Epiphany 4 A – Recognizing Blessing
Dear Partner in Preaching,
Matthew tells the story a little differently.
You probably know that just as well as I do. Yet when I read the “Sermon the Mount” I sometimes blend Matthew’s account and Luke’s together, blurring some of the distinctiveness. In Luke, for instance, Jesus offers his sermon not on a mountain but a “level plain.” And in Luke Jesus preaches to “a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” (Lk. 6:17). But in Matthew Jesus has just twelve disciples – the twelve we often call them – representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The crowds, while also there, feel almost secondary, and are not mentioned again for nearly two chapters. In this account, Jesus withdrawals to a mountain to teach all those who would follow him. And that’s an important characteristic of Jesus in Matthew’s story – he is a teacher, an interpreter of God’s law, meeting with his disciples on the mountain like a new Moses training the twelve disciples/tribes in a new kind of righteousness.
And the first thing Jesus teaches them is how to recognize blessedness.
Which I think is really interesting. Not how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God. And the import of all this is that it’s not who we necessarily think are blessed.
Every community has its own definition of what constitutes blessedness. We may not always use such a pious word, preferring instead to call it “the good life” or “success.” But we all have definitions of what it means to have made it, and usually it’s not those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek or pure in heart or thirst for righteousness and all the rest. In our world, when we think of someone who is blessed we most often think of someone who is wealthy or powerful or famous or successful or beautiful or enviable. Blessing, at least according to the standards of this world, is most often of the material kind.
But Jesus teaches something different. Jesus teaches us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, distressed by their circumstances, passionate about promoting righteousness and working for peace, or persecuted for doing the right thing.
In years past when working with this passage, I’ve noted how powerful blessing can be in a world that rarely blesses. We are good with affirmation and accusation, but not so accustomed to blessing each other, and so I’ve suggested that having people bless each other in the service can be a powerful experience. If you haven’t already tried that, it’s something to consider. But in addition to blessing others, I think it’s important for us to recognize that those we don’t often perceive as valuable to be precisely those God chooses to bless and honor and love.
Read this way, I almost see Matthew’s version of the beatitudes as akin to Luke’s Magnificat, where Mary learns that God favors those in need. So also here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus urges his disciples – then and now – to look at those around us differently than the culture does. Rather than measure persons by their possessions, we are invited – nay, commanded – to see their character. Rather than merely take pity on their losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge their failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they’ve settled for. And rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the truest point of meeting between God’s children. For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently at our places of deepest need.
What would it be like, Dear Partner, if our congregations became places where we recognized that God always comes where we least expect God to be – amid our brokenness – in order to bless that which the world refuses to bless, to love what the world calls unlovable, and to redeem that which the world does not believe merits saving? And what would it be like if our people left church with new eyes, able to perceive in the needs of their neighbor not a nuisance or even something to be pitied but rather that marks of blessedness to which we are privileged to attend?
I think if that happened, Dear Partner, our congregations would like more like the discipleship community Jesus founded all the way back there, fashioned by God’s grace to be different from the world around us, to be places of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and goodness. And I think we might find others attracted to join us. Not all, mind you. There will always be folks who have a hard time recognizing that freedom comes from letting go, that strength shows itself in vulnerability, and that safety comes through trust and mutual regard.
But in this passage, Jesus points us to recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place far away but is found whenever we honor each other as God’s children, bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and meet each other’s needs. To be human is to be inescapably fragile and vulnerable, and it turns out that the surprising character of God isn’t to reject of these things but rather to gather them all into a divine embrace.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who are persecuted on Christ’s behalf. It’s quite a list. And blessed are those, we might add, who see the blessings of God in their neighbor’s need and give thanks they were privileged to meet them.
Not initially an easy word to preach or accept, Dear Partner, but ultimately a true word that has the capacity to transform, create, and grant new life. Thank you for your willingness to proclaim it, for you are a blessing to all of us who gather hungry for a word of grace.
Yours in Christ,
Note: A number of you caught that I had misread the role of the crowds in this passage and so I’ve revised the first paragraph accordingly. Thanks very much for the dialogue and for seeing what I had missed!