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“THE BEATITUDES OF JESUS”
By Rev. Victor Kim
Maybe you watched the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions in the U.S. In those conventions, Joe Biden and Donald Trump were nominated as the respective presidential candidates for their parties and during those conventions a very stark and different vision was painted by the two parties and their candidates about what America would look like under their leadership. Watching the conventions and listening to the speakers, you got a pretty clear picture of what each party’s vision and priorities would be if they were elected. And in a few months American’s will have their say in determining which vision of their country will prevail, at least for another 4 years.
In Canada something similar will take place in 10 days. On September 23 the Liberal Party of Canada will present their vision for the future of Canada in the Speech from the Throne. The Governor General will deliver the throne speech, which is the government’s agenda for the upcoming session of Parliament. We will hear what their vision for our country is, how the government will continue to tackle the difficult issues around Covid-19 and all the ramifications of the pandemic. I suspect we will hear about many other issues as well, from climate change to a green economy to race relations, just to name a few. In the throne speech Canadians will hear what the Liberal party and P.M. Justin Trudeau believe should be the priorities for our country and the values that our country should espouse. Canadians will also have the chance to render their verdict on the throne speech when the next election is called, which given the current situation of a minority government, may be sooner than we think. I share these things with you because this morning we begin a series of sermons over the fall which will focus on the Beatitudes of Jesus from Matthew chapter 5. The Beatitudes contain some of the best known portions of scripture with unforgettable phrases like, blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. But the Beatitudes are only part of a larger speech from Jesus which is given the title, the Sermon on the Mount.
This morning, before we delve into each of the particular blessed sayings of the Beatitudes over the coming weeks, I want to put the Beatitudes of Jesus into the context of the larger Sermon on the Mount, what we might call the throne speech of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus spelling out his vision for his ministry, his vision for what the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God will be about. It’s about his priorities, it tells us where his passion lies and it focuses our attention on those issues and those people who Jesus considers central to his mission and ministry. We would do well to read carefully and listen closely, because in the end, like our American neighbours will do in November and like we Canadians will do at the next election opportunity, we too will render judgement on the vision Jesus casts in his Sermon on the Mount by whether we will follow him in his mission or seek other values and another vision to guide our living and our lives.
The Sermon on the Mount takes place near the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry according to Matthew’s gospel account. Jesus had appeared on the scene, being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, then being tempted by the devil in the wilderness for 40 days. After his temptation Jesus returned to Galilee and began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. He called his first disciples to follow him and began teaching throughout Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing the people who came to him. Great crowds began to follow him wherever he went.
And now, in the text this morning, Jesus sees the crowds and he goes up the mountain and sits down. Matthew paints a picture of Jesus moving to higher ground, going up “the mountain,” which is important in Matthew’s setting of the scene. At the end of Matthew’s gospel is the account of the Great Commission, when the resurrected Jesus gives his final instructions to the disciples before he ascends into heaven. Matthew records that the disciples went to Galilee, to “the mountain” to which Jesus had directed them. It’s the same word in the Greek, “the mountain,” which may indicate that Matthew wants his readers to connect the final instructions of Jesus to his inaugural address, his Sermon on the Mount. It makes sense that Jesus would, here at the beginning of his ministry, spell out his vision for what this kingdom of heaven was all about, then at the end of his earthly ministry, at the same place, remind his closest friends that they must go and make disciples of all nations… baptizing them and teaching them all that he had commanded them. The visual couldn’t be clearer. Jesus climbs the mountain, he sits down, his disciples come to him, then Jesus begins to speak and teach. It’s more than just a speech, the context makes it a Christological statement, this is who Jesus is, he is the Messiah, and this is his throne speech. And it begins with the Beatitudes. The first word in the Beatitudes is blessed and comes from the Greek word ma-kari-oi. It’s not an easy word to translate and at various times and in various languages it has been understood to mean fortunate or lucky, happy or even congratulations. But each of these translations seems to lack something that the word blessed conveys. Fortunate, lucky, happy and certainly congratulations all would seem to indicate a happy state of affairs. But when you start reading the Beatitudes those translations of ma-kari-oi seem somehow not quite appropriate. Congratulations to the poor in spirit or to the meek or to those who mourn? Happy are the persecuted? Lucky are you when people revile you and persecute you? Doesn’t seem quite right. I think that the word ‘blessed’ retains the best understanding of the intention of what Jesus was saying, first, because of the spiritual overtones of that word and second, and more importantly, because of the clear tension and contradiction that exist between words like blessing and poverty, grief and persecution. They don’t belong together, but Jesus is saying that they do, and that’s important!
