First Reading Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Gospel Matthew 5:1-12
My wife Nancy and I have three boys, Doyle, Lincoln and Wally who you probably have seen bobbing in and out of the seats at the back of the stage. I am grateful to be here with all of you today breaking open the word!
This is a true story. Every so often when I’m here, I say a small prayer something to the effect of “Please God, if I am chosen to break open the word, please let it be for the Sermon on the Mount.” Well, when I got the invitation from Marilaurice, the first thing I did was to scroll down in the email to assess the damage and lo and behold, it was the Sermon on the Mount! Wow! I don’t generally get my prayers answered in such a direct way, and I was a little taken aback.
As soon as I started delving into the Sermon on the Mount, however, I started questioning why it was that I ever said such a prayer. And in no time at all, I had a new clarity around the adage “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it.”
I realize now that I had a lot of preconceived ideas about the Sermon on the Mount. In my mind, I’ve always had a picture of Jesus on a big rock at the top of a hill surrounded by crowds. Crowds of the people he was “speaking the good news to”. The poor, the afflicted, the tax collectors. People who were excluded by the dominant culture and he was now inviting into the fold, people who he said, had value in the eyes of God. This was a continuation of the ministry of Jesus’ life. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted. Standing with the poor and indicting the systems of power that had forgotten about them.
When I read the gospel anew in that context, with my preconceived notions about it, the first thing that hit me was that the Sermon on the Mount was a great campaign speech from an adept politician. Maybe because it is, or was, the season for campaigning, in my mind’s eye, I could see Jesus on that rock, shouting to the crowds and waiting between each statement in anticipation of the echoing applause. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Cheering from the crowd. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” More cheering. When I read it as a campaign speech, however, I was confused by the “call and response” format. If the crowds were the groups Jesus was ministering too, those left out of society, the powerless, the afflicted; would they identify with “Peacemakers?” “Poor in spirit?” I can see a one of the crowd members saying “I am poor. But poor in spirit? I don’t know about that. In fact, I’m not even sure what that means.”
On reflecting about it more, though, it seemed to me that Matthew’s list of Beatitudes really wasn’t a message to the groups Jesus was standing with in his ministry, it wasn’t for the afflicted at all. Nor was it the same type of indictment of the power structures and systems evident in the rest of Jesus’ ministry in standing with those groups. No, this was meant for a different audience and a different purpose altogether.
So, who was it for? Well, luckily it says right in the beginning. I guess my notions were simply blinding me to it. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down, the disciples gathered around. Jesus began to teach them.” Emphasis added. Jesus wasn’t preaching to the crowds. In fact, when he saw the crowds he high tailed it out of there and went up the mountain with his disciples, to be alone with them. To teach them.
Why would he do that though? What was his purpose?
I don’t think Jesus wanted to get away from the crowds so much as he wanted to be alone with his disciples. And I think he wanted to be alone with his disciples to deliver a warning to them. Maybe his warning isn’t as harsh as Zephaniah’s, but it is a warning nevertheless.
Ostensibly, being disciples of Jesus, the disciples were well versed in and accepting of Jesus’ message. They agreed with his ministry to the poor, the disenfranchised, and to the corresponding indictment of the structures that created, or had forgotten these groups. In fact, they had left their past lives behind to follow and be of service to Jesus.
Given the audience, then, the warning isn’t about what you believe, what you are doing, or what your commitment to Jesus’ is. I’d say Jesus was assuming you were with him on those fronts. It is not about what you are doing, rather it is a warning about how or for whom, for God, you are doing it. Are you doing it for yourself? Or, do you do if for and through God? Is it for your own personal motives, or is it in service to God? It is, I think, a warning to always be in right relationship with God in pursuing the what. A warning to always assess personal motivation in light of God-centeredness.
And I think Jesus was worried about his disciples. They knew what to do, but Jesus was worried they would perhaps lose sight of how or for whom they were doing it. He was worried they would inevitably be drawn into the same traps the current system had; or they would create their own system, and while that system was maybe more inclusive and more predicated on justice, it would still have structures that put personal motivations, personal egos above God-centered or God-focused relationships. And maybe he worried the disciples would be especially prone, as leaders in his movement, possibly revered and respected by the crowds, to fall prey to “self-righteousness” instead of “righteousness”.
There is a lot of temptation, after all, to be seen favorably, to be seen as a leader, to be seen as righteous, by society, by peers, or your followers, as the case may be. It is a hard road to give it all up to God, take yourself out of the equation and not worry about what others think of you. Maybe it is not quite as satisfying to just be a vessel that God works through, as if you are somehow incidental to the process. As if any other vessel would serve just as well. I’ve heard it said that if God were working through your actions, you wouldn’t need to tell anyone because they would just know it to be true. But, I think we can all agree, it is better to be safe than sorry.
I think, however, that is exactly his warning to the disciples. That they needed to be constantly assessing the how and for whom. If they weren’t, they were in danger of becoming the very types of people Jesus was admonishing against. They were in danger of eventually reestablishing the systems that led to oppression. That in forgetting the how and for whom, they would eventually forget the what as well.