Epiphany 4A

Last revised: February 1, 2017
Click reload or refresh for latest version

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY — YEAR A
RCL: Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
RoCa: Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Opening Comments

Matthew’s Gospel features Jesus as a prophetic teacher as a lead up to the Passion and Resurrection. And Jesus’s prophetic teaching is bracketed by the Beatitudes (5:1-12) and the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), making it clear that those oppressed in human kingdoms are the blessed of God’s kingdom — and thus that the New Human Being (Son of Man”) is judging the nations by the measure of caring for the marginalized.

James Alison, Knowing Jesus, makes the connection between the Beatitudes (see comments on the Gospel of All Saints A) and the final parable in Matthew:

Now, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount points to what I have called “the intelligence of the victim.” [Link to webpage on Alison’s use of this phrase “the intelligence of the victim.”] It starts with the beatitudes, where the people chosen as exemplars of proximity to God are all marginal, dependent people. People who have a certain relationship to others which one might describe as precarious: the poor in spirit are poor relative to people who might use power and riches against them; those who mourn are those who are in a relationship of vulnerability owing either to some loss, or some overbearing situation; the meek are meek in the midst of a social other that despises meekness; the merciful refuse to be involved in a vengeful relation to the other, that is they don’t insist on their rights over against another; the pure in heart have acquired their purity of heart with difficulty in the midst of a world which does not encourage it; the peacemakers are notoriously those who eventually get blamed by both sides for not sharing their violence — each side sees them as traitors and those who are persecuted for righteousness . . . well, the intelligence of the victim couldn’t be more explicit — and this is emphasized again in the final beatitude: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of falsehood against you.”

The key feature of blessedness is that it involves living a deliberately chosen and cultivated sort of life which is not involved in the power and violence of the world, and which because of this fact, makes the ones living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into victims. That is the center of the ethic as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If we then turn to the end of Jesus’ last discourse before his passion [Matt. 25:31-46] — the mirror image of this, the first of his discourses — we find the same intelligence at work. In the famous passage of the last judgement, the judgement is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgement is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims. Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them. Again, the intelligence of the victim: it is the crucified and risen victim who is the judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim. (pp. 42-43; see also Alison’s reflections on the wider Sermon on the Mount.)

In 2017 Americans have a new POTUS, Donald Trump, who says he is about reaching out to and championing “the forgotten man.” But demographics of those who voted for him, those who feel themselves to be in the category of “forgotten man,” are primarily lower and middle class white people. In an age where income inequality is increasing exponentially, there are no doubt many millions in the white working class who feel forgotten, who know their lives to have become an increasing struggle. But there remain billions worldwide, largely people of color, whose plight to survive is even more grave. So the question is why the working white class in this country feel more affinity with a white male billionaire than the other billions who share their struggle to survive? Racism is still a big part of the answer to that question. But so is the failure to understand the revolution which Jesus inaugurates in his prophetic teaching, his Passion, and his Resurrection. There remains a failure to understand the true measure of wealth and power and human flourishing.

In the advent of Trump’s presidency, it compels me to make sure my theology and practice of discipleship are up to the test. Jesus has flipped the measure of success for human beings flourishing together in community. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the oppressed by human empire. Blessed are the nations who prioritize care of the most vulnerable. How will our nation be judged at this important moment in history? The Beatitudes have much to say, especially when read in light of its companion passage, the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25:31-46 — together which bracket Jesus’s ministry and the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. (For more on the latter passage, see Christ the King Sunday A, particular Brian Zahnd‘s stunning reading in A Farewell to Mars which takes very seriously this passage as a judgment of the nations in history.)


Micah 6:1-8

Resources

1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, has a section on Micah on pp. 152-154. For example:

Much like Amos and Isaiah, Micah cries out against those who force the old free peasantry off the land and acquire enormous land holdings (Mic 2:1-4). A key passage in Micah, often quoted, is 6:6-8. It is often considered an addition to the Micah scroll stemming from the sort of post-exilic piety that is expressed also in Psalm 51. A case may be made for this position. In fact, it would support the non-sacrificial reading of the Scriptures as evidence of part of a post-exilic, anti-sacrificial perspective that stems in great part from the prophetic tradition. Let us pick up the passage halfway through:

Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my life?
He has disclosed to you, O mortal (adam) what is good;
and what does the LORD seek from you
but to do justice, and love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:7-8)

It is quite striking that in this advanced perspective on the divine-human relationship and morality there is nonetheless a recollection of the archaic connection of the offering of the firstborn and transgression. Right relationship with God and reestablishment of order does not depend on eliminating the ills of the human community by killing the firstborn son for the sake of the family or community. It depends on the ancient covenant virtues of mishpat, or justice and right judgment, and chesed, or kindness (the “steadfast love” of Hos 6:6), the kindness one does for others who belong to the same community or family.

2. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, has a section on the prophetic critique of sacrifice on pp. 83-91, with this passage cited specifically on page 85. Schwager sums up this section on sacrifice:

Corresponding exactly to Girard’s theory, Old Testament texts see sacrifices in a double perspective. On the one hand, certain passages indicate that violence erupts where sacrifices no longer function properly. On the other hand, and precisely because of better insight into the essence of violence, sacrifices are recognized as incapable of ridding the community of this evil. Cain spilled blood because his sacrifice was not pleasing. Isaiah announces that God abhors the blood of bulls and goats because the hands of the sacrificers are full of blood. (p. 89)

3. René Girard, Things Hidden; note #52 on page 154 expounds on the prophetic critique of sacrifice, quoting especially Micah 6:6-8:

Criticism of the cult of sacrifice by pre-exilic prophets is played down by the majority of commentators, whether they are religious or irreligious by persuasion, Jewish or Christian, Protestant or Catholic. People attempt to show that the prophets are only opposed to a ‘cultural syncretism’ which they believe to be unorthodox and that their principal aim is to centralize worship at Jerusalem. But in fact the texts are too many in number and too explicit for there to be any room for doubt. See for example: Isaiah 1:11-16; Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 5:6; 6:6; 9:11-13; Amos 5:21-25; Micah 6:7-8.

To combat sacrifices, these prophets have recourse to historical arguments. They draw a distinction between the profuse sacrifices of their own decadent times and the ideal period for the relationship between Yahweh and his people, which was that of the life in the desert when the absence of livestock made sacrifices impossible. And the deep-seated reason for their refusal comes to the surface in the link between animal sacrifice and the sacrifice of children, in Micah, for example-he perceives behind the increasing practice of sacrifice an escalation which, in the final analysis, always involves reciprocal violence and mimetic desire:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).

The prophet contrasts the grotesque and threatening escalation of burnt offerings with the quintessence of the law, which is love of one’s neighbor.

If Ezekiel takes a sacrificial position, once again, this is because in his period sacrifices quite clearly had nothing more than a ceremonial and archaeological value. The mimetic crisis stays ‘sacrificial’ in the broader sense; but it is no longer sacrificial in the strict sense, it is no longer directly centered on the question of sacrificial rites properly speaking. (note #52 is found on pp. 451-452)

4. This passage is in the category of “mercy not sacrifice,” Hosea’s summary (6:6) of the prophetic critique against ritual sacrifice, which Jesus quotes twice in Matthew (9:13 and 12:7). Here is a sampling of biblical quotes along the theme of “Mercy not Sacrifice,” including Micah 6. It is a theme which also links up with the Beatitude in today’s Gospel: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 7, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), 10th in a series of eleven sermons on the prophets.

Reflections and Questions

1. Micah 6:8 has become very important in our family. It was on our hearts and minds when we adopted our two sons from Liberia, Africa in 2005. It is stenciled on our living room wall above the fireplace. In 2014 I combined teaching it to children and adults alike with one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day, and a slightly different wording for the sermon, “Bless the Least, Desire Compassion, and Let God Lead.”

2. How did the first hearers of these prophetic critiques hear their message? And, if we say that they didn’t hear it, then how did these prophesies survive. Their whole religion was centered on sacrifice, yet the prophets like Micah proclaim that God really doesn’t want this. I find this amazing. Are there any modern corollaries? Are there features of the way we practice religion that we think is important and God doesn’t?

3. In my article on Holy Communion (Contagion, Vol. 3), I suggest that the sacrament can lapse into sacrificial practice. More recently, I’ve been thinking that a definition of sacrament might be that which transforms sacrifice into self-sacrifice. Jesus transformed the sacrifice of the Cross into the self-sacrifice that leads to resurrection and a life of service.

