Commentary on Matthew 5:1-20
There are many good, customary sermons on this challenging list of blessings.
Many draw their energy from words like “spirit” and “righteousness” and “pure.” These sermons have a pious flavor, and urge the things that generalized religiosity encourages. Other sermons marshal words like “persecuted” and “revile” and “salt” and “light.” Such sermons have a warlike feel, and imagine the world to be at war with Christians. And other sermons spin themselves around the “light of the world” and urge exceedingly rigorous righteousness.
While all of these options work as sermons and fit nicely into patterns in American religion, most take little note of Matthew’s story and thus fit better into our context than his.
These blessings ring true in Matthew’s story, as does the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s Jesus blesses the mourners, and any attentive audience will remember Rachel’s wailing in chapter 2. Rachel was brought into the story from the deep memory of the Jewish people where she mourns the exiles being force-marched into oblivion. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and with the Temple the sense that life was stable, safe, and predictable. And before that, Assyria destroyed 10/12s of the people who remembered God’s promises to Sarah and Abraham and David, scattering them and driving them from history.
In Matthew’s story Rachel returns to mourn the innocent toddlers murdered by Herod. This is not grief in general; it is grief still fresh and raw: the corpses of the little children still litter the storytelling stage.
Most translations offer “comfort” (paraklethesontai) to Bethlehem’s mourners, though it is impossible to imagine any comfort adequate to the depth of their loss. It should be noted, however, that paraklethesontaidoes not refer to the kind of comfort that does its work with hugs and hand-holding. Parakaleo offers comfort in the form of exhortation, of calling the mourner out of immobility into action. If you read the scene this way, you will have to find a way to imagine who offers this exhortation, and what it accomplishes. That’s not easy.
The word parakaleo, however, has another meaning that might offer some help. It can refer to the “calling” that comes to a witness in court. A crime has been committed, and witnesses are called to speak the truth straightforwardly. If this is the sense that Matthew’s storyteller intends, then those mourners will indeed be able to act as witnesses. Everyone in Matthew’s audience will be able to add their voices, as well, especially since Matthew (along with all the canonical gospels) comes to us out of the empty aftermath of the crushing of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-70CE).
This reading of the role and identity of the mourners helps make sense of the first group blessed in the list: the “poor in spirit.” Interpreters grab hold of the word “spirit” and make this blessing somehow “spiritual,” either to back off the socio-political force of Luke’s parallel blessing in the Sermon on the Plain, or intensify the focus on a (supposedly) higher plane that is heavenly and not stuck in earthly ruts. But pneuma means “breath” as gladly as it means “spirit,” and it is easy to imagine Matthew’s mourners as being “broken in breath.” If Matthew’s Jesus is blessing those whose breath comes in sobs, it makes sense that they would be offered the dominion of heaven.
Other blessings are pronounced on those who have been hunted (a proper meaning for dioke, which is usually translated as “persecuted”) because of “righteousness” (5:10). Righteousness, in a Jewish text (which Matthew surely is) refers to glad observance of Torah, which means that this blessing is pronounced on those who are hunted for being Jewish. Again the narrative context hands us the residents of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s hometown in Matthew’s story, and the home of David long before that. The toddlers (and those who died defending them) were caught up in Herod’s hunt for the “king of the Jews.” And the memory of my parents’ generation hands us the citizens of Eastern and Western Europe who discovered that they were not French, or Dutch, or German, or Czech. In the eyes of the Nazis, they were only Jews. They also are blessed with the dominion of the heavens.
All these who are offered blessing are called the “salt of the earth.” This phrase has become a way of referring to ordinary workaday people who make the world run. That’s not a bad interpretation. But the term refers to the preserving function that Torah-observant Jews provide for the world. This preserving requires some of the other blessings: gentleness, mercy, peacemaking. As I write this, we are entering the High Holy Days; Yom Kippur is coming soon. This is the season for making amends, for gentleness, mercy, and acts of peace, along with frank honesty. Perhaps Matthew’s storyteller is making exactly this point: the preservation and enlightenment of the world require the courage to make peace, not the anger that enacts vengeance. In Matthew’s story, this cannot be read as encouraging passivity and submission to those with the power to abuse. This story is too powerfully aware of Herod’s crime, and the blessings too carefully name the mourners and sufferers. In Matthew’s story, peace can only be made by the Mercy that raises life out of death. This, of course, is acted out at the end of the story with the resurrection of Jesus. But the same thematic argument is being made here in chapter 5. In the face of real violence and real abuse, mercy and gentleness are world-making miracles.
John Hansen, a friend who is a member of a text study group I have met with for twenty years, has suggested that all of Matthew’s story is a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer. I think he is exactly right. I think this part of the story comes down to a powerful praying that God’s will be done on earth. This is not a prayer of submission, it is a demand: the beauty of God’s holy will perfectly enacted in heaven does no good if it does not also shape life in God’s real world, the realm of Creation. Neither the Lord’s Prayer nor the Beatitudes force us to passively accept the damage that is freely done in everyday life. Both assert that God’s will is done when we refuse to remain enmeshed in the cycle of abuse and retribution. The blessings contained in this odd little collection, each and all of them, require a miracle, a resurrection even. That’s what it will take for God’s will to be done in our workaday life.
May God’s will be done, also among us.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Loving God, your son Jesus taught many things that helped people know how deeply you love humanity. Help us to live in your love, so that we might be beacons of light for others. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Blest are they ELW 728
We are called ELW 720
This little light of mine ELW 670/trad.
Blessed are you, William Beckstrand