To be honourable is to be human

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 7:28-29 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. 8:1 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…

By the end of Matthew Chapter Four, Jesus has been introduced. We see that he has the power to be what the gospel claims for him; everyone is being healed. In the text this week, we see this theology by story (narrative theology) being formalised.

He begins teaching like Moses on the mountain. We have here an echo of the giving of the Ten Commandments— and an unapologetic claim to Jesus' superiority over Moses. He sits like a Rabbi sat. His disciples come to him. Then he teaches. Davies (pp65) says

Because Isaiah 61.1,2, and 7 speak of good news for the poor (cf. Mt 5.3), comforting all who mourn (cf Mt 5.4), and of inheriting the earth (cf. Mt 5.5), Matthew's beatitudes make an implicit christological claim: they are uttered by the anointed [christed] one of Isa 61.

At the end of this section of Matthew which begins with  "When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him," we find the words, "the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. 8:1 When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…." He is recognised, honoured, and the crowds, appropriately, follow him. (7:28-8:1)

(The reading for this week, which we call The Beatitudes (the blessings) could be approached as the "condensed version of the law" while the next chapters (5:13 – 7:28) could be read as fleshing things out in more detail, or as specific examples: " And whenever you pray…" etc. (6:5) This mirrors the pattern we see in the original narratives of the Ten Commandments.

How do we interpret these "commandments?" In the sayings about the pure in heart— for they will see God, and the peacemakers— who will be called children of God, (Matthew 5:8-9) we might see something which seems obvious enough. But the other blessings are completely unexpected: blessed are the poor in spirit!?

The text is completely counter-intuitive. It over-turns our expectations of how life works, and our understandings of what is ultimately valuable: "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"— that's a blessing!?

I'm sure Matthew's community, which Matthew 10:16-39 implies was severely persecuted, would read these words we call The Beatitudes as encouragement. So should we; they promise much. But if we do not first of all see that these words challenge the very basis of our existence; that they re-set the way we even imagine ourselves to be a person and an individual, and if we do not feel utterly and constantly challenged by them— recognising we fall far short of them, indeed— then we have not understood them at all.

Instead, we will do that stupid and terribly sad thing beloved of conservative churches: someone has exposed my ignorance/stupidity/utter lack of compassion, so I interpret this gift of the spirit as persecution!! and so justify my failing to live as God calls me to live. I become impervious (not poor) to the spirit of God.

Before looking at the individual sayings, we should note the dramatic differences between our western selves and the people of Jesus' time. Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) say the gospels— Jesus, his disciples, the crowds, the gospels' authors— all "live in an honor-shame culture; all presume dyadic personality…"

There are some lengthy quotations below, and the material is complicated, especially for those of us unfamiliar with it. (I certainly do not claim to be fully conversant with it.) But it is important. It lets us see ourselves.

Let's begin with the dyadic personality. A dyadic personality (I have bolded some key words)

is seen in one who needs another person continually in order to know who he or she really is. Such persons internalize and make their own what others say, do, and think about them, because they believe it is necessary, for being human, to live out the expectations of others. These persons conceive of themselves as always interrelated to other persons while occupying a distinct social position both horizontally (with others sharing the same status, moving from center to periphery) and vertically (with others above and below in social rank). Such persons need to test this interrelatedness, with the focus of attention away from ego, on the demands and expectations of others who can grant or withhold reputation. In other words, dyadic personalities are people whose self-perception and self-image are formed in terms of what others perceive and feed back to them. (Vernon Robbins See here)

The same site gives an example of dyadic personalities from the gospels:

Mark 15 features Pilate as a dyadic personality checking out his own status both with Jesus and with the crowd in Jerusalem. Pilate is filled with wonderment (probably "confusion" or "frustration") when Jesus does not speak to him (15:5). As a dyadic personality, he wants "feedback" from Jesus as a medium for negotiating with himself his honor status. Pilate seeks and receives feedback from the crowd, which leads him to flog Jesus and send him off to be crucified. Only a significantly "individualist" in Pilate's position of power could have made a decision to release Jesus without punishment. Throughout the chapter, then, the narrative depicts Pilate fulfilling the role of a dyadic personality in a stereotypical manner[; that is, exactly according to the definition].

