Saturday, January 21, 2017

Two Kinds of Blessedness

Matthew 5:1-12, the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, is undoubtedly one of the most beloved passages in Scripture.  It often is preached on the Festival of All Saints or at funerals as a way of bringing comfort to those who grieve.  While this is an important function of this passage, there is much more than mere comfort offered here.  There is an invitation as well.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only supplemental to many fine methods of exploration.  These questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, which can be purchased through or amazon.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Obviously the function of this passage is to bless people, to announce who are the recipients of God's favor, who are those who can expect to be shareholders in the kingdom of heaven.  This is clearly a gospel function, an announcement of God's mercy.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no real word of Law here.  This Word is not functioning to expose our need for Christ.  We see our vulerability if we decide, for example, to endure persecution for righteousness' sake, but this is not a word of Law.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the listeners, the followers of Jesus who come to Jesus as he sits on the mountainside teaching.  Of course, we are probably not able to identify with everyone whom Jesus calls blessed, but it will be our task to identify closely with one or several whom Jesus calls blessed.

4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's gracious work.  In this passage the call to obedience is issued without an imperative voice in the second half of the passage.  Because God's reign is characterized by mercy, purity, peacemaking, and righteousness, we are invited to live lives characterized thusly. We are invited to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who endure persecution for righteousness. We are assured that we will be blessed when we do.

5.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell has written a wonderful study called God With Us; A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel.  I am indebted to him for the following insights into the Beatitudes:  Powell says that "the poetic structure of the beatitudes predisposes Matthew's readers to expect a pattern reminiscent of Hebrew parallelism." (p. 120)  He then goes on to point out that both 5:3-6  and 5:7-10 contain exactly 36 words, while 5:11-12 contains 35 words.  He calls these 3 sections First Stanza, Second Stanza, and Concluding Comment.  (p. 121-122)  The first stanza is to be "interpreted as promising eschatological reversals to those who are unfortunate." (p. 122) "Theologically, then the point of these first four beatitudes is not to offer 'entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven' but to describe the nature of God's rule, which characterizes the kingdom of heaven." (p. 129)  "With the fifth beatitude... a second set of parallels is introduced.  All of the beatitudes in Matthew 5:7-10 are best interpreted as promising eschatological rewards to people who exhibit virtuous behavior.  The second stanze does not, however, represent a logical departure from the thought that undergirds the first, for the virtues that earn blessings are ones exercised on behalf of the people mentioned in Stanza One." (p. 130)  The final section is directed at us listeners.  The blessed ones are no longer only "those", but "you". This means that when we accept the invitation in Stanza Two, we might well find ourselves reviled and persecuted, "ironically deprived of justice because of [our] devotion to it." (p. 138)  These insights and many others are contained in Powell's fine book.  I would highly recommend purchase of this book as a source for insights into the entirety of Matthew's gospel.

Blessings on your proclamation!

1 comment:

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