Basically, Jesus is casting a vision for the kingdom in which poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, even being persecuted are states of blessedness. This is something that would seem to be at odds with our world’s understanding of what blessedness would mean. Jesus is saying from the very outset that the kingdom he is proclaiming is one which is nothing like the kingdoms that our world would extol and exalt. Will we hear Jesus, and will we listen to the vision that he is casting? Will we open our hearts and minds, our lives and our living to the values that he is saying will define his kingdom, or will we turn away and follow other values, be led by other visions for our living and for our lives?
I remember some years back a judge in Alabama placed a marble monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. When told by federal authorities to remove the monument he refused and in turn he was removed from his position. Whether you agree with him or not isn’t my point. My point is that I’ve never heard an argument that we should put up a monument to the Beatitudes. I am not making a case for the Beatitudes over the Ten Commandments. Both are critically important in their own way. But our society responds to each in a different way. The Commandments are clear, black and white, unambiguous. You shall not have any other gods before the one true God. You shall not make an idol or take the Lord’s name in vain. You shall remember the Sabbath and honour your father and mother… and so it goes. There’s a sense that behind the Ten Commandments is a God who is an authority figure, who has power and the strength to enforce what he has commanded.
But the Beatitudes are different. The Beatitudes begin with positions of weakness and suffering. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, those who are persecuted, and so on. I don’t get the sense that our world and our culture really want to embrace weakness or suffering, it makes us uncomfortable. We prefer strength, we prefer security, stability, predictability. But here’s the thing. More and more, those qualities don’t define the kind of world we live in, particularly in our present context. Our culture used to be one which would say to those people who were struggling, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you’re willing to work hard enough, anything’s possible. But we have come to realize that equality of opportunity isn’t what we have always assumed it was. We don’t all start on a level playing field. Some have the deck stacked against them from the very beginning. Poverty isn’t a condition that people fall into as much as it is a condition they’re born into. And we know that it’s not good enough to tell people to just work harder.
We used to tell people who were grieving to adopt a stiff upper lip and just carry on with their lives the best they could, no matter what the grief. Grieving was to be done in private. But we know now how damaging that can be. We know that people need to talk about their pain and their suffering. We know that we need to acknowledge grief, sometimes publicly and often painfully, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.
Our current world is doubled over in spasms by issues like racism, inequality, economic stratification, political partisanship, and it has given rise to more and more people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who know that the way things are aren’t the way God has intended things to be. The Beatitudes paint a vision for the way Jesus looks at the world and looks at us. He doesn’t see the world as a place where strength and power dominate or should be our aspiration. It’s not law and order, authority, security and predictability that define the kingdom Jesus proclaims, its qualities like empathy, solidarity, compassion and mercy. This is the world as defined by the Beatitudes where those struggling for justice, with grief, with poverty, with persecution, aren’t to be avoided because they make us uncomfortable; rather they are called blessed by our Lord.
As we study the Beatitudes in depth over the coming weeks, the question I want to ask you to consider is this, what kind of vision do you want to live by? What vision of the world do the disciples of Jesus Christ, does the church, want to proclaim? Again, while I know that both the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes are important, I find myself gravitating more and more towards the spirit expressed in the Beatitudes, more than in the Commandments. Hear me clearly, I am not saying that the Ten Commandments aren’t important, of course, they are. But I hear the words of Jesus, painting a picture of a creation in which the vulnerable are blessed and the weak are honoured and I am drawn to the same Jesus, who in his final modeling of this radical new kingdom, gave his own life in what looked like the ultimate weakness, persecuted and reviled, with all kinds of evil uttered against him, nailed to the cross, looking for all the world like someone who had been defeated, but in reality, who was blessed by God and proclaims that blessing on those who also suffer, also seek justice, also are persecuted for his sake.
We have choices to make, as individuals and as the church. The choices we make, about the kinds of governments we elect, the kinds of public programs we demand, the ministries we will enact and enable as a church community, where and how we spend our resources, who we will befriend and who we will avoid, all of these choices and more will align ourselves and our church either with the kingdom of heaven Jesus came to proclaim or with the kingdoms of this world and the values they proclaim. It’s a critical choice.
Jesus lays out his vision for what the kingdom of heaven is to be like. If we want to claim to be his followers, his disciples, that vision has to be our vision as well. As the church and children of God, we cannot just follow the values of our world, measuring success by the world’s standards, wanting security and avoiding risk, seeking comfort over as sense of restlessness. As we listen to what and who Jesus says is blessed, may our hearts and minds be open to the Spirit’s truth so that we may also be among those who will rejoice and be glad.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
Preached on September 13, 2020 by Rev. Victor Kim
at Richmond Presbyterian Church without members
in attendance due to Covid-19 Crisis and posted online.