Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Four)

Is this section of the Matthean account one argument? Or is it the end of the prologue to the Sermon on the Mount and the beginning of the main body of the Sermon? That makes some difference to how we might interpret what the Matthean Jesus is saying here. If my interpretation is rooted in the text as we have it, then the answer to those questions matters to me.

Samuel Byrskog examines these issues in detail and concludes that Matthew 5:13-20 is one argument with several rhetorical pieces. His view runs counter to the majority opinion which sees Matthew 5:17ff. as the beginning of the next section of the Sermon.

As we’ve noted in a previous post, the emphatic second-person plural makes it clear that Jesus is addressing the disciples. Byrskog notes that the Matthean author uses this technique as well in Matthew 13 and Matthew 23. The disciples are the primary addressees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The crowds overhear the Sermon but are never directly addressed.

Elsewhere in Matthew (10:34) Jesus uses the phrase “Do not think” to continue a line of argument begun earlier in the text. That phrase is likely not a marker for a new argument. In rhetorical terms, the new argument more clearly begins at 5:13. To interpret 5:17-20, Byrskog argues, we are best served, then, to see how those verses fit with the previous argument.

In his analysis of verses 13-20, Byrskog finds that verses 16 and 19 have the conclusions to the argument here. “Both conclusions emphasize the disciples’ deeds – the good works and the practice of ‘these commandments,’” Byrskog writes (563). Each of these conclusions says these actions should impact the people who witness them. On the basis of these conclusions, then, Jesus outlines examples of disciple behavior in verses 5:21ff.

Matthew 5:17f. in this analysis is a proposition leading to the conclusion in Matthew 5:19. This proposition is offered because the disciples could have possible misunderstandings of what has come before. Being salt and light could be construed as ways to leave behind the Law and the Prophets – annulling the Torah and the Witnesses. Instead, the disciples are to imitate Jesus’ own relationship to the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, Byrskog argues, “they are also not to set aside but to practice and teach even the  least of ‘these commandments’” (page 567).

We’ve made the connection in a previous post between the argument here in Matthew 5 and the concluding instructions to the disciples in Matthew 28. Byrskog makes that connection as well. In Matthew 28, Jesus instructs the eleven to make disciples of all nations. In doing so, they are to teach the nations to observe everything Jesus has commanded them. “Jesus starts preparing his pupils,” Byrskog writes, “for their future didactic mission already in the Sermon on the Mount” (page 568).

It is worth considering that the “commandments” that Jesus commends in Matthew 5 are really Jesus’ own interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 5:19 and 28:20, Byrskog observes, have the same terms – to “keep” and “commanded.” He notes that many scholars discount the “letter and stroke” language of Matthew 5 as a pre-Matthean leftover.

However, Byrskog argues that his analysis leads to a different conclusion. “It is entirely conceivable to understand this verse [5:19] as an admonition to practice and teach the exposition of the Torah as contained in Jesus own teaching” (page 568). What the disciples are to keep, observe, and teach is exemplified, then, in what follows in the rest of the Sermon.

Byrskog gives this summary of his analysis. “5:17f is thus central to the entire Matthean narrative as it implies that Jesus is the perfect example to be followed when the disciples themselves, having eventually listened and learned from all of Jesus’ speeches, are to be teachers of the nations” (page 569).

In other words, “For the main author of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus was a teacher whose words and deeds represented the ultimate, normative criterion to be applied in various situations of his Jewish-Christian community. A reference to Jesus,” Byrskog concludes, “needed no further defense” (page 571). The Matthean author has a relatively “high” Christology, therefore, but that Christology is demonstrated through narrative rather than through dogmatic assertions.

Is this, then, what the Matthean Jesus means when he says that he has not come to abolish the Law but rather to fulfill it? Matthew Thiessen tracks the use of the idea of “abolishing the Law” in connection with the persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes in the 160s BCE and the Jewish War as described by Josephus. We get some interesting context for the terms and their importance.

In the documents connected to Antiochian persecution, “These writers view this attack on circumcision, Sabbath, Temple cult, and food laws as an attack on the Jewish or Hebrew ‘politeia,’ and upon Jewish ancestral customs,” Thiessen writes. “It is important to note,” he continues, “that, according to each [of the authors he quotes], it was a Jewish group that was closely involved in the abolishment of the Jewish law in an attempt at Hellenization” (page 548).

In each of those documents, Thiessen observes, the consequence of this abolishing of the law was divine wrath in the form of persecution.

I find that especially interesting in the context of our verses. If Jesus says that persecution will be a result of keeping his commands, then one possible conclusion to be drawn would be that this persecution was an expression of Divine disapproval. After all, that was the conclusion that other Jewish writers were drawing from their history. It would be important to make a strong argument against this possible conclusion.

Josephus argues that the Zealots routinely and repeatedly “abolished” the Law during their war against Rome, especially because they ceased Sabbath observance in order to do battle. My ears perk up immediately at that mention, since debates about Sabbath observance are constant in Jesus’ ministry. Josephus goes into great detail regarding numerous other ways the Zealots were reputed to have “abolished” the Law. Most glaring was their occupation of the Temple precincts. Again, one cannot help but think of events in the ministry of Jesus in the gospels.

Thus, both in the Antiochian documents and in Josephus “those who abolished the law bring divine judgment upon the people as a whole” (page 551). The Matthean account is produced in the generation following the Jewish war, probably in Antioch. The memory of such charges against the Zealots would have a particular sting if they were leveled as well against the Matthean community.

So, Thiessen asks, is Jesus guilty of abolishing the law? Since there is no parallel in Mark or Luke to Matthew 5:17, 19-20, this appears to be a special concern for the Matthean author and community. Thiessen describes what such a charge might have looked like. “Join with us against the law-abolishing followers of this law-abolishing Jesus so we might guard ourselves against God’s wrath, which led to the persecution under Antiochus IV” (pages 551-552).

Add to this charge the fresh memories of the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 CE. Was the Matthean community charged with responsibility for the war as divine punishment? “Given the probability that the air was rife with the accusations of various Jewish groups against their rivals in the wake of the devastating results of the revolt,” Thiessen writes, “this seems a distinct possibility” (page 552).

Thiessen says these accusations may be the concrete content behind Matthew 5:10-12. In response, therefore, the Matthean Jesus-followers needed to show their good works and praise God. “Since Jesus did not come to abolish the law as Matthew makes clear in 5,17-19,” Thiessen argues, “the members of the Matthean community are supposed to live in a way that their opponents will not be able to bring such charges against them” (page 553).

The Matthean author then flips the field and suggests that it is the scribes and the Pharisees who have taken the easier path – perhaps the path of accommodation, as Warren Carter suggests. This would point the finger of blame at the scribes and Pharisees rather than at the Jesus-followers.

To summarize Thiessen’s argument. In the post-70 struggles of the Jewish communities, some identified Jesus as a law-abolisher and Jesus’ followers as responsible for the Divine wrath that resulted. “Matthew’s gospel should therefore be understood, in part,” Thiessen writes, “as a response to such charges” (page 554).

