FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY: LISTEN TO ONLY ONE
Matthew 5: 1-12
“I’ve learned to tell the voices from the echoes / and of all the voices listen to only one.” Antonio Machado: Portrait
The Beatitudes introduce a long section of Matthew’s gospel referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke has a version of the Beatitudes that is found in the Q document. It is much shorter, four beatitudes rather than the seven in Matthew. It is likely that Luke’s version represents the beatitudes that were current in the earliest Christian churches. Matthew developed his version on the basis of catechesis and Christology, and for this reason he constructs the Sermon on the Mount as the teaching of Jesus and of the early Christian church. He begins at 5:1 by saying that Jesus taught the people who were gathered there, and he ends at 7:28 by saying that the people were astounded at his teaching because he taught as one having authority. In 4:23, Matthew says that Jesus went through Galilee preaching, teaching and healing. These were the three great functions of Jesus, eschatologically determined. Matthew leaves no doubt that the Sermon on the Mount is the eschatological teaching of Jesus. At the same time he expects the Beatitudes to be heard, not simply read. Someone is speaking, and is saying “blessed” to the listeners. The one who is speaking is none other than Jesus. Behind each Beatitude one hears the revised apocalyptic hope of Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Sermon on the Mount in its entirety is only one verb: Listen!
The Beatitudes consist of a series of “blessed” that defines the eschatological salvation that has arrived in the person of Jesus. What constitutes “blessed?” When Jesus says “blessed” he has something particular in mind. It is not simply a blessing that is pronounced. It describes something that is freely granted but which does not become a possession of the one to whom it is granted. What is granted is something unique because while resting upon the one to whom it is granted, it does not leave the hand of the one who grants it. It is dynamic holiness, a movement of qualitatively different life, into which one is drawn who hears the pronouncement. It is life abiding in the nearness of the divine, and within which one is sheltered from the dangers of the present age. What is essential to “blessed” is the grace of the divine. It is only this grace that can respond to the several conditions of humanity described in the Beatitudes. But this blunt conclusion needs further elaboration. Blessedness allows those upon whom it is pronounced to enter into the grace of the divine that is made ready for them, even as they were antecedently made ready for it. Thus, blessedness opens up a way into the divine. This opening up is what is called revelation; it describes something that was not here before, but has now made its presence known. Here, blessedness is another word for epiphany. The divine, showing forth itself to those chosen, descends upon them as blessing, and they become sacred space in which to receive it as Mary received the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In the human being as sacred space the transcendent grace lays bare the future, because its essence is to create the openness into which that which is new is always arriving.
One thing I have noticed regarding blessedness is that in Genesis there is no declared blessing until the fifth day, when animal life is blessed. Gen. 1:22-23. On the sixth day, human life is blessed. Gen. 1:28. On the seventh day, the day itself is blessed, that is, time is blessed. Gen. 2:3. It is only when life arises out of the earth that a verbal blessing is conferred. There exists an essential relationship between blessing and life. Human life is always an arising; blessing is always a descending. In the second creation story, when the first human being was still in formation, and while it was still lifeless, the Lord “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Gen. 2:7. Is this “breath of life” the same as the “Spirit of God” in Gen. 1:2? I conclude that it is, and therefore it has consequences for the interpretation of blessing and life. The Spirit of God is what blessing essentially is. In Luke 1:41-42, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” This “blessed” child is from the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:35. There is a clear relationship between the Holy Spirit and blessedness. It seems to me that three, “The Spirit of God,” “Blessed” and “Life” all express the same thing, and all have the same meaning. All three are equally descriptive of the dynamic holiness that prevails in the divine and human relationship. The Spirit of God, if I am to interpret Genesis 1:2 in this way, is from the beginning, but not the beginning as time. The Spirit of God is the original source from which creation arises. It is primordial and existed as blessedness before the first divine word was uttered. Consequently, blessedness is itself primordial. It is that from which creation came into being. “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the earth.” Gen.1:2. The Spirit of God was opening up the space for creation to manifest. That which is dynamic holiness was creating a sacred space upon which the divine would soon affirm its goodness. Thus, when one hears “blessed” one simultaneously hears “the Spirit of God” and “Life.”