Yet as early as Corinth (1 Cor 11), Christians were practicing the ritual meal in ways that were just simply sacrificial, with people going home hungry. Paul, akin to Micah, tells them to stop; God doesn’t want that. What about our practice of the sacraments? At our church, for example, we bless younger children instead of including them in the meal. I can tell by body language and the looks on their faces that some go away ‘hungry,’ understanding that they have been excluded. The justification we use has to do with what they can or can’t understand. Isn’t this a sacrificial distinction of the old order? They ‘understand’ being excluded. And what about understanding Christ’s presence in the sacrament? I’ll bet that the three year-old Zwingli would have ‘understood’ this better than the grown-up one did.


1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Resources

1. James Alison, Raising Abel; this passage is referenced on pp. 90, 137, 181. The first and third citations have to do with how God chooses the least likely to carry out God’s ministry; the second, p. 137, is a discussion of not being scandalized in the “Time of Abel,” the time of our victims coming back to us, not for revenge, but to forgive. For more on being scandalized see #4 below.

2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong; this passage is referenced on pp. 93, 175-177, 210, 262, 278. Let me share two of them with you, first p. 93:

A further consideration about the nature of the universality of the foundation of the new Israel is brought to light by consideration of Paul’s teaching on justification being made available by grace through faith. What Paul preached was the intelligence of the victim, (1) or, in his words, the Messiah as crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God. The power is the creative construction of the new humanity made possible by the victim, the wisdom is the intelligence of the victim, which, had the powers of the world possessed it, they would never have crucified Jesus (1 Cor. 1:17-25; 2:6-8). The grace in question in any discussion of justification by grace is the grace of the self-giving victim. What this grace has brought about is a new way of being human which knocks down the wall that separated Jew from gentile. That is to say, the grace which justifies does so by bringing into existence a new unity of humanity which does not justify itself over-against any other group. Any group which justifies itself over against any other group is still tributary of the mechanism of the formation of identity by victimization. The making just that comes from grace is precisely the construction of a new unity that is not based over-against any other, but receives its identity as given from the self-giving victim. That is to say, the foundation of the New Israel, a collective identity, is the making present of this justification by grace through faith. Those who through faith in the presence of the self-giving victim come to form part of and construct this new Israel are, in as far as they form part of and create this new unity, being justified by grace through faith.

The other is the close of chapter 7, “The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin” (minus two lengthy footnotes):

***** Excerpt from Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 209-210 *****

Here we have the sacramental principle behind both the creative liturgical celebrations of the ecclesial hypostasis, (2) and the concrete living out of the praxis inaugurated by Christ. The reality of the creative, beneficent divine mimesis begins to be realized in the sign of forgiveness created in the midst of the distorted mimesis of creative futility. In practical terms this means that our being inducted (and transformed) into the ecclesial hypostasis always reaches us as the forgiveness of sins, and our process of recovery of creaturity always passes through our creating signs of the forgiveness of sins for others. This sign can never be created in the midst of the vortex of distorted desires which constitutes the apparently ‘strong’ social order of futility, because futility renders forgiveness an empty, pointless, sign: a sign of weakness rather than creative strength. Forgiveness can only become a creative sign among the rejects of the order of futility, those cast out by its centrifugal force. Only they are weak enough to become signs of creation, precisely because in the eyes of the world they are of no importance, on their way out of being, making no contribution.We have, it seems to me, some insight then, into why Jesus’ practice of bringing into being the ecclesial hypostasis worked preferentially among the prostitutes and the tax collectors, as well as the importance St Paul attributes to the unimportance of those called to be members of the Church in Corinth:

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are. (1 Cor 1:26-28)

People who are of no importance in the order of the world are especially suited to becoming signs of the new creation, because they have been emptied of being by the vanity of the old creation to such an extent that they can become signs of the new creation as they forgive and let go of the old which has cast them out.Nor, alas, does this mean that the ecclesial pastoral task is to transform such outcasts into an army of ‘heavy’ force that can then contest and overthrow the order of this world. To the extent that the marginalized, empty of ‘being’, acquire force and come back into the world, to that extent they cease to be creative signs of forgiveness bringing into being the new creation, and become another part of the dialectic of power that is the order of the world, a sign of nothing at all. They become another example of the human attempt to realize ‘good’ being immediately devoured by vanity, becoming part of the way in which we produce evil with the best intentions. The ecclesial pastoral task seems to be to stretch ever further towards those who are not, under constant threat of becoming part of the vain ‘good’ of the world by stopping to look after ‘the ninety-nine sheep who never went astray’. It is only the forgiving stretching towards those who are on their way out of being that is participative in the creative creatureliness of the new creation.

