was raised in the palace as a son of the Pharaoh by the daughter of Pharaoh.2 He was given the name Moses, an Egyptian name.

When Matthew began to tell his story to his Jewish audience he chronicled a similar account about Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:16ff). Once again a powerful king posed a threat to the Jewish male babies. Herod, having been deceived by the wise men, sent his soldiers to Bethlehem with orders to slay every Jewish boy under two years of age. (They are known in the Christian tradition as "The Holy Innocents.") Once again the child of promise was spared. The holy family fled to Egypt. No Jewish reader failed to hear Matthew’s real point, which was not that such an event literally occurred, but rather that this child was a new Moses whose birth occasioned the retelling of a Moses story.

Matthew’s parallel does not stop there. Moses came out of Egypt led by a vision (Exod. 3: 1ff), so Jesus was brought out of Egypt led by a dream (Matt. 2:13ff). Moses led the Children of Israel through the water of the Red Sea. This was a no-turning-back moment. Beyond that water was a new life, a new vocation, a new calling for Israel. Crossing the Red Sea was the final rending with the past, the beginning of a new thing. Matthew portrayed the Baptism of Jesus similarly, paralleling it quite consciously with the Red Sea moment for Moses and Israel. In the Baptism, Jesus heard a voice from heaven designate him the unique chosen one. He emerged from that water with a new purpose, a new intention. He could never be the same. Much was now clear that had not been clear before. His direction was set. Similarly there was for him no turning back.

After Moses and the Children of Israel emerged from the Red Sea, they lived in the wilderness. The Book of Exodus tells us the wilderness wanderings took forty years (Ex. 16:35) In this period the nation and its leader wrestled with the implications of what it meant to be the people of God. It was not always an affirming designation. To be the people of God produced fear, pain, and persecution in the history of this nation. It meant sacrifice and deprivation. They were not always certain they wanted to be God’s elect.

Once again Matthew paralleled the experience of Jesus. Following the baptism with its specific call to a peculiar vocation, Jesus, like Moses and the people of Israel, went into the wilderness to wrestle with the implications of his new-found destiny, his purpose as the chosen one, the Messiah of God. The wilderness-testing lasted forty years for Moses and Israel. It lasted forty days for Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 4:2).

When Jesus emerged from the wilderness, he began assembling a band of disciples (Matt. 4:18). Because the Children of Israel under Moses had been divided into twelve tribes, Jesus, the new Moses, chose twelve disciples to establish the twelve tribes of the new Israel (Mark 3:14).

Moses next became the lawgiver. The books of the law, the Jewish Torah, were also called "the Books of Moses." The account of the giving of the law was dramatic, fearful, somber. There was a ceremonial act of preparation. The mountain was sanctified. One touched it under pain of death. The giving of the law was accompanied by a theophany -- an experience of the presence of God (Ex. 19). Thunder, lightning, thick clouds, smoke, trumpets, all were part of the drama. Then God spoke through Moses from the mountain, and the sacred law was given. The law began with the Ten Commandments, which were followed by ordinances, rituals, directions, and commentary. Specific applications of the universal principles were discussed in detail. The people now had a law that bound them to God and to each other. It was a law that set them apart from the world so that they could achieve their unique purpose to be the people of God.

Certainly, if Jesus was to be the new Moses, he must give a new law. So Matthew, in order to complete his new Moses portrait, gathered a great collection of the teachings of Jesus. He organized it, codified it, systematized it, and paralleled it with the law of Moses. The beatitudes were set as universal principles of the new covenant to parallel the Ten Commandments -- universal principles of the old covenant. The law of Moses was divided into five books; the new law of Jesus was divided into five sections. Moses had delivered the law of God from a mountain, so Matthew took Jesus to a mountain where the new law poured forth from his lips. We call it The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5,6,7). Read on >>>>

 

 



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