Saints and Beatitudes

The readings for November 1, 2015, Feast of All Saints, are
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; and Matthew 5:1-12a.

Matthew is a catechetical genius. Even though Mark’s gospel is older by a decade or two, Matthew deserves to be first in the New Testament. He arranges his material in such a way that the structure of his gospel becomes clear and the material lends itself to easy memorization.  One part of the structure of Matthew’s gospel is the arrangement of teaching material into five major sermons of Jesus: the Sermon on the Mountain; the Missionary Instructions; the Parable Chapter; Community Regulations; the Last Things. Matthew had a valid reason for this fivefold arrangement. The Torah (revelation, teaching) of Moses is also divided into five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. A part of Matthew’s agenda is to present Jesus as the new Moses. Therefore as Moses was thought to be the author of the Torah, so the new Moses, Jesus Christ, is presented as the author of the new Torah.

The gospel reading for the Feast of All Saints is taken from the very first of the five great sermons attributed to Jesus — the Sermon on the Mountain. The fact that Matthew describes Jesus going up onto a mountain to convey his teaching, his revelation, is one indication that he thinks of Jesus as the new Moses with the ultimate Torah.

The Sermon on the Mountain opens with the Beatitudes, the Blessings. Jesus said many things during his brief public ministry. His words and deeds were first preserved by oral tradition, by word of mouth. Our four gospels were not written until forty to sixty-five years after Jesus left this earth. When words and deeds are handed down by word of mouth, they undergo changes. It is the same with the Jesus-traditions. For example: Matthew gives us eight or nine beatitudes, depending on how one counts or divides them. Luke attributes only four beatitudes to Jesus in his Sermon, and follows them with four corresponding curses. Matthew saves his curses, seven of them, for chapter twenty-three. So we can justly ask, “What did Jesus really say?” or “Did he say the beatitudes at all?” We may not know exactly what he said, but we certainly have the nucleus of what he said.

Jesus calls certain groups “blessed” (happy, fortunate), but when he pronounces “blessed” the poor, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the falsely accused, it sounds startling. This makes no sense from a worldly point of view. But the values of what the gospels call “the Kingdom of God” are often in contrast with the values of our world. In our world, generally speaking, the poor, the weak, the meek often get clobbered. They are the first to get their benefits cut, while those who have the power to cut those benefits make sure to keep their own benefits. Peacemakers are often ridiculed. The poor get foreclosure, while those who take advantage of them receive “golden parachutes” lowering them into wealthy retirement. The merciful are sometimes often seen as weak, and are despised for it.

Those who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who mourn the sins of society and speak out against them are often insulted and ridiculed. For example: those who work for and march for the life of the unborn. If society is measured by its concern for its weakest and most defenseless members, how does our society measure up? What could be an alternative to a Christian life lived according to the beatitudes? Bubba in a pickup truck, shotgun across the rear window, a bumper sticker: “Guns, guts, and God are what made America great.” At the cost of how many lives and national treasure? Whose guts were spilled? Was it the guts of the victims of our own holocausts — native Americans and African Americans? The beatitudes give us a program for bringing the kingdom of God onto this earth by blessing the poor, etc. with our assistance. We pray for that every time we repeat a prayer which is also part of the Sermon on the Mountain, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it (already) is in heaven.”

The beatitudes should be regarded as principles by which Christians live. The rest of the Sermon on the Mountain and the other four great sermons Matthew attributes to Jesus go into greater detail on Christian life.