What was Matthew’s beautiful vision? What was it about Christ’s message that touched him so deeply; so deeply that he was compelled to offer this mountainside teaching as a centerpiece of his gospel, a centerpiece of the early part anyway? What was it about this Jesus?
Perhaps, it would be wise for us to consider these questions within Matthew’s context. He was speaking to a primarily Jewish audience. By that I mean his faith community was comprised of people who were immigrants or first-generation adherents to this fledgling faith called Christianity. They were immigrants from the Jewish faith and like most immigrants they brought many of their customs, values, and traditions with them. Simply put, most of them had lived under the Law of Moses. So, one of the challenges for Matthew, as he spoke to this community, was to both respect the tradition and communicate this “new way of being” that Jesus had preached. Remember Jesus said that didn’t come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. In other words, to reimagine the Law of Moses in a more compassionate, more liberating way.
So, Matthew, I think, had to walk kind of a fine line between respecting the tradition and expressing the world-altering message of Jesus. And in my opinion, he does this brilliantly! I say that because what Matthew presents here in the Beatitudes is a set of teachings that turn the world’s values upside down. The Beatitudes declared that the poor in spirit, our version of the Bible says “hopeless;” the hopeless, the humble, the compassionate, the peacemakers; these are the ones who are truly blessed. The world, however, favored the self-sufficient, the assertive, the power brokers. Might made right! But the people whom the world saw as pitiful or mournful or suffering under persecution; these are the very people that Jesus claims are truly joyful”[I]
Now, I would be willing to bet that some if not most of Matthew’s audience were living in poverty. So, it’s not hard to imagine that this understanding of life and faith, this “joy in poverty,” might have been a little counterintuitive to those folks. Heck, it’s still counterintuitive to us today. Yes, we’ve all heard this text many times and we’ve come to accept the premise that Jesus lifts up the downtrodden; that he champions the marginalized; that he came to liberate those who are in bondage. We’ve heard all of these things time and again, but what do they really mean? Is it really a blessing to be poor?
I don’t think that’s right. So, what’s really going on here? Well, consider this example. A number of years ago I accepted a call, my first call actually, to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Geneva Iowa. Now, I think I need to paint a picture of the Geneva church before we continue. It’s country church in the truest sense. The church building, parsonage, and cemetery sit alone among acre upon acre of row crops and I’ve become fond of saying that our nearest neighbors were 3,000 hogs. We were in the country. Now, this part of north-centeral Iowa is a more traditional area and the church is a reflection that culture. And while there were many, many good people and wonderful traditions in that congregation, one of the challenges we faced was how to understand our role in the wider, and less traditional, mission of the United Church of Christ. Figuring out how we might “do mission” differently seemed to be one of our looming questions.
Well, that question got answered a couple of years in. You see, I was at a local clergy gathering one day, when one of my constituents offered an opportunity to join with an organization called Outreach Africa. The mission of Outreach Africa was to gather a whole bunch of people on a Saturday to package meals for those who were hungry in Africa. It was a huge event. Hundreds of people came, six or eight assembly lines were formed, and tens-of-thousands of meals were packaged, boxed, and shipped.
In that first year, however, St. Peter’s didn’t participate. Why? Because of the pastor’s short-sightedness. I didn’t think anyone from our church would be interested in going, so, I never even presented this as a mission opportunity.
Now, fast forward to the next year. I was once again given the chance to participate, so I decided that this might be something the youth group would be able to do. And on what we called “Mission Sunday” I set up a projector and screen and I showed a power-point presentation about Outreach Africa’s mission. I shared the struggles of these folks a world away and we were all especially moved to learn that when children had nothing else to eat, that would eat mud just to fill their stomach.
But here’s the connection back to the Beatitudes. In the weeks between the presentation and the actual food-packaging event, this whole mission project caught fire. And not only did all of the youth and their parents come to package food, 30 or so people, about 40 other members of the congregation showed up. Our little country church, St. Peter’s, had the largest number of volunteers per-capita than anyone else. And it didn’t end on that fall Saturday. A lay-leader of the congregation came up to me afterward and wondered why our church couldn’t host such a packaging event?
In my estimation, that single event changed the vision of the congregation. Because, you see, if we view the Beatitudes through the lens of social justice, through our actions of reaching out beyond ourselves, it’s then that we’re invited to seek and find the action of God in the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. Their lives now, in the present, hold the blessing and transforming power of God, as they live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in their world. [ii]
Do you see what I’m driving at here? The poor aren’t blessed because their poor, poverty isn’t a virtue. Jesus says happy are the poor, the hopeless, because within their struggle there exists the opportunity to demonstrate our humanity by struggling with those who are on the margins. And here’s the kicker. At different points in time we’re the hopeless ones that Jesus speaks of here. I would be willing to bet the house, that there have been times in your life when you were the one struggling, when you were ashamed, when you were the one who was grieving, when you were “poor in spirit,” and in that moment, my friends, you were blessed! Blessed because there was someone who was willing to demonstrate their humanity, their compassion, their love, to alleviate your suffering. It’s a both/and situation. We’re, at the same time, the caregiver and the one in need of care; we’re the bearer of the Light of God and the one standing in the shadows. We’re the peacemakers and we’re the ones being persecuted for taking that stance. We’re the sharers of God’s love and forgiveness and grace, and at the same time, we’re the ones who stand in need of God’s love, and grace, and forgiveness, every day. But, in all of this, because of our response within and to the human condition, Jesus says, that we will be called, all of us, the “Children of God.”
One more thing. God is the bedrock of our faith. Without our faith in God as the ‘Source of Life and the Source of Love,’ to quote Bishop Sprong, and the “Source of Being,” to quote Paul Tillich, we would be just another social club. Not that there’s anything wrong with social clubs or the good work they do. But as a people of faith, as a community of faith, our reason for practicing peace and seeking social justice comes from a different Source. And the beatitudes are meant to point us toward that Source as we live-into a “beautiful vision” of justice for all.
My friends, God is calling us to follow Christ into the world to engage in a lifetime of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love. That was, in a nutshell, Matthew’s “vision beautiful.” Might that vision become our vision as well. May it be so. Amen and Amen.