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.Sermon:
Amy Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar and professor of Jewish Studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I have used her book Short Stories by Jesus before. Rather than read the parables as allegories, she reads them as Jesus’s audience, Jewish tenant farmers, dayworkers, and fishermen would have heard them. For me, she does more than any other scholar to teach us about the Jewishness of Jesus and the echo of Israel’s scriptures in everything he says. One of her primary messages to Christians is that we do not need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. We progressive pastors talk a lot about Jesus as anti-establishment and revolutionary, which he was, and I think it could seem to some that we are saying that the Pharisees were Jesus’ enemies. Amy-Jill is here to remind us that that is not the case. They were all rabbis, and that is what rabbis do. She says, “Jews interpret Torah. We don’t always agree with each other on the meaning of the text, but at the end of the day, no matter how much we disagree, we’re all still Jews. And we also know that while today we may hold fast to a particular interpretation, it is always possible that tomorrow we may conclude that our neighbor is right. Rabbinic literature typically preserves two or three or even more interpretations of the same text.” This book is The Sermon on the Mount. Levine reads it as Jesus’ and Matthew’s interpretation of Torah. And she shows how it’s threads of meaning reach throughout the whole gospel. The first 4 chapters prepare us for the sermon, and the rest of the gospel is the sermon in action. I’m starting with the beatitudes, how they would have been heard and understood by Jesus’s disciples, whom he is talking directly to, those in the crowd that might have overheard, and what they can teach us. I promise I won’t’ do all of them. Jesus’ purpose in the here is to begin to set up a new family or community defined by doing God’s will, which is engaging in mutual support for each other. That is the kingdom or kindom of heaven, which he says, is already here. The first beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kindom of heaven.” Levine tells us that contrary to two popular interpretations, “poor in spirit” does not mean weak in faith or conceded or prideful. It refers to those who recognize their dependence on God and others and others dependence on them. And she quotes the Hebrew scripture from Isaiah that is the source of this definition: “This is the one to whom I will look to the humble, poor, and contrite in spirit.”
For Jesus, this is a lesson in discipleship. Like Moses taught the Israelites how to live in the new diverse community they were forming, Jesus taught the disciples what the priorities should bein this new kinship. For us, the lesson is one we hear throughout the bible: to be aware of our own privileges and work to help those that don’t have the same benefits. To realize that we are all in this together. In the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Matthew is talking about the very real situations of life and death that we all experience, and we are reminded how important it is not to skip the mourning. Levine speaks about how the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for 7 days for the one who has passed and how it is meant to allow the living to take time to mourn. El posted this week that Christmas for her would be a sad one because her brother died this year. My brother died when he was 47 and I was 33. He was the first person in my family to die, and I felt like I had a hole in my heart for years after. I heard an NPR interview earlier this week with Megan Devine, who wrote a book about grief, and she said that Elisabeth Kubler Ross never meant for her 5 stages of grief to be a list that can be checked off, and it was her greatest regret that she didn’t make that clear enough and was misunderstood by so many, because grief can last a lifetime. The comfort that Jesus says will come to those who mourn also draws from the Jewish tradition in Isaiah, “God has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to comfort all who mourn.”And this beatitude is seen in action in Matthew, chapter 9, when the disciples ask Jesus why they don’t fast like the Pharisees and John’s disciples do, and he replies with an image used throughout the bible, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
Jesus invites us to hear these teachings with our ears and our minds and our hearts, to let them bring us healing and comfort, and give us the priorities we need to live faithfully in our community of kinship, and to focus on caring for one another.