Sunday 29 January, 2023
Reflection: "The Be-Attitudes"
The message we find in today’s reading of Matthew’s gospel is often called “The Sermon on the Mount” and it starts with something called “The Beatitudes”.
I like to call them the Be-attitudes, because Jesus is showing us how we should “be”.
Jesus starts his sermon with “Blessed are the poor, the sad, the meek, the thirsty, the merciful, the sincere, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for their faith in Christ.”
Near the end of the sermon, (read Matthew Ch 6), Jesus speaks with engaging, poetic words about the carefree birds of the air and the wildflowers in the field, followed by the admonition: “Your heavenly Father knows your needs before you ask him. Therefore, don’t be anxious. Don’t worry.”
This is a call for complete trust in the graciousness of God.
Jesus concludes this sermon of the highest ethical values - with an affirmation of the graciousness of God.
Every sentence in the Beatitudes has echoes from Old Testament passages.
Jesus, giving us these “new” Scriptures, was obviously well schooled in the “old” Scriptures.
Matthew wants us to recall the story of Moses, who went up the mountain and came back to the gathered people with the commandments of God; the laws by which the people of Israel were to live.
Jesus, on noticing the crowds that had gathered, went a little way up a mountain, to deliver his own manifesto - he was like the new Moses.
Much of what follows through the subsequent verses and chapters is ethical teaching.
It’s about how to live, loving God and loving one’s neighbour, but it goes much deeper than Moses.
Jesus goes from the external (i.e. obedience to the law), to the matters of feeling and thinking.
From outward observance - to motives and intentions.
“You shall not kill” is extended to “You shall not harbour anger and resentment.”
“You shall not commit adultery” is elevated to “You shall not harbour lust.”
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is surpassed by “Turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus raised the religious and ethical bar to a new height.
So much so, that if this were all there was to the “Sermon on the Mount”, then Jesus would have been thought of as just an extremist law giver, who made the burden of goodness even greater for us to carry.
In fact, this extreme teaching had the potential to make the devout person even more anxious and desperate about their ability to please God.
But that’s not the whole truth about Jesus - there’s something new here.
A deeper and more hopeful message is present in his sermon.
There are Old Testament echoes everywhere in what Jesus had to say.
But they’re all with a new twist and a new message.
Jesus pronounces God’s blessing on certain groups of people. “Blessed are........”
That word “blessed” in the Greek text is makarios.
For Greeks, it was originally used for the happiness of the gods.
In the New Testament it refers to a God-given happiness.
It’s hard to find a contemporary, English word to bring out the full impact of this blessing.
Maybe it could be translated, “The meek have struck it rich!” or “How lucky are the meek, for they’ve hit the jackpot!”
This would be okay as long as we see this kind of luck, not as chance, but as coming from God’s overflowing generosity.
Whatever word we employ, the key point is that it describes the boundless joy which comes to those who follow Christ and completely trust in the kingdom of heaven.
Have you noticed that the blessedness which Jesus affirms, is like a bonus?
This blessedness is a free gift of God, and the recipients don’t have to do anything to earn this blessedness.
Therefore, the Beatitudes are about God’s grace. You don’t have to do anything to earn this happiness. In truth, it can’t be earned, only received as a gift from God. It’s a pure gift - grace.
This is in sharp contrast to the blessings of the Old Testament, where the happiness was conditional and people were urged to act or pray in a certain way, for only then would they receive blessedness.
Psalm 15 offers readers a happiness which is totally dependent upon conditions.
It depends on living blamelessly, speaking the truth, never gossiping, not seeking revenge, shunning reprobates, honouring God-fearers, never taking a bribe and keeping promises even though such integrity proves costly - conditional blessedness.
However, the beatitudes of Jesus aren’t like that.
There are no conditions to be met before someone can be called blessed.
And why is it offered to these people? I mean, think about it, the people Jesus names as blessed, most certainly are not the people society considers blessed, which, come to think of it, is partly why Jesus chooses them.
Because in this sermon, he’s not offering a recipe for success, or the keys to happiness, or a roadmap to having your best life now.
Rather, he’s demonstrating once again that God regularly and relentlessly shows up just where we least expect him to be, in order to give to us freely what we can neither earn nor achieve: blessedness.
I think that Jesus chooses these states, or conditions, to lift us up, because it’s precisely in our moments of disappointment, or despair, that we’re likely to finally abandon cultural stereotypes about blessing (understood as happiness, wealth, fame, or power) and be open to the presence of God that gives without asking in return and blesses us that we might be a blessing to others.
There’s abounding grace for those who are poor, thirsty, sincere, merciful, and humble enough to simply receive it.
Accept the gift of divine happiness, for that’s where things commence for the Christian - with God’s free, unconditional love.
Now what are we going to do with this gift from God?
We could just store it away and feel good – safe in the knowledge that we’re blessed by God.
But I don’t think that’s why God gave you the gift, is it?
Instead, he wants us to do something with it - to be a blessing to others in the actions we take.
In prayer, ask God what it is that you can do for others in the Kingdom and then go out and bless others.
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