Showing posts with label Jesus of Nazareth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesus of Nazareth. Show all posts

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

One of the archetypical pictures of Jesus is him giving the beatitudes - a series of blessings to certain groups of people. There is another, shorter set in Luke's gospel, which I can use redaction criticism on later on and compare the two. For now, let me centre on St Matthew's account. Allow me also to note how these blessings fit into a covenantal framework in which Jesus operates: when covenants are made, their clauses have covenant blessings for those who are faithful to it, and covenant curses to those who are unfaithful to it. These are then the new covenant blessings, I think, which should be contrasted with the new covenant woes (or curses) later on.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 3)

This term "poor in spirit" is interesting in that poor generally means "lacking in [...](usually money)", but "lacking in spirit" is an English idiom equivalent roughly to being downcast. Since this is a modern idiom, I doubt this interpretation is right. Some have interpreted it to mean those who are materially poor, which fits with God's care for the poor as seen throughout the Old Testament, but that interpretation ignores the in spirit bit.

My interpretation goes something like this: blessed are those who realize their spiritual poverty. That is, not so much those who lack a spirit as some kind of entity, but more, those who are spiritually humble, who recognize their spiritual deficit. One objection to this is that, in reality, everyone is poor in spirit before God, so by that measure, everyone's is the kingdom of heaven. I do not think this objection is a good one, since this is a public sermon in which people are going to be relating these terms to themselves. Some of the audience will think "truly I am poor in spirit", and then be contented by the blessing, but others (and St Matthew probably has the Pharisees in mind) will think of themselves as rich in spirit. The distinction between the two is whether or not they recognize it - but of course, that makes a great deal of difference in practice.

Yet that is not all - I run this risk of over spiritualizing this beatitude if I make it only about knowledge of spiritual poverty, but no more. Being poor in spirit entails not only recognition of that, but also recognition of the material lack. That is to say poor in essence. Material poverty is included because this recognition of "I have nothing before you, God"  extends to both the spiritual and the material.

"...theirs is the kingdom of heaven" From my interpretation, it follows that those who recognize their poverty, both spiritual and material, are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (v. 4)

This blessing highlights the sad, those who mourn - in general, people who mourn lack something. So I suggest that this blessing is a divine promise that those who do not think they have it all, those who are aware of their lack, will be comforted by God. 

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (v. 5)

This blessing is the clearest example of the upside down kingdom which Jesus proclaims, because the meek are usually the ones trodden on the most - they are not rulers, instead they are the doormats of rulers in this age. Not so in the age to come, Jesus says, for they will inherit the earth! This is also a clear example of how Jesus' heaven is not ethereal and other-worldly; no no, Jesus the redeemer is going to redeem this earth, and give it as inheritance to the meek.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (v. 6)

I suppose the best way to understand this is another "those who recognize they lack will be given to" statement, in that those who are not satisfied with the righteousness they have are the ones who will be given more. A similar sentiment can be found in 1 John where John says that those who are without sin make Jesus out to be deceitful - ahh, but those who sin and plead forgiveness have an advocate with the Father. This is another bid that we recognize our spiritual poverty, this time specifically our moral poverty, that we may hunger ever for more. [1]

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (v. 7)

It is unfortunate that Matthew was chosen as the first gospel to be read in this reading plan, because it has such richness that points back to the Old Testament. It is, after all, the "Jewish gospel" - and that means it requires even more context. This word "mercy" is one of those key words, I believe, which would gain enormous profundity if the reading plan had covered more of the Old Testament by this point. Not to worry, though, because the common-sense reading is already rich: Jesus blesses those who have mercy, saying that they will be had mercy on. This is not the same as "God will have mercy on you if you have mercy on others," but instead "Those who yearn for God's mercy are merciful." These beatitudes, I contend, should be seen as cumulative in the sense that I think Jesus is blessing the same group with each one. Therefore, I suggest that those will will receive mercy are merciful, over the interpretation "those who are merciful will (for this reason) receive mercy." These things are all attributes of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, who will see God, who will receive mercy - the attributes are not why they receive these things.

Let me stress another point, though: the merciful are not often thought of as the most forgiven. It is a sad fact of life that far too often, those who are forgiving get trampled on, not given mercy. So here too we see those who are full of mercy being given just what they yearn for themselves: mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (v. 8)

Uh oh.  Nobody who really thinks they are spiritually impoverished also thinks they are pure in heart, I do not think. Has Jesus just alienated everyone?