In the Matthean account, Jesus is the New Moses. He calls for authentic Torah observance. Jesus claims to interpret what that authentic Torah observance is. As Byrskog demonstrates, this is the logic of the argument in Matthew 5:13-20. What we do with this as interpreters and preachers remains to be seen. But I find it helpful to understand the text more clearly on its own terms.

References and Resources

Byrskog, Samuel. “MATTHEW 5:17-18 IN THE ARGUMENTATION OF THE CONTEXT.” Revue Biblique (1946-) 104, no. 4 (1997): 557–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44089356.

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989.

Thiessen, Matthew. “Abolishers of the Law in Early Judaism and Matthew 5,17-20.” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 543–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617307.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2010.

Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Three)

The Matthean author presents a sustained description of the Jesus-following life. As we read through this account together, it will be important to recap and review the argument periodically.

Jesus is “God with us.” He is with us in order to save his people from their sins. That mission attracts attention from the Gentile world almost immediately. It also attracts the attention of the powers of this world. Jesus is worshipped as the King of the Jews. For that reason, he is a threat to and threatened by the powers of this world.

Jesus is son of Abraham, son of David, son of Joseph, and son of God. That identity is confirmed and amplified in his baptism. John the Baptizer points to Jesus as the “greater one.” Satan, the Adversary, works to derail Jesus’ mission and to sustain the powers of this world. Satan fails and Jesus moves from personal identity to public ministry.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims. He calls disciples through whom he will carry out that mission. It’s a nondescript bunch and the beginning of a much larger nondescript bunch called “The Church.” Jesus teaches and heals and frees people throughout Galilee. His reputation extends well beyond the local gossip network. The movement is launched.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ movement manifesto, at least in the Matthean account. It is, as well, a summary manual of discipleship. We get a description of the Kingdom of God in the Beatitudes. The Sermon is given to the disciples, but the crowds listen in. Jesus announces the Great Reversal of the Kingdom. He describes what participation in that Reversal looks like for disciples. And he acknowledges how the powers of this world will react to and reject that Reversal.

It’s important to hang on to this narrative arc and momentum as we read this week’s Gospel text. It is critical to remember, first, that Jesus is “God with us.” Matthew 5:13-20 could sound like Jesus is ready to hand over the reigns to the disciples. But that’s not the case. After the Sermon is concluded, we get two more chapters of Jesus healing, demon-casting, teaching, and training the disciples.

It isn’t until the end of Matthew 9 that Jesus tells the disciples about the great harvest. That harvest is going wanting because of the lack of laborers. Jesus has filled out the cadre of disciples with several more workers, coming up with a total of twelve. Only then does Jesus send the disciples out into that harvest, beginning in chapter 10. Or does he?

Well, he doesn’t send them out immediately. Matthew 10 contains more disciple-training. In the Matthean account, he doesn’t actually send them out even at this point. Instead, as we read in Matthew 11:1 (NRSV), “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”

In fact, in a gospel account so fully focused on teaching and training disciples, we never read the story of Jesus actually sending the disciples out to do the work. We get that story in the Lukan account, but not here.

We don’t read about such a sending in the Matthean account prior to the Resurrection. It is only in Matthew 28:19-20 that Jesus commands the disciples (now eleven in number, of course) to actually “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” And that sending is accompanied by the assurance with which the gospel account began – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b, NRSV).

Without that big narrative arc, this week’s text daunts me to the edge of despair. Salt of the earth? Light of the world? Doer and teacher of all these commandments? More righteous than even the scribes and the Pharisees? Lord Jesus, I’m pretty sure you got the wrong person for this job. How about if I just sweep up after the real disciples in the crowd?

Because we read the gospel accounts a piece at a time in our worship, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger story. That’s what makes such a recap necessary. Jesus is God with us, always and forever. Jesus goes ahead of us to confront the powers of this world and defeat them in his death and resurrection. Jesus has experience calling ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And Jesus calls us to do those extraordinary things in community, not by ourselves.

That community reality matters for our text this week. “You (pl.),” Jesus says with emphasis on the “you” in verse thirteen, “are the salt of the earth.” He repeats that emphasis in verse fourteen: “You (pl.) are the light of the world.” Jesus makes these declarations to the disciples as a community, not as individual actors.

The second-person plural continues in verse sixteen – your (pl.) light, your (pl.) good works, and your (pl.) Father in the heavens. And it’s “your (pl.)” righteousness that must be more than (or perhaps better than) that of the scribes and the Pharisees. As we read the examples of that greater righteousness in the rest of the Sermon, we continue to meet that communal dimension. Even the final paragraph about the two foundations is directed to “everyone who hears these words and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24).

Jesus is “God with us” now and forever. We’re not in this “salt and light and righteousness business” by ourselves. That’s all good. But it’s a pretty high bar, all the same. We could read this, as does Martin Luther, as an example of the “second use” of the Law. Since this is an impossible standard for sinners, the Sermon should drive us into the merciful arms of a gracious God who sends Jesus to be our righteousness. In that reading, Jesus demands of us things we cannot do, whether alone or together.

I don’t buy this perspective. It uses a first-century text to answer sixteenth-century problems. When we apply that solution to our twenty-first century context, we get even further off the track. I think A.J. Levine gets much closer to Jesus’ intentions in the sermon. “The Sermon on the Mount is not a counsel of despair,” she writes, “it is a hymn of praise not only to God but for all of creation.” In fact, Levine argues that Jesus thinks we are fabulous creatures.

“Thus the Sermon on the Mount resembles,” Levine continues, “in part, a theological pep talk. Good pep talks, or revivals, don’t just make us feel better about ourselves,” she argues. “They inspire us not just to feel better but to do better: try harder, dig more deeply, find the resources needed for living the life to which God is calling us.”

Could it be that our text for today is an appreciative invitation to be what we are in Christ? Our text is not an exhortation to become something. It is not a promise that under certain conditions we will achieve a certain status. “You (pl.) ARE the salt of the earth…You (pl.) ARE the light of the world…” It is possible to act like these descriptions are not true. But such counter-action won’t deny the reality. It will just make for useless disciples.

Once again, the way to hold all this together is to hold together the “work” and “person” of Christ. Jesus is indeed “God with us” to save us from our sins. We are freed from the powers of sin, death, and the devil through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That, however, is the beginning of our life with Christ, not the end.

We are also freed for a life together of love for the neighbor (and the enemy, as it turns out). “But for the gospels themselves, that rescue of individuals,” N. T. Wright notes, “is designed to serve a larger purpose: God’s purpose, the purpose of God’s kingdom. And in God’s kingdom,” Wright continues, “human beings are rescued, are delivered from their sin, in order to take their place (as Jesus already called the disciples to take theirs) not only as receivers of God’s forgiveness and new life, but also as agents of it” (After You Believe, page 112).

Salt and light actually do things in the world. Salt and light people, disciples, live as if the Kingdom has come near. As N. T. Wright puts it, “the life to which Jesus called his followers was the kingdom-life – the life which summoned people to be kingdom-agents through the kingdom-means” (After You Believe, page 124). The balance of the Sermon will give examples of these kingdom-means and what it looks like to bring them about.

