The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“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.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Matthew’s version can come off as an affirmation of Christians like the young rich man who is willing to keep God’s commandments of not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, and honoring his father and mother—but is not willing to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor (Matt. 19:16–22). Meanwhile, Luke’s version affirms what later came to be called God’s preferential option for the poor.
But what if Matthew’s Beatitudes are intended for the poor, too? What if this text is an act of resistance to oppression, a message of liberation for the poor rather than confirmation for the rich?
On Christmas Eve 1979, Óscar Romero preached a homily called “The Birth of the Lord,” taking Matthew 16:24–25 as his text. “There is no redemption without the cross,” he said, “but that does not mean our poor people should be passive. We wrongly indoctrinated the poor when we told them, ‘It is God’s will for you to live poor and hopeless on the margins of society.’ That is not true! God in no way wants social injustice, and whenever it exists, God judges it as the great sin of the oppressors.”
Romero acknowledged that the church has been complicit in the oppression of the poor. Furthermore, he helped poor, oppressed, and marginalized people reframe their stories by reminding them of their worth as human beings and as children of God.
Romero encouraged the poor to discern the things that could be changed in their lives and society—and to participate in this change by continuing Jesus’ mission on earth, a nonviolent resistance.
So I wonder if Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes could be more liberating than we typically imagine. Perhaps Matthew, like Romero, is telling the poor, You do not have to be materially poor to enter into the kingdom of God. God does not want you to be poor. Blessed are you who fight for righteousness, who are persecuted for fighting against exploitation. I wonder if Matthew aims to empower poor, oppressed, and marginalized people by helping them see their worth and God’s will for their lives.
We hear some good things in all of our texts today.
In Micah, a faithful person wonders what they might give to God. All they can think of are offerings of status and power—calves, thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even their own child. But God directs the human away from markers of worldly success and toward what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. To God, success means joining the good life God created us for—not a moralistic regimen, but the goodness of justice, kindness, and humility, where both receiver and giver are blessed in the offering. It is by seeking justice for others that we find a bit of wholeness for ourselves. It is by walking humbly that we know how great our own worth is.
The 1 Corinthians lesson reflects on another peculiar mark of success in God’s mind—not accumulation, but the emptying of ourselves until there is space enough for our neighbor. It’s not the Who’s-Who in the Corinthian church, but a bunch of nobodies, neither wise nor powerful nor of noble birth. Yet these nobodies have found a victory that the world cannot bring: life-giving community gathered by Jesus and his cross. If these Corinthians read the script the world gave them, they would have seen in each other only liabilities and embarrassments. But they are urged to live by God’s script, which sees treasure where the world sees failure and assets where the world sees liabilities, and so they joyfully receive each other as gifts.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus’ first major teaching opportunity—known as the Sermon on the Mount—occurs in chapter five. Crowds have been following Jesus. So he goes up a mountain, sits down, and begins to teach them.
He begins his teachings with nine blessings, often called the Beatitudes. From them we learn about Jesus’ values and the values of the kingdom of God.
Jesus lived in a society that placed heavy meaning on actions which would bring honor or shame to your family. Things that brought honor included wealth, power, and high-status positions. Alternatively, things that brought shame included breaking social norms, illness, and poverty. Also, males and females were treated differently when it came to matters of honor and shame.
The crowds gathered around Jesus heard him speak these nine blessings and would have been shocked. Jesus was teaching them the values of the kingdom of God, but these particular values did not align with the cultural values of honor and shame in which they lived.
The crowds grew up learning that wealth, power, and social status mattered. They brought honor to your family’s name and were a sign of blessing. Now, they were learning that God values people who are poor in spirit and people who mourn. Who is Jesus that he would espouse these alternative values?
While we have had the benefit of nearly 2,000 years to get familiar with the Beatitudes, Jesus’ audience was in a different position. How did they receive these teachings? There are no post-sermon interviews with the crowd to gauge their reactions, not even a quick five question survey to rate their satisfaction with Jesus’ teachings.
