Last revised: November 14, 2017
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ALL SAINTS SUNDAY — YEAR A
RCL: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Chapter 34, “The Forest Again,” of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the climactic Book 7 in J.K. Rowling’s magisterial Christian Saga, carries one of my favorite All Saints Day scenes. Harry is walking to his death, his self-sacrifice for friends, and the Resurrection Stone enables the presence of four of the saints who have died for him to walk with him, giving him the courage he needs for the task. They are Harry’s personal cloud of witnesses that gives him faith to stand against evil with the power of love.
In 2017 I plan to share this scene as conveying the meaning of All Saints Day, but I also want to do so within a wider context of presenting Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga as a modern day version of two of the texts that provide readings for the day: the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of Matthew.
The genre of the Book of Revelation is that of Hebrew apocalyptic, an ancient form of ‘fantasy’ drama that uses elaborate symbolism to portray present political reality. In the Bible, the Book of Daniel represents the first instance of this genre, of which Jesus strongly signaled his resonance by choosing the self-designation “Son of Man,” the New Human Being, from Daniel 7. The Book of Revelation uses this same literary vehicle but as crucially reshaped by the inbreaking reign of Jesus the Messiah, the Lamb slaughtered.
Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga might be seen as a modern version of ancient Hebrew apocalyptic. She uses a fantasy genre with rich symbolism to portray present political realities. The chief villain, Lord Voldemort, reminds readers of an Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin — or the current rise of authoritarian leaders who aspire to power through fear-mongering, scapegoat-driven divisiveness, propaganda (“alternate fact” universes), and brutal violence. Rowling’s symbolism also comes from a long tradition of literary convention. In Revelation it was the symbolism of the apocalyptic genre; for Rowling it was primarily the symbolism of medieval Christian alchemy as adapted/adopted in a long-line of British literature. (For more on Rowling’s extensive use of Christian alchemy, see the works of John Granger in this Harry Potter Bibliography, especially Unlocking Harry Potter.)
This is a bit more ‘out there,’ but I’d like to suggest the Gospel of Matthew as the Gospel that most imbibes the literary genre of Hebrew apocalyptic. The figures in Matthew’s “Parables of Judgment” are most exaggerated and gargoyle-like, such as the king in the Parable of King’s Son’s Wedding Banquet. Even the ‘historical’ figures act in ways that are gruesome and chilling, like Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. Matthew also uses apocalyptic phrases, like, “thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew’s Jesus leads the Gospels in claiming the designation of “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, especially in his final apocalyptic parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46; see Christ the King A for more on the “Son of Man”).
But while Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga, the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel of Matthew all share in portraying ‘apocalyptic’ violence, I submit that all three also share in the Christian Gospel’s faith in the power of love as the only power in this world capable of ultimately standing against such hideous human violence. They all invert the world of imperialistic culture to elevate the outcast and the seemingly least powerful.
The Gospel of Matthew presents: a new Moses whose teachings begin with the “poor in spirit” of the Beatitudes and end with the “least in my family”; a power of love perfected by God to the point of loving enemies; a “kingdom of heaven” that is about choosing to suffer violence (Matt. 11:12; see Advent 3A); and a Messianic “Son of Man” whose epiphany of power comes through suffering the human violence of torture and execution on the cross. (I hope that many of my readings provided here of Matthew’s Gospel give evidence to this way of interpreting Matthew in light of apocalyptic.)
The hero of the Book of Revelation is clearly the Lamb Slaughtered, with this day’s passage also providing clear followers: those who have come through the ordeal of the same oppressive, imperialistic human violence as their leader, as symbolized by being washed in his blood. (For a clear reading of Revelation in light of a loving, nonviolent God, I highly recommend chapters 7-9 of Brian Zahnd‘s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.)
Rowling’s heroes are a boy marked by the scar of violence which took the life of his mother in her self-sacrificing love that sought to — and mysteriously did — protect her otherwise helpless infant; an eccentric professor who champions all manner of misfits and outcasts as exemplary of his unfailing faith in the power of love; and an army of misfits and outcasts — half-bloods, “mud bloods,” and “blood traitors” — who bear the name of their martyr-professor, “Dumbledore’s Army.” (For more on Rowling’s Christian commitment to the power of love, see my essay “Harry Potter and the Power of Love.”)
So the rich meaning of All Saints Day for me comes in the context of receiving courage for all those disciples faithful to the power of love as incarnated by Jesus the Messiah, the Lamb Slaughtered. See what I consider to be the ‘All Saints Day Scene’ from Harry Potter.
1. James Alison, Raising Abel. On p. 99-100 Alison is opening his discussion regarding the universality implied in the Christian view of judgment. He cites Rev. 7:9 for the picture of the crowd in the open heaven: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This quartet — every nation (Gr: ethnos), tribe (phylos), peoples (laos), and languages (glossos) — appears in three other places in Revelation: 5:9, 13:7, 14:6. This inclusive group gathers around the slaughtered lamb, the innocent victim, who reveals that the human reality of differences are a human linguistic construct made to service the scapegoating mechanism. He anchors this discussion around the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10-11.
