I used to love teaching. For many years I was a classroom assistant and so I was really only there to see to the needs of a few individual children but every once in a while, I’d be in a classroom where the teacher would generously let me teach a portion of the class. I remember one student though that was a bit of a hard nut. I don’t remember what the subject was but he was certain he already knew it all. If this were true, that would have been great because my job would have been done but no, I don’t know if he was the product of a well meaning father but this child had no idea what he was talking about and insisted on displaying his lack of knowledge at every opportunity – usually by telling me that I was wrong.
I think this might have been what Paul was having to deal with, not with one child in a classroom but with the whole congregation of the church in Corinth. They’re accepting this idea of being one among equals in the Body of Christ, but they could have been inspiring George Orwell’s words, “we’re all equal but some are more equal than others.” Some are bringing the status they hold in the community into the church and expecting they’ll be put on a pedestal there as well.
In this particular passage, some seem to be bragging about how very wise they are. Maybe they’re respected community leaders and feel they know how the world works. Paul reminds them though that the wisdom of God may be very much unlike the wisdom of humans.
If we look at the entire teachings of Jesus, one phrase to summarize may be, “think again.” Jesus is always pointing out how our expectations may need to change if we are to be serious about living as God’s people and today’s gospel reading is not exception. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and as is important in Matthew’s version, he’s teaching. This is a portion of the “Sermon of on the Mount,” and is likely the most famous portion, the beatitudes.
People have pondered and argued about this reading as long as it’s been a reading. People have prayed and meditated, it’s been inspiration for Christians and non-Christians alike. I’ve preached on it before but when I look back, I can’t help but think I missed the point and when it comes up again in 3 years I’ll probably look back at today and wonder what I was talking about. It would be impossible to overstate the importance and influence these words have had on the world.
I think Leonard Cohen’s line from the song Democracy sums up a bit of how I feel:
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
All through the Beatitudes Jesus is overturning the conventional wisdom of the day. Paul would have very much appreciated this passage and would have likely shown it to those people in Corinth who were so very sure they had all the wisdom they needed.
The first thing Jesus says is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is quite different from Luke’s version which is blessed are those who are poor. In this case, I don’t think Jesus is saying that the poor of faith are blessed but instead maybe it’s people who don’t yet have everything figured out.
It’s like that student who thought he had all the answers. There was no space in his brain for anything anyone wanted to teach him. He was missing out on opportunities to learn and so where many that heard Jesus speak. He was telling people ideas that went completely against conventional thinking and so to accept these words, people had to be a bit poor in spirit.
This is why Christianity can never be an ideology. An ideology is a way of thinking that is held as absolutely true and all other information must bend to fit and if it cannot fit, it must be abandoned – all that matters is the ideology. As soon as we become so absolutely sure of our faith, as soon as we believe we’ve got it all figured out and that others must turn to our way of thinking, we stop following Jesus, we close our minds to the still speaking voice of God.
Even today, after having 2000 years to figure out what Jesus was talking about, the words of the beatitudes seem completely at odds with the real world. Today is Superbowl Sunday, the second most important football day of the year. How will these celebrations fit with the Beatitudes? Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the peacemakers? I don’t think so. Instead, it would be blessed are those rich enough to buy advertising. Blessed are those who are tough enough to tackle others. And of course, as will surely happen after the game, someone will thank God for blessing them with a win.
Does this fit with our social media form of #blessed? Blessed are those who take selfies from a tropical beach? Blessed are those who post pictures of all their delicious looking meals?
What about the religious atmosphere in the world today? Blessed are the poor in spirit or those who mourn? No, Christians need to be absolutely sure and always be smiling so we can attract others. Maybe if we were to re-write these words to fit conventional wisdom they’d say:
Blessed are those who are sure of their faith, for they can be justified in persecuting others.
Blessed are those who are happy, oblivious to the struggles of others.
Blessed are those who are pushy for they can bully others to get their way.
Blessed are those who have more than they can use, because they can dream of a bigger house to put it all.
Blessed are those who are ruthless for they will inspire fear.
Blessed are those who are ideological for they can never be wrong.
Blessed are the war hawks, for there is no better way to build nationalism and wealth for a few.
Blessed are you who keep your objections to yourself, because no one likes a trouble maker.
Fortunately, conventional wisdom is not God’s wisdom, and things don’t have to be this way. Jesus leaves us a few clues for us to follow and we can see these clues in the tense of these statements.
Almost all the blessings Jesus talks of are in the future tense. They will be comforted, they will receive mercy, they will see God. Something has to happen for these blessings to occur. Here, maybe it’s easy to find the answer. If someone is hungry, how would they be filled? If someone gives them food they’d certainly be fed and feel blessed. If someone is mourning, how could they be comforted? Maybe if someone offers them comfort, they would indeed feel blessed. The meek the mourning, the hungry, will all be blessed when we offer that blessing. When we all see ourselves as potential blessings for our neighbours, we are led to the second clue.
The other clue that this passage offers is at the beginning and end of the reading. The present tense is used when Jesus talks of the Kingdom of Heaven. As we’ve discussed, Jesus didn’t seem nearly as concerned about the world to come as the here and now. The Kingdom of Heaven is now. And the two groups that find it? First, it’s those who are poor in spirit, those who know they need God’s wisdom and are open to seeing the world turned upside down. There’s IS the Kingdom of Heaven
The other group is those willing to endure the scorn, ridicule, persecution, and laughs at the thought of the world being any different than it is now. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.
These are the ones who have the audacity to see that we could be doing things differently, better, more fairly, more justly. These are the ones who break from convention and put value in people, not because of what they own or how much power they wield, but because they are children of God. These are the ones, you are the ones, (or can be) who know the kingdom of God because you are the architects of that kingdom by blessing all people with the fruits of God’s wisdom.