These examples are, however, not merely a sort of discipleship checklist. Instead, they are signs that the kingdom has indeed come near. Being salt and light will certainly produce good outcomes for some of the least, the lost, the lonely. More than that, however, being salt and light are signs that the change has begun – both in the hearts of disciples and in the life of the world.

References and Resources

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989.

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne, 2010.

Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Two)

“For I am telling you that unless your justice greatly exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall certainly not enter into the Kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 5:20, my translation).

The “Kingdom of the heavens” (KOTH) appears as a phrase in the Matthean account over thirty times. That total doesn’t include the tangential, indirect, and incomplete references to the KOTH. Moreover, the Matthean author devotes an entire chapter (Matthew 23) to the “woes” of the scribes and the Pharisees. This relationship between the practices of the scribes and the Pharisees and “justice” is a significant concern for the Matthean author and community.

Since this phrase occurs so many times and has such a prominent place in the Matthean account, interpreters will need to clear up some misapprehensions on the part of our hearers. This is not about some “heaven” in another place and/or time. “Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it,” N. T. Wright reminds us. “One day heaven and earth will be joined together for ever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled” (page 36).

That understanding, of course, will cause some confusion and discomfort to people who are accustomed to thinking of “heaven” exclusively as “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” For that reason, I think I will lead my people through a Bible study on resurrection during the Easter season. But for now, it bears some mention for the sake of ongoing clarity.

Wright has a good summary paragraph in this regard. “The life of heaven – the life of the realm where God is already king – is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount…” (page 37).

Robert Smith puts it this way. “To say that this kingdom or sovereign rule is ‘of heaven’ or ‘of God’ is not to locate it in the heavens above but to assert that it has its source in heaven or in God, that it comes as a gift from above, and that it is something wholly different from earthly kingdoms and sovereignties” (page 48).

Warren Carter offers some overview and summary of what the Matthean author might mean by “greatly exceeds.” This language assumes that the scribes and Pharisees “think justice important and ascribes some doing of it to them, but somehow it is not adequate” (page 142). This is not about replacing or superseding the justice of the scribes and Pharisees. This is, as Jesus notes, about “fulfilling” it.

In this regard, I think it’s helpful to read Matthew 23:1-7. “Then Jesus was speaking to the crowds and to his disciples as he said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees are seated upon the chair of Moses. Therefore, all of that which they might say to you, you shall do and  observe, but you shall not do according to their works; for they are saying also what they are not doing’” (Matthew 23:1-3, my translation).

Here is the problem Jesus identifies. The things the scribes and Pharisees prescribe from the teaching chair of Moses – the Torah (law) – are appropriate for the crowds and the disciples. But the key is that they have to do it, not just hear it. That, in the Matthean account, is consistently the “more” that disciples add to the conduct and practice of the scribes and the Pharisees.

“The inadequacy is perhaps clarified first of all by recalling that in the imperial society Pharisees and scribes belong to the societal elite,” Carter writes, “the governing group in alliance with Rome, with a vested interest in maintaining, not reforming, the current, hierarchical, unjust societal structure” (page 143).

Whether that is true of all the scribes and Pharisees is a contested point among scholars. The Matthean author is engaging in some stereotyping here, and the interpreter must be cautious not to translate this into anti-Judaism or supersessionism. However, it may be the case that some scribes and Pharisees fit the image portrayed. It’s important in this regard first of all “to do no harm” when it comes to blanket descriptions of “the Jews.”

The problem with the justice of the Pharisees, Carter continues, “may be that it leaves the status quo of Roman domination intact. They do not practice,” Carter writes, “a transformative ‘justice, mercy, and faith’ as an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo and reflects the presence and triumph of God’s empire over all, including imperial ways” (page 143).

“The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them,” Hauerwas argues, “Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be” (page 67).

What follows in the balance of Matthew 5, then, is a series of examples. These examples illustrate some of the ways that disciples can indeed greatly exceed the justice of the scribes and the Pharisees. As Carter notes, the exceeding will be described in Matthew 5:48 as a “perfection” or “wholeness” or “completion” that resembles the character of “our heavenly Father.”

To enter into the KOTH, then, is to “participate in the completion of God’s purposes already encountered in part in Jesus’ proclamation and healing” (page 143). This is not “works righteousness,” as some Protestants might worry. “The saved, the ransomed, the redeemed are empowered to practice righteousness and are summoned to it,” Robert Smith writes. “Matthew’s portrait of Jesus will disappoint anyone who imagines that discipleship should mean escape from morality into spiritual experience” (page 93).

Rather, as Smith writes, “from every page of Matthew’s Gospel, a consistent picture emerges. Jesus pursues the divine intention in the Law (whether written or oral), and not only pursues it but practices it, and not only practices it but teaches it, and teaches it,” Smith concludes, “not only in his earthly ministry but also as the resurrected one (28:19)” (page 92).

“The sermon, therefore,” Hauerwas writes, “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered” (page 61). Just as we make theological mistakes when we separate the person and work of Christ, so we make ethical mistakes when we separate the “person” and “work” of the Church.

This refusal to separate faith and works produces a faith community that refuses to remain invisible to the larger culture. Hauerwas points to Bonhoeffer’s argument in this regard. “Visibility and difference is the result of being pulled into the way of life made possible by Jesus,” Hauerwas writes, “So the Sermon on the Mount is a description of a way of life of a people, a people of a new age that results from following this man” (page 63).

Following this man leads us to a specific place in history and geography – another mountain in the Matthean account. “Jesus does not seek to violently overthrow Rome, because his kingdom is an alternative to the violence of Rome as well as to those who would overthrow Rome with violence,” Hauerwas continues.

“His kingdom, however, cannot avoid being subversive. That subversion is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Hauerwas argues, “and as such is a subversion that will result in his crucifixion, for rather than violently overthrowing the old order Jesus creates a people capable of living in accordance with the new order in the old” (page 67).

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah connect the imperial theology of Christian invisibility to the realities of White Christian Nationalism. Those realities are rooted in the deformed theology of White European Christian exceptionalism and supremacy. That deformed theology has been in process since the reign of the Emperor Constantine and continues to drive our current racist realities in the Western world. It is a deformed theology that produces, underwrites, and even celebrates Christian “invisibility.”

“Christendom is the prostitution of the church to the empire that created a church culture of seeking power rather than relationships,” the authors write. “Jesus laid down his life, but the empire must save its life. Jesus emptied himself, but the empire must protect and expand itself. There is a fundamental conflict between the goal of the earthly empire and the direction of the kingdom of God. Greatness in the world and great in the kingdom of God,” they conclude, “stand in opposition” (page 66).

This paragraph is much closer to the Sermon on the Mount than most of what passes these days for “orthodox” (White”) theology. Buckle up, preachers. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

References and Resources

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989. Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for January 29, 2023

4 Epiphany C

Matthew 4:23-5:12

Jesus says there are no disposable people. That’s today’s main thought. And that’s the main thought in Matthew’s gospel for the next twenty chapters. So, hang on to that thought from now to November. Use that thought to understand every gospel reading this year.

Jesus says there are no disposable people.