2. Ibid., p. 194-95. Alison concludes the book with a citation of Rev. 7:14-17, connecting the fountain of living waters with Jesus’ words in John 4:14. The image of living waters that quench our thirst speaks to the issue of mimetic desire. Salvation in Christ brings satisfaction of our desires by re-creating in us a “pacific” (opposite of “rivalrous”) desire. The other image in Revelation of fulfilled desire is being nourished at the wedding banquet of the lamb.
3. René Girard, Things Hidden, Book II, Ch. 2, contains some reflections on the notion of Apocalypse, especially at pp. 202ff.
4. Gil Bailie, taped sermons on Revelation called “The Mystery of History.”
Reflections and Questions
1. This beautiful liturgy of the heavenly worship flows from what I think is one of the most dramatic and revealing passages in scripture: Rev. 5:1-10. The scroll of life is paraded out. But who can open it? One of the elders says not to worry, the Lion of Judah will be able to open it. The Seer looks up and beholds instead “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” This is the mystery and scandal of the cross in a nutshell: we expect God’s power of salvation to come as a lion and instead get a slaughtered lamb. Yet the author of Revelation does not back down from the fact that this slaughtered lamb somehow does bear the true power of God. The lamb is truly worthy of our praise and worship.
2. The greatest stroke of inspiration in our latest Lutheran hymnal (1978) was to add a new Hymn of Praise to the Eucharistic liturgy based on these passages in Revelation. Much of the book of Revelation is essentially liturgy. The challenge for the preacher comes in how to preach a liturgy. Strictly speaking, it’s not possible. But perhaps the preacher can at least play a role akin to the art museum guide, giving some background and insight into the experience of the brilliant pictures set before the patron, or in this case worshiper.
3. I believe that Revelation addresses the mystery and difficulties of maintaining a nonviolent God. A common challenge to nonviolent activists goes something like this: “What if someone broke into your house to kill your spouse and children? Would you stand by and let him without using force?” Most people, even those thoroughly committed to nonviolence, have a difficult time answering ‘yes.’ Yet the mystery of the cross is that God appears to have done just that with the Son — stood by and let him be killed. What kind of parent is God? And the mystery continues with those who continue to suffer violence, particularly innocent children.
My most difficult times as pastor are when grown victims of severe child abuse appear in my office to recount their lives of terrible suffering. A nonviolent God can seem more of a problem to them than a comfort. How could a loving God stand by and let such things happen? I cannot listen to their stories and try to reason with them. Their suffering is beyond a discursive reasoning.
But perhaps a liturgy can help. The Book of Revelation was written for those who continue to suffer. It’s vivid pictures of a slaughtered lamb who nevertheless invites us to a feast of victory is beyond discursive reasoning, too. Yet I think it gives the most appropriate answer to the experience of suffering. This is not to say that it is impossible to give a different kind of reasoned answer to the question posed by suffering, but I don’t think that kind of answer can satisfy the sufferer, the one in the midst of suffering. (One might go on to comment at this point about the spiritual poverty of much Protestant worship which focuses so much on the well-reasoned sermon almost to the exclusion of any other liturgy. Yet I am one of those Protestants who no doubt spends much more time and care on sermons than on liturgy.)
1 John 3:1-13
1. James Alison, Raising Abel. On p. 90 Alison cites this passage in speaking to the theme of our new identities which are forged by Christ. The world is looking for a different kind of prestige and identity, so until the story which Jesus inaugurated is unveiled in its fullness, the prestige and identity of his followers remains hidden to the world.
2. Ibid., pp. 171-173. Alison puts forward this “root question”:
…does God simply accept us in our scandal, giving us the confidence to live in the midst of our scandalized state? Or, could it be that the very same desire which forms us in the scandal of mimetic complicity is capable of being transformed into another sort of desire, a pacific desire, neither envious nor scandalized?
Alison suggests that it is the latter. Christ came to create a new belief, a new way of being, a new faith. Yet for us this new belief falls in the category of hope. It is an eschatological identity that will only be fully revealed when Christ is fully revealed. He quotes 1 John 3:2-3 as making just this point.
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 3, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
Reflections and Questions
1. The possibility of being transformed to have another kind of desire speaks to the issue of suffering as we raised above. Might we say that we are scandalized by the continued existence of suffering because we continue to be formed by the same desire that creates such suffering, namely, rivalrous desire? And would the transformation of that desire remove the scandal? That is definitely a challenge for me as a pastor. Those parishioners, who come to me burdened by past abuse in their lives, are usually still living within the scandal.
My conviction is that the invitation of the gospel is to unburden people from the scandal. (“Come to me all you that are heavy laden…”; Mt. 11:28-30) But I feel like we’ve somehow gotten sidetracked from being able to offer the power of the gospel to people. We use therapeutic models, or social science models, or rational arguments. Don’t these come up short, keeping us within the confines of scandal? The therapeutic model, for instance, gives us a classic example of the choice that Alison lays out that,
none of us have access to what our story is; we cannot wield it, grasp it, make a presentation of it. Rather it means that, in the face of death, whether in its physical form, or in the form of its violent and expulsive dominion, we hope that we will receive an ‘I’ in whose formation we have begun to participate, once we have become un-hooked from our old story. We always receive ourselves from what is other than us, whether that other be violent, or loving; but, as we begin to receive ourselves from the loving Other, in the form of our empowerment to construct a counter-story in the face of death, it genuinely is ourselves that we receive, and the story really will be ours. (pp. 172-173)
Neither can I control someone else’s story. When I am confronted by someone who is scandalized by the suffering in their life, my temptation is to present some logical argument to manipulate them out of their scandal, or to therapeutically help them to cope. I think the best that I can hope for is to continue to present them with the only story that can transform their story. The liturgy from Revelation can give the sufferer an important glimpse of the ending of that story of the lamb who was slaughtered who has begun his reign. The rest is up to the Spirit.