Matthew begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. There must be a reason for this. Luke has “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” Lk.9:20. Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Mt. 5:3. The difference is clear. Luke writes in the second person, Matthew in the third person, except for the last one in 5:11. Luke has kingdom of God; Matthew has kingdom of heaven. Luke speaks to the poor. Matthew address the poor in spirit. “Spirit” is life. The meaning of the beatitude changes from dealing with the poverty of the poor to a condition of life in which people are lacking in life itself, life lived in the absence of the divine. Very different meanings emerge from the two versions. However, I am focused on Matthew. To the poor in spirit belong the kingdom of heaven. What does this mean? (I have used the following lines in another study). There is a passage in Mark 9:43-47 that can shed light on this. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed….” Again, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame…” Again, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye….” I have placed emphasis on a particular phrase to show for Mark, “the kingdom of God” is nothing other than “life.” I assume that Matthew found the statement in the Q Document and adapted it to his own catechetical purposes. I assume that he begins the Beatitudes with the statement about the poor in spirit and the kingdom of heaven for a particular purpose. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is his teaching on “life,” and from the outset he wants to be clear that life is always and only a gift from the divine. The Beatitudes provide the foundation upon which Matthew builds his basic catechism.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I believe that “the poor in spirit” is Matthew’s invention. In this phrase he gathers all the other categories of beatitudes, and then one by one he sets them apart. But what can be said or known about the poor in spirit? The poor in spirit is not an anthropological definition of “the poor.” Neither is it a statement about the Holy Spirit. It is about a specific category of people, as is those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Spirit, in that it pertains to human beings, is the activity of willing, the exercise of power, and the capacity to perceive meanings of the outer world in relationship with inner strivings. The poor in spirit are those who are almost completely deficient in spirit. The emphasis here is on spirit. Kierkegaard reminds us that the human being is a spirit, a self, a synthesis. With the disappearance of the synthesis, or any element of it, human being disappears into an inward void, detached, inaccessible, in a state of complete despair. This is existential alienation and abandonment.
Such persons live in complete isolation and loneliness, their suffering is so intense that it can hardly be described. They can neither describe nor name what is lacking, for they are as yet completely unaware that they lack something. What they lack manifests itself in withdrawal, and the state of existence of these persons is withdrawal. The phenomenon of withdrawal is characterized by the taking into oneself one’s entire external world, relationships, modes of being, modes of acting and modes of speaking, rejected by the outer world and confined to an inner world of silence. This internalized state of existence makes them unable to reach beyond themselves, because for them “beyond themselves” does not exist. They have been exiled to an unfathomable land whose geography is probably best described by “here” and “now.” They live in a land of here and now. They have neither past nor future. Nothing impels them, nothing beckons them. They have been abandoned by both history and hope. Their entire existence is enclosed in a rigid small space out of which they have no possibility of emerging or escaping. The poor in spirit completely despairing in their isolated existence are not totally devoid of hope. In their geography of here and now, in their kingdom of the present, the kingdom of this passing world, arrives a promise. This same analysis can be applied to all of the categories of persons described in the Beatitudes. Something awaits them beyond their understanding, beyond their reach, as all of God’s gifts are beyond their understanding and beyond their reach. Their deliverance is sure. To them life eternal has been granted.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The original version that Luke has says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Matthew also changed the original order. The mourning described is not the response to loss or death. For that another word is used. Mourning is an existential condition into which people are thrown by their experience of the retreat of what nourishes them. In this case, they mourn for a lack of access to the divine. The presence of the divine has been withdrawn from them. Those who mourn are aware that the present age is one where suffering is the lot of human beings. This is eschatological suffering, suffering and mourning in view of the complete helplessness which they experience. This is not only the result of sin. Those who mourn feel the burden of sin as oppressive. But they are also now deprived of the presence of the divine, of the enjoyment of life under the rule of God. Their lot is not righteousness but wrath. Their daily suffering is their longing for the divine based on ancient prophecies still unfulfilled. They were promised that “their days of mourning shall be ended.” Isa. 60:20. They were promised “the oil of gladness instead of mourning” Isa. 61:1-3. “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” Isa. 40:1. They have been deprived of the very hope on which they have based their longing. The sorrow they mourn is what they experience as complete abandonment by God. Their life is one of despair and desperation. Into this situation, Jesus arrives and promises that they will be comforted. However, this eschatological comfort is not one of words. It is the promise that the divine has opened up a way for them, delivering them from their suffering and mourning. To be comforted is to be given life, to be brought under the dominion of the divine, that is, life in the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. The word meek is used only three times in Matthew, at 5:5; 11:29 and 21:5. It has the sense of one who is lowly, who is completely lacking in resources and hence must completely depend upon the divine for everything. One survives by submitting to others. For such persons, their social and political status is oppression. They have nothing; they lack everything. To them is promised the inheritance of the earth. To inherit the earth is for Matthew to enter into the promised land. Matthew always has the history of Israel in mind. Jesus expects Israel to be fully restored. 