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.

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