All this has merely been to try to unpack what is implicit in the starting point of this thesis: which is that God could only come into the world to bring about the new creation as forgiving victim, as that which was on its way out of being through expulsion. We can see then why we talk of original sin, rather than an original condition or an original state. We talk of original sin because the only way that God can realize creation in our midst and involving us is as forgiveness. It is the creative forgiveness, which is the bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis through the self-giving victim on his way out of the world, that defines the state of the apparently ‘strong’ world, in fact passing away, as one marked by original sin.

***** End of Alison Excerpt *****

3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, references this passage on p. 235 as a lead-in to developing the theme of ch. 13, “Where are the Philosophers Now?”

4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from February 3, 2002 (Woodside Village Church)

5. Behind “stumbling block to the Jews” is the Greek word skandalon, a word which Girard argues as a key word in the New Testament. Link to (1) an exposition of Girardian reflections on skandalon, and (2) a complete listing of its occurrences in the New Testament.

6. René Girard gives this passage literally the last word in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p.193. He ends with this passage because he raises the following question on p. 189: “What is the power that triumphs over mimetic violence?” To which his immediate response is “The Gospels respond that it is the Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.” Girard especially gains insight from John the Evangelist’s other name for the Spirit, “Paraclete,” and so I offer this excerpt of pages 189-193 in its entirety in my webpage on the Girardian insights into Paraclete.

The final subsection within this closing portion gives Girard’s own assessment of the importance of an evangelical anthropology to theology, as a key to unlocking the impasses experienced in contemporary theology. Let me repeat that excerpt here:

My research is only indirectly theological, moving as it does across the field of a Gospel anthropology unfortunately neglected by theologians. To increase its effectiveness, I have pursued it as long as possible without postulating the reality of the Christian God. No appeal to the supernatural should break the thread of the anthropological analyses.By offering a natural, rational interpretation of facts formerly perceived as relevant to the supernatural, such as Satan or the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament, the mimetic reading truly enlarges the field of anthropology. But contrary to non-Christian anthropologies it does not minimize the hold evil has on humans and their need for redemption. Certain Christian readers fear that this enlargement encroaches on the legitimate domain of theology. I believe the opposite is true. By desacralizing certain themes, by showing that Satan exists first of all as a figure created by structures of mimetic violence, we think with the Gospels and not against them.

This enlargement of anthropology occurs, we must observe, at the expense of subjects that current theologians, even the most orthodox, have a tendency to neglect, as they can no longer integrate them into their work. They do not want to reproduce, purely and simply, ancient readings that don’t desacralize violence sufficiently. Neither do they want to suppress the basic texts under an imperative of “demythologizing” that is positivist and naive, in the manner of Bultmann. So they remain silent. The mimetic interpretation opens a way out of this impasse.

Far from minimizing Christian transcendence, attributing purely earthly, rational meanings to themes such as Satan or apocalyptic danger renders Paul’s “paradoxes” of the Cross more relevant than ever. I think that through our engagement with some of the most astonishing texts of Paul we have already found enlightenment for the true demythicizing of our world, and we will find enlightenment even more in the future, as Gil Bailie foresees. (3) This enlightenment can only come from the Cross.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, for us, it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Where is the sage? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since the world, in the wisdom of God, did not recognize God by means of wisdom, it has pleased God to save those who believe by the folly of preaching. For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but for those who are called, Jews as well as Greeks, it is Christ who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:18-25, emphasis mine)


Matthew 5:1-12

Exegetical Notes

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. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 today’’s 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)

6. vs. 6, 10: dikaiosynēn, “righteousness.” “Righteousness” has fallen out of use in English; “justice” is a better translation.

7. 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.”

8. 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”?

9. So I suggest the following translation of the Beatitudes:

3 Blessed are the oppressed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the nonviolent, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion.
8 Blessed are the contemplative in mind, 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 justice’’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Resources

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. See also other excellent resources from McLaren below.

2. 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.”

3. 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.)

4. 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.

5. 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).

6. James Alison, Knowing Jesus; pp. 42-45 are on the Sermon on the Mount. Link to an excerpt of Alison’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount.

7. 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.

8. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 196ff., provide commentary on the Sermon on the Mount which places the Beatitudes in context; see Girard’s reflections on “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 196-202.

9. 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.

10. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, sums up the point of his book in the epilogue:

Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian Church in human history might be oversimplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died, and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible forget how Jesus lived. In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions of his world. Not surprisingly, therefore, the prospects of institutionalizing either the Sermon on the Mount or the revelation of the Cross are not great. “The Church,” wrote Karl Barth, “sets fire to a charge that blows up every sacred edifice which men ever erected or can erect in its vicinity.” (4) In every instance, the institution in closest proximity to the Gospel’s explosive charge is the institution we call the Church. As Andrew McKenna puts it, “the breakdown of institutional Christianity is the legacy of the crucifixion narrative, which is one with the Hebrew Bible’s denunciation of overtly sacrificial institutions, indeed, of all forms of victimization.” (5) Fortunately, however, the breakdown of institutional Christianity is not the only legacy of the crucifixion narrative. Peter’s Aramaic name should be a perpetual reminder of the lingering lure of sacrificial thinking in Christian history, but it should not obscure the fact that the name means “rock” and that, especially in a world as radically destabilized as the one in which we live, we should not casually dispense with the few forms of stability that survive. The Church, like Peter, is both a stumbling block and a cornerstone. It is the latter only when it is consciously contrite for being, and having been, the former. (pp. 274-275)

11. Has the Sermon on the Mount taught us to live another way? One of Girard’s and Bailie’s points involves how our secularized world takes the underlying Gospel ethic and appropriates it while also distancing itself from its source. Cut-off from its source, we see strange manifestations of the ethic in the Sermon of the Mount, ones which use the moral value attributed to victims for their own selfish, sacrificial ends. The value for victims can become fetishized.

Gil Bailie gives examples in chapter 1 of Violence Unveiled of the twists in multi-culturalism and of grunge clothing styles, where the aim is to try to make yourself look poor.

The September 29, 1992, Wall Street Journal, carried an article on a related subject by Heather MacDonald. MacDonald reported on how rigorously the doctrine of multi-culturalism was being enforced on today’s college campuses. Her article began this way:

It is never too soon to learn to identify yourself as a victim. Such, at least, is the philosophy of today’s college freshman orientation, which has become a crash course in the strange new world of university politics. Within days of arrival on campus, “new students” (the euphemism of choice for “freshmen”) learn the paramount role of gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation in determining their own and others’ identity. Most important, they are provided with the most critical tool of their college career: the ability to recognize their own victimization.

Such things are so self-satirizing that journalistic satire seems wasted on them. What must not be missed, however, is that beneath all the buffoonery lies the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims and a dawning realization that no event can be fully assessed until its victims have been heard from. Of course, the trivialization of this empathy for victims was virtually inevitable, and so was the attempt to exploit the victim’s moral power for social, economic, and political advantage. But neither the trivialization nor the exploitation diminish in any way the historical and anthropological significance of the West’s moral concern for victims.

A few years ago, another related story appeared in the fashion section of the New York Times (Sunday, November 24, 1991).The story was largely a montage of photographs apparently taken on the streets of New York of people dressed in clothes with patches sewn prominently on them. The brief story ran beneath the headline: “Patches: In, Not Down and Out.” It reads:

All the patched clothes seen around town recently were not a result of the present recession, nor yet of nostalgia for the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when patching clothes was a necessity. Today’s patches are all about status and style.Christian Francis Roth’s clothes have intricate patch inserts that are part of Mr. Roth’s designs.

Patched jeans have been around since the 1960’s. The newer ones are imitating Mr. Roth’s more expensive designs with appliqued patches that don’t cost as much.

And not to be confused with those styles are the rap-style patches with fringed — or frayed — edges on denim clothes.

This style came to be called “homeless chic,” a name that is no less ironic and bizarre than the fashion contest to which the story alluded, a contest between those with designer patches, those with less expensive imitations, and those desperately hoping to distinguish themselves from the others by wearing “rap-style patches” with frayed edges. This is all very funny and very expensive and more than a little pathetic. If money can’t buy happiness, maybe it can buy poverty, or at least catch clumsily at the moral distinction that adheres to social marginality in a world exposed for centuries to the Sermon on the Mount.

The fact that concern for victims is so ridiculously trivialized does not mean that it is a trivial concern — far from it. “Identification with the victim can be perverted,” writes Andrew McKenna, “but this only authenticates the undisputed privilege of the victim as the site from which truth is determined in our era.” (6) After the sniggers die down, the deeper issue raised by this new and widespread claim to victim status must be explored. For, as the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx argues, the historical conversation-partner of European culture is the victim. (7)

12. 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.

13. 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)

14. 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 “God’s 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 what’s 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.”

