Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
I think that perhaps more than any other passage, the Beatitudes need a fresh translation. I like a lot of Eugene Peterson's The Message for a lot of things (I recommend it in general, and bought a copy for my partner for Christmas), but it's really, really awful for this Sunday's gospel.
Petersen renders the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3) as "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule." The colloquial language doesn't bother me at all, and I'm not at all opposed to the idea of "dynamic equivalence" in translation, in which translators try to communicate the sense of a text as accurately as possible, even if that means not translating each word of it. The problem in this passage is that Petersen, in my opinion, gets it very badly wrong in his rendering of all of the beatitudes.
Petersen plays up even more something that I think is already a problem when we take the familiar and traditional "Blessed are ..." language of the Beatitudes and read them through the lens of Western individualism:
We end of with a collection of pious platitudes about the attitude with which you go about your business -- business as usual, as our culture defines it. We end up reading the Beatitudes as something like what Robert Schuller called them in his book: the "Be-Happy Attitudes." That's not at all what they are.
I think that Jerome Neyrey ends up with a MUCH better reading of this text in his book Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, and there are two things that get him there:
First off, he starts with a good translation, following K.C. Hanson in translating makarios, the Greek word that the NRSV renders as "blessed," as "honored." These verses don't show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honor to those pushed out to the margins of their culture.
Second, Neyrey suggests that we take the last Beatitude -- "Honored are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account" -- as our starting point for understanding what's going on here.
In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you "your own man"; it made you nobody. That's serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.
That situation brought about all kinds of other hardships. The one pushed out could be destitute (ptochos), like the person Jesus honors in Matthew 5:3, and the hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about -- literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it -- would certainly follow, as would mourning (Matthew 5:4).
Why would the families of Jesus' followers push them out, though? The scandalous behavior Jesus' followers displayed left their families little other choice in their culture. The free social intercourse between men and women, respectable folk and sinners was shocking to many, and people who behaved like that paid a steep price. Perhaps even more shocking to many was the way Jesus' followers treated their fathers. Jesus himself was said to advocate abandoning one's aging parents to follow him, rather than staying by them to care for them until they died, and to make sure they received an honorable burial ("let me bury my father," as in Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60, was shorthand for this). St. Paul counseled Christians in 1 Corinthians 7 to choose whom they would marry, completely ignoring the authority of fathers, who would have arranged marriages for their sons and daughters according to what they thought best. Such disobedience shamed the whole family, threatening everyone's welfare in the process; small wonder that those who engaged in it were so often pushed out.
Matthew expands on the smaller set of Beatitudes as Luke presents them, and the additional ones make clearer what other kinds of behavior got Jesus' followers into such trouble. They were "meek," refusing to engage in contests for honor that affected their entire family as much as it did the individual male who refused to "be a man" when challenged. They were "merciful" and "peacemakers," seeking reconciliation with rather than revenge on someone who wronged them. They were "pure in heart," and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things -- like eating with any who would break bread with you -- bound to render them impure in others' eyes.
Jesus gathers in all of these people who have are completely bereft and without honor in their culture's eyes, and he gives them two gifts which more than compensate for their very real losses.
Jesus gives them honor. In front of all the crowds, Jesus ascribes honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel honors. Their human fathers may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs.
And that brings up the second gift that Jesus gives them: He makes them family. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.
What a challenge to the church! I think that's why I wanted to post that prayer from Jeffrey John yesterday, as I was reflecting on the texts for this coming Sunday.
What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not achievement or respectability: just justice, and mercy, and humility. Sounds simple, but living into that in our culture has costs. We probably won't be left destitute (kind of puts the financial hits that parishes take after taking strong stands on justice issues into perspective, doesn't it?). But if you say "YES! In my backyard!" to a homeless shelter in your neighborhood, and your neighbors will be pretty pissed off at the way you're lowering everyone's real estate values. But keep on doing it -- God values what you're doing. God honors that, as God honors the poor whom you're serving.
What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors? What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture's games for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings await us on that journey? It's quite an adventure.
Thanks be to God!
I've recently begun rummaging about in the Great Sermon Literature in the Yale Div School Library and online data bases, etc. As complex as modern parable studies are, the Sermon on the Mount/Plain sometimes feels even more difficult to get at, because it LOOKS so simple, taken as a pristine vision. (Frankly, so far, I haven't found nearly the breadth of material as on the parables.)
Despite all the wrangling dialectics of Historical Jesus scholars, in my reading sometimes things seem to come together, and a sense of understanding seems to arise from this sense of coherence. The Kingdom Parables of Jesus and reports of his lifestyle seem to come together to say, "God's Reign of Love" will burst the bounds of your categories -- and his parables leave us in mid-air, looking for a new way to live. The beatitudes and some of what follows, on a quick take, seem to cohere with this -- get out of your old mental boxes and unlock the chains around your heart; when your mind and heart are as open as can be, then you will find a way to live your role in God's Reign. (For all of Blake's obtuseness, I think he got this right.)
P.S. If you've any favorite exegisis on the Great Sermon, please do share it.
Posted by: Steven Deedon | Aug 3, 2008 1:02:10 AM
What a brilliant reflection. Thank you. Made me think about this passage in a whole new light. Will be writing a blog on this myself shortly and this will certainly help shape my thoughts.
Posted by: Neil Chappell | Jan 6, 2011 11:27:01 AM
Thank for sharing this. I am in my first year of Yr. A (only Ordained May 2010) so everything that others have seen before are new to me.
Posted by: Rev Norma | Jan 25, 2011 6:28:05 PM
Thank you for this helpful post and for sharing Jerome Neyrey's insights.
Our Junior Church are currently exploring the Beattitudes. One 11 year old heard the idea of reading "blessed" as "honoured" and responded: It is like when people say "I am honoured to have met you!" Who would we say that to? Who might we be honoured to have met? - The glamorous actor or the loner mental health issues?
Kids make you think!
Posted by: Fiona | Jan 27, 2014 7:23:49 AM