Sunday, 2 February 2014

Honouring the Gospel and God: the radical nature of the beatitudes of Matthew

The beatitudes are perhaps among one of the most well-known and loved pieces of scripture. Jesus’ setting out who is ‘blessed’ can be understood as an invitation to a modern reader to place themselves among the meek, the mourners, the righteous and the peacemakers. But the question must be raised about whether we are really understanding this passage. It seems to me that Matthew’s Jesus would not have set out categories that were easy for most people to slot into. Jesus was much more subversive than that. The way of the cross as outlined in Matthew’s gospel was much more difficult than being ‘meek’ or ‘peacemakers’ as we might understand these things. So what did Jesus mean?

Perhaps the easiest way of exploring this is through a dialogue between two first century people, a husband and wife, who are debating what was really meant by Matthew’s beatitudes. They will perhaps bring a first century perspective to this problem.

The ideas for this dialogue came from the online websites of Sarah Dylan Brewer, Jerome Neyrey, and John van de Laar. I thank each of them for their ideas, words and inspiration.

BOAZ: Deborah! It is time we had a serious talk about this so-called preacher you have been following. I have heard some disturbing reports. Deeply disturbing. I can’t have my wife seen to be hanging out with such a person. Your visits to hear him speak must stop.

Deborah: Must stop, dear Boaz? Instead of ordering me about, why don’t you just calm down and tell me what has made you so agitated.

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, I am the man of the house. If I say you must stop going to these talk fests, then that is all there is to it.

Deborah: I think not, Boaz. Unless you plan on chaining me up, and then I will scream loudly and cause you much dishonour among the neighbours. And I am sure you wouldn’t want to risk your reputation, now would you?

BOAZ: Well, um, yes, honour is important. In fact, it is honour that I wish to speak with you about. This preacher is talking about honouring the riff raff, the marginalised, the outcast, I am told. Honouring them. This is not acceptable in a decent society.

Deborah: I have no idea to what you are referring.

BOAZ: I am referring to that wandering preacher you persist in listening to, Jeshua. I am told he sat on a mountain yesterday, preaching away about who is honoured by God and who isn’t. Who does he think he is, Moses?

Deborah: Well, some have certainly drawn those parallels, you know. There are lots of similarities between Jeshua and Moses. They are both great prophets, just for starters.

BOAZ: What nonsense you are talking. As if a wandering pauper could be a great prophet. No wonder he includes riff raff like himself in his preaching. “Honoured are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Well, he would say, that wouldn’t he? He is as poor as a desert mouse. He is just seeking to bless himself. And everybody knows that ‘meek’ is code for those who refuse to engage in contests to defend the honour of their family. Such men are not men, they are mice! They should defend their honour when challenged. It is their duty.

Deborah: Really? Then you will be defending me when the neighbours criticise me, for following Jeshua.

BOAZ: Now let us not be hasty. These things must be discussed and clearly thought through.

Deborah: I fail to see what is wrong with saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Or “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

BOAZ: Let us first begin with a better understanding of the Greek word that Jeshua is using in his teaching. I understand the word he uses is makarios, and it does not just mean “blessed”, and certainly not “happy”; I think it is better understood as “honoured”. I am sure your gloomy preacher is not a pop psychologist, telling people how to be blessed or happy; he is ascribing honour to those who are rightfully pushed out to the margins of our culture.

Deborah: Well then, “honoured are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Honoured are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”. What is wrong with this?

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, let me explain. In our world, the honour you command is in large part a function of how important your connections are. Your family members, your patrons, and your clients all define who you are. If you are a part of a very important family, then you are very important. If your family is less important, you are less important. If you aren’t connected to others, you are nobody. And nobody wants to do business with a nobody. So you see honour is important. Being honoured means you are acceptable, you are part of a network. Having no honour among friends and family means being left with nothing. We would be poor, dishonoured, contemptible in this position.

Deborah: So you prefer a collection of pious platitudes then, about how you go about your business? Where we make excuses for all sorts of unethical behaviour so we can make money from those who can least afford it and gain honour? Where we treat the poor and lowly with contempt? Is that really what God asks us to do? What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?

BOAZ: Now don’t you go quoting those minor prophets to me. They are not part of Torah, as you well know. The do not uphold the laws that our society is built upon. Indeed, they are subversive, I say.

Deborah: What about the idea we are honoured when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, then? Isn’t doing what God wants the honourable thing? “Honoured are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Do you want the reward of God or of human beings?

BOAZ: My dear Deborah, I am a pragmatist. Consider the hardships that such a situation would bring about. The people Jeshua is honouring, those pushed out by their families because of him, could end up destitute. I am sure for them the hunger and thirst that Jeshua talks about is very real hunger and thirst. What price such extreme righteousness as Jeshua redefines it? No wonder he also honours those who mourn. There would be much mourning in the lifestyle and cultural values he is advocating.