15. 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)

16. 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-get’em, 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 401K’s, IRA’s, CD’s 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 one’’s thinking’), they will for the first time know what real blessing, authentic happiness is. (pp. 52-53)

17. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2014, titled “Blessed Surprise“; Suella Gerber, a sermon in 2017, “The Foolishness of Choosing to Be Last.”

18. Other good books for parish ministry on the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount: John Dear, The Beatitudes of Peace: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Peacemaking & the Spiritual LifeMartha 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. In 2015, our parish went off the RCL to use the lectionary suggested in Brian McLaren‘s book We Make the Road By Walking, where the season of Lent focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. I applaud McLaren’s suggestion for a couple of reasons. One is that Lent was originally a time of preparation for those to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, and there’s no better text for preparation of disciples than Matthew 5-7 — Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the same decision in his book Discipleship. Moreover, as such an essential text, it’s one of the biggest errors in the RCL that it falls towards the end of the Epiphany season in Year A — excerpts spread across Epiphany 4A-9A. In the years that Easter is early, we miss most of this passage. Following McLaren’s lectionary addresses this oversight.

For the 1st Sunday in Lent McLaren’s suggested portion is Matthew 5:1-16 (the Gospel Reading for Epiphany 4A and 5A) — Chapter 27, “A New Identity.” I took my sermon in a different direction from McLaren’s, using the Harry Potter series as an illustration, but borrowed the title: “A New Identity.”

2. In 2005 I ventured into potentially dangerous waters by critiquing the American habit, since Sept. 11, 2001, of everywhere saying, singing and writing “God Bless America.” Woven together with the above first two sources (Hanson and Bonhoeffer), I contrasted what we generally think about when saying “God Bless America” with the blessings spoken by Jesus in the Beatitudes. Theologically, I wanted to base things in the promise to Abraham and Sarah — “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” (Genesis 12:2-3) — a promise whose fulfillment comes through Jesus Christ and the call to discipleship. The results are a sermon titled “God Bless America . . . and All the Families of the Earth” (never worked into a manuscript; notes only).

3. In 2011 the last word of the sermon was given to the 2005 theme, and so the title was kept, “God Bless America . . . and All the Families of the Earth.” But I set it up very differently. I was reading Tony Bartlett’s new book, Virtually Christian, from which I have becomed enamored with a new motto, “Down is the new up” (p. 15). Previous generations of Christians focused their hope for salvation on going up to heaven after you die. But the present generation is noticing that the biblical theme holds the opposite direction, namely, God’s gracious salvation coming down from heaven to earth. Down is the new up. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was ahead of his time, then, in ringing out the “down is the new up” theme already in the 1930’s. So I used a quote from Discipleship on the meek to get started. But the pivot point of the sermon was a quote from President Obama’s State of the Union Address that week, in which he had quoted Robert Kennedy, “The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.” Americans don’t blink an eye at this quote — Democrats and Republicans, alike — because our whole culture is based on the illusion of personal achievement. We see that the future is a gift, on the other hand, when from the perspective of God’s politics we come to see that achievement is only meaningful when all of God’s children achieve it together, with no one left out. The Beatitudes give center stage in the kingdom of God to those who are most often left out in our human endeavors based on personal achievement.

4. Link to an old sermon from 1993 (just several months after I began reading Girard in earnest) that uses a fable of “The Happiness Machine.” The fable is a bit clunky, but it metaphorically elaborates the Girardian thesis about sacrificial mechanisms lying behind all cultural institutions.

5. I wonder, though, if the mechanistic metaphor still fits when posing God’s alternative to human culture. It might constitute one of the crucial differences. Human cultures are mechanistic in their machinations of death; God’s culture in Jesus Christ, offering true freedom and life, are not mechanistic — which is a point for us to fear, being alien and unfamiliar to our usual comfort-levels within our mechanistic orders. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor speaks of this fear in justifying his efforts to protect us once again from the real freedom that Jesus offers us.

Notes

1. See an excerpt on “The Intelligence of the Victim” (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 77-83) for an explanation of how Alison uses this terminology.

2. “Ecclesial hypostasis is explained chapter 6, “Original Sin Known in Its Ecclesial Overcoming,” pp. 162ff.

3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled (New York: Crossroad, 1995).

4. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, translated by E. C. Hoskins, (Oxford, 1933), p. 375

5. Andrew J. McKenna, Violence and Difference, (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1992), p. 110.

6. McKenna, Violence and Difference, 164.

7. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 650.

Print Friendly