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has started his public ministry. “Repent,” Jesus declares, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change how you see the world. Seek a different story to make sense of life. Adjust your thinking to make room for God.

That’s what it means to repent.

Jesus announces the change. Jesus then recruits the changers. The changers are the disciples. Remember – Jesus chooses to change the world through us. Then, Jesus gets to work.

Jesus travels the length and breadth of Galilee. Galilee isn’t a power center. Galilee is the backwoods, the hinterland, the territory of the forgotten and abandoned. And this is where Jesus launches his campaign.

Jesus heals every sick person they bring to him. He cures the demon-possessed, the epileptics, the paralyzed. These people are primary examples of the cursed and ignored. They are case studies of the alienated and isolated. They are regarded as disposable people.

This is where Jesus starts.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. People crave this message. In no time at all, Jesus attracts crowds from a fifty-mile radius. Those crowds include Jews and Greeks, rabbis and soldiers, rich and poor. Because everyone feels disposable in one way or another.

Here’s an important point. It comes from John Swinton, a marvelous theologian and writer. “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society,” Swinton writes, “Rather, he moved the margins.”

That idea unlocks the mystery of today’s gospel reading. I want you to chew on that idea this morning. Jesus moves the margins.

In Matthew five, Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount. The first twelve verses are often called “The Beatitudes.” That title comes from the Latin word for “blessed.” These verses begin with that word. That’s where we get the title.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells a “counter-story.” A counter-story pushes against the story everybody accepts as true. More than that, a counter-story usually comes from a different perspective. A counter-story usually comes from the edges of society, not the center.

Jesus tells a counter-story. In that story, Jesus moves the margins. But what is the story Jesus is “countering”?

The regular story blames the poor for their poverty. In the end, the poor get nothing.

The regular story tells the grieving to get over it. In the end, we just suck it up and move on.

The regular story says that gentleness is for suckers. Only the strong survive.

The regular story says that only fools think things will get better. Instead, you should just get yours while you have the chance.

The regular story says people are selfish. Life is a war of all against all. God doesn’t care. Get over it. The regular story is how most people see the world. The regular story supports the regular system. In the regular system the few get the goodies and the many get the shaft.

The regular story says that power, privilege, property, and pleasure are the prize. And people are disposable.

Jesus doesn’t buy the regular story. Jesus moves the margin. Jesus says there are no disposable people.

You might think this has nothing to do with you. You’re not poor or grieving or powerless or raging for justice. Too bad for the others. But you’re not one of the disposables.

That’s all right. Just keep telling yourself that.

Or…you can look a little deeper. That regular story lives inside of me. I’ll never really be good enough for anyone. I’ll never really have enough stuff to cure my poverty of spirit. I can’t get over my grief, so I just bury it under busyness. I can’t make the world right. So, I stop trying and just numb the pain.

I’m pretty sure I’m disposable too.

I suspect the regular story works for somebody. I suspect there are normal people somewhere. I’m also sure the story doesn’t work for me. I’m also sure I’m not one of those normal people.

I’m guessing that, whether you admit it or not, you’re with me on this. I’m not normal. I’m not worthwhile. I’m certainly not blessed. Most of the time, I’m pretty disposable.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. The regular story is not God’s story. The regular story is wrong. Jesus calls us to reject the regular story. Jesus calls us to live in God’s story. That’s what it means to repent.

Here’s God’s story. Jesus moves the margins. Jesus claims us disposables for the kingdom of God. Jesus names us blessed and worthy and greatly honored. Jesus comes to heal the sick, not to congratulate the healthy. Jesus comes to call not the righteous bus sinners.

Jesus will go anywhere to claim us disposables. Jesus joins us despised and disposable people on a Roman cross. That’s the final tool and symbol of the regular story. But not even death can dispose of Jesus.

God raises Jesus from the dead. God moves the margins of life. The regular story says death wins in the end. The regular story says we all get disposed of in the dirt. The regular story is wrong.

Jesus says there are no disposable people.

Jesus turns the regular story inside out and upside down. This makes no sense to the regular story people. But we aren’t regular story people. We follow Jesus. We trust that Jesus is, as Paul writes, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We are blessed to live in that power and by that wisdom.

Now we can read the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a poem. The first stanza is verses three through six. In that first stanza, Jesus reverses the regular story. In God’s kingdom, the disposable people are greatly honored. Jesus moves the margins to the center.

The regular story has an expiration date. That expiration date is the first Easter Sunday.

The second stanza is verses seven through ten. The Church says there are no disposable people. We are called to be margin-movers. We do that through gentleness. We do that through peace-building. We do that by challenging the systems designed to dispose of people daily.

The second stanza is a job-description for world-changers. Jesus calls us world-changers disciples.

Maybe this sounds a bit airy-fairy to you. So, let me give an example. I’m honored to visit homebound members of our congregation. I pray with them and bring them communion. We spend time in small talk. Some might think this is a waste of time. But I go because Jesus says there are no disposable people.

Have you ever been stuck at home because of an illness or injury? Think about how quickly you disappeared from other people’s social radar screens. Perhaps you got a taste of that during the COVID lockdowns. It doesn’t take long to wonder if we matter much. It’s no surprise that loneliness and depression were the most common results of the lockdowns.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. In November, we’ll get to Matthew twenty-five – the bookend for today’s gospel. In that chapter, we’ll get a list of people discarded by the regular story. We’ll meet the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and unhoused, the ill and imprisoned. This is an inventory of folks who drop off our radar screens. These are some of the disposable people in the regular story.

Jesus moves the margins. Jesus puts the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and the unhoused, the ill and the imprisoned in the center of God’s story. Jesus calls us margin-movers to do that daily.

Moving the margins was easier for Matthew’s community. Most of them were on the edge already. They didn’t have inherited power, privilege, and property. Most were illiterate. Many were enslaved people. Matthew’s folks didn’t have to find the disposables. They were the disposables.

It’s harder for us. We have power, privilege, and property. We have education and influence. We can determine our own destinies. Most of us here are not among the social disposables.

Don’t feel bad about that. You and I can leverage our privilege for those who have less. You and I can use our wealth to benefit the impoverished. You and I can use our influence to move the margins. You and I can resist the regular story by living the Jesus story.

When we get that right, we’ll know. Now we come to verses eleven and twelve. When we move the margins, the center reacts. When we embrace the disposables, we join them in their struggles. When we do that, we can rejoice and be glad, Jesus says. We’ll be in very good company.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. Is that how we’ll live this week?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part One)

February 5, 2023/5 Epiphany C

My favorite part of our baptismal liturgy is lighting the baptismal candle. “Let your light so shine before others,” I say as I light the taper from the Christ Candle, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I often remind the parents and sponsors, or the baptismal candidate, that these words come direct from Jesus, via Matthew 5:16.

I might even mention that Holy Baptismal is a gift, but it is also more. It is, in our tradition, a vocation for the baptized person. It is a calling ritual as well as an entrance ritual. It is the one ordination in our tradition that matters. All other vocations, whether to public leadership in the church or to public service in the world, are rooted in this baptismal calling.

