Rev. Teri Peterson
1 February 2015, Epiphany 5, NL1-21
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed 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.
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
For the past few weeks, I have watched as my pastor friends and study groups talked about the beatitudes all over the internet. There were conversations about translation, and whether the word “blessed” means today what it would have meant when Jesus said it. Some translations say “happy are those…” while other scholars suggest it should say “honored” or even “lucky.” Many people are uncomfortable at the thought of Jesus saying “Happy are those who mourn,” so we quickly dismiss that translation.
And yet, isn’t there something to that? We are taught that these would be shocking words to those who first heard them, and we who know them so well are no longer even slightly moved at “blessed are those who mourn.” But Happy? It seems there might be a little bit of the “are you kidding me?” factor in that word.
Even as that discussion was happening, there were also people suggesting that the beatitudes are Jesus’ 10 commandments. Aside from the fact that there are nine beatitudes, of course. But the comparison was essentially that the 10 commandments were when God taught the Israelites how to be the chosen people, and the beatitudes are when Jesus teaches his followers how to be disciples.
I admit that I had a moment when I thought this comparison was intriguing. But after a day or two, I realized something:
The ten commandments prescribe action. We will worship the Lord our God and serve only him. We will honor the Sabbath, and our parents. We will not steal, lie, cheat, kill.
But the beatitudes seem to describe a reality beneath what we can see or do. Blessed Are the meek, grieving, hungry, poor, pure, peacemakers.
That’s when I had a realization: I think we have actually turned the beatitudes into commandments, or even a contest. Be meek, and inherit the earth. Be a peacemaker, and be called a child of God. Be pure in heart, and see God. Be poor, hungry, thirsty, and you will be filled.
But that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t say “run out and be more poor, more meek, more pure, so you can be blessed.” He says “Blessed Are.”
This is one of those times that I think the traditional lectionary has gotten us in trouble. We have heard the beatitudes so often, but without the rest of the chapter. We have missed what Jesus said next, and so I wonder if we have also missed the explanation of these shocking words.
Just at the end of today’s reading, we hear Jesus say that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, or we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And because we have read scripture as if it is one set of commandments after another, we have believed the word “righteousness” to mean correctness, or purity, or even self-righteous. But the word righteousness is a relationship word, not a legal word. To be righteous is to be in right relationship with God. So Jesus says that we must have a relationship with God that exceeds that of the Pharisees, if we are to experience God’s kingdom.
The way Matthew tells it, the Pharisees have a relationship with the law, not with God. They have a relationship with the institution of which they are a part, not with God. They have a relationship with their standing in the community and the ways they can maintain it, not a relationship with God.
If we read with a relationship lens, what happens to the rest of today’s reading?
When we have a deep and good relationship with God, we will be blessed even as we recognize our poverty of spirit. Our relationship with God will sustain us in days of mourning, and will remind us that this life is not the end. A carefully cultivated relationship with God may very well cause us to grieve for the injustice of the world more than we already do, in fact, and those tears are God’s own. When we are in close relationship with God, we will know the extent of Christ’s mercy, and we will be merciful. And on and on—what if the beatitudes are a description of a life lived in close friendship with God? Just as later Paul will write that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control…nine fruits, incidentally…maybe the beatitudes are another way of describing the fruit of a with-God life?
Or perhaps the beatitudes are the salt of a with-God life. What happens if we read Jesus’ saying that we salt of the earth and light of the world through a relationship lens, rather than a rules lens? We know that salt and light exist not for themselves but to highlight other things—a little salt in a dish can make other flavors pop, and a little light in a dark room isn’t made to be looked at but rather to allow us to see other things. But what if these, too, are descriptions of the blessings of a with-God life?
These are just as shocking, in their way, because our human nature, bolstered by our culture, tells us to get noticed. But to be light is to allow others to see the glory of God—not the glory of ourselves. To be salt is to allow others to taste Christ’s goodness, not our own usefulness or worthiness.
And more importantly, salt does something to people. Salt makes us thirsty. After a salty snack, we reach for the water.
did you catch that?
You are the salt of the earth.
We are the salt of the earth, the thing in this world that makes people thirst for living water.
Or are we?
When people encounter us outside this building, do they see the blessedness of a relationship with God? Do they get a taste of kingdom life from us and then long to come to the waters? Does our relationship with God make us salty enough that other people become thirsty? When we are the salt of the earth, we will be blessed in ways we could never imagine—though perhaps in ways we don’t want, if the beatitudes are any indication.
Or has our life with God become so habitual that we relegate it to the background, bringing it out only when we’re in crisis or in the sanctuary or when we’re doing the things we’ve always done? Have we lost the earth-shaking experience of God, just as we have lost the meaning of the word blessed?
How can our saltiness be restored?
Well, I suspect that depends on whether we want a relationship like that of the Pharisees—a relationship to the things that serve us—or a relationship like the one Jesus offers—a relationship with the living God who is here and now, active and moving, calling and feeding and seducing us every step of the journey.
A few weeks ago I invited all of us to jump-start our relationship with God by memorizing a bit of the word. Let the word dwell in you richly, Paul wrote to the Colossians—and to us. This is where a deep, fruitful, blessed, salty relationship with God begins. Not with keeping the rules perfectly, but with loving God enough to want to know the word and allow it to bear fruit in our lives.
May that fruit be a blessed salt that makes the world thirsty for living water.