Deborah: I don’t understand why you think the families of Jeshua’s followers would push them out. Surely he is advocating good things, like mercy and peace, and honouring God.

BOAZ: What an innocent you are about business matters. Don’t you see how scandalous the behaviour of Jeshua’s followers is? They apparently left their families to fend for themselves. They did not follow social convention in our culture. They would leave their families with little choice. Just think. I hear there is free social intercourse between men and women, that respectable folk eat with sinners, that holy rituals are not always followed. Such behaviour is shocking to many, and people who behave like this will pay a steep price.

Deborah: Well, I don’t get it. Why should the followers of Jeshua get into such trouble? They are being urged to be “merciful” and “peacemakers”, and to seek reconciliation rather than revenge with those who have wronged them. They are the “pure in heart” because of this, surely.

BOAZ: And they break bread with anyone, and without washing, which renders them impure in everyone else’s eyes. But perhaps even more shocking is the way Jeshua tells his followers to treat their fathers. I have heard it said that he advocates abandoning one’s aging parents, leaving them alone to go off and follow him, rather than caring for them until they died, and giving them an honourable burial. What is he thinking? Such wilful disobedience would shame the whole family, and threaten everyone’s welfare in the process.

Deborah: Perhaps these people are not as honourable and self-satisfied as you and your friends, then. Jeshua is gathering in all sorts of people, the ones that the respectable have despised, and the ones who already have no honour in our culture’s eyes. It seems to me that Jeshua gives them two wonderful gifts which more than compensate for the sort of losses you are describing.

BOAZ: Like what?

Deborah: Jeshua gives them honour. In front of all those crowds, Jeshua is saying that there is honour for the poor, the lepers, the lame, the oppressed and the scorned. Jeshua declared that these people are the very people whom God himself honours. Their human families may have disowned them, but they are the true children of God, to whom all honour belongs.

BOAZ: That sounds very fine, but how will they live without family? Without friends? Without the means to do business?

Deborah: Well, you could argue that some of them never had the means of which you speak. But that brings me to my second point. Jeshua makes them family, don’t you see? He says they are the children of God, who is their Father in heaven, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be at a loss for a community that functions as a family, and that cares for each of its members in ways that show that they take this relationship very seriously indeed.

BOAZ: (sarcastically) And what a family it would be! Honoured by all! Unclean, uneducated, untutored in the ways of doing business, oh, I can see it has a great future.

Deborah: How about you think seriously about what it would mean if we honoured those whom God honours? What would happen if you men stopped playing all of your silly cultural games where you vie for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply in the ways of justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings and honour might await if we took the plunge and risked the way of God? Maybe then we will be the ones Jeshua talks of when he says, “Honoured are you who strive after righteousness, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not a four hymn sandwich in Sunday worship; not achievement or respectability: simply, justice, mercy, and humility. Sounds simple, but living this out in our culture comes at a cost.

The idea of obeying a few laws, and keeping ourselves ‘pure’, and ‘righteous’ until we get to our reward in heaven, is very attractive, and a popular idea in our churches today. Such a belief demands little from us in the way of sacrifice, discomfort or even simple change. We tend to go along with the status quo, we seek respectability, and we fit in with the corrupt business and political systems of our world because it is safer and easier to do so.

In a theology such as this, it makes sense to keep using up the planet, with little care for the impact of our consumption of its resources. In a theology such as this, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the marginalised are seen as ‘unclean’. We can even blame them for their plight, and believe they are deserving of their disadvantaged lot in life, because they are not pure or righteous or separate from sin, and because they clearly have not worked or tried hard enough.

Such a theology is not the ‘gospel’, the good news or the message of Jesus’ Gospel. If our world is to become more whole, and if the injustice and inequity in our world is to be addressed, we desperately need to revisit the Bible’s teaching about what God requires and take seriously what Jesus actually taught. Otherwise, we contribute more to the problems of our world and our individual piety detracts from the work God requires us to do.

In our bibles, we discover that God is found working always for justice, in caring for the least and in the opposing forces of violence, destruction, materialism, greed, and power. Jesus invites us to revisit the cross, and embrace again its call upon us. As Paul puts it, we are called to be “foolish” in the name of Christ, to confound the accepted wisdom of the world, and to bring justice and compassion whenever we find the opportunity to do so.

The challenge to us is whether we have really have the courage to commit to both a real and transforming relationship with God, and to a life of loving sacrifice in the service of God’s kingdom and the poor for which it should be the good news.

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