A Sermon on the Beatitudes

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The Rev. Teri Daily

The Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)
The Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

There is a phenomenon in the film industry known as twin films.  Twin films are when two films that are similar in some respect get released about the same time.  Sometimes the two films have the same plot but are released by different studios.  Other times, the two films are the same but just released in two different languages.  And then there is the rarer phenomenon in which a single production company releases two films telling the same story, but from different points of view.  For example, in 1964 a French film company released two movies, both having the same characters and the same cast of actors.  It was a story about a marriage.  The film Anatomy of a Marriage: My Days with Françoise tells the story of the marriage from the husband’s point of view.  The other film Anatomy of a Marriage: My Days with Jean-Marc portrays the same events from the wife’s point of view.  This particular type of twin films is not unlike what we find in scripture.

One of the most beautiful things to me about scripture is that the collection of sacred writings that have been passed down to us includes different points of view.  For example, we have four different gospels.  While the cast of characters is the same and many of the same events are told in more than one gospel, each gospel has a distinct point of view – the particular view of the writer or of the community in which that gospel was told.

The gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who suffers, and those who follow him inevitably experience suffering as well.  The gospel of Luke paints Jesus as the Savior of the whole world.  At Jesus’ birth the angels proclaim “peace on earth to all whom God favors,” and a few days later in the temple Simeon praises God, saying that he can now die in peace “for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a light to enlighten the nations…”  The gospel of John presents Jesus as the divine Messiah sent from heaven; it stresses his divinity over his humanity in a way that the earlier gospels do not.  And then there’s Matthew, the gospel from which we will be reading for most of this year.

For Matthew, Jesus is above all a righteous Messiah who is the fulfillment of Jewish Law.  And, as such, Matthew goes to great lengths to make parallels between Jesus and the great prophet Moses.  Remember, it is Matthew who writes of the holy family fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus in order to escape the threats of Herod, and then, of course, they come back up out of Egypt (bringing to mind Moses’ own trek from Egypt to the promised land).  In the gospel of Matthew there are five major blocks of teachings given by Jesus, known as discourses – reminiscent of the five books of the Torah.

We also see this emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Law in today’s gospel reading.   While in the gospel of Luke the Beatitudes are part of Jesus’ sermon on the plain, in the gospel of Matthew they are part of the sermon on the mount.  Jesus goes up the mountain, just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai; he sits down to teach, as rabbis did in the synagogues, disciples gathered around; instead of the Ten Commandments received by Moses, we have the nine Beatitudes given by Jesus.  Just as the Jewish Law is about living in a way that reflects something about the nature of God, so are the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who are not arrogant, those who know that they cannot meet all of their own needs but must rely on something outside themselves – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn – who open themselves to the pain of the world – for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek – those who are not defensive or reactive, but respond with calm, trusting in the goodness of God – for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – those who align themselves with the oppressed and work on the side of what is right – for they will be satisfied.  Blessed are the merciful – those who forgive and treat others with compassion, those who welcome the stranger and care for the refugee – for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart – those who are not double-minded but, instead, love God without reservation – for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers — those who treat their opponents with care and respect, those who pray for their enemies, those who break down all kinds of walls – for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – those who are deemed “losers” because they refuse to subscribe to the world’s ideology of success, power, and achievement – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Beatitudes are about living as God’s people in the world; they are about living the vulnerability that took Jesus to the cross and beyond.  And there is no getting around them if we want to follow Jesus.  They are what keeps the Church from being just one more social club among hundreds of social clubs.  When Martin Luther King Jr. was in a jail in Birmingham, he wrote about the necessary vulnerability that comes when we hunger and thirst for righteousness: “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning….”[1] 

The truth is that we are bombarded with a million messages about how to live our lives so that we will be blessed – blessed with wealth, beauty, success in our businesses, above average children, self-confidence, and fame.  So how do the Beatitudes become for us more than just one option in a sea of what King called “the ideas and principles of popular opinion”?  How do they become for us the power and wisdom of God?

I recently heard of someone who decided that each morning when he woke up — before checking Facebook or reading emails or reading the paper or watching TV, before absorbing messages from anywhere else – he would read the Beatitudes.  They would also be the last thing he read at night.[2]  I wonder what change would occur in our lives if we did the same?  If we carried the Beatitudes in our hearts and wrote them on our doorposts and told them to our children and tattooed them on our foreheads (backwards, so that we could read them every time we looked in the mirror)?[3]  I wonder…

 

[1] As quoted in Karoline Lewis’ article “Righteous Living” on the Working Preacher website: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4802.

[2] Marc Scandrette, “Practicing the Beatitudes: A Journey back to Reality,” September 12, 2016 The Practice Podcast: http://thepractice.libsyn.com/091116-practicing-the-beatitudes

[3] Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:6-9.