But we do know that Jesus spoke to real people like you and me. He spoke to people who had chores and jobs and hopes and sorrows, to people who had experienced hardship, trauma, and setbacks. He spoke to people whose minds occasionally wandered and to people thinking about their next meal or something they forgot to do. Jesus taught his alternative kingdom values to everyday people and showed them a way of life contrary to the culture of the day.
We, too, are shaped by the culture around us, but we are also shaped by Jesus’ teachings which can be just as radical now as they were 2,000 years ago.
This is the Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Matthew, and it is very different from what some rabbis of the time would have said. The sayings commonly known as the beatitudes are not telling people what they have to do to be blessed by God; instead, they are telling them what kind of people and character qualities are already blessed by God.
Instead of requirements, the beatitudes describe what God’s grace looks like for humanity. But it is a radical departure from what the culture says about who God blesses and how those blessings come about. The blessings described in these verses all take place when God’s kingdom through Jesus comes near.
The prophets mentioned in verse 12 shared messages from God to the people of Israel, which parallels the way followers of Christ are called to share the good news of salvation with others. Jesus knows that not everyone is going to be open to hearing about him, and that his followers are going to face persecution.
In America today, Christians have a great deal of freedom to talk about our faith and share it with others, but that doesn’t mean it will always be well-received. Persecution may not include being martyred, but that doesn’t mean you won’t face some sort of negativity for your beliefs.
It may not feel like God is blessing you when you face persecution, but that’s because some of our blessings are not experienced during our life on earth. The kingdom Jesus describes starts now, but its ultimate fulfillment is in heaven.
We can’t wait until heaven to look for the blessings of Christ’s kingdom, but we also can’t expect to fully experience that kingdom in this life either. As Christians, we live in the tension between this life and the next.
I want to conclude tonight/today with an exert from a Fredrick Buechner article titled “Beatitudes” (it was originally published in his book Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words).
He writes: If we didn’t already know but were asked to guess the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation, we might be tempted to guess one sort or another of spiritual hero—men and women of impeccable credentials morally, spiritually, humanly, and every which way. If so, we would be wrong. Maybe those aren’t the ones he picked out because he felt they didn’t need the shot in the arm his commendation would give them. Maybe they’re not the ones he picked out because he didn’t happen to know any. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting the ones he did pick out.
Not the spiritual giants, but the “poor in spirit;” as he called them, the ones who, spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive, like the Prodigal telling his father “I am not worthy to be called thy son,” only to discover for the first time all he had in having a father.
Not the champions of faith who can rejoice even in the midst of suffering, but the ones who mourn over their own suffering because they know that for the most part they’ve brought it down on themselves, and over the suffering of others because that’s just the way it makes them feel to be in the same room with them.
Not the strong ones, but the meek ones in the sense of the gentle ones, the little ones who let the world walk over them and yet, dapper and undaunted to the end, somehow makes the world more human in the process.
Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones who are well aware that the distance they still have to go is even greater than the distance they’ve already come.
Not the winners of great victories over evil in the world, but the ones who, seeing it also in themselves every time they comb their hair in front of the bathroom mirror, are merciful when they find it in others and maybe that way win the greater victory.
Not the totally pure, but the “pure in heart;” to use Jesus’ phrase, the ones who may be as shopworn and clay-footed as the next one, but have somehow kept some inner freshness and innocence intact.
Not the ones who have necessarily found peace in its fullness, but the ones who, just for that reason, try to bring it about wherever and however they can-peace with their neighbors and God, peace with themselves.
Jesus saved for last the ones who side with heaven even when any fool can see it’s the losing side and all you get for your pains is pain. Looking into the faces of his listeners, he speaks to them directly for the first time. “Blessed are you;” he says.
What I’m saying today brothers and sisters is that Jesus was speaking to everyone then, and everyone now. We all fit in to at least one of these categories, and no matter which one it is…God is blessing us!