So, I was brought up a bit short when I took the time to read and translate Matthew 5:16. All of the second person pronouns in this paragraph are plural. The “you” in Matthew 5:16 is not singular. It is not focused on the “light” of the individual disciple. Rather, these words are directed to the disciple community as a whole and together.

I have been thinking about what that means for my beloved baptismal piety and practice. I’m thinking I have to reformulate my theology a bit in this regard. I’m relieved that the baptismal welcome in our liturgy saves the day at least a bit. “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share,” the congregation responds, “join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Pew Edition, page 231).

That welcome acknowledges that the call and the mission “belong” first to the community. Our individual vocations, then, derive from that communal call. I will highlight that aspect of the baptismal vocation more in the future.

I was primed for this realization by re-reading Stanley Hauerwas’ theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew. “The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people,” Hauerwas writes, “You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another” (page 61, Kindle Edition).

Hauerwas argues that the Sermon on the Mount is not a prescription for entry into the Kingdom of the Heavens. Instead, it is a description of the way of life embraced by people gathered by and around Jesus. That way of life, Hauerwas asserts, is highly visible in and for the world. Therefore we get this metaphor of light in this week’s gospel reading.

In this regard, Hauerwas continues his dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially in Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. “Christians,” Hauerwas observes with Bonhoeffer, “are tempted to become invisible, justifying their identification with the surrounding culture in the name of serving the neighbor” (page 62, Kindle edition).

While Matthew’s community was called to be different from the surrounding culture, Christians since Constantine have been tempted to identify fully with the surrounding culture. Thus, Christians in the West have tended to fade into the background of the culture. It’s very difficult to see something unless it stands in contrast to the background against which you see it.

In our gospel reading, as Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer note, we have images that set the Christian community apart from the world. The community is called to be highly visible – like a city set on top of a hill, or a lamp set on a lampstand. Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer at this point: “To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him” (page 63, Kindle Edition).

This communal visibility, in contrast to the surrounding culture, is not an end itself. Hauerwas notes that this visibility is an effect of following Jesus. We are not called to be different for the sake of being different. But we can’t help but be visible by contrast if we are living as Jesus followers.

Hauerwas connects this to what it means for our justice to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. “The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them,” Hauerwas argues, “Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be” (page 67, Kindle Edition).

Warren Carter takes us in a similar direction in his commentary. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Carter writes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” (page 137, Kindle Edition). As Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer note, a retreat into invisibility is a failure of the disciple community.

The images of light and salt in our text “emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community,” Carter writes, “vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture” (page 139, Kindle Edition).

When the Church retreats into invisibility while still claiming the benefits of the Kin(g)dom, the result is salvation understood as “cheap grace.” This is the phrase for which Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known. Hauerwas quotes Bonhoeffer’s definition of “cheap grace” – “It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven” (page 60, Kindle Edition).

Hauerwas argues that this “cheap grace” understanding results from separating the person and work of Christ. This is a particular failing of Lutheran orthodoxy. It is also a failing of any theology that depends fully on the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the explanation for the reality of the cross. But I can only address my own theological tribe at this point.

My tradition tends to focus exclusively on grace as forgiveness of sins. That results in an emphasis on freedom from sin as the definition of salvation.  But that is only half the story. Hauerwas argues that “incarnation properly understood means that Jesus’s person and work cannot be separated because Jesus saves by making us participants in a new way of life. The name of that way of life is church” (page 30, Kindle Edition). Christian freedom is always also freedom for serving the neighbor in love.

I’m on this topic in part because of Bishop Eaton’s recent column in the January/February edition of The Living Lutheran. Her concern about “blurring the distinction” between Law and Gospel is, in my humble opinion, rooted in a separation of the person and work of Christ. If we focus on the gospel only as forgiveness of sins, then any celebration of good works is a dangerous flirtation with works righteousness, despite the fact that it is portrayed as the opposite.

The result, historically, has been Lutheran quietism when it comes to social justice issues. More than that, such theological analysis has made it possible for Lutherans to become “invisible” in the midst of one of the most horrific crimes in human historic – the Holocaust. As long as Lutherans had their theology straight, they could remain invisible. Of course, a number of them became highly visible in cooperating with the Nazi horror. But that’s for another time.

Any time we Lutherans begin once again to flirt with the safety of invisibility, we should feel a rising sense of theological panic – not because we might engage in works righteousness but because we are tempted by cheap grace.

This might all be written off as the ramblings of a wild and crazy theologian (Stanley Hauerwas, not me). Except for the fact that one of the most fruitful lines of Lutheran theological inquiry in the last fifty years seeks to bring the person and work of Christ back into our one Lord and Savior.

The work of Tuomo Mannermaa and his colleagues leads us back to a healthy emphasis from the authentic Luther – especially in his 1535 commentary on Galatians. The Finns urge us to reflect on what it means for Christ to be present in the believer (and in the believing community) in faith. That presence empowers and embodies works of love for neighbor. If those works are not present, then it seems that Christ is not present in the believer and the believing community. This is not blurring Law and Gospel. This is understanding that both move us toward the same objective — love for God AND love for neighbor.

It may be that some members of my theological tribe find this line of thinking uncomfortable. That’s the point. Jesus notes that our justice must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That’s not a knock on actual scribes and Pharisees. Instead, that’s a sort of standard by which to measure ourselves.

It won’t do to remain invisible in our piety and our careful adherence to dogmatic limits. That, Bishop Eaton, is what it means to hide our light under a grain basket until it is extinguished. I’d rather we set the world afire and sort out our dogmatic blunders later, if necessary.

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Three)

Things are coming into a bit more focus now. The first four beatitudes form a stanza in this programmatic poem. Those beatitudes offer examples of the Great Reversal promised in the coming Kin(g)dom of God. Jesus has announced, in line with John the Baptist and carrying through on that preview, that the Kin(g)dom is drawing near.

“Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

Jesus demonstrates the truth of that announcement by enacting it through teaching, healing, and casting out demons. He shows what the world looks like when the Great Reversal is put into action. The first and third beatitudes parallel one another. And we know we have seen the people mentioned in these beatitudes. They are part of the crowd that Jesus healed in chapter four and who overhear the Sermon on the Mount now.

Those who have been drained of any hope for the future will receive the Kingdom of Heaven and will inherit the earth. Carter describes them as “economically poor and whose spirits are crushed by economic injustice” (page 131). Those who mourn the victory of oppressors will see that victory reversed. They will be filled with the justice of God (Beatitudes two and four).

“The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Great Reversal has been launched in the ministry and mission of Jesus. He has called at least the first four of the frontline troops who will continue that ministry and mission. How are they to participate in that ministry and mission in the here and now?

We come to the second stanza. Offering mercy and doing peace are two of the practices of that ministry and mission. Clean hearts filled with a passion for God’s justice are requisites for those who will be part of the work. It’s worth quoting Carter at length here.

“The focus in the second group of beatitudes moves from the circumstances which God is reversing to human actions that manifest God’s empire. These and similar actions (this is not a complete list) enact God’s purposes for just societal relationships and access to resources. Such a way of life is blessed now and rewarded by God in the future, at the completion of God’s purposes. That is, while the “empire of the heavens” is God’s rule, this emphasis on human actions indicates a partnership between God and those living in accord with God’s purposes” (page 134).

