02.14.16 Turning Over the Garden Matthew 5:1-16 Sermon Summary
It isn’t often that we hear about zombies in the Bible, but right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the cure.
- Jesus as the new Moses
- Jesus’ Sermon as description of what it means to the “salt of the earth”
- Quantitative vs. qualitative blessing
- Brief thoughts on each of the Beatitudes
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the toddler Jesus being hunted by Herod and fleeing to Egypt. It is a parallel story, if in reverse direction, to the threat upon infant Moses by Egypt’s Pharaoh. This vignette sets the stage for one of Matthew’s driving points: Jesus is the new Moses.
The Sermon on the Mount is another example. One of five major discourses in Matthew, parallel to the Torah’s Five Books of Moses, the Sermon begins with Jesus going up the mountain, parallel to Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the Law.
Unlike the Moses story, however, the people following Jesus are allowed to come up the mountain with him. There, as with Moses, they receive the Word of God. Jesus sits down and his disciples come to him. It is a direct conversation—more immediate and more personal. This direct line narrows, but doesn’t eliminate, the need for interpretation.
For example, Jesus says, “You are salt and light.” It is personal (you) and metaphorical (requiring interpretation). Salt and light are tandem metaphors which can go in a lot of directions. Today the value of these metaphors is easily lost, since we have salt and light in abundance. But in the ancient world up until very recent history, both were extraordinarily valuable.
Salt, for instance was called “white gold” in the Middle Ages. In the 1800s, it was four times the value of beef. During the French Revolution one of the first things they did was to repeal the salt tax. Gandhi also led a salt march against the tax in India. In the Bible salt was used as part of the covenant-sealing ritual. Today salt has extraordinary value, at least in Haiti, for curing zombies—people who have died but aren’t dead. In the rest of the world, according to Jesus, salt cures spiritual zombies. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount explains how.
Jesus’ opening teaching has to do with what it means to be “blessed.” Conventionally “blessed” means “to be favored by God.” Naturally we look for quantitative evidence of God’s blessing, and this search is fueled by some parts of the Bible. For example, many children (boys, anyway) are a blessing. Military victory, especially in service to imperialism, is a blessing. Agricultural prosperity is also evidence of God’s blessing.
We still quantify God’s blessing today with such questions as: Where do you live; How big your house; What do you drive; What is your title; Where do your kids go to school; How is your health? Quantifying God’s blessing creeps into conversations among pastors. It’s never long before my pastor colleagues ask about attendance, budget, and programs.
Quantification is important. It’s how we assess progress and how we set goals. It helps in discerning vocation (see my reflections here). Quantification is natural in the gardens of our lives.
But how often do we consider the qualitative characteristics of being blessed? The quantitative numbers may indicate blessing, but more often they distract us from appreciating qualitative blessing. Those who are qualitatively blessed just know it. They don’t attempt to quantify it. We find this kind of blessing in other parts of the Bible, and it’s what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon. Jesus is turning over the garden of our lives with this teaching, to prepare a different harvest—the harvest of the kingdom of God.
The “Beatitudes” start and end with this declaration: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says this about the “poor in spirit” and those who are “persecuted.” Two things to note about this. First, the kingdom of heaven is a present reality among the blessed. The other Beatitudes are promises. They are future-oriented. Those who mourn will be comforted. These, however, are assurances. They are present-oriented.
Second, it seems that blessing begins with poverty of spirit and leads to persecution. This is how we know without a doubt that Jesus isn’t talking about quantitative blessing. No one is trying to increase their score on persecution!
The Beatitudes are the foundation of Jesus’ teaching. They crystalize his understanding of the kingdom of heaven. They generously reward memorization, meditation, or at least study. To that end, here are some additional things to think about.
Keep in mind that better than anyone else, Jesus knows what it means to be blessed. He is an original member of the divine Trinity. Eventually the church came to recognize and call him the unique “Son of God.” He was this “child of God” because he was a “peacemaker,” as he taught in the Beatitudes. In fact, he is the Peacemaker between God and humanity.
When we work for peace, the Beatitudes promise, we also are children of God. We are adopted and incorporated members of the Trinity. In Christ we become part of God by the Spirit. How do we become rich in God’s Spirit? By becoming poor in other spirits, as the first Beatitude promises.
Going further: Like Jesus, children of God are blessed because they mourn what has become of the world. But as the second Beatitude says, they will be comforted—the world will be restored. And like Jesus, children of God are meek—God is at their center. They operate out of their true selves as children of God, not their false selves as constructed by the fallen world. This is why they inherit “the earth,” a reference to the restoration of the original relationship of creation to Creator.
Blessed children of God hunger and thirst for righteousness, just like God does. And Jesus promises that they will be filled, along with the whole world, with the righteousness of God.
They show mercy. It isn’t that they don’t judge: From the opening chapters of Genesis humanity has been tasked with trying to know the difference between good and evil. The difference among the children of God is that when they do judge, they conclude with mercy—just as God their Father does.
Blessed children of God seek God, that is, they are “pure in heart.” And as Jesus will promise later in the Sermon, all who seek will find.
And finally this: Remember, the kingdom of God is about . . . you. “Blessed are you,” Jesus concludes. “Great is your reward . . . as the prophets before you . . . your good works . . . give glory to your Father.” Not the Father. Not my Father. But your Father. Moses didn’t talk like this. Moses couldn’t talk like this. Only Jesus could.
And since he has spoken this way, it is up to us, his disciples, to follow him up the mountain, to meditate on his Word, to receive his blessing, and then to return back down to live as salt and light, so that we won’t be spiritual zombies, and to heal the spiritual zombies all around us.