Yes and no. I contend that here it is a matter of degree. In fact, all of the beatitudes can most aptly be thought of as a matter of degree, but this one most of all, because this one is special. Those who are closest to God are, by his grace, also those who are purest and see God the clearest. I find it difficult to find myself close to God, to see him clearly, but one thing that recurs in the lives of the saints is that as they grow in holiness, they see God all the clearer - in nature, in their brethren, in the faces of others.

Yet there's another way in this is true, and this meaning is profound: if you agree with me that the attributes accumulate and refer to the same group, then this acts as a promise. "You will be pure in heart, and will see God" - because how can you inherit God's kingdom and not see God? So those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, and those same people will be made pure in heart. This is a promise, then, of God's sanctifying grace.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (v. 9)

There's a sort of twist here, because no longer does this have the structure of "recognize need, have that need satisfied," and more generally, the connection between peacemaking and being children of God is not so obvious. Or is it? I'm going to cheat slightly and quote St Paul in chapter 5 verse 1 of his epistle to the Romans: "Having been put right with God by faith, we are at peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

See, the peacemakers really are given peace when they become children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 10)

 In other words, "blessed are those who put the kingdom first (invariably leading to persecution of some form), for theirs the kingdom of heaven is." This is a blessing for proper prioritization - because you never get persecuted for righteousness sake if looking good in front of everyone is your priority.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. " (vv. 11-12)

This blessing is, primarily one of hope, but it shows us two things, and with this I can end. First, Jesus uses the term "rejoice and be glad", which means we can now look back on all those blessings, and mentally replace "blessed" with "happy." The Greek makarios allows for both interpretations, and although I think this idea of covenant blessings is the primary one (because Jesus has just gone up the mount to deliver the law of Christ - mirroring Mount Sinai and the law of Moses), this subversive understanding use of the term "happy" would surely get some heads turning. "Happy are those who mourn"? Really Jesus? "Happy are the poor in spirit?" Surely not! Yet this is proclaimed, good news for the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' sake, the merciful, pure...these are the true happy ones, Jesus says. His kingdom is upside down, you see - no longer will Caesar rule with all his riches.

Secondly, and here is the interpretive key to all these eight beatitudes: who truly embodies them? Jesus gives us a hint in verse 12, saying "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." This is the hint we need, because now we know with clarity who embodies these blessings, because it is the same person who embodies the prophets, the revelation from God: Jesus himself.

Who is truly poor in spirit? In St Paul's wonderful poem in his epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2, we read: "...Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." So who is poor in spirit? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who truly mourns? We see Jesus weep for Jerusalem as he makes his way to sacrifice himself. Then he sees the sins of the world crucifying him, taking their King to death - who mourns? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who is truly meek? On his way up Calvary, Jesus takes on himself the scorn of the multitudes, as they mock him and whip him. He takes this all the way up, not "getting off the cross" as those who mock him in the crowd say to him to do. Who is meek? Jesus Christ on the cross.

I hope you see where this is going: Jesus Christ on the cross embodies all the beatitudes: hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, persecution and the object of reviling of men. We must understand the fulfilment of Christ of the beatitudes if we are to understand the victory of Christ.

[1] I have recently finished reading a book by NT Wright, who is known to hold somewhat controversial views on the term righteousness in the writings of St Paul - but for the sake of this, the distinction is not quite so meaningful, instead a matter of emphasis, which I will omit.  

Monday, 27 May 2013

Temptations in the Widerness (Matthew 4:1-11)

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (which, if you have ever been to Palestine, you know is really a desert) is an exceedingly symbolic passage. I say this because it takes the form of a sort of dialogue between the devil and Jesus, and each of the three issues on which Satan tempts Jesus is highly loaded, in an almost allegorical sense.

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (v. 1)

This could be overlooked as a connecting sentence into the next section, but I claim it has more importance than that. Three points can be made:

     1. Jesus was led by the Spirit, which means, God took him to be tempted. We will see that elsewhere in the New Testament, God promises to never give a temptation that we could not resist, but here we can clearly see that God still takes us into temptation.