In contrast to Pilate, Jesus' dyadic relationship exists with God rather than humans. Jesus does not seek feedback on his identity and status with other people in the setting. Rather, his interaction is directly with God. He prays to God in Gethsemane (14:36) and cries out to God at his death (15:34). A distinctive aspect of Jesus' activity during the passion, then, is its embedment in a dyadic relation to God rather than to any humans--whether they be his disciples, the crowds of people, Pharisees and scribes, temple leaders, Pilate, soldiers, or centurions. (Here)

Contrast this with our modern western selves:

The opposite of the dyadic personality, in which one defines oneself in relation to others, an individualist personality is a product of modern individualism, where people view themselves as unique and self-sufficient for their own understanding. Dyadic personalities, on the other hand, must always conceive of themselves as interrelated with another person… [Their] self-conception and self-image are formed in terms of what others perceive and feed back to them. (See here)

I am glad to be placed (by virtue of my culture and upbringing) somewhat towards the individualist personality end of the scale; indeed, I recognise what Robbins calls a dyadic personality, in congregants I find rather unhealthily dependent upon others.

Whilst seeing much to admire in the tribal society in which I lived for some years, especially the strength of community bonds and supports, I was also alarmed by how much people were driven by a dyadic mindset. For some of these folk, this involved real pain; I remember people telling me they knew that some strategy I was suggesting, was a better way to do things, but that "community would not allow it." This shone a bright light on the community strictures of my childhood which, even as a child, I had begun to understand as often suffocating and abusive.

On the other hand, I talked a few days ago, with people from that childhood community, about how an abusive parent had been "encouraged to leave town" by community members, some of whom then looked after the now single parent family for years!

Can you see where I am heading? The tension between dyadic and individualistic impulses requires moderation; direction. On the one hand, we have the danger of scapegoating, revenge, and even honour killings; on the other, we have the individualism which deserts all responsibility for its fellows. 

In the quotation from Vernon Robbins Dictionary of Socio-Rhetorical Terms, we have already seen a possible direction: "In contrast to Pilate, Jesus' dyadic relationship exists with God rather than humans. Jesus does not seek feedback on his identity and status with other people in the setting. Rather, his interaction is directly with God."

Jesus seeks affirmation and direction from the Source of the universe. We are called, like the crowds, to follow him.

Which brings us to the question of the Honour-Shame society which underpinned all this.

the pivotal value of the Mediterranean society of the first century[; the source of affirmation and direction, and even of survival,] was honor-shame. As in the traditional societies of the region today, so also in biblical times honor meant everything, including survival.

Just how different this is to our own sense of who we are was brought home to me by the way Malina and Rohrbaugh introduce this section: (Honor-Shame Societies, 8:12)

Being "thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; see Luke 13:28; Acts 7:54) describes a reaction of persons who have been publicly shamed or dishonored.

We interpret these texts as "being sent to hell"— which might be appropriate; the experience would be hellish— but it had nothing to do with eschatology, not in the first instance, anyway. It was about being ostracised, expelled, and cut off. We simply say, "Well, f*&k you, I'll move to some other city. I'll join another footy club. I'll join another church."

But honour, and the lack of it, was a life and death issue in the village. Without honour, there was no way to live. I've seen the withdrawal of honour: The person lived alone in the bush, and became the carrier of all sorts of bogeys, the kind of projections that lead to lynch mobs. The person without honour has no protection, and is extremely vulnerable. From what do we gain protection and sustenance?

There is another aspect of the society which we need to take on board. Again, I am a bit overwhelmed by the amount of material I need to get to grips with, and again, I find it critical to the seeing of ourselves.

