Several Sundays back we read the Beatitudes from Luke's gospel. Today we read the Beatitudes from Matthew, which are the more famous ones. You may recall that Luke's sound a little more harsh. Instead of "Blessed are the poor in spirit" in Matthew, Luke writes, "Blessed are the poor." You might remember my saying that poor in spirit is much easier to preach. In fact, all the beatitudes from Matthew's gospel are easier to preach because they spiritualize things out a little bit. Not poor, but poor in spirit. Not blessed are those who are hungry, but those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Luke's gospel contains reproaches, "Woe to you who are hungry, who are rich, who have what you need." Matthew doesn't record any of that.
I have heard it said that Matthew's gospel was written for a group of newly converted Jews who have been thrown out of their synagogues, and have huddled together across the street. They are missing their friends, but they are unable to go back.
We often forget that the gospels were written by people who were anxious to remember the story. No one followed Jesus around with a pen and paper. The story was told by people who knew. They told the story again and again, and people differed on how the story was told and what was most important. Each gospel has unique emphases.
Matthew's gospel has an emphasis on teaching. And within that, an emphasis on showing that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies. Matthew's depiction of Jesus is as a rabbi, but don't let him catch you calling Jesus a rabbi. In Matthew 23 (v.8) Jesus says, "You are not to be called Rabbi, for One is your teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters."
But despite the ways Matthew's Jesus strives to differentiate himself from Judaism, it is only to describe fulfillment. Jesus has fulfilled this and this and this. You are not bound by it. Be free. You can hear echoes of this in Paul's theology. "Christ has set us free" he writes (Gal. 5:1) "stand firm, and do not be bound by slavery to the law." I hasten to add that this is not anti-Semitic—this is about reform, not abolition.
Matthew's Jesus is very rabbinical. He uses parable, repetition, exaggeration, antithesis, repetition, reversal, judgment, pronouncement, repetition. All the rhetorical devices are in play. Did I mention repetition? Repetition is one of them. You'll remember that one, right? Repetition, repetition, repetition.
Matthew uses a good deal of repetition in this lesson. Blessed, blessed, blessed. Actually, what he's using is called poetic parallelism. The structure is the same for each sentence, but it reads like a poem or like a psalm. Each "blessed" frames the good attribute—poor in spirit, meek, mourn—and the following clause—for they shall be etc.—explains why they are blessed.
This is often referred to as the prologue of the Sermon on the Mount—and because of the rhetorical structure, we are meant to understand that this is a teaching. Everything about the scene conveys this point. Jesus leading them up the mountain—the teacher pulling his pupils aside. Jesus sat down. That is what teachers do to indicate that they are about to explain.
So this is the beginning of the Lord's sermon, and we will be reading through it over the course of the next few weeks. It is very likely that what Matthew has done is compiled a list of teachings or sayings of Jesus in as coherent a manner as he could. This does not in fact read like a sermon. I would imagine that Jesus wove together sayings and parables, and that what we actually have in the Bible is just he tip of the iceberg. These are the teachings that people remembered and retold and finally set down in writing. Who knows how many more parables and stories existed that have been lost, or where not corroborated by others enough to warrant inclusion in the gospels.
What I'm trying to say is that despite the length of the Sermon on the Mount, I suspect that literally untold hundreds of sayings and stories lay on the floor in Matthew's office. I would like to think that Jesus took up many issues—including controversial issues. My cynical side even believes that Jesus said some things that where so groundbreaking that people just could not handle them. In John's gospel, Jesus says, "I have more to tell you, more than you can bear now." (16:12) I am so grateful for that verse. So very grateful that Jesus hinted at so much more than our minds could fathom then. I suspect that his vision is much greater than our minds can fathom now. (Pause.)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
I have long been fascinated with that particular beatitude. It is often read with the generic meaning of mourning. Grief, bereavement, sorrow. If you or anyone else were to draw strength from that beatitude—that grief will be comforted—then thank God for that. But I have been intrigued with another interpretation that I read about only recently.
The new idea is that maybe Jesus could be speaking of mourning for the day when God's kingdom is fully realized. If you are a devout person, you mourn in that way all the time. If you spend much time with clergy—I don't recommend it…we're a strange group of people—but if you spend time with clergy you will hear a lot of mourning. Mourning that the faith we proclaim is not embraced by more people. Mourning that Christianity has come to signify one's political preferences. Mourning that there is more we could do as a church, as a region, as a diocese, if everyone were giving more generously to support those ministries.
But there is a much deeper mourning. Mourning that too many people in the world are hungry, sick, unloved, uncared for. Mourning that the most troubled places of the world will likely remain troubled even if they had millions more dollars to help them.
But…there is a much deeper mourning than even that. And that is of the aching distance in our relationships. Broken relationships in families and between friends. Relationships that remain fractured by misunderstanding, animosity, or pride.
And then there is the aching distance between us and God. For all that we believe about Christ being one of us, being human, being able to walk in our shoes, he does not literally walk among us. He lives and reigns in heaven, and is approachable in prayer—but except for his presence in bread and wine, we cannot see his smile or feel his embrace. For the most part we accept the mystical presence of Christ—we accept that his physical absence is just part of the deal, but there is a mourning there, especially for those of us who really pray our prayers and are truly looking for the kingdom's day.
Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are wearied by lives of holy expectation. Blessed are those who have prayed and worshipped and given and held on and held on and held on, lo these many years, waiting for the Savior, waiting for deeper insight, closer communion, spiritually fulfilling lives… Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Pause.)
How shall we be comforted? Jesus does not explain.
I could say that the comfort is in knowing that God knows of our mourning, but there is not much comfort in that.
To my mind the comfort comes in an overall vision of the beatitudes—taken as a whole. They point to the future—God's future, to a time of fulfillment. Blessed are those who see how wonderful life will be, and mourn the time separating us from that day. The comfort comes from the hope of God's future shining back towards us into the present. The future is better. Hold on to that hope. Hold on to what shall come. God has gone before us into that better day and shines his light, in the person of Jesus, back towards us. This is what you will look like. You will look like him, and be like him. He is "the" Son of God, but we will all be sons and daughters of God.
We will all know a day when our relationships are healed, when there is no more injury or pain or brokenness. We will be like Christ, who is able to embrace all people and all things without anything overcoming him. You will be like that. I will be like that.
The aching distances..the mourning… will come to an end and we will be able to know God and each other fully. It will be wonderful. It will be heaven.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.