The work of mercy and peace, purity and justice – that work in itself is the reward. Those who engage in such practices become more and more of what God created them to be in the beginning. “To act like God is to be one of God’s children now (5:45; 6:9),” Carter writes, “which will mean intimacy with God in the future completion of God’s purposes. God’s children are shaped not by ethnicity (cf. Deut 14:1) but by imitating God (cf. Matt 3:9)” (page 136).

So, first we have the promise of the Great Reversal. Then we have the job description for those who will be part of the work. And third, we see the response of the world and the freedom of those who do it. Yes, the system that depends on poverty, oppression, humiliation, and injustice will react badly to any changes.

Yet, those reactions will be signs that the system cannot stand forever. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Warren Carter notes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” page 137).

Those involved in this process are to be “greatly honored.” I think that’s the best translation of “Makarios.” The English word “blessed” has been stretched to cover so many things that it has become nearly meaningless.

In our text, two groups of people are “greatly honored.” First, there are those whom the system regards as being without honor. They are among those whom Carter might describe as the “involuntarily marginalized.” They are the expendables, the people who can be disregarded and discarded. They are the ones who’ve been told their lives don’t matter.

The first stanza radically reverses this evaluation. The good news for these people is that their situation is not permanent. It is not God’s judgment. It is a failure of a system in bondage to sin, death, and the devil. The system stands under judgment and will come to an end. That is the promise of the Kin(g)dom which is beginning to bear fruit here and now in Jesus.

Second to be greatly honored, I think, are the voluntarily marginalized. These are the disciples (and not just the four who have been named). These are the ones who accept the call to be part of the struggle and to do so by means of nonviolent resistance rooted in God’s grace and mercy. As a result of answering the call, the marginalized all find one another in the Kin(g)dom of God (notice the double mention in verses 3 and 10).

The Great Reversal calls for the Great Resistance. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives further details about how that Great Resistance works.

I try to imagine, first, how these words landed with the Matthean community. Matthew’s gospel, according to Carter, “is a counternarrative. It is a work of resistance,” he continues, “written for a largely Jewish religious group” (page 1). The Matthean community resists the pressures of the larger Jewish community (in Antioch or Galilee) on the one hand and Roman imperial power on the other.

Carter argues that the gospel is also “a work of advocacy and hope. The gospel constructs an alternative worldview and community. It affirms a way of life marginal to the dominant structures. It challenges its audience to live this resistant way of life faithfully in its present circumstances. And,” he concludes, “it promises that Jesus will return to establish God’s empire and salvation in full” (page 1).

To challenge an audience to live in a resistant way – I think that’s my task as a preacher in the setting where I live and work. When I think about how that might turn out, I’m not sure that I will be rejoicing and being very glad. But too often, I think I sell people short. I find in surprising places a hunger and thirst for God’s justice in a world of injustice.

“Reading the gospel is a world-advocating and world-rejecting,” Carter writes, “world-unveiling and world-decentering, world-affirming and world-exposing process” (page 3). And this reading urges people to abandon old ways, ways that only produce death and despair. “One of the effects of reading this story of Jesus is to see God’s reign or empire at work,” Carter continues, “to notice it in unlikely places, to understand its goals and methods, to hear its call to live in and for a just and compassionate world, and to participate in its final triumph over all” (page 3).

I suppose I’m writing this to give myself another personal pep talk. This gospel is at work among us. We who claim to follow Jesus are called to be part of the work. I am surprised by how often the people I serve seek to answer that call. It’s not without some weeping and gnashing of teeth, on their part and on mine. But the gospel shapes disciples far beyond my meager efforts. I’m glad once in a while to be part of that process.

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Two)

See POWELL, MARK ALLAN. “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 3 (1996): 460–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43722717.

Are the Beatitudes about “reversals” or “rewards”? Mark Allan Powell answers that question with a confident “Yes.” According to Powell’s analysis, the Beatitudes devote one stanza to each subject with a concluding beatitude at the end. Warren Carter notes that he relies in large part on Powell’s analysis. It’s worth reading the original article for a deeper understanding.

This two-stanza poetic structure “marks the Beatitudes as one of the most carefully crafted passages in the Gospel. Unless no other option exists,” Powell argues, “Matthew’s readers should not be forced to decide between finding meaning for the individual verses and finding meaning for the collection as a whole” (page 461). Some middle ground in this regard would certainly help us as preachers, too.

Most scholars regard Matthew 5:3-10 as a unit to which Matthew 5:11-12 is added – at least in structural terms. As Powell notes, we change from the second person plural in the main body to the third person plural in the conclusion. The first unit has the bookends of “the kingdom of the heavens” to mark its limits. The verbs of the second unit are in the imperative rather than the indicative mood. So far, so good.

Now for the two stanzas. Verses three through six and verses seven through ten each contain precisely thirty-six words in the Greek. Verses three through six use a sort of alliteration. Each of the groups begins in Greek with the “p” sound. Warren Carter identifies them as the poor in spirit, the plaintive, the powerless, and those who pine for righteousness (page 131). I like that a lot! And both verses 6 and 10 end with a reference to righteousness, creating a parallelism of stanza endings.

“Acceptance of a two-stanza structure allows for a compromise solution to the reversal-reward debate,” Powell concludes, “the first stanza (5:3-6) speaks of reversals for the unfortunate, and the second stanza (5:7-10) describes rewards for the virtuous” (page 462). We’ll hold off on the structural role of verses eleven and twelve for now.

I think that, for the preacher, this analysis is most helpful. The Matthean author is not commending poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, and starving for righteousness. These are not the “Be-Happy Attitudes.” These challenging circumstances and states will be reversed when the Kin(g)dom comes in its fullness.

Part of the call of discipleship is to resist the powers that bring about these states and to begin to live as if they are real in the here and now. “The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Matthean author is, on the other hand, commending mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance when persecuted. These are behaviors that reflect the Kin(g)dom in its fullness. They are marks of the path of discipleship in the here and now. They are practices to be encouraged and formed.

“The remaining four, and the elaboration in vv. 11-12,” Carter writes, “concern human actions which, inspired by the experience of God’s reign in vv. 3-6, are honored or esteemed because they express God’s transforming reign until God’s completion of it” (page 131).

While I can understand Powell’s label for the first stanza as “resistance,” I’m not so sure about his label for the second stanza as “reward.” That will take some more reflection. But first, back to the structural analysis.

Powell argues that this two-stanza solution encourages the assumption that the beatitudes are really for the whole world and not just for the Church. That assumption is contested, and Powell goes on to wrestle with the evidence.

While Powell doesn’t include this in his analysis, I am wondering about Hebraic parallelism within the stanzas as well. What I’m wondering is if we can use lines in this poetry to interpret and expand each other? For example, there’s great similarity between “poor in spirit” and “meek.” I suspect that these ideas are intended to “rhyme” in the style of Hebrew poetry, such as some of the Psalms.