19:27-28. Here too, I interpret “inherit the earth” as another expression for “the kingdom of heaven.” The meek are those who have surrendered everything, including their lives. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” Mt. 19:29. To inherit the earth and to inherit eternal life is the identical promise.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The original is “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Matthew’s version gives a completely different meaning. Those who are hungry now lack something quite different from those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are already blessed, while they await the future fulfilling that is promised here. What is lacking in their life, and what they desire above all else, is righteousness. (The following reflection on righteousness was presented earlier and I would like to share it again as it seems relevant in this present context). Righteousness has the character of blessedness. The distribution of the word in the New Testament allows an insight into its use. Mark never uses it. Luke has it once in the gospel, 1:71, and twice in Acts, 13:10; 17:31. John has it twice in 16: 8, 10. It is central to Paul’s theology and is used most often in his letters. The word occurs for the first time in the Bible at Genesis 15:6, where Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. For Matthew, Abraham’s importance in the life of Jesus is crucial. John the Baptist had criticized the Pharisees who came to him for baptism. In the same way Jesus said to them, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 5:20. Later, in comparing his listeners with the Gentiles, Jesus tells them, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 6:33. In the parable of the two sons, Jesus says, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” 21:32
Righteousness is the practice of right conduct; this is its fundamental meaning. It would not be appropriate to see this from the point of view of psychology. Right conduct is not the way one behaves. It is an act of faith, a gift from the divine, as with Abraham, and that is complete and irreversible surrender to the divine. When Jesus tells the people “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he is not referring to an abundance of righteousness, for that itself is inconceivable. The scribes and Pharisees discover their righteousness in the law. In Matthew such righteousness must be transcended, and it is righteousness through faith that is uncovered in the word “exceeds.” It is only by faith that one submits to the will of God. Righteousness is rightly the gift that God bestows upon those who submit themselves in faith. As an eschatological gift, it grants to believers entrance into the kingdom of heaven. For this reason one must “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Righteousness as God’s gift means that righteousness is another name for the grace that redeems. This is vividly stated in Ephesians 2:8. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” I am convinced that in Matthew’s vocabulary which his church understood very well righteousness refers to the entire Passion of Jesus Christ in which by his ultimate submission to God he carried within himself the whole of humanity, the cosmos itself, the long expected salvation, that is, eternal blessedness in the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” That blessing is the context, the condition within which they await the coming of the promise. The blessing has prepared them to receive the righteousness that is on the way. They had to be made ready to receive it. Righteousness as God’s gift that redeems, as the grace that satisfies the hunger and thirst is holy, and only those who are made holy are ready to receive it. Blessedness is what prepares the human being to be the receptacle of grace and grants entrance into the kingdom of heaven. This promise certainly has the sound of the eschatological banquet in the age to come at which the redeemed will participate completely in the life of the divine. It is that life of the divine with which those who hunger and thirst will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. Again it is clear that the merciful already abide in a condition of blessedness while they await the fulfilling of what is promised to them. Mercy expresses a relationship between people. Mercy is not a human attitude. Mercy is embrace of others with complete blindness to every aspect of their life except the need shown. Mercy is entering into the distress of others, sharing the distress, and leading them out if it and into the security of forgiveness. Mercy creates the space for forgiveness to take place. As such mercy is not human action, it is a divine event borne along by hands that bear the mark of nails. Only one who is merciful already has the capacity for mercy. To be merciful is in a prior way to have been filled with mercy, and it is out of this fullness that such a person shares this gift. The merciful have already received this divine gift, and they are promised even more. One needs to explore why the merciful shall receive mercy. What is it for which they must and will receive mercy? I have said before that the Beatitudes are expressions of eschatological salvation that arrives in the person of Jesus. Eschatological salvation is preceded by eschatological judgment. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Mt. 7:1. The people to whom this beatitude is addressed are promised that in the coming judgment, they will receive mercy and hence entrance into the kingdom of heaven where the righteous dwell.