When we hear the eight beatitudes that begin the Gospel of Matthew’s sermon on the mount in chapter 5, we can easily drift into very well-known territory. Every Christian is very familiar with these sayings, and this gospel or one of its many sung forms is used at weddings and funerals, graduations and dedications. Some dear soul has embroidered the text of the 12 verses and they are placed in our church next to a similar frame containing the ten commandments. But these blessings that accompany our remembrance of this day of all the saints are not new Christian commandments. These declarations are only good news for us if we realise that a beatitude is a statement that declares that certain people are fortunate, or are privileged, or are simply in a great place – because God’s future kingdom is beginning to break into our present reality now.
Beatitudes are unconditional. They do not simply describe something that you hope will one day be true. They do not take the form of ‘if you will do x, then y will happen’ but unconditionally declare that those who are x will be y. In this sense, a beatitude is a prophetic declaration, because it effects what it says and brings into being what it states. So they are nothing like mere laws, because to declare a beatitude is to announce the gospel.
For the beatitudes to be true depends on the truthfulness and authority of the speaker. In this case the speaker is no mere prophet, but our Lord and Saviour himself, and it is on his authority that the church can continue to proclaim and declare the blessedness of anyone who finds themselves already to be poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers or being persecuted because of righteousness.
The declarations that accompany these beatitudes do not make much sense according to simple human wisdom. Rather they pronounce blessing on any authentic disciples who are living in Christian community. As such, these beatitudes do not apply to eight distinct groups of good people or individuals who will be going to heaven, but to the whole group of Christians together in the church who are striving and struggling to be authentic disciples and indeed saints.
Happy feast day.
Grace and peace.
Journey Radio Program; Sunday Message now also available
Although the idea of journey is not as strong in the Gospel of Mark as it is in Luke, the disciples have still been following Jesus along the way for many kilometres now. And still they are struggling to make sense of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him on the road. Now that their journey is almost ended, they meet another blind beggar outside of the town. This man is called Bartimaeus and he manages to attract the wrong kind of attention by shouting out after Jesus for mercy. It is enough to make Jesus stop and call the man to him. The voices of the crowd that had been asking him to be quiet now change to voices of affirmation and courage.
The faith of Bartimaeus becomes clear. He doesn’t wait for the healing to throw off his protection as a beggar from the cold and the elements – and indeed his whole identity and purpose. No more waiting, no more confusion: he throws aside the cloak and jumps up and runs to Jesus, perhaps still with the cry for mercy upon his lips.
Jesus wants to know what his deepest desire is – so even if it is abundantly clear what this man’s need really is, Jesus takes the time to ask him the obvious question: what do you want me to do for you? Perhaps the question is necessary because Jesus knows that if he does this for Bartimaeus that his whole life will change. Perhaps his question is really – do you want to give up begging and find a completely new way to live, a new job, new friends, a new place to live?
Bartimaeus becomes in his simple determination to see and follow the Lord an example of faith and discipleship. Unlike the disciples who in their blindness wanted glory, prestige and power, this man wants to know the only one who can save him. He is able to give the right answer to this question. What about us? What do you want Jesus to do for you?
Journey Radio Program
Sunday 30, Year B. Mark 10:46-52
A few verses before our passage today we read that “And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32, RSV) Then Jesus takes the twelve aside and announces to them what is about to happen when they arrive in Jerusalem – being handed over to the Jewish authorities, who will condemn him to death, deliver him to the Gentiles (Romans) who will mock him, spit on him, scourge and kill him; and on the third day he will rise again. So this is the background to the question that James and John request of Jesus – to sit on his left and right when he comes into his glory. Amazed and afraid. And stupid!
Recorded at St Paul’s.
Sunday 29, Year B. Mark 10:35-45.
The Gospel today should probably carry a warning message before it is read. So many saints across the centuries have been cut to the heart when they have heard this proclaimed, and realise that Jesus is looking at us, no gazing with love at them and you and me. He is going to redefine the first three commandments for us in the same way that he did for this running man: go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor and come follow me. This is what it means that there are no other gods, no idols, no graven images, no other name that can claim our allegiance. He is the one. And he wants it all. Not because God needs our stuff – but because we will never be truly free until we can let go of everything else and cling to him alone.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, you find the idea first with Abraham and Melchizedek in Genesis 14, then developed in the book of Deuteronomy in chapters 12, 14 and 26 (offering of the first fruits of the harvest) and then a much more carefully defined idea in the final minor prophet Malachi where the teaching on the tithe (ten percent of income) is presented the most clearly. In the Christian scriptures, although the idea of the tithe may still be presumed, the notion of giving back to the Lord is much more radical – to give it all away. So what should we make of all this?
Recorded at St Paul’s (with a heavy cold – sorry)
Sunday 28, Year B. Mark 10:17-30
Today we get to reflect on everyone’s favourite topic: divorce. The verse before our Gospel begins today provides a little more context when it tells us that Jesus was travelling with his disciples and the crowds down through the Jordan Valley into Judea and onto Jerusalem. When the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask the question: “is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?” we need to read this against the historical and political background of the time. The Jordan river should remind us immediately of the ministry of John the Baptiser – who had recently been executed for daring to challenge the so-called King Herod on his illicit second marriage with his brother’s first wife. So the question is a test, because it was so politically charged. In general, no one was very concerned about divorce. It was at the time of Jesus generally accepted and practiced within Jewish society. What was disputed was the exact grounds for a divorce.
There were three schools of thought and Rabbinical interpretation concerning the only passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that deals with the question of divorce (although other passages do condemn the practice) – namely the first 4 verses in Deuteronomy 24. This somewhat obscure passage suggests that a man was able to provide a decree of divorce to his wife if he found something objectionable about her. It then indicates that she is free to enter into a second marriage, but that if the second marriage ends, she is not able to remarry her first husband. This seems to be a protection for the woman; her first dowry would have been kept by her first husband in the divorce; if her second husband died, then she would keep the second dowry, but the first husband may only be offering to marry her to get his hands on this money – so don’t let him.
What this ‘something objectionable’ or others translate this as ‘sexual immorality or indecency’ was was the subject of much discussion. There were three major schools of thought. The first is associated with the generally hard-line and conservative Rabbi Shammai who indicates that the only grounds for divorce is infidelity by the woman. The more liberal leaning Rabbi Hillel (who Jesus usually follows in his interpretations) provides an example that could be a cause for divorce: if the woman spoils a dish while cooking! An even more extreme example is offered by Rabbi Aqiba who says that the only thing necessary for a divorce is if the husband finds another woman to be more beautiful. So, even though Jesus normally follows the thought of Hillel (as also does St Paul), in this instance, once he is able to speak to the disciples alone (and not the crowd) he follows Shammai and even places significant restrictions on that teaching. He indicates that the only reason that Moses even provides the exception for divorce was because the people were so unteachable, or more literally, have hard-hearts (or uncircumcised hearts), which in the Greek is sklerokardia – which, by the way, could make a great insult if you are in the market for such things – as in, Richard, why are you being so sklerokardic?!
Recorded at St Paul’s (9.30am)
Sunday 27, Year B. Mark 10:2-12