Matthew’s account of the time Jesus took his newly assembled disciples up on the hillside and began to teach them in front of the crowd is often claimed to be the record of the most famous sermon of all times, the Sermon on the Mount. Profound wisdom in summary form, and for those familiar with the other gospels, it sounds very much like the same material scattered in Mark and collected in Luke (Ch 6 – verses 20 -49) which certainly strongly suggests that the record of all three gospel writers used some common source. However rather than looking at the similarities and differences, setting the scene in broad brush strokes might be more helpful.
The first point that we might note is that in fact although the crowd were present, and no doubt were intended to hear what Jesus was saying, first and foremost Matthew says this particular teaching was delivered to the disciples. It was almost as if Jesus was saying my way is based on these ideas, and you as my disciples are expected to follow these ideas. The crowd would be listening, and many no doubt approvingly – but if they had noticed as Matthew pointed out that Jesus was speaking to the disciples, perhaps those in the crowd who knew the disciples might have suspected how this was going to pan out was now going to depend on whether or not the disciples were now going to start living out what they were being taught.
Although Jesus covers a lot of ground in the Sermon which follows, today we only reflect on his introduction to the sermon with the brief list of who should be seen as blessed. This list is probably more commonly known as the beatitudes. A funny word that. The word Beatitude comes, of course, from Latin. The Latin word “beatus” means happy. For those amongst us who like obscure learning, the Greek, from which the translation comes, is the one Matthew used as the beginning of each phrase in his list as the word “Makarioi” .
This word can, and has been translated into English in different ways. Most commonly it is “blessed.” Other biblical translations use words like “happy” or “fortunate” or sometimes “honoured”. The French version of the New Jerusalem Bible even translated the word as “debonair”…which I am still thinking about!
I guess each of the nine beatitudes, used in this particular context, is apparently intended to identify a blessing or some sort of favour, but in some way to our contemporary minds, it is a surprising list. In a 21st century world we would probably first think of someone being blessed if they lived long and prospered in material ways. Indeed virtually every one of the extremely numerous advertisements we see on our flat screen TVs implies we will be most blessed if we invest in the right material goods. If we buy the right car, look like that shapely model using that butt tightening exercise equipment, own the latest vacuum cleaner, drink the happiest of mood enhancing drinks, win Lotto, install the best lights, get the cheapest takeaways from the shiniest fast food outlet – you get the picture.
Jesus turns that on its head. He finds the blessings in an entirely different set of values….and what’s more he seems to expect those who set out to be his disciples to recognise these as values in their own lives. It also grounds what we now call Christianity in the real world. Regardless of what good fortune may come our way, for virtually every person on the planet there are also hard times, whether they be in coping with loss, dealing with setbacks in health, coping with criticism and envy, or dealing with our own sense of injustice – or injustice for those we may be in a position to help. Disease is no respecter of position and it would take an extraordinarily obtuse person to assume they would never encounter adversity. Perhaps I should say it outright. Botox wont keep you young on the inside anymore than the embalmer’s art would keep you living for ever. What however may be novel in the beatitudes is to suddenly realise that here Jesus in this reported list, helps us find the blessings in the midst of difficult and inescapable realities.
Certainly we can live our lives as if wealth and position will shield us from any serious darkness in our lives. On the other hand if we listen to Jesus’ words about finding blessings, we find ourselves called out of our intended isolation and ushered back to the world as it really can be. Jesus is advocating an emotional openness which enables us to encounter the depths as well as the highpoints of existence – and find something worthwhile in both. The beatitudes have the potential to help us find worth in the whole of life – both good and bad, but for them to have any meaning at all in the personal sense , they need to be part of our very being – and bluntly – this will not happen unless we first accept them.
For some strange reason, outside formal Christianity, this notion that those who follow Jesus are expected to remodel their lives according to his principles is not widely acknowledged. In my admittedly limited experience it is not even the sort of topic that makes it onto the agenda of important Church business meetings, synods and conferences. Even when we can remember the list, it is the rare individual who lives as if it is true for them. Perhaps it is simply that while most of us have probably heard the beatitude phrases about who will be blessed many times through the years, I wonder if rather we expect to associate them with the sort of thing we hear from the pulpit, without ever entertaining the thought that others might expect to see the same humility, the same insistence on mercy, thirst for justice, peace-making characteristics, and so on from the list as identifying us among the blessed. Perhaps if we recalled how those in other branches of the Church are sometimes criticised by people like us for their failure to match behaviour with their claimed teaching, we might be a little more concerned about our own shortcomings in this department.
Four of these same beatitudes are listed in Luke but notice he only lists the needy, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted. In Matthew’s extended list, there is a subtle change. The focus is less on the needy themselves and more on changing the attitudes of the hearers. The challenge was now no longer Luke’s version of simply “blessed are the poor”, or “blessed are the hungry”. No rather it was the challenge to reflect an attitude of being poor in spirit, and the hunger was no longer hunger for food. It was now having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness. Notice too, the last beatitude of Matthew’s list is personalised – instead of saying blessed are the – it becomes blessed are you – when you are reviled, persecuted, have evil falsely said about you – for that makes you like the prophets who were persecuted before you. Because Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the persecution was already beginning, we might even suspect that either Matthew is putting words of encouragement into Jesus mouth, or perhaps it is simply that he is selectively collecting the words of encouragement from other memories of Jesus.
Just as Matthew was inspired to edit his collection in a way that spoke helpfully to those who were trying to be disciples in his time, others have taken this passage and reinterpreted it for a modern age. I’ll conclude with what might be seen as a version of the Beatitudes called The Invitation: and this inspired by a thirty year old woman who had been suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and became a poet with a new name gifted to her by one who took time to assist her with the healing process. Now known as Oriah in this is an abridged version of a work called Mountain Dreamer written in 1994. As you listen ask if it is describing you.
“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for,
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for dreams,
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow,
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain!
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own,
without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own;
If you can dance with wildness and let ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning to be careful, be realistic,
or to remember the limitations of being a human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you’re telling me is true.
I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself;
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.
I want to know if you can be faithful and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see beauty even if it’s not pretty every day,
and if you can source your life from God’s presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver moon, Yes!
It doesn’t interest me where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary, bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you are, how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you from the inside, when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself; and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”
Does that sound like you – or me?