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. This beatitude is unique because there is no other instance in which people are promised that they will see God. The purity of which this verse speaks is quite different from cultic purity or cleansing. Such have no part to play in the teaching of the early Christian church. The pure in heart is not an anthropological statement. It contains neither implicit nor explicit definitions of the human being. Purity of heart is not a human achievement. It has neither moral nor ethical connotations. It is in the sacrament of baptism that an individual is absolved, cleansed and made pure. The pure in heart are those who have surrendered their will to the will of the divine in baptism and have thereby entered into the kingdom of heaven. To enter into the kingdom of heaven is to enter into the life of the divine. The pure in heart are called to a life of dynamic holiness without leaving the life in community. They already enjoy the blessedness that sustains their life of holiness. To these people the promise is made that they will see God. This does not mean that the one who dwells in light inaccessible will be seen visibly. It does mean that upon the pure in heart the light of the divine will shine to direct their wills in the time of eschatological salvation. “They shall see God,” which means that an event will occur sometime in the future when the divine will present itself and the pure in heart will have direct access to the divine. Mary Magdalen and the other Mary went to the tomb of Jesus. They had two encounters, one with an angel and the other with Jesus. In both encounters they were told to go to Galilee and “there they will see me.” Mt. 28:10. To see something is to bring it into presence. In the resurrection, the divine become present and henceforth the pure in heart shall abide in this divine presence.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. This is the only place in the New Testament where the word “peacemakers” is used. Accordingly, its meaning must be determined in the unique way in which it is used. Matthew uses the word “peace only in two places, 10:13 and 10:34. In both places, peace is a gift, but the kind of gift is very different. Peace can be given or taken away. It is used as the opposite of sword in 10:34. The peacemakers are those who have come to bring peace, which means reconciliation among people. The content of peace in the New Testament is eschatological salvation. Peace is the gift of the divine in the new aeon after the defeat of sin and death. It is not the possession of human beings, but is rather the condition within which all creation exists that has been redeemed by the death of Jesus Christ. The peacemakers are thus people who partake in ushering in the time of salvation. They share in the work of Christ after the work of redemption has been completed on the Cross. As Jesus who is the bringer of salvation is the son of God, so also are the peacemakers children of God. Their identity is already contained in their name. In this sense “peacemakers” and “children of God” are one and the same. In the gospel of John they are described as “children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:13. In Romans 8:6, Paul writes “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Clearly, the view in the New Testament is that peace is also life. And as I have shown elsewhere in this study, life is the eschatological gift of salvation. The peacemakers are those who already participate in the blessedness of salvation. Only as redeemed can they be peacemakers because only as redeemed can they be called children of God. This beatitude is definitely addressing the future. Matthew expects a future in which peace will prevail because of the redemption in Jesus Christ. He expects that the present age sill soon pass away and that the kingdom of heaven, divine life, will descend upon a redeemed world.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew added this one to the original four beatitudes. Jesus is himself the righteousness of God that has been revealed from heaven. One may easily say that “for righteousness’ sake” is identical to “for my sake,” and the meaning would be unchanged. I have addressed the idea of righteousness above and will not repeat that here. Persecution was a fact of life in the early Christian church. One needs only to refer to the life of the Apostle Paul for an example of this. But there was also social and political persecution in addition to religious persecution. Many of the beatitudes are written to address people who suffered social and political persecution. Matthew is still coding his words to protect those who listen to his teaching.
“Blessed 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 great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” This is one of the original four, but Matthew changed it in significant ways. Matthew now uses the second person to address the audience. All along he has presented the Beatitudes in the third person. The original read, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” “On my account” is the only reference in the Beatitudes to Jesus himself. The original version says “on account of the Son of Man.” Matthew is declaring that people in his community are reviled; they are persecuted; they are slandered; they have evil things said of them on account of their faith in Jesus and their commitment to the Christian church.
It is clear from this last Beatitude that Matthew’s teaching is not idealism. He is teaching his church about events that are affecting them every day. The Beatitudes disclose a comprehensive view of life in the early Christian church. Each of them, the original four and the others that Matthew added, sheds light upon one aspect or another of life in the Christian community. But Matthew’s catechesis is not just social analysis. He understands life in the context of suffering. He is aware that what is lacking in many of his listeners is hope. His teaching is also proclamation of the good news in Jesus Christ. The good news of the Beatitudes builds a structure of hope that rises above the daily grind of the people. Hope itself is transcendental; it walks alongside and among the believers; it is divine power against despair; it is what lifts the church into the ever-waiting arms of the divine. What transcends takes a longer view of the future; it can see beyond the present. The Apostle Paul in Romans 8:18-30 gives a moving testimony to this hope. It is this hope that lifted the spirit of Christians in every age. It is the same hope that lifts us up today.