I think it’s interesting to look at the possible parallels between “mourning” and “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” It is likely that what’s being mourned is the continuing internal exile of God’s chosen as the various empires hold them captive. On the other hand, anyone who has grieved wonders how their loss is right, just, or fair.

In the next stanza, the parallels between the merciful and the peacemakers are not hard to see. It’s again interesting to wonder what parallels exist between the pure in heart and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Purity of heart may not be simply some sort of innocence or (as Kierkegaard said) the ability “to will one thing.” Perhaps it is the passion for God’s justice and the willingness to suffer in pursuit of that justice which marks real purity of heart for the disciples.

In any event, this sort of analysis reduces the pressure on the preacher to come up with a definition for each of the Beatitude classes. However, I would commend to you Powell’s discussion of the various terms in use here. That discussion is instructive. That being said, this is a poem that has within it resources for interpretation, if we know where to look.

Let me quote Powell’s summary of the first four beatitudes here.

“In short, all of the first four beatitudes speak of reversal of circumstances for those who are unfortunate. Contrary to popular homiletical treatments, being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness or justice are not presented here as characteristics that people should exhibit if they want to earn God’s favor. Rather, these are undesirable conditions that characterize no one when God’s will is done” (page 469).

Powell notes that the grammar makes something clear. The Matthean Jesus is using the third person plural in verses three through ten. This is about “those people,” not exclusively about the disciples. Jesus switches to a second person plural in verse eleven when he addresses the disciples directly. The Beatitudes, Powell argues, are not limited to the Church. These are not entrance requirements for the Kin(g)dom. These are the people for whom the coming Kin(g)dom will in fact be a blessing (page 470).

Now, on to the second stanza. Powell argues that these verses promise eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior. But, Powell says, the text is more specific than that. He suggests that “the people whom Jesus declares blessed in 5:7-10 are those who help to bring to reality the blessings promised to others in 5:3-6” (page 470). Once again, Powell has some detailed description and discussion of each of the verses in this stanza.

Powell offers a summary for the second stanza that parallels his summary of the first. “When God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done, no one will have to be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, or hunger and thirst for righteousness, but everyone who is ruled by God and does God’s will is merciful, pure in heart, committed to peacemaking, and willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness” (page 475).

Powell goes on to note the ironic connection between the stanzas. This connection, he suggests, “lies in the realization that those who practice the virtues described in the second stanza may on that account come to be numbered among those described in the first stanza on whose behalf these virtues are exercised” (pages 475-476). In Warren Carter’s terms, my voluntary action on behalf of the involuntarily marginalized may result in my joining them on the margins (please see the previous post).

That temporary change in status, however, does not change God’s goals for all people, according to Powell. “God’s rule sets things right,” he concludes, “for all oppressed people” (page 476). “Whether the coming of God’s kingdom is perceived as bringing reversal or reward depends only on the position that one occupies prior to its advent,” Powell writes, “God’s rule sets things right. Those for whom things have not been right are blessed by the change it brings, and those who have been seeking to set things right are blessed by the accomplishment of what they have sought” (page 477).

And what about the ninth beatitude in Matthew 5:11-12? While God’s rule is intended to set things right for all people, Jesus’ words are most directly applicable to the disciples themselves (and to all disciples in future generations). “Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

A Letter to Bishop Eaton and her response.

In response to the Bishop’s column in the Jan/Feb edition of Living Lutheran I offered the following comments to ELCA churchwide bishop Elizabeth Eaton. I attach her response as well. I would only say that I had hoped for something other than a report of a reader response poll.

Dear Bishop Eaton:

I have read your “Presiding Bishop” column in the January/February 2023 edition of Living Lutheran several times. I am puzzled and distressed by what I read.

You express concern that the Lutheran understanding of the word of God as both Law and Gospel and the distinction necessary for that understanding “is getting blurred.” If that is indeed the case, then I would share that concern.

You note that “some define the gospel as social justice…” I’m not sure if that is the case. I am sure that I don’t find the “some people are saying” language to be helpful or compelling. If there are specific examples of the issue you identify, I’d like to hear about them. But the “some people” language is a bit like saying there’s trouble right here in River City.

I understand you have limited space in the column, but this language is too general to be helpful or actionable. I would have wished for greater clarity and specificity. Or it would have been best to omit this generic accusation.

I have concerns as well about the historical theology and the theological analysis you offer in your column. The categories of “Law” and “Gospel” in our theological tradition are dynamic realities rather than static categories. The very same word of Scripture can function as Law for one person and Gospel for another, depending on one’s position and circumstance.

I hear echoes of the in-house Lutheran debates that preceded the final version of the Formula of Concord. On the one hand, there were those who argued that good works are necessary for salvation. On the other hand, there were those who argued that good works are dangerous to our salvation. Neither reflects Luther’s position. However, you seem to flirt a bit with that latter assertion.

You note that works of social justice are not the gospel. Rather these works flow from the liberation we receive by means of the Gospel. I find that to be a description from a position of colonizing privilege. Works of social justice are indeed good news for the poor – part of the proclamation included in Jesus’ own inaugural sermon in Luke 4. Again, the Scriptural functions of Law and Gospel are dynamic, not static.

I am concerned that your analysis focuses exclusively on the “work” of Christ and does not adequately include the “person” of Christ. The work of justification is certainly central to the Gospel. However, the presence of Christ through faith in the heart of the believer is also central to the Gospel. Luther makes precisely this point in his 1535 commentary on Galatians.

The “wonderful exchange” which you reference in your writing encapsulates this inclusion of the “person” of Christ in the gospel. Through this exchange, the believer is freed and equipped for a life of loving service to the neighbor. We are not, by the way, free (at least according to Luther’s own analysis of the bondage of the will).

I can make neither head nor tails of the last two paragraphs of your column. We Lutherans aren’t quietists, you say. I hope that is more and more true. However, we must be careful not to blur our in-house theological distinctions as we seek to be more active. I think that’s all true, but I’m not clear what you would urge me to do with those two paragraphs.

I am distressed that this cautionary column is the last word in an issue that begins with a reflection on Dr. King’s words and work. Whatever your intention, the very structure of the issue could give the impression that you are offering a corrective to over-eager attempts at self-justification by social justice. As we read this issue during Black History month, I find the conjunction unfortunate and unhelpful.

If I have misunderstood your words and argument, I gladly will be corrected. If that is the case, I will offer my heartfelt apologies. I hope you will have the time to read this over-long query.

Thank you for your time and leadership.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

Omaha, NE

Dear Pr. Hennigs,

I appreciate receiving your comments about my article in Living Lutheran. I was aware that some faithful members of the ELCA would raise questions and concerns.  Other faithful members have been encouraged and grateful.

My prayer is that God’s Holy Spirit continue to guide us all in the ways of faithfulness and love as we live together in Jesus Christ.

God’s blessings,

Elizabeth A. Eaton

Presiding Bishop

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part One)

I am working my way through Warren Carter’s massive and magisterial verse by verse 2000 commentary on Matthew’s gospel, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. It is a rich resource and worth both the time and the investment (not terribly expensive as such commentaries go).

