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.