Poverty: ( Malina and Rohrbaugh in the section Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3)

Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of "limited good." In modern economies, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available. But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well - literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.

You will notice that Malina and Rohrbaugh say that "we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply." Our current climate crisis, and the social unravellings which have given rise to Trump's ascendance, question that assumption very harshly. The next excerpt says "acquistion was, by its very nature, understood as stealing." Much of our neoliberal economic "growth" is predicated on the idea (the propaganda) that the unlimited goods will "trickle down." Maybe it's just stealing.

An honorable man would thus be interested only in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another's. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Hieremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, LXXIV, 61). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron.

To be labeled "rich" was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully [theirs]. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy. By the same token, being "poor" was to be unable to defend what was yours. It meant falling below the status at which one was born. It was to be defenseless, without recourse.

I said in the beginning that the Beatitudes "challenge the very basis of our existence; that they re-set the way we even imagine ourselves to be a person and an individual." What does Jesus' understanding of riches say to a society which honours— lionises— the entrepreneur? Might it be that we are finally learning the true insight of these ancients:  that the biospherical pie cannot be made to grow larger? That there is always a cost, and something is always taken from somewhere else?

Malina and Rohrbaugh say of the Beatitudes

The language used here, that is, "blessed," is honorific language. Contrary to the dominant social values, these "blessed are ..." statements ascribe honor to those unable to defend their positions or those who refuse to take advantage of or trespass on the position of another. Obviously then the honor granted comes from God, not from the usual social sources.

This might imply that the way the rich— that's us— may regain honour is to become poor… and not just in terms of money.  The rich are called to return to honourable, and merciful, ways of living, and the honour comes from God. Society will not honour us for this. It will persecute us for the judgement implicit in our honouring of God.

One of our problems is that we have gained the advantage of being free from the strictures of tribal culture due to our industrial capability to produce goods excess to our immediate survival needs. (I use the term tribal because of my experience of the tribe and its claims upon people, which still exists in many forms today. Malina and Rohorbaugh more properly name Jesus' society as  agrarian1, so it is perhaps more accurate to say we tend to maintain tribal behaviour in our current industrial society.)

In short, we can be individuals. The problem with this is that we then need something else to provide us with honour; individualism discounts the honour— the affirmation, support and identity provided by the community, even if partly and properly in reaction to its abusive and restrictive aspects.

In the west, especially in the last fifty years, we have redefined the source of honour as wealth, as being in the accrual of (even unneeded) material possessions, and as the possession of coercive social power; that is, the kind of power that can make things happen independently of others.

To be very clear: social power in Jesus' time was honour based. Honour was "the status one claim[ed] in the community together with the all-important recognition of that claim by others." Trump, as an extreme perversion of our time, gives no care for that kind of honour; he coerces. He is the focal point of his power; it does not come from the community, as in Jesus' time. Without money, and the ability to coerce, Trump would be powerless. (Malina and Rohrbaugh say Jesus lived in a society "in which power brought wealth (in our society it is the opposite: wealth "buys" power)."

In short, Trump has made himself God, surrounded by sycophants who are rewarded enough to ensure a certain loyalty, but always liable to being fired. He reflects us. As a society we have made our selves God, and then we give some people around us subordinate, or client value: family, those who watch our back, those who help us make money.  But we are God.

By contrast, Jesus' "individualism," his freedom from the dyadic strictures of an honour society,  was from being related to God, properly related to God. We need to regain this. We need to learn again that  we are not God.  

