A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: January 29, 2017: Matthew 5:1-12

Matthew 5:1-12
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


A Question or Two:

  • Why do all the blessings sound like curses?
  • why do interpreters work so hard to make them sound like blessings?
  • did you ever really believe them?

Some Longer Reflections:

Some of these blessings sound okay, at least in a religious setting. Whatever being “pure in heart” means, exactly, communities of faith probably are in favor of it. Same with “desiring righteousness.”  Same with “being merciful.”  These sound like religious virtues.

Whenever I hear of “religious virtues” I worry that they might be like a “classic book,” which Mark Twain defined as “A book which people praise and don’t read.” (in Following the Equator, 1897). I suspect that religious virtues might also be virtues that we praise but would rather be spared.

I was talking yesterday with a colleague who had been reading about sociopaths (my friends and I read strange things).  She noted that, if you wanted to find a sociopath, a good place to look would be among the CEOs of major corporations. Not all of them will tell you that they have the best words, or that they know more than the generals, but many of them rose through the dog-eat-dog ranks by not being too bothered by the nudging of “religious virtues.”  That is not to say that they don’t urge those virtues on others or even claim them for themselves.  (“Two Corinthians went into a bar….”  There is a joke that began his remarks at Liberty University like that once, I think.)  In fact, it is to their advantage if their competitors are meek and merciful.  It makes it easier to take advantage of them.

And we ought to be honest: something in us values the ethically unbound, at least sometimes.  You have almost certainly heard a variant of the saying that begins: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because I am the meanest bastard in the valley.”  George Patton never said this, so near as I can tell, but we seem to have picked him as our favorite “source” for this quotation, which is probably significant. We conjure up Patton when we want to imagine someone with the determination to “get ‘er done,” no matter the cost.  Many of the war stories we love to tell ourselves serve the same purpose: they let us imagine a world free of restraints (including those imposed by “political correctness”) in which we can just “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” an ethical principle rooted in the Albigensian Crusade.  And the popularity of these movies ought to warn us against imagining that such ethical crudity is only attractive to people much less refined than we are. To quote Pogo, a reference lost on most of the people in almost any audience these days, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And the business of blessings for mourners and those who have had the wind knocked out of them (my best guess as to what being “poor in breath/spirit” has to suggest), interpreters have spent a lot of energy making these into non-ironic virtues.  To my eye, it has not worked, at least not well.

So what are we going to do with these virtues that we hope never to have  imposed on us?  We would do well to taste the irony (often bitter) that goes with blessing those who are persecuted and those who mourn. Irony offers us protection in a world that punishes the pure in heart. Irony encourages those who find themselves resisting forces stronger than they are.

There is a certain sort of good news in irony. It is no simple gospel, but it should be clear by now that our world is not simple, ethically or otherwise. In a world that rewards cynical abuse of power an ironic laugh is helpful. My teacher, Martin Brokenleg, told me that the Lakota use inside jokes to defend themselves against the people who occupy the Lakota homeland.  The operating principle in such opaque humor is straightforward: If they are too dumb to ask us, we are too dumb to tell them.  Sometimes such insider irony is all you can get.  Sometimes it is enough.

And it is worth saying that, as unsatisfying as the religious virtues might be, they may just save us from becoming more complicit in the violence that crushes the human spirit. Maybe this is the Sunday to sing Harry Emerson Fosdick’s old hymn, God of Grace and God of Glory, which prays that we not be resigned to (or, I would add, complicit in) the evils we deplore. Or maybe we sing, instead, with Peter Yarrow in his song Light One Candle.  In that song, written for Hanukkah, but appropriate all year, Yarrow prays for “…the strength that we need to never become our own foe.”

Finally that might be the prayer we need most, the prayer that is finally taught to us by the conflicted virtues taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  The real complications of real life do indeed require us to follow my father in volunteering to join the 82nd Airborne in 1943. I have students and friends who have done just that. And I have students and friends who are learning that their careers have required them to think harder about the realities of ethics than they ever did when such reflections were a field in which to celebrate idealism.

But the Sermon on the Mount offers a vision of another ethical reality. It is possible to become our own foes. May we be delivered from this, if only because our students and friends are going to need someone who knows how to mourn, someone who knows the value of gentleness, when the “real world” has tried to break them.

4 thoughts on “A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: January 29, 2017: Matthew 5:1-12

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