Lectionary Reflections on Matthew 5:1-12
January 30, 2011
I was on Facebook the other day and I saw a notice that George Strait wanted to be my friend. My pulse quickened. I am not especially partial to Georg Strait's music, but he is famous and he wants to be my friend! I briefly wondered how he found out about me. Maybe he's started reading my blog. Maybe he has found out that I just started taking guitar lessons and knows how good I will one day be. I looked more closely and saw that George Strait wanted me to be his fan. What would that involve? Learning the tabs to all his songs? Memorizing his life story? I don't think I have time for that right now. How ridiculous for me to think for a moment that a famous person would want to be my friend!
I like Facebook, but I have somehow ended up with lots of friends I don't even know. Maybe that's how Jesus feels. Lots of people ask to be his friends, and when he confirms them, they never give him another thought. Lots of people claim to be his friends and really are barely acquainted with his life story and body of teachings, much less willing to live by them.
Matthew's version of the Beatitudes bears the message that Jesus wants not more fans, but friends and disciples. Matthew, to an even greater degree than the other gospels, emphasizes that to be a disciple means to live by the teachings of Jesus. A major theme of Matthew's gospel is genuine righteousness. This righteousness purifies the inward life and energizes us to seek justice for the vulnerable. This motif is developed in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus exhorts hearers to be obedient to the law of God in such a radical way as to exceed the zeal for righteousness of even the Pharisees (5:17-20). The Sermon on the Mount is Matthew's first and longest collection of Jesus' teachings. In Matthew it is the first of five such clusters. The picture it paints of Jesus is as Israel's ultimate, God-authorized teacher. The message for readers is clear: believing in Jesus means living in accordance with his teachings.
Luke's account would be more accurately named "The Sermon on the Plain," since he has Jesus deliver it standing "on a level place." Luke wants to preserve the mountain as a place of retreat to experience prayer, vision, and guidance. The Sermon in Luke follows a series of healings by Jesus, described in detail in chapters 5 and 6 (Lk. 6:17-20). By contrast, while Matthew states that Jesus has performed many healings, the Sermon on the Mount is the first act of Jesus' public ministry that Matthew describes in detail. For Matthew, teaching is primary in Jesus' overall ministry.
Matthew wants his readers to view the Sermon on the Mount as a definitive interpretation of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) that Moses received on Mount Sinai. Jesus does not cancel the Mosaic Law by substituting a new legal code. For Matthew, Jesus fulfills Torah by providing its proper interpretation. The Sermon on the Mount is not the historic record of a great speech, nor is it a series of philosophical abstractions. It is a code of behavior for shaping a community of faith in ways that call conventional wisdom into question, subvert the status quo, and intend eventually to re-shape it. The goal is not social disorder but the eventual formation of a new community. It will not be a community of fans, but of friends and disciples.
Beatitudes are common in the Old Testament. They are also found in Greek literature where the blessings promised are largely materialistic (Cambridge Bible Commentary, p. 44). Scholars like to debate whether the beatitudes are commands one must obey to enter the kingdom of God or statements of the blessings available to those who trust in God. The answer is yes! They are not entry requirements we must meet for God to accept us. They describe the state of joyful response God enables in us when we actively accept God. Each beatitude is a gift that calls for our response. Each beatitude combines elements of both promise and challenge.
The word "blessed" is the first word of each beatitude. The literal translation of the word is "O, the blessedness of . . ." This blessedness describes a happiness that comes from a right relationship with God, rather than emotional bliss or good fortune as the word is normally used in everyday conversation. "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked . . . but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night" (Ps. 1:1). "Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage" (Ps. 33:12).
These forms of blessedness are orientations of thought and action, along with their subsequent states of life. These are made possible by God's presence and bear the stamp of divine approval. The unexpressed subject of the action of the second clauses of several beatitudes (2, 4, 7, and 8) is God. The blessedness these sayings describe has its source in the presence and activity of Jesus. This blessedness is not a state of passive resignation to present hardships. It is a positive gift he gives to those who follow him with faith despite present adversities (New Century Bible Commentary: Gospel of Matthew, 110).