First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 4

William Loader

Epiphany 4: 2 February Matthew 5:1-12

Here we have the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the first of five major blocks of sayings of Jesus in Matthew. The others are in chapters 10; 13; 18; and 24-25. This one takes its framework from a Q collection, reflected behind Luke 6:20-49. But into this framework Matthew has added much new material. Perhaps much of it had already been added before the Q speech came to Matthew. Matthew introduces it here to offer the hearer a strong presentation of what Jesus' message was, just as in chapters 8-9 he will gather accounts of typical activities of Jesus. Had Matthew continued to follow Mark we would have here the account of the exorcism in the synagogue found in Mark 1:21-28. Instead, Matthew leaves out that incident, including only the words about Jesus' teaching with authority and not as the scribes, but using it at the end of the sermon in 7:29 and in a form which says Jesus taught them with authority and not as their scribes. As an interpreter of God's Law Jesus is seen by Matthew as the superior scribe! The detailed summary in 4:24-25 is drawn from Mark 3:7-13, at the end of which Mark mentions that Jesus went up a mountain and called his disciples to him. 5:1 has Jesus ascend a mountain, but for a different purpose, to teach. We can see that Matthew has taken great care in shaping his story. The Sermon on the Mount plays an important role as the first detailed presentation about Jesus. It also portrays the scene in ways which echo Moses on Mt Sinai.

This brings us to the opening group of saying: 9 beatitudes. 8 of them are similar in form. The 9th is longer and addresses the disciples directly, using the second person, 'You'. The Q sermon also had beatitudes but only four. The first 3 are in the group of 8 and the 4th is Matthew's 9th about persecution. The versions in Luke and Q are about the poor, the hungry and those who weep. They are clearly talking about human need and reflect Jesus' preaching that when God's reign comes there will be change and it will be good news for people who are poor, hungry and who are depressed. The kind of poverty Jesus was speaking of was more than monetary poverty. It was brokenness, oppression, destitution. Jesus was addressing Israel of his time, quite possibly echoing Isaiah 61:6 where a prophet speaks of his call to proclaim deliverance and change to such people. Luke, at least, has Jesus make this text a statement about his own mission in his home synagogue. This text appears again in the answer Jesus gives to John the Baptist in the Q tradition in 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23, about whether he is the one to come. Jesus announced the kingdom which would bring transformation and relief for oppressed Israel.

In Matthew we find that these original promises have undergone some change. The focus is less on the needy to whom promises are made and more on hearers who need to be challenged to take up new attitudes. Perhaps this reflects the kind of people who made up Matthew's community. So, in a creative development for this new situation, the beatitudes have been changed from promises to the poor and hungry to challenges to people to be 'poor in spirit' and to 'hunger after righteousness'. The kingdom of heaven (not heaven, but Matthew's way of expressing the kingdom of God, God's reign) will be for people like this and if you want to enter it, these are the attitudes and behaviours you need to develop. The original sense of a promise to the needy has been left almost entirely behind, except for the promise to those who mourn and those who are persecuted. The rest are about attitude and behaviour: humility, lowliness, hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, being peacemakers, being compassionate.

This is what matters. This is central and we can see this in the way the 8 beatitudes are grouped. Number 1 and number 8 refer to the kingdom of heaven. In the 4th and in the 8th, that is, at the end of the two groups of 4, we find the theme of righteousness. As the kingdom of heaven is the central theme of Jesus' preaching according to Matthew (as also of John's and the disciples'; 3:2; 10:7), so also righteousness is a key theme. 5:20 will emphasise this. Our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The two themes reappear in 6:33 which speaks of seeking the kingdom of God and God's righteousness.

Why all this emphasis on attitude and behaviour? Because it is central to Matthew's understanding of Jesus' message. That needs more unpacking. What would the alternatives be? One could say that what matters is one's status (whether as an Israelite or as a Christian; 'having been converted or born again', for instance). Or one could say that what matters is one's achievements in the Spirit, such as miracles and spiritual experiences. Already John the Baptist made it plain that one's pedigree counted for nothing if deeds did not accompany words (3:7-10). Clearly Matthew agrees, as he always does with John. He will show Jesus speaking in a way that will also challenge believers not to rest on their status as Christians. And as for achievements in the Spirit, 7:15-23 is especially instructive, particularly 7:21-23. It will find its echo in the parable of the foolish girls in 25:1-13. Such achievements count for nothing if God's will is not being done. Jesus in Matthew even quotes John directly about the need for bearing fruit (7:19; cf. 3:10). For us it may recall Paul's point about spiritual gifts and love in 1 Corinthians 13.

It is clear that for Matthew Jesus is the one who will judge all people. That is how John announced him in Matthew and that aspect is prominent throughout Matthew. Jesus is declaring what he will be looking for as judge (see also 16:27). He will not be looking for who is 'saved' or Christian or who can spiritual recount experiences and call him, 'Lord'. He will be looking for the kind of acts of compassion demonstrated by the people represented by the sheep in the closing parable of judgement in the final great speech in 24-25 (25:31-46). Righteousness means having the attitudes and behaviours listed in the beatitudes.

In Matthew 5:13-20, Matthew has Jesus go on to reinforce this demand. The Law, God's will stands. In 5:21-48, Jesus goes on to interpret it in depth: not just murder but even the murderous attitude; not just adultery but the adulterous attitude. Summing it all up: the call is to love one's enemies. Love and compassion are the hallmark of the discipleship for which Jesus calls. It defines the content of righteousness, which is not a negative kind of withdrawal from impurity, but a wholehearted commitment to loving and caring applied in every area of life. Sounds like perfection and Matthew's Jesus calls for perfection (5:48), but it is not a statistical, quantitative, perfection which becomes immediately irrelevant for us mere mortals, but a qualitative perfection: a total commitment, letting God rule and knowing that there is forgiveness when we fall, as the Lord's prayer indicates. The beatitudes are good news, but also a hefty challenge.

Preaching on the beatitudes from Matthew is an opportunity to explore that challenge today. It is also an opportunity to connect with the earlier meaning of the beatitudes. That hope of the kingdom, represented in the eucharistic feast which foreshadows the gathering of the hungry and poor, needs to continue to be central and not be lost by staying only with Matthew's special application. On the other hand, when we see what Matthew's beatitudes are saying and take them seriously, we will also want to take seriously the promise at the heart of the original parables. Righteousness, indeed, means espousing the yearning for the kingdom, for a transformation that will be good news for people, not just in some far future but through wanting God's reign of love to happen for people now. Without this we can easily miss Matthew's point and spiritualise the beatitudes to the point that they become reduced to a kind of private and gentle morality which is inoffensive, but not likely to foster real change.

Epistle: Epiphany 4:  2 February  1 Corinthians 1:18-31

See also: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - a reflection