Wednesday, February 02, 2011
A New Moses: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
The Academy Award Nominees were announced this week, always a highlight at my house. In 1952 a special Academy Award was given to director Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film “Rashomon.” “Rashomon” told a tragic tale, the story of a rape and murder, from the perspectives of four characters. The stories they tell are vastly different from one another, and so throughout the filming the actors kept approaching Kurosawa and asking him “What is the truth?” And he wouldn’t answer. He wasn’t interested in limiting the truth to one viewpoint. He was more interested in the interplay of multiple realities. “Rashomon” today is regarded, not only as Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece of cinema.
The scriptures we read contain not one but four different versions of the Good News, the gospel, the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We can read the story of Jesus through the eyes of the authors of Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John. And while it is true that there is some similarity and overlap in the storytelling, especially in Matthew, Mark and Luke, each evangelist has a distinct point of view, a unique take on the life of Jesus.
It makes sense. The gospels are a little like “Rashomon.” Each evangelist is a kind of witness from a different angle, of the life of Jesus. None of them was an eyewitness, though—the gospels were written anywhere from forty to seventy years after Jesus’ crucifixion—and, in a sense, that gave each of them the freedom to tailor the story of Jesus to the audience they were trying to reach, the people to whom they wanted to impart the Good News.
Take Matthew. Matthew is our gospel this year, the one we will be most deeply immersed in, since this year A of the three-year lectionary cycle. Scholars just about universally agree that Matthew’s viewpoint is a distinctly Jewish one. Of all the evangelists, Matthew is the most at ease describing the customs of first century Palestinian Jews, such as the particulars of Temple worship. In fact, some scholars believe that this gospel may originally have circulated in Hebrew or Aramaic the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. And one of the great themes of Matthew’s gospel, a theme that would speak directly to the hearts of his Jewish audience, a theme he develops in many different ways, is this: Jesus is the new Moses.
Moses was the central figure of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. An ancient tradition even taught that Moses was the author of those books. It was Moses who was called by God to lead God’s people out of slavery. It was Moses who bargained with the Pharaoh, calling down God’s plagues when the monarch resisted. It was Moses who received the instructions about the Passover and imparted them to the people. It was Moses who led the people across the Sea of Reeds, and on their forty-year wilderness sojourn. Moses was there for all the seminal events of the people of Israel, the events that determined and shaped Jewish identity forever. It was Moses who mediated God’s will and God’s presence and God’s law to the people.
Matthew goes to great lengths to show us how Jesus is the new Moses. He starts with Jesus’ birth story, in which an evil king seeks to kill Jesus while still a baby—just like Pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew children when Moses was a baby. Jesus spends, not forty years, but forty days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. And, beginning in chapter five of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus climbs a mountain, just like Moses climbs Mount Sinai, and gives the law—a new law—to the people.
Chapters five through seven of Matthew’s gospel are known as “the Sermon on the Mount,” and it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the words we find there. More than one Christian theologian has called the sermon the Magna Carta—the Great Charter—of Christianity. These are among the most familiar words Jesus spoke. They are quoted and quoted and, yes, misquoted everywhere from serious literature to pop culture. And we have a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount over the course of the next five weeks, so I think we should take it, let it soak into our ears and our hearts, or, as the Book of Common Prayer so beautifully says, “read, mark and inwardly digest” it.
So here we are at the opening of chapter 5. Jesus has only recently begun his ministry. He has called some disciples to come and follow, and he has begun his work of showing what the kingdom of heaven looks like, by teaching, preaching and healing. Jesus becomes aware that there is a crowd following him, and so he climbs a mountain—to get away from them? Perhaps. But remember: we are reading Matthew. Jesus climbs this mountain because Moses climbed Mount Sinai. Jesus climbs this mountain because what he is about to say—what we’ll be reading over the next five weeks—is every bit as important as the law that God gave Moses.
Here is the beginning of what Jesus says:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ~Matthew 5:3-12
This passage contains what Christians call “the beatitudes,” a word that simply means, “blessings.” The first four beatitudes—the ones concerning the poor or poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—those four sayings refer to things that are absolutely out of our control. If we are poor or our spirits are impoverished; if we are mourning a great sorrow; if we are better described as a doormat than as a captain of industry; if our hearts and our bodies cry out to God for justice that has been denied—these are all conditions of living in a fallen world. These are things that have happened to us, not necessarily through any fault of our own. Jesus is giving the “law,” and the first remarkable thing about it is that it starts by describing people whose human condition is difficult, painful, unfair. And it assures us that, though the world may not see or value who they are, God most certainly does.
A word about the kingdom of heaven starts to whisper in the background, a word behind the words: that word is grace. This new “law” is not about how we can earn God’s favor; it’s about God’s favor being bestowed where it is least expected. It is an entirely counterintuitive, unexpected take on what it means to be one of God’s people.
The second four beatitudes—the ones about being merciful, about being pure in heart, about making peace, and about enduring persecution for the sake of the kingdom—these beatitudes are about things that are within our power to choose. We can choose to show mercy, to forgive. We can choose to discipline ourselves to be single-hearted about the gospel. We can choose to make peace rather than sustaining or supporting violence and strife. We can choose to stand up for what is right even when it draws fire. And these things are all things we do, as opposed to things we are. But listen to this: these four beatitudes describe the ways in which we can stand up for, stand on the side of, stand in solidarity with the kinds of people described in the first four beatitudes. “In other words 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.” (1)
Jesus climbs a mountain, and commences teaching exactly what this kingdom of heaven looks like—and it turns out not to be some other-worldly reward, far off above the clouds. It turns out to be a place of balancing of the scales and wrongs set right that can happen beginning right here and right now. But these reversals require something of us: they require that we see one another—that we look around us carefully to see where the injustice is, where the poverty is, where the sorrow is. We can’t participate in God’s gracious rule if we are oblivious to suffering.
For most of his adult life, Mahatma Gandhi, the great political and spiritual leader who pioneered the ethic of nonviolent resistance, read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount every morning. He was convinced that it contained a truth more powerful than the empire that occupied his native India. He was convinced that it contained a truth more powerful than the enmity that divided Hindus and Muslims. This practitioner of Hinduism spent his life seeking to put Jesus' teachings into practice for the sake of peace. Today is the anniversary of his assassination in 1948. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (2)
The new Moses is giving a new law from his perch on the mountain. His friends and followers are waiting for the rest of his words with bated breath. And the first word he gives, is one of both comfort and challenge. Comfort to those whose lives are landscapes of suffering. And challenge to those of us who just might have the wherewithal to do something about that. Every single one of us falls into one of those categories. Every single one of us has a place in God’s scheme of grace. Every single one of us can find our blessedness, can live under the gracious rule of God. Thanks be to God. Amen
(1) Mark Allan Powell, God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel (Fortress 1995), 130.
Image: Sermon on the Mount by Laura James.