Our problem has been to seek to overcome "the limited good" by material production. But ultimately, this has still been theft; to begin with, it steals from the factory workers— industrial history is a cycle of the workers gaining rights, and some humanity, and then the industrialists "off-shoring" to a place of lower rights expectations— theft. And material production has, in the end, sought to steal from the biosphere. This theft is turning into a disaster. Because we have been anything but lukewarm in our greed, earth may spit us out. (Rev 3)

As I have seen teeming life in even the "spoiled places" around Adelaide, I am more inclined to see the live planet as its own self-regulating system; a system which self-corrects. (See, for example, the Gaia Hypothesis) We are one small part of it, and I wonder if we have even  less autonomy than we have imagined. It may not be our destructiveness which makes the planet uninhabitable for us; the planetary system may "correct us out of existence" to allow life to go on. (Andrew PriorWondering through Wilderness)

Could it be that Matthew, in pointing us to the Kingdom of Heaven, (it's mentioned three times in the twelve verses of the beatitudes) is pointing us to the one unlimited thing: the love of God. Jesus' people understood that honour was limited in their word; we know its limitations and its tribal, scapegoatish abuses. And Jesus' people understood the damage of riches, (you cannot serve God and mammon) an understanding we are finally having thrust upon us as the world falls apart.

God's love (the honour from God) is not limited; not for those in ancient Palestine, nor for us now.

Trump plays on people's recognition of their poverty, but seeks to harness that recognition, and to stoke its anger, for the benefit only of Trump. Trumpism is rooted in hatred. It places honour in the possession of goods. It is dyadic. It is convinced that love is limited, and that it must get all that love for itself, or it is nothing. "The flaws of our leaders perfectly mirror the emotional underdevelopment of the society that elevates them to power." Gabor Maté

God's love is such that even if Trump kills me, I still am. Just as the prophets are.

Only now do I feel ready to approach the text! This is because, as Davies and Alison say

Matthew's beatitudes are first of all eschatological blessings; that is they are first of all promise and consolation. The first half of each beatitude depicts the communities present; the second half foretells the community's future; and the juxtaposition of the two radically different situations permits the trial of everyday life to be muted by contemplation of the world to come. (Davies and Allison Matthew [The Shorter Commentary] pp65)

But the blessings at the end will be a false comfort if our ends are not clearly understood. The pun is deliberate: many of the angry evangelicals who voted for Trump— and plenty of their Oz cousins and acolytes are lining up with them— have envisioned an end which is corrupted by shallow understandings of honour and its source. Some, for example, mired in the heresy of prosperity theology— you can have both God and mammon; hence their anger. It is not working; indeed, I sometimes wonder if people, knowing they have failed in the accrual of mammon, are secretly afraid they have also not gained God.) The place they have sought honour has failed them. In another place Jesus says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves." With the wrong end in mind, we end up with no comfort, only destructive rage.

Davies and Alison go on to say about that comfort that it "hardly excludes the implicit moral demand: one is certainly called to become what the beatitudes praise." Indeed. But, again, if what we have in mind is really no different to the rest of society, and merely a justification of our wealth and power based honour, we will seek to become the wrong thing. (pp65)

Verse six speaks of righteousness. That hunger, says Davies (pp67) "is neither justification nor eschatological vindication" (being right, including the meaning correct— at the end.) Rather it is thirst for "the right conduct that God requires."

This conduct is our conduct, first of all. He says those who mourn (4) "are not sorry for their sins as much as they are aggrieved that while the wicked now prosper the saints do not, and God has yet to right the situation." But this aggrievement must all be in the context of mercy. (7) Mercy is the "external manifestation of an internal feeling of compassion for the unfortunate. It is a fundamental demand… on a par in importance with love and faith."

And mercy is only mercy when practised. It is the mark of faith. Without mercy, the consolations of The Beatitudes become inwards, selfish, and ultimately deceptive, as I have shown. Andrew Marr, who I quoted last week, said

The light also reveals the hatred of victims for their oppressors, however understandable, for what it is: a wall of enmity that perpetuates divisions between people. As I struggle with my almost constant anger at many politicians in this country for their misuse of power and the public trust, I have to repent of this anger minute by minute.