2. I discovered another connection between the Revelation and 1 John texts in doing a study on the first appearance of the Lamb in Revelation 5:6: “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The Greek word for “slaughter” here, sphazo, occurs only in Revelation (8 times) and one other place: 1 John 3:12, a passage that follows after our assigned text. And for Girardians it is interesting that it is used in reference to Cain’s murder of Abel:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered [esphaxen] his brother. And why did he murder [esphaxen] him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 All who hate a brother or sister are murderers [anthropoktonos], and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:11-18)
The Greek word for murderers used in 1 John 3:15, anthropoktonos, is used elsewhere in the NT only in John 8:44, the pivotal Girardian passage where Jesus accuses the Jews:
You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
The more common Greek word for murderer is phoneys.
I begin with three versions of the Beatitudes. The first column is a standard translation, the NRSV; the second is an alternate translation that I will explain below in the Exegetical Notes; and the third column is an imaginative suggestion of the standard imperialistic/nationalistic beatitudes of which Jesus’ beatitudes stand in stark contrast.
|NRSV – Beatitudes||Alternate Translation||Imperial/Nationalistic Beatitudes|
|3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.||Graced are the dissenters, for theirs is God’s unseen reign.||Rewarded are the patriots, for theirs is the reign of the Empire.|
|4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.||Graced are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.||Rewarded are the tough-minded, for they win at all costs.|
|5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.||
Graced are the nonviolent, for they will inherit the earth.
|Rewarded are the militaristic, for they are taking the world by force.|
|6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.||Graced are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.||Rewarded are those who hunger and thirst for their own self-interest, for they are being being filled.|
|7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.||Graced are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion.||Rewarded are the independent self-made persons, for they are receiving freedom from others.|
|8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.||Graced are the contemplative in mind, for they will see God.||Rewarded are those loyal to family and nation, for they see the favor of their national gods.|
|9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.||Graced are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.||Rewarded are the peace-through-strength-makers, for they are lauded as patriot-citizens.|
|10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.||Graced are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is God’s unseen reign.||Rewarded are those who pursue their own success at all costs to others, for theirs is the imperial reign.|
|11 Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.||Graced are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.||Rewarded are you when all speak well of you and privilege you and prop you up against the empire’s enemies. Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way the empire has always put down its enemies.|
1. Matthew probably had at least two backgrounds from the Hebrew scriptures in mind — which should help guard against a Greek Gnostic reading of these verses. First, Jesus goes up the mountain as the new Moses. Matthew’s lead-up parallels many events in Exodus: escape from a king who kills the male children, entry into covenant with God through the water, and into temptation in the wilderness. Second, the Blessed echo those who God’s servant blesses in Isaiah 61, the same inaugural event as Luke 4.
2. Are there eight or nine Beatitudes? There are nine uses of makarioi, “Blessed.” But the ninth seems like an elaboration of the eighth. I ask because the eight follow a more definite pattern. The first and eighth begin and end the Beatitudes with the same announcement: the kingdom of heaven in the present tense. The six in between announce a promise in the future tense. Jesus begins and ends by proclaiming the blessed as already part of the kingdom of heaven. The six middle Beatitudes express the ‘not yet’ element. Their blessedness is both already and not yet.
3. Makarios, “Blessed,” “Happy.” Consulting the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. IV, pp. 362, by Hauck), the religious derivation of this word stand outs. The related word makares sometimes was used by Homer to refer to “the gods.” Hauck writes, “It denotes the transcendent happiness of a life beyond care, labour, and death” (362). When and how do human beings achieve such transcendent happiness of the gods? It depends on one’s experience of who the gods are!
Among the ancient Greek poets, the gods are those who capriciously favor the righteous — read prosperous and powerful. Two other words that often accompanied the poets’ use of makarios were eutychēs and eudaimōn. The two parts of compound word eutychēs, most often translated as “happy,” literally means “good luck” or “good fortune,” pointing to someone ‘blessed’ by the gods. Similarly, eudaimōn, most often translated as “prosperous” or “wealthy,” literally means “good demon.” All of this points to a cultural worldview that sees the wealthy and powerful as those blessed by the gods to live a happiness transcendent of the average person. When one is wealthy and powerful enough, it can appear that one’s life is “beyond care, labour, and death.”
Jesus’ Beatitudes completely flip this worldview upside-down. Those whom he marks out as makarios, blessed, are the opposite of those seen as blessed in Greek-Roman culture — representative of many human cultures, especially imperialistic cultures. This is even more emphatic in the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus’ extensive teaching begins with the Beatitudes and ends with the judgment of the nations on the basis of the least in the human family (Matt. 25:31-46; see Christ the King Sunday A).
