ASH WEDNESDAY, 2013
The Gospel reading for today is taken from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the same lesson every Ash Wednesday, so most of you have heard many sermons on it. Tonight I want to look at another part of the Sermon on the Mount.
The theme for the Wednesday night Lenten services this year is the Beatitudes. These are the very first statements in Jesus’s so called sermon, which is really a whole collection of sayings by Jesus rolled together and called the Sermon on the Mount. Each beatitude begins with “Blessed are they . . . .”
Let’s back up first and look at the context in which these statements appear. In Matthew’s Gospel the sequence of events leading up to the Sermon on the Mount are these: a genealogy of Jesus, the birth story, John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, the temptation in the wilderness, one statement of Jesus, and the calling of 4 disciples.
The only statement of Jesus that we hear before the Sermon on the Mount begins is this: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” This was essentially the preaching of John the Baptist.
Please remember that when Matthew says “Kingdom of Heaven” he means exactly the same thing as when the other Gospels say Kingdom of God. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, and so he follows the Jewish tradition of not using the name of God. He is NOT talking about someplace where we go when we die, nor is he talking about the end times.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is proclaiming the nature of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew, this sermon sets the parameters for all that follows. And the very opening of the Sermon is the Beatitudes. They are followed by other teachings including a series of statements that say: “You have heard it said that . . . .but I say . . . .”
We are so familiar with the beatitudes that we tend to forget how radical they are. Who are the blessed people, according to Jesus? The blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure of heart, those who are peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
What? Think for a moment about the culture of Palestine in that day. Who are the blessed? Aren’t those who are wealthy the ones whom God has blessed? Aren’t the pious and the righteous the ones who should be blessed? What about the Pharisees and the Saducees and the Scribes? What about the chief priests?
If we translate a bit to our own culture, aren’t those who are blessed the ones who are competitive, those who are warriors, those who are talented, those who work hard, those in positions of power, those who rise to the top of the heap?
Even though we now live in a democracy, we still live in a culture that accepts and encourages and applauds the hierarchical social order. This puts some folks in charge of or in control of other folks. Our lives may be much better in America today than that of Jesus and his people under the Roman Empire, but the basic standards of our culture are not so different.
Jesus turns these standards upside down. The outcaste, the marginalized, the poor, the friendless and the needy are put first. His statements are meant to be outrageous. They are meant to get our attention. They are meant to make us think.
The Kingdom of God is not like the culture of Rome or Palestine or, for that matter, our American culture. God does not admire the same qualities that human civilization tends to admire. In pointing this out Jesus often offends his audience and certainly the powers that be.
I don’t think his purpose was to literally turn the social/political pyramid upside down and put the underdogs in charge. He just wants to show us that hierarchy is not God’s way of seeing people – that while we all have different gifts, we are all equally important in the Kingdom. He wants to change that pyramid into a circle. He wants us to give up our fear and prejudice towards each other and live in community together.
Jesus also makes clear that who we are, how we behave to one another, is more important than what we have, or what we have accomplished. The first shall be last and the last shall be first is one of God’s ways of turning the pyramid into a circle.
What are the qualities that we admire in people? To whom do we defer or give preferential treatment? Whom do we consider to be beneath us? Above us? Where would we rather live – in “normal” civilization or in the Kingdom of God?
Jesus didn’t create the Kingdom of God, but he announced its presence here on earth and provided a road map to its fulfillment. The rest is up to us.