my records, this is the 4th time I’ve preached on the
Beatitudes here, and the 7th time overall. To be honest,
this makes things a little bit challenging. To be a responsible
preacher, I think I have to go over the basics each time, but to be
an INTERESTING preacher I need to offer you something new. The
Beatitudes, however, have been around for a while and they aren’t …
fact, they’re so not new to those of us with lifetime exposures to
Christianity, that I’m not sure we can hear them anymore. Bruce
Malina and Richard Rohrbough wrote the “Social-Science Commentary
on the Synoptic Gospels” which is one of the most useful books I’ve
ever met. They put the Gospels into a social context, and use it to
explain how things would have made sense in the stories and to those
first hearing the stories.
commentary on the Beatitudes is particularly helpful, as they
DISAGREE with the general consensus that “blessed” can be
translated as “fortunate” or “lucky” or “happy.” Those
are all good translations of the Latin version of the text,
but they miss the social context of Jesus’s day. Instead, they point
The language used here, i.e. ‘blessed’ is
honorific language. … Contrary to the dominant social values, these
‘blessed are…’ statements ascribe honor to those unable to defend
their positions or those who refuse to take advantage of or trespass
on the position of another. They are not those normally honored by
the culture. Obviously, then, the honor granted comes from God, not
from the usual social sources.1
honor bit of this isn’t simply honor like we understand it today.
One of the primary points of the book is that honor and shame were
understood as a zero-sum reality in the Mediterranean region at that
time. One was born into a certain amount of honor or shame and the
only way one gained honor was by gaining it FROM someone else and
that person then experienced an increase in shame. Honor was the
FUNDMENTAL value in society, and it was a “limited good.” In
fact, the “poor” and the “rich” in the New Testament are not
actually economic terms to begin with. Rather, to be “poor” was
to be a person living with less honor than one was born to, and to be
“rich” was to have gained honor from others. Malina and
Rorhrbough put it this way, “The ancient Mediterranean attitude was
that every rich person is either unjust or the hair of an unjust
person,” one who had stolen from others what they had.2
They conclude that,”The terms ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ therefore, are
better translated ‘greedy,’ and socially unfortunate.’”3
(This isn’t to say poverty wasn’t an issue, it was just such a
UNIVERSAL issue that it wasn’t actually the focus.)
understanding of honor, and the connection of honor to “blessed
are…”, is the key to understanding the Beatitudes in their
original context. The challenge is that sometimes the text has been
used to mean the opposite of it’s intention. When “Blessed are…”
is translated “lucky” it can SEEM like the beatitudes are saying:
“Lucky are the ones who struggle, don’t worry about them, they’re
better off than you think.” Thus the social order of the day,
whatever day it may be, is upheld and people’s suffering is
sounds sort of like what a STANDARD set of honor and shame statements
would have been – the ones describing society as it was in Jesus’s
are those born into good families.
are those who are spoken well of in the town square.
are those who own large estates.
are the elected officials who make the rules.
are those who have many servants.
are those who have the status to control others.
are those who have the ear of power.
are those who can enforce their will with violence.
are those who speak, and others have to listen.
is, honor belongs to and is used by those are are already powerful,
important, and wealthy. So, shame belongs to the powerless, the
unimportant, the poor, and those who lose status. This clarifies
just how different the statements in Matthew’s gospel really are.
Because those that society shames, God does not.
the information we have, the Beatitudes might be heard as:
Honorable to God are those who have lost the
honor of society, while they do not own the kingdoms of earth, they
are part of the kindom of heaven.
Honorable to God are those who are mourn, while
they have lost that which matters, loss is not the final word.
Honorable to God are those who refuse to harm
others, while they may lose out on power and wealth, they will end up
with everything that truly matters.
Honorable to God are those who hunger and thirst
for fairness, righteousness, and justice – it is coming.
Honorable to God are the merciful – those who
do not demand what they have a right to and shame others – they
will also receive mercy when they need it.
Honorable to God are those who are pure in
heart, the kind, for when they look in the world, they are able to
see the hand of God at work.
Honorable to God are the peace-able people, the
ones who reject violence and seek win-win situations, they are like
Honorable to God are the ones who are shamed by
society for making the right choices, they also are a part of the
kindom of heaven.
is describing an ENTIRELY ALTERNATE values system, one that ignores
the things that society cared about and instead focuses about caring
for each other, building each other up, not being willing to do harm,
and inverting the assumptions about how honor and shame work.
work of Jesus in this Matthew passage tracks well with the questions
posed in Micah. In this passage God reminds the people what God has
done for them, and they respond with a wish to show appropriate…
well, honor and difference to God. This leads to the question, “With
what shall I come before the LORD?” and the initial thoughts are
the sorts of gifts one might bring a king to indicate that one
understands oneself to be a vassal – that the approval of the king
is important to your own continued life. But the answer is that
God does NOT work like that. God isn’t looking for bribes, like the
kings of the world. God is looking for something else entirely.
may well know this answer: to do justice, and to love kindness, and
to walk humbly with your God. Sounds a bit like the Beatitudes,
asked a question last week about how we as Christians are supposed to
be in relationship with the world. I think, perhaps, this is a large
part of the answer. We are to exist within an alternative value
system, one that sees the world with different eyes. We are to see
the values of justice, and of kindness, of humility, of peacefulness,
of humility, of mercy – and let those values guide our lives. How
we relate to the world at large is not in rejection or complicity –
it is with seeing it with different eyes.
the video for the Living the Questions study last week Rev. Winnie
Varghese suggests that as Christians we should be dreaming dreams so
big that the world thinks we are CRAZY, and the dreams are
impossible. The reason, she says, is because God dreams of a truly
just society, and we’re supposed to be dreamers with God. I think
that both Micah and the Beatitudes point us in the direction of God’s
dreams – of value systems that value compassion, collaboration, and
kindness. May we dream right alongside of God, and act accordingly.
J. Malina and Richard L. Rorhrbough Social-Science Commentary on the
Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) “Textual
Notes: Matthew 5:1-12” p. 41.
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305