I said that one’s view of transcendent happiness depends on one’s experience of God. Jesus’ flipping of the Blessed also flips the experience of God. God is present in and with not the prosperous, the eudaimōn (“good spirit”), but the downtrodden, the “poor in spirit.” And so all of this is based not on a god who rewards and punishes, blesses and curses, but on a God whose power of life is pure grace. Later in Matthew, Jesus will tell two parables that severely challenge the worldview of reward-punish for that of grace: the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:21-35; Proper 19A) and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16; Proper 20A).
Thus, while “Blessed” is a perfectly good translation of makarios, in the translation table above I suggest two words that also capture the difference between the Gods who bless: “Graced” by Jesus’ God, and “Rewarded” by the cultural gods.
4. vs. 3: hoi ptōchoi tō pneumati, “the poor in spirit.” In Matthew’s Gospel, the central contrast is between the human kingdoms which use force to oppress, and the kingdom of heaven which suffers violence as the way to freedom and life. I think Matthew uses “poor in spirit” to name the oppression of the powers under human rule. It names the beaten-down in spirit, the downtrodden. Interesting, too, is what we said immediately above about the word eudaimōn, “prosperous,” which figured prominently in Greek cultural beatitudes. It’s a word that literally translates “good demon,” or “good spirit.” Does Jesus have this cultural connection in mind when choosing the words “poor spirit”?
In an nationalistic context, these might also be the dissenters, or at least those who patriotic spirit is low. Their spiritual position and experience does not support the cultural spirit. The “poor in spirit” do not share the “team spirit” of the culture’s patriots.
5. vs. 3: hē basileia tōn ouranōn, “the kingdom of heaven.” One of N. T. Wright‘s primary contributions to contemporary New Testament studies is the proper understanding of “heaven” in the worldview of First Century Jews, and particularly for Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” In concluding his comments on this passage in Matthew for Everyone, for example, Wright writes,
So when do these promises come true? There is a great temptation for Christians to answer: in heaven, after death. At first sight, verses 3, 10 and 11 seem to say this: the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and the persecuted, and there’s a great reward in heaven for those who suffer persecution for Jesus sake. This, though, is a misunderstanding of the meaning of heaven. Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (earthly) reality and interlocking with it. One day heaven and earth will be joined together for ever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled. After all, verse 5 says that the meek will inherit the earth, and that can hardly happen in a disembodied heaven after death.
No: the clue comes in the next chapter, in the prayer Jesus taught his followers. We are to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The life of heaven the life of the realm where God is already king is to become the life of the world, transforming the present earth into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount, and these beatitudes in particular. They are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth. It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up. Try it and see.
Wright elsewhere addresses Matthew’s use of “kingdom of heaven” in place of the New Testament use of “kingdom of God.” Here’s an excellent explication in How God Became King:
The problem has arisen principally because for many centuries Christians in the Western churches at least have assumed that the whole point of Christian faith is to go to heaven, so they have read everything in that light. To a man with a hammer, they say, all problems appear as nails. To readers interested in postmortem bliss, all scriptures seem to be telling you how to go to heaven. But, as we shall see, they aren’t and don’t.
This wrong reading has gained a good deal of apparent credibility from two expressions that occur regularly in the gospels and that the Western church at least has taken to refer to heaven in the traditional sense. The first expression is found frequently in Matthew’s gospel. Because Matthew is the first gospel in the canon and has occupied that place since early in the church’s history, it exercises considerable influence on how ordinary readers understand the others as well. In Matthew, Jesus regularly speaks of heaven’s kingdom, whereas normally in the other gospels he speaks of God’s kingdom. Millions of readers, when they hear Matthew’s Jesus talking about doing this or that so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven, assume, without giving it a moment’s thought, that this means so that you may go to heaven when you die.
But that is not at all what Matthew, or Jesus for that matter, had in mind. Matthew makes it quite clear, and I think Jesus made it quite clear, what that phrase means. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes at the center of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. At the center of the prayer itself we find Jesus teaching his followers to pray that God’s kingdom might come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s kingdom, he means that heaven in other words, the God of heaven is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well.
Wright seeks to make clear that God’s purpose in creation is such that heaven and earth are progressively joined — heaven coming to earth, as in Rev. 21, not individuals going to heaven from earth. Jesus becoming king launches the coming of God’s kingdom — the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s rendering — into the world. Matthew 5:3 promises that “poor in spirit” will be among the first of those to benefit from its advent.
Taking Wright’s ideas into account, we might see the “kingdom of heaven” as “God’s unseen reign” — God’s reign in the unseen heavenly dimension, unseen especially to those human beings who rule in the visible earthly dimension. The King Herods of the world typically don’t want to hear of a coming divine rule, unless they can convince themselves that it is their rule (which is often the case).
6. vs. 5: hoi praeis, “the meek.” This may be the weakest translation in the Beatitudes. “Gentle” is a more common translation of the Greek word praus; I think “nonviolent” is an even better rendering in today’s context. praus is not common in the Bible, occurring 20 times altogether: 16 in the Septuagint and only 4 times in the New Testament. One of the Septuagint instances (7 are in the Psalms) is Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble [praus] and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Three of the four instances in the NT are in Matthew (the fourth being 1 Peter 3:4) and are very instructive:
- Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek [praus], for they will inherit the earth.”
- Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle [praus] and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
- Matthew 21:5, quoting Zechariah 9:9: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble [praus], and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Anthony Bartlett, in Virtually Christian, makes the case for “nonviolent.” In Chapter 7 which basically covers the entirety of Matthew 11 (and parallel in Luke 7), the portion on Matthew’s ending in 11:28-30 begins by showing its ties to the language of wisdom in Proverbs and Sirach. Then, he writes:
The only thing that Jesus adds to the language and this also warrants seeing the statement as authentic is an explicit note of nonviolence. When he says he is gentle the word in Greek is praus, the same word used by Matthew describing Jesus triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It is taken from the prophecy of Zechariah, Look, your king is coming to you, humble (praus), and mounted on a donkey (Matt. 21:5, Zechariah 9:9). The Zechariah text goes on to say that He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations (Zechariah 9:10). When Jesus speaks as Wisdom he speaks in language with key scriptural associations of an end to violence. The statement in todays language should therefore read: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am nonviolent and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
We have reached a central seam of meaning as regards Jesus. He identified with Wisdom as his first-person truth and he understood that in terms of nonviolence. Here is surely the sign from which all I have been talking about regarding the transformative meaning of Christ in the world derives. Because Jesus took on this identity in the depth of his soul and he understood it as direct person-to-person nonviolence the meaning of humanity was changed at root. (p. 245)
7. vs. 6, 10: dikaiosynēn, “righteousness.” “Righteousness” has fallen out of use in English; “justice” is a better translation.
8. vs. 7: hoi eleēmones, “merciful.” This is an accurate translation, but the English word sometimes carries the connotation of showing pity. I think the meaning here is better rendered by “compassionate.”
9. vs. 8: hoi katharoi tē kardia, “the pure in heart.” This is a literal meaning of the Greek words, but in that culture kardia pointed to a different element of human experience than it does for us. We represent love with a heart. In the First Century cultures, especially Hebrew, love or compassion was more frequently centered in the gut. “Heart” more often designated the mind, as an integrated thinking and feeling. Or, perhaps more to the point, “heart” designates the place where our usual thinking and feeling yields to a more immediate experience. The long tradition of Contemplative Spirituality speaks in terms of heart as the place of silence where we meet God in prayer.
In his excellent book on Contemplative Spirituality, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, Martin Laird cites several ancient authors to help the modern reader understand the use of the word “heart”:
Closer perhaps to our own sensibilities is someone like St. Diadochos who distinguishes between the mind and the heart. He uses the term heart to refer to this nonconceptual form of knowing, what Augustine and Aquinas will later call higher reason. For Diadochos, and indeed for many others after him, the heart was not the seat of emotions (emotions would be located at roughly the same level as thoughts) but the deep center of the person. The heart communes with God in a silent and direct way that the conceptual level of our mind does not.
Writing much later but from this same spiritual tradition is a remarkably gentle and insightful monk, Theophan, who says, You must descend from your head to your heart. At present your thoughts of God are in your head. And God Himself is, as it were, outside you, and so your prayer and other spiritual exercises remain exterior. Whilst you are still in your head, thoughts will not easily be subdued but will always be whirling about, like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer.
This thinking mind that whirls about is constantly concerned with thoughts, concepts, and images, and we obviously need this dimension of mind to meet the demands of the day, to think, to reflect on and enjoy life. But the thinking mind has a professional hazard. If it is not engaged in its primary task of reason, given half a chance it fizzes and boils with obsessive thoughts and feelings. There are, however, deeper demands, deeper encounters of life, love, and God, and there is far more to being alive than riding breathlessly around in the emotional roller coaster of obsessive thinking.
This requires, however, the awakening and cultivation of the heart-mind, to stretch Theophan’s term a bit. In fact, precisely because we think our lives, think our spirituality, think about God, we end up perceiving God as some thing over there, some cause among many other causes of things. Thoughts about God make God appear, as Theophan says, outside you. Theophan is but one of a host of saints and sages who attest that thinking about God is a problem if you want to commune with God. In fact, because our attention is so completely riveted to what’s playing on the big screen of our thinking mind, we can live completely unaware of the deeper ground of the heart that already communes with God, that knows only communion, as branches know deeply the vine (Jn 15:5).
Therefore, when Theophan speaks of descending from your head into your heart, he does not mean what modern pop psychology means when it says we must get out of our heads and feel our feelings. He means shift your attention from the screen of thinking mind on which both thoughts and feelings incessantly appear, as they are meant to, to the ground of the heart, this immense valley of awareness itself in which thoughts and feelings appear. Theophan says, Images, however sacred they may be, retain the attention outside, whereas at the time of prayer the attention must be within in the heart. The concentration of attention in the heart this is the starting point of prayer. This shifting of the attention from the objects of awareness to the silent vastness of the heart that is awareness itself will bring the thinking mind to silence, and the silence holds with its gloved hand the wild hawk of the mind. (pp. 26-28)
Doesn’t this interpretation of “pure in heart” in the context of Contemplative Spirituality make sense for those who “will see God”?