     2. Jesus was led into the wilderness, that is, Jesus was alone - almost. Although Jesus was not with any other person, the Spirit was there with him, and obviously, the devil will appear soon. This makes it clear that whether or not Jesus resists the temptations, he will do it for the sake of God alone, not because other people are there urging him to be a good person. He could succumb, and if he did, then nobody would know. Hence, this temptation is distilled in that no other factors come into play.

     3. Jesus was led to be tempted, in other words, Jesus can be tempted too! And since Jesus has no sin, we must then infer that being tempted is not in itself sinful. This is more of a pastoral note, since we can often find ourselves guilty for having a wayward desire. We will see in the passage that Jesus never shows signs of giving in, or being troubled, and so I would contend that a real want for something illicit is indicative of sinfulness, yet still I affirm that it is not itself sin.

"The tempter came and said to him "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written,
        'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"" (vv. 3-4)

We have just seen God "christen" Jesus as Son of God, and this time in the wilderness is going to test that. The first test is one of relieving suffering, of earthly indulgence. The devil essentially asks Jesus "since you're the Son of God, you could totally just make those stones into bread, and eat, and so fill your belly. Food is not bad, is it?" Jesus response follows as if it were said to what I take to the devil's words, and he essentially replies: "No, because although food is good, it is not enough. Man cannot live by only this earthly food, but instead by what flows from the mouth of God" We could misinterpret that to mean that we could subside only by means of reading the Scriptures, but from the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible (my commentary on which you can find here), the words of God are endowed with a special meaning, because unlike the words of any creature, when God utters a word, things are made. So Jesus is not saying "I shan't eat food, because I can live off reading the Bible", but instead "I shan't succumb to my desire to make my own solution to hunger, because I must live of what proceeds from God."

""If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (vv. 6-7)

This is an interesting one, because upon reading it, I find myself thinking "Jesus is saying 'do not make falsifiable claims about God,'" but that reading is anachronistic and theologically poor. Yet understanding this passage has profound pastoral importance - for instance, if a priest says to you, "go to Iraq to share the gospel, God will protect you, because you are his child" (I use Iraq because I imagine it has a fairly hostile attitude towards Christian things), should you respond "Do not put the Lord your God to the test"? There seems to be something terribly wrong with that. Maybe it is because throwing oneself onto rocks is not in any sense "for" God, whereas my scenario is. I put forward that what is characteristic about this is that here, Satan asks Jesus to do something that is really only expressing the attitude "do this for me", and Jesus responds by saying "I act unconditionally - I do not say "do this for me", as if I was testing God." So we certainly may have boldness that comes only from the knowledge of God's care and protection - but not because we demand things for the sake of demanding them. That would be equivalent to testing God.

"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

 Part of the irony of the previous temptation is that Satan is doing exactly what he knows not to: he is testing the Son of God, seeing if he really is God's Son. This last temptation does away with the formula "If you are the Son of God...", and in one last attempt to subdue Jesus, offers him absolutely everything of desirable nature in the world. Anybody that has been educated in the past five hundred or so years knows that there is no possible way in which one can go up a mountain and see all the kingdoms of the world - at best, you can observe half the planet, from an infinitely tall mountain. Perhaps all the kingdoms are conveniently placed on one hemisphere, and the rest of the world has civilizations which are not kingdoms, but such a reading seems completely bankrupt theologically.Still, the point is clear that Jesus is offered anything and everything he could possibly want in the whole world - if he would only renounces all he actually does want, not of this world. So true to his Sonship, Jesus says "no!, I will worship only the Lord!" This is an expression of the virtue of religion.

These temptations, though important in their own right, have higher meanings also. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes "Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly mattes in human life."[1]  It is also exceedingly important to see that these three show the underlying temptation to trust anything other than God himself.

In the scheme of the book of Matthew, however, probably the most important thing is how this mirrors "Jesus as the true Israel". This has been hinted at in quoting Hosea ("out of Egypt I called my son"), and here we see how where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.[2] In this way, Jesus, the true Son, comes out of his 40 day period spotless, and ready to begin his ministry, just as Israel was meant to do after the 40 years in the wilderness.

[1] Jesus of Nazareth, page 28.
[2] Israel doubted God's providence (Exodus 16:3), put God to the test (Exodus 17:1) and abandoned God for idolatry (Exodus 32).