Mercy is to recognise the humanity, however flawed, even of our oppressors. Without mercy we are neither meek, nor pure in heart and seeking to be "given over wholly to the will of God." (Davies pp68)

Matthew approaches 'an incomprehensible' at this point. "Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy. Later in the gospel his Jesus will say to those who did not show mercy,

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these[, Matthew repeats,] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

That is; if you will not be merciful, you will not be shown mercy. Yet the church has always understood that God's mercy is much greater than this. For example, Davies says about the mercy verse in The Beatitudes

Chrysostom [says] … there is here no 'equal recompense', for human mercy and divine mercy are not on the same level: 'as wide as is the interval between wickedness and goodness, so far is the one of these separated from the other.'

The powerful image of the last day in CS Lewis' The Last Battle has some animals in Narnia unable to look upon the face of Aslan (the Christ figure of that allegorical tale.) As I recall it, somewhere in this process they lost the ability to speak; they became mere animals, and then at the end, disappeared into nothingness.

Lewis was an annihilationist; he could not stomach the idea of eternal punishment, seeing it as unworthy of a merciful God. I think that annihilation is itself a human limitation placed upon God's mercy and love. But still… something remains true in the image of the loss of speech— the loss of humanity.

Davies says on page 69 that

In so far as the promises connected with the kingdom bring consolation and comfort, they function as a practical theodicy. The beatitudes hardly explain evil or human suffering. They do, however, lessen pain and anguish by putting into perspective the difficulties of the present. This happens through an exercise of the imagination. … Those who use the eye  of the mind in order to foresee and live for the future promised by the beatitudes will, with their faith, possess a secret  vision and hope that makes powerlessness and suffering bearable.

He does not claim enough. It is not a secret vision; it is an altered reality. "Be careful how you imagine the world," they say, "for that is how it will be." Practising The Beatitudes alters our reality. It alters now our ability to speak, and to see, and to comprehend.

The Beatitudes promise consolation. We taste the first fruits of that in our altered reality. I preach universalism. But I will not say that Matthew was wrong about judgement. I cannot imagine that seeking honour in the wrong places will not bring us a great cost to our humanity. It already does.

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!

Footnote 1:

Nowadays we read the agrarian New Testament in the context of a modern industrial world. What happens in that process? To sharpen our sensitivities to what occurs, we must be aware, at least in a summary way, of the changes that our society has undergone. A good place to begin is in clarifying the meaning of the terms "agrarian" and "industrial." By the term "agrarian" we do not mean "agricultural." At the present time less than 5 percent of the population of the United States works the land as farmers. They are agriculturalists. Yet the term "agrarian" does not serve to draw the contrast between these rural farmers and our urban factory workers. Perhaps farmers and factory workers should be distinguished in any common historical or social setting, but our concern is rather with the much broader issue of what life was like before and after the industrial revolution. The fact is that today's farmer and factory worker are likely to share a common modern outlook in substantial measure, and both have far more in common with each other than either would have with an ancient counterpart.

In our usage, then, the term "agrarian" has a meaning much closer to "preindustrial" than to the term "agricultural." It is meant to encompass all who lived before the industrial revolution occurred, whether the vast majority who tilled the soil or the tiny minority who lived in towns and the few cities. In this sense both the first-century rural peasant and the first-century urbanite who never once touched the actual soil were "agrarian." Similarly, both the modern manufacturer and the modern farmer are "industrialized." In short, the contrast we wish to draw is between the outlook of the modern industrial period and the worldview in vogue before the Great Transformation took place. (Malina and Rohrbaugh in their introduction)


Previously on One Man's Web:
Matthew 5:1-12 - Blessings, not lists 
Matthew 5:1-12 - The Sermon Draft: Blessed are you 
Matthew 5:1-12 - Mourning, Blessed, and Sometimes Happy

Key References:
Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
Vernon Robbins Dictionary of Socio-Rhetorical Terms



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