1. Brian McLaren, an online essay, “Against ‘Taking Things Back’: Rethinking the OWS Slogan.” (OWS is Occupy Wall Street.) McLaren, in arguing for the use of nonviolent language for the OWS movement and others like it, gives a great interpretation of each Beatitude as the foundation for nonviolent resistance that follows in the rest of Matthew 5.
2. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, uses Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as a centerpiece by making it the most-oft cited passage in the book, including two chapters devoted to it — Ch. 14, “Kingdom Manifesto” and Ch. 15, “Kingdom Ethics.” Of the Beatitudes, he comments:
Jesus begins with what people often call the Beatitudes eight statements that tell what kinds of people, in Jesus perspective, are well off, have the good life, are fortunate and blessed. From the first statement, they turn normal expectations upside down. Instead of what we might expect Blessed are the rich, blessed are the happy, blessed are the bold, blessed are the satisfied, blessed are the winners, blessed are the clever, blessed are the victors, and blessed are the safe and well-respected Jesus says the opposite: [quotes the passage] …
This introduction does several things. First, it grabs the hearers attention with a kind of mystique, intrigue, and perhaps shock. We can imagine Jesus hearers thinking, Blessed are the poor? Those who mourn? What? Second, it moves from the general blessed are they to the personal blessed are you, bringing hearers deeper and more personally into Jesus circle. Third, it sets up a tension a tension that seems inherent throughout Jesus teachings between peace (blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the pure in heart) and conflict (with persecution, insult, false accusation). In other words, Jesus here sets the stage for talking about his radical, surprising, unexpected, and counterintuitive kingdom a kingdom that seems to turn normal perception and standard common sense upside down. (pp. 118-19)
He also has a great quote from Walter Wink‘s The Powers That Be (p. 64):
In his Beatitudes, in his extraordinary concern for the outcasts and marginalized, in his wholly unconventional treatment of women, in his love of children, in his rejection of the belief that high-ranking men are the favorites of God, in his subversive proclamation of a new order in which domination will give way to compassion and communion, Jesus brought to fruition the prophetic longing for the kingdom of God an expression we might paraphrase as Gods domination-free order. [quoted on p. 190 of McLaren]
Finally, in the context of outlining First Century Jewish politics, he offers an imaginative paraphrase of the Beatitudes on p. 15:
Do you want to know who will be blessed? Not the powerful ones with lots of money and weapons. No, the poor will be blessed. Not the ones who can shout the loudest and get their way. No, the meek will be blessed. Not the ones who kill their enemies. No, the ones who are persecuted for doing whats right. Not those who play it safe, but those who stand up for the sake of justice. Not the clever and the sly, but the pure in heart. Not those who make war. No, those who make peace.
3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, Ch. 27, “A New Identity,” is on Matthew 5:1-16. He writes,
Jesus’ words no doubt surprise everyone, because we normally play by these rules of the game:
Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.
But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. Who are blessed? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?
The poor and those in solidarity with them.
Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.
The nonviolent and gentle.
Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
The merciful and compassionate.
Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and unadulterated motives.
Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed.
Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of seconds, and he has already turned our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and nonviolence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion, and manifest integrity and nonduplicity. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives, or politicians, but brave and determined activists for preemptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.
Our choice is clear from the start: If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.
Jesus promises we will pay a price for making that choice. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience the true aliveness of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction at seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence, the honor of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity he invites us to seek. (pp. 127-29)
4. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, has a substantial treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, the fourth section of Chapter 1 on, “The Life of the Kingdom of God,” pp. 48-58. The most focused comments on the Beatitudes are:
First, one learns that true happiness does not consist of being in the center. The word translated blessed or happy (Matthew 5:3ff) is used of those whose lives are on the margins. There is some talk today about how Jesus wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and living well. This is the so-called prosperity gospel. But there is nothing good news about it. It is as American as apple pie. It simply takes the rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and says that this is what God wants for us.
But such is not the case. I do not mean that God wants us to be poor, sick and needy. What I mean is that when we live on the edge, when we chose to follow Jesus, our families, our friends and our communities may well marginalize us. It is no small thing to break with relationships that are primarily toxic in character and begin to share in the life of a community where we are loved and cared for. When others around us esteem a go-getem, dog-eat-dog attitude and we find ourselves esteeming others first, we will be seen as foolish. When those around us demand that we hate others who would dare attack and oppress us and we are learning how to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, we will appear to others to be moronic. When our families and friends pile up money in 401Ks, IRAs, CDs and investment funds and we begin to give away our resources to feed the poor and support ministries of peace among us, well, we will be criticized. Jesus says as much, you will be persecuted. When this happens, and we have divested ourselves for the sake of others, when we have sought to be reconciled even with the most obnoxious, spiteful people, when we seek justice and peace in deep and radical manners, indeed, when we grieve over hurting others, Jesus says that this, THIS, is what it is to be blessed by God. This is real happiness.
Can you imagine the early potential convert to Christianity saying to their mentor, Do you know how hard this is? The mentor would remind the novitiate that by changing their thinking about life (for that is what repentance means, to change ones thinking), they will for the first time know what real blessing, authentic happiness is. (pp. 52-53)
5. K. C. Hanson, “How Honorable! How Shameful! A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches.” Begin with what might be a more accurate translation. Hanson makes a good case for translating makarioi as “How honorable,” and does so within a context of the honor-shame value system that was so significant in ancient cultures. Hanson concludes: “I would argue that if makarisms are fundamentally expressions of honor, then Matt 5:3-10 must be interpreted as programmatic value statements: the conditions and behaviors which the community regards as honorable.” This makes more sense to me than trying to mark out poverty and mourning and the like as being blessed. Honor is more clearly a valuation as determined by certain individuals or communities.
