Matthew’s gospel is structured around five major collections of what Jesus taught, the first and most famous is what has been called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, although it is not written as what we usually call a ‘sermon’ but is many short passages that were spoken by Jesus on various occasions. Today’s gospel begins with a poem that is well known as a summary of what characterises the ‘Kingship of the Heavens’ – Matthew’s substitute for the more used ‘Kingdom of God’. All the other readings today show that the kind of people of Jesus wanted were also praised in the past, and also laid out in St Paul’s letters.
The readings are available online here.
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13
This prophet is dated to the long reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE) which began when he was age eight. Later he would begin a great religious reform, to correct some of the practices that concerned Zephaniah. T. P. Wahl (in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary) writes that the early time it was a ‘world of political turmoil.’ In the verses passed over in our reading, are a list of dangers from belligerent nations to the west, east, north and south, ending with a condemnation of leaders in Jerusalem who did not trust God. Zephaniah predicts a ‘Day of the Lord’ which will bring punishment against all such evildoers. The reading picks up the ‘remnant’ – those who were ‘humble and lowly’ who will be rescued and cared for.
We also live in a ‘world of political turmoil’ and lack of trust in God, so the message meant for that time can also be a reminder of God’s care in spite of all difficulties people encounter from threats within and without.
The same attention to the needy and the just, and trusting God to keep faith ‘from age to age’ is highlighted as it is also in Matthew.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
St Paul often found it necessary to scold the church in Corinth, who were tempted to pride and arguing. That community did not include many of the upper classes who held power and wealth, as Paul pointedly observes. His message of ‘all comes from God’ through Jesus emphases humility and trust. There is also a play on ‘the world turned upside-down’ in that God has chosen to act through those rejected by society, showing his power by working in human weakness. It too is a good preparation for the Gospel.
When Jesus went up a mountain and sat down to teach, this was the first of several unnamed mountain tops in Matthew which are symbolic places of revelation. These peaks may recall such prophecies as Isaiah 2:2-13 where teaching from a mountain is mentioned. Sitting was the position of a teacher at that time. In all that will be laid out in this first long speech, there is both a recall of the old teaching of the Law and the prophets but also some contrast with the new message of Jesus.
This opening section has traditionally been called ‘the Beatitudes’ from the Latin word; the Greek makarioi is usually translated into English as ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’. The form of ‘blessing’ was frequent in the Older Testament, especially in Wisdom literature. These comparisons usually show how different are God’s judgement to the values of the world, which then as now hold the rich, powerful and famous in highest regard. Most of the conditions in the Beatitudes are mentioned in various texts, such as Zephaniah 2:23 with its call to the ‘humble’ and to ‘seek righteousness’. Jesus brings all the ‘blessings’ together, and links them to the first words of his ministry, ‘the Kingship of Heaven is coming near.’ J. C. Fenton points out that running through these sayings is ‘a contrast between present appearances and future reality.’ Instead of valuing the lives of the wealthy, arrogant and casually wrongful worldly life, we are, Jesus tells us, to see that it is the marginal, the outcasts, those needy in various ways, who are the ‘lucky ones’ God has chosen for his own, and whom he will take into his coming reign.
The Beatitudes are a tightly constructed poem in the Hebrew parallels of two lines pointing to a larger meaning. The poem starts and conclude with the same statement, ‘Theirs is the Kingship of Heaven,’ which pulls all together into a unit. While it could seem to be talking of different people each showing one of the traits, it works better as showing all these blessings are a picture of what it means to be people living now in anticipation of the way the Kingship of God will be played out.
To be ‘poor in spirit’ is to recognise, as Paul said in the earlier reading, that all we have we receive from God, and there is no basis for seeing it as our accomplishment. As the really poor have to live from day with no financial security to rely on, those in the Kingship of Heaven trust in God for everything. The idea of ‘gentle’ means an attitude towards others, as well as the humility of not claiming to be better than we are. Knowing our own weakness, we find a way of treating others as those that God also loves and cares for, accepting as God’s gift the ability to be merciful, just and peaceful. ‘Purity’ is often thought of in terms of sexual morality, but the idea here is more related to the opposite of being ‘half-hearted’ – divided as to what one feels and does. Those pure in heart are fully dedicated to God. The mourning could include the losses people experience in own lives, but it may also mean sorrowing for the ones oppressed in an unjust world. The ‘hunger and thirst’ for justice may relate to conditions of unfairness personally experienced, but may also be seen as longing for the full coming of God’s justice into the world. When people or communities live according to these guidelines, they are not usually rewarded by those holding wealth and power – in fact such leaders may persecute those whose lives are a reproach to them. But this, too, Jesus says is something to be accepted as this suffering shows us to belong to the community of Jesus who was despised and put to death.
The last verse is not part of the poem, but is added here by the similar words about persecution, this kind of joining up by shared words was a common aid to memory in oral cultures.
All of these are attitudes or spiritual qualities but there is no doubt in the gospel message that the listeners are expected to act in accordance with all these guidelines. Although the full carrying out of the ‘rewards’ is promised for later, we are to live right now in anticipation of that end. As N. T. Wright puts it, ‘followers of the Messiah should live in the present in the light of what they will turn out to be in the future.’
If we fully understand what is meant by being poor in spirit, merciful and so on we face a hard challenge, but we do not meet it unaided. In a later part of this gospel, Jesus says he himself in ‘gentle and lowly of heart,’ and he offers to be ‘yoked’ to us – like a pair of oxen, sharing the work. (Matthew 11:28-30) As Matthew emphasises, Jesus is ‘God with us’.
Christians watch out for what acts of such mercy or peace-making and the rest are called for in living day by day. They then will come to the comfort and peace of the Messiah – the ‘happiness’ of each verse – despite all suffering and difficulties of the present moment.