I will refer to Carter’s work frequently for the rest of the year. I am grateful to have this (for me) new conversation. I may yet become a fan of the Matthean account, in spite of myself.

Carter and others suggest that this section of the Matthean account begins with Matthew 4:17-25, as Jesus launches his public ministry. Carter proposes that this section runs through Matthew 11:1 and includes the first of five teaching discourses, what we typically refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Carter says this second section of the Matthean account answers the question as to how Jesus “carries out his mission to manifest God’s saving presence” (page 119).

This week we read and reflect on the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the verses most often described as “The Beatitudes.” Carter argues that the Sermon is not a comprehensive manual for discipleship. “Rather it offers a series of illustrations or ‘for examples’ or ‘case studies’ of life in God’s empire, visions of the identity and way of life that result from encountering God’s present and future reign” (page 128).

“The sermon,” Carter continues, “is direction-pointing, more than giving commands, suggestive and illustrative rather than comprehensive” (page 128). I think that matters for our interpretation of the Beatitudes. The list in these verses, however we might analyze the structure, is not a comprehensive catalogue of blessed behaviors and situations.

While these behaviors and situations are perhaps diagnostic of what it means to be a disciple, they are not everything it means. In particular, Carter argues, “the sermon portrays and invites its audience to a voluntarily marginal way of life as a minority community” (page 128).

We encountered this concept of “voluntary marginality” when we read one of Carter’s articles for last Sunday’s text. Before we go on, I want to review and interrogate that concept a bit more.

“I suggest that the gospel legitimates a marginal identity and way of life for the community of disciples,” Carter writes in his introduction (page 43). Based on the work of a century of social scientists, Carter identifies several “useful perspectives” on this concept.

Marginal groups live in at least two worlds at once – the larger cultural context and their own group context. (page 45). The dominant center excludes the marginal group from the center of power (involuntary). Or the group excludes itself from that center “by its own ideology commitments and visions of reality” (voluntary). “To be marginal is to exist out of the center,” Carter writes, “on the edge, at the periphery in an antithetical relationship in which groups live in some opposition to the dominant or central reality (structure/anti-structure) (page 45).”

The marginal group can experience this life on the edge as positive. Life at the margins can allow that group to see its world and worldview as better than the world and worldview of the dominant center. “The group fosters and maintains its own commitments, practices, and worldview, as alternatives to those of the dominant or central world” (page 45).

This description of life on the edge informs how Carter reads the Matthean account. He sees the Matthean audience as a community of voluntary marginals. The group’s “communal life, centered on following Jesus, is its primary world. Its chosen marginality in relation to the larger society is ideological and social. It lives as participants in the wider society, but in tension with, over against, as an alternative to its dominant values and structures” (page 45).

The world and worldview of the Matthean community includes a number of identity, lifestyle, and practical characteristics. The community looks to Jesus to manifest God’s will. The community follows Jesus, who is crucified by the (Roman) empire. The community embodies and prays for the coming of God’s empire. God’s saving presence is manifested in Jesus, not the emperor.

The community criticizes imperial rule and calls it to account. The community lives as “slaves” of one another. The community is more egalitarian than the dominant culture. The community recognizes God’s sovereignty and tolerates but does not ratify some of the emperor’s “false” claims. The community relies on nonviolent resistance to the empire. The community responds to the needs of all without condition. The community uses wealth to bring well-being rather than luxury (pages 45-46).

“My thesis is that the gospel calls its audience to such an existence,” Carter argues. “It offers the audience a vision of life as voluntary marginals, confirms and strengthens those who already embrace such an existence, and challenges them and others to greater faithfulness” (page 46).

Carter’s detailed description fits well, I think, with the material we read in the Matthean account. I’m not sure how well this description translates from that account into the lives of my week-to-week audience. For the most part, I do not serve marginalized people, either involuntary or voluntary. Instead, I serve people who are firmly embedded in the dominant and central world and worldview.

That’s not, in and of itself, a critique of the people I serve. It’s also a description that applies completely to me and my life. The Matthean account surely critiques my place in and allegiance to that dominant and central world and worldview. But that’s not where I want to focus for the moment.

I could regard this status of “voluntary marginal” as a sort of goal to be achieved. I think that’s a problem. I am concerned that, as a member of the dominant culture, I am tempted to perform some variety of voluntary marginalization. I can join, for example, in protests, acts of resistance, and critiques of power without much cost to myself.

I can return to my place in the dominant culture any time I choose. I can easily take on this “voluntary marginal” status as a colonizing condescension. I can pat myself on the back for standing with the poor. I can congratulate myself for doing anti-racist work. And those actions don’t have to cost me much of anything, at least in the long run.

Being marginalized is a problem, not a hobby. It’s an outcome, not a goal.

Perhaps this is a too-subtle distinction to be useful. But it’s something I need to work out – at least for me. I think that what’s really “voluntary” in Carter’s description is the world and worldview we Christians are called to inhabit. When we respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship, we embrace any number of anti-dominant views and behaviors. The result of that embrace may well be real marginalization.

I will find myself on “the margins” whenever I stand firm with the values of the Kin(g)dom of God. I will be marginalized by those who do not hold such values. I don’t seek to be ostracized by family members, friends, or neighbors. But, for example, if I hold anti-racism as a Kin(g)dom value and challenge the racism of someone important to me, I am probably going to find myself excluded from that relationship.

Another example. Brenda and I adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet several years ago. As a result, we often find ourselves on the margins of social gatherings. We don’t always find something on the menu we would choose to eat. We often bring our own food or choose to eat when we get home. We aren’t choosing to be anti-social. But some of our worldview, lifestyle, and behavioral choices require us to abandon the dominant center. And others sometimes regard us as adversarial and judgmental, even if that’s not our intention.

I’m not suggesting that such dietary choices are part of Christian discipleship. That’s a conversation for another day. Nor am I suggesting that we are either heroic or persecuted as a result. But I am suggesting that our choices to embrace a particular ethical stance result in an experience of marginalization. I would add that nuance to Carter’s analysis of the Matthean account.

It’s clear from the text that responding to the call to discipleship can and does lead to (“good”) trouble. Members of the dominant cultural center may respond with insults and abuse. They may persecute the disciples. They may speak all manner of evil against the disciples, even if such accusations and indictments are false. “The empire,” as Carter says several times, “will certainly strike back…” (page 136).

In response, Jesus calls disciples to “rejoice and be really glad” (Matthew 5:12a, my translation). That will take a lot more unpacking. However, I would refer you for a moment to the other scriptural focus of my attention these days. Re-read Philippians 1:12-19 for a description of Paul’s imprisonment and some of the outcomes of that imprisonment.

Regardless of what’s happening, Paul says, Christ is proclaimed. And as a result, Paul rejoices. Indeed, Paul continues to rejoice, in spite of expectations to the contrary. There’s a strong adversative at the end of Philippians 1:18 that the NRSV translate as “and.” That’s not quite right. Continued rejoicing is not what Paul thinks the Philippians will expect at such a moment. But it is the discipleship behavior Paul wishes to model for them as they endure their own trials and persecutions.

Well, I’m not sure what to do with all that yet. But it’s a place to start.