Another aspect of Hanson’s paper of interest to mimetic theorists is that he conjoins his reading of makarisms in Matthew 5:3-12 with his reproaches in Matthew 23 — among them the crucial verse for mimetic theory: “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matthew 23:34-35) — “all the righteous blood on earth” pointing to the universal anthropology hypothesized by Girard’s naming of the “victimage mechanism.”
6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4), pp. 100-110. Hanson’s translation then makes even more sense within Bonhoeffer’s frame of reference on the beatitudes, which is basically as “programmatic value statements.” Bonhoeffer reads the Beatitudes as spoken specifically to the disciples who have already dropped everything to follow Jesus, with the crowd as potential disciples should they accept the valuation that Jesus places on following him. He writes:
Therefore, “Blessed!” Jesus is speaking to the disciples (cf. Luke 6:20ff.). He is speaking to those who are already under the power of his call. That call has made them poor, tempted, and hungry. He calls them blessed, not because of their want or renunciation. Neither want nor renunciation are in themselves any reason to be called blessed. The only adequate reason is the call and the promise, for whose sake those following him live in want and renunciation. (p.101)
I find Bonhoeffer’s approach quite compelling. And it makes even more sense to me in light of Hanson’s suggestion of placing it in a matrix of honor-shame, rather than blessing-curse.
There are great nuggets throughout his exposition. For the second beatitude, he assumes the disciples as among the rejected and as constituting part of their sadness. But then follows this amazing passage:
Why must Jesus’ community of faith stay closed out from so many celebrations of the people among whom they live? Does the community of faith perhaps no longer understand its fellow human beings? Has it perhaps succumbed to hating and despising the people? No one understands people better than Jesus’ community. No one loves people more than Jesus’ disciples — that is why they stand apart, why they mourn. It is meaningful and lovely the at Luther translates the Greek word for what is blessed with “to bear suffering.” The important part is the bearing. The community of disciples does not shake off suffering, as if they had nothing to do with it. Instead, they bear it. In doing so, they give witness to their connection with the people around them. At the same time, this indicates that they do not arbitrarily seek suffering, that they do not withdraw into willful contempt for the world. Instead, they bear what is laid upon them, and what happens to them in discipleship for the sake of Jesus. (p. 104)
The community values of Jesus and his disciples are counter-cultural but they are not contra-people. The central value is love. And love is about inviting people out of our conventional cultures which are unwittingly based on death. Yet as those invitations are spurned love also brings a great sorrow for those who remain enslaved by the powers of death. It also stands in solidarity with those expelled from conventional culture who live in sorrow. Either way, following Jesus means bearing suffering until that day when all sorrow will be conquered in resurrection joy. On that day, the disciples of Jesus will be comforted (paraklethesontai). (Followers of mimetic theory might also recognize in that word the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused, the Comforter.)
7. The bearing of suffering also recalls the verse in Matthew that I consider central (11:12): “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Suffering violence, bearing suffering. The first thing with which Jesus honors his disciples (combining Hanson’s translation and Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on discipleship) is: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” See the Girardian Reflections for Advent 3A. (Notice, too, that the other significant verse in that passage could now be translated, according to Hanson, “How honored are those who are not scandalized at me.”) You might also consult a complete list of Matthew’s phrase “the kingdom of heaven.”
Based on these first three reflections, and guided by the following (especially the next one from Knowing Jesus), I’m pondering (in 2005) a reading of the Beatitudes more wholly consistent with mimetic theory before preaching them.
8. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, see especially pp. 129ff. Rohr combines three perspectives that are immensely helpful to me: Catholic spirituality in the tradition of Thomas Merton, the Emerging Church, and Girardian anthropology (the only footnote in the entire book, p. 4, acknowledges his gratitude to the work of Girard and Gil Bailie).
9. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 81:
After the resurrection, then, Jesus’ moral teaching and his teaching concerning discipleship were able to be understood not as extra features of his life, unrelated to his Passion, but structured by exactly the same intelligence of the victim that led to his Passion. Exactly the same is true of Jesus’ understanding of the coming of the kingdom of God which he preached, which was also the foundation of the new Israel in his victimary death, which he prepared. So, for instance, the sermon on the mount paints a picture of blessedness as being related to the choosing of a life that is not part of the violence and power of the world, going so far as to show solidarity with those who are of no account in this world, even if this means suffering victimization because of the option taken. The parallel passage to the beatitudes, the parable of the sheep and goats, shows the same intelligence at work: divine judgement is recast entirely in terms of practical human relationship to victims, independent of formal creeds or group belongings. The only relationship that matters in the judgement is that with the victim.
A similar point is made on p. 217.
10. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 196ff., provide commentary on the Sermon on the Mount which places the Beatitudes in context, in a wider section on “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 196-202.
11. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, cites Luke’s version of the beatitudes:
Jesus declared those blessed who are normally judged quite differently by humankind and considered unfortunate and battered creatures: “Blessed you poor, for to you belongs the kingdom of God. Blessed those who hunger now, for they will be satisfied. Blessed those who cry now, for they will laugh” (Luke 6:20ff.). Blessed are those unfortunate up until now, because the kingdom of God belongs to them and in it everything will be transformed. But this turnabout, as the beatitudes make clear, will happen only in the future. Besides the words and images that speak of the already present kingdom of God, there are countless others which point to the future. But how are the present and the future of the kingdom of God related to one another? (pp. 32-33)
Schwager’s answer to this question lies in his method of presenting the salvation history of Jesus in five acts. Jesus begins with a message of the coming near of God’s Kingdom. But before we judge Jesus’ proclamation to be true or not, we need to consider the response of those who heard, and then God’s response to their response. When Jesus opens his ministry by proclaiming the Kingdom, we cannot judge its full truth until the entire drama unfolds. The Beatitudes proclaim the direction in which the drama is moving, but the timetable is partly determined by responses to that proclamation, responses such as resistance and rejection.
13. Andrew McKenna, “Uncanny Christianity,” p. 90; he cites the above Alison excerpt in summarizing the Sermon on the Mount:
The Sermon on the Mount not only blesses or beatifies the poor and the meek, the oppressed and the persecuted; it also prescribes remedies to the violence that produces them (see Alison 1994, 42-44). When Jesus urges that we turn the other cheek, that we surrender our cloak to the man who solicits our coat, it is essential that we assess the rigorous structural coherence of such hyperbole: we are being summoned to withdraw from the cycle of violent reciprocity and defensiveness that only breeds more of its kind.
14. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996; ch. 14, “Violence in Defense of Justice,” pages 317-346, uses the Sermon on the Mount as its centerpiece for arguing an ethic of nonviolence, even in defense of justice. He says of the Beatitudes, for example:
The character of that kingdom, however, is surprising. The Beatitudes (5:3-12) contravene common sense by declaring that God’s blessing rests upon the mourners, the meek, the peacemakers, and (especially) those who are persecuted. (Note that vv. 11-12 reiterate and expand the blessing pronounced on the persecuted in v. 10.) Thus, the Beatitudes limn an upside-down reality, or — more precisely — they define reality in such a way that the usual order of things is seen to be upside down in the eyes of God. The community’s vocation to be “salt” and “light” for the world (5:13-16) is to be fulfilled precisely as Jesus’ followers embody God’s alternative reality through the character qualities marked by the Beatitudes. The community of Jesus’ followers is to be “a city built on a hill,” a model polis that demonstrates the counterintuitive peaceful politics of God’s new order. (p. 321)
Near the end of the chapter, Hays cites the Beatitudes again in summarizing the symbolic world of the entire New Testament:
Finally, the New Testament texts depict a symbolic world in which the real struggle is not against flesh and blood, in which the only weapons that the church wields are faith and the Word of God. The truth about reality is disclosed in the cross: God’s power is disclosed in weakness. Thus, all who are granted to see the truth through Jesus Christ will perceive the world through the lenses of the Beatitudes and the strange narrative of the Apocalypse, in which the King of kings and Lord of lords is the slaughtered Lamb. The power of violence is the illusory power of the Beast, which is unmasked by the faithful testimony of the saints. In this symbolic world, wars and fightings are caused by divided and unholy desires within the individual (James), but those who are made whole in Christ become ambassadors of reconciliation and participate in the body of Christ, the community whose oneness signifies the ultimate reconciliation of the world to God. And the deepest truth about reality is rooted in the character of God, who loves enemies and seeks to reconcile them to himself through the death of Christ. (p. 340)
16. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay in 2014 on this passage and All Saints Day, “Celebrating the Saints in Our Lives.”
17. Other good books for parish ministry on the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount: Martha Stortz, Blessed to Follow: The Beatitudes as a Compass for Discipleship; Anne Sutherland Howard, Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation; Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount; Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance.
Reflections and Questions
1. Matthew takes Mark’s Jesus, who preaches and teaches that the Kingdom of God has come near, and inserts substantial portions of that preaching and teaching. The Sermon on the Mount kicks it all off, and the Beatitudes is the keynote of that sermon. Matthew’s Jesus begins his preaching and teaching of the Kingdom by basically inverting the values of all conventional culture. For conventional culture the blessed are the well-to-do with large families and the accolades of neighbors. Jesus preaches God’s kingdom by placing at the center those whom conventional culture marginalizes. (Later, for instance, he will act this out by taking a child and placing it in the midst of them.)
2. In 2005 our family adopted boys from Liberia, Hilton and Terry Baffo. The Bible passage that has become our mission statement through this extraordinary journey is the very beginning of salvation history, Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
In short, “Blessed to be a blessing.” What if this notion of blessing is taken as background to the blessing of the Beatitudes? Jesus is the fulfillment of this blessing to Abraham and Sarah. He is the the true Son of Abraham and Sarah who comes to be a blessing to others. As Bonhoeffer said of Jesus Christ, “He is the man for others.” With his blessing those who have been left out, sacrificed (the ancient sense of sacrifice, not the Christian sense of self-sacrifice), to the exclusionsary human forms of blessing begin to be blessed in Jesus Christ.