The least productive way to read St Matthews Gospel is to see Jesus as a teacher of timeless and universal truths. What he offers us is true for all times and places, but Matthew is a Pastor and knows that Jesus and his teachings come alive only when they are lived in a specific Church community. As we read Matthew this year, I think he will prove himself as good a pastor for us as he was for his immediate community, especially in today’s reading.
We do not know if Matthew was born a Gentile or a Jew. It is obvious however that he understood that Jesus was a Jew and could only be understood as one. Jews received their religious identities from participating in the Covenant with God. This made them God’s people, his family. This relationship was personal but not individual. A Jew cannot have a relationship with God outside of the family and would wonder why he should try.
Jesus formed a covenant with those who joined him in baptism through his death and resurrection. This is how we receive our identity as Christians. The church is not something nice added on to our belief in Jesus but essential and irreplaceable. Thus, we are principally formed not by learning doctrine but by celebrating the Eucharist and sharing a sacrificial meal with Jesus.
Matthew is acutely aware that the health of the church is essential in knowing God and serving our neighbor. Yet his church is tormented by division. The Church for Matthew is most likely several house churches. He may not have been a Bishop in our sense of the word but closer to a dean. His church was originally predominately Jewish born. Yet like the rest of the worldwide church, it is becoming gentile. Even with the best of intentions, this will cause problems. We see this today in Parishes where the ethnic makeup is changing, or the neighborhood is gentrifying. People are sensitive to slights real and imagined, and misunderstandings abound.
Matthew has written his gospel for his people. It is a call to build a church that welcomes all and seeks to develop as the people of God. The beatitudes we read today are part of this overall strategy. They are his prescription for what the church needs to be formed by the good news of Jesus.
Beatitude is usually translated as blessing, and it is a common Jewish literary form used particularly effectively in the Psalms. Jesus was very fond of them. The beatitudes we read in Matthew have clear OT references, but Jesus and Matthew have changed the emphasis. The OT beatitudes emphasize rewards in the everyday world here and now, the NT beatitudes will emphasize what the church must do to reflect the kingdom of God. This begins here and now but will not be completed until the return of Jesus. It would be wonderful if they were applied to the whole world, but it is essential that they be found in the church. Matthew also emphasizes that what brings success to the church would rarely bring earthly success indeed might even lead to failure.
Matthew like St Paul is aware that although Christians do not first become Jews, we must have a Jewish mindset to follow Jesus. He has thus phrased these beatitudes in clearly Jewish language with many quotes from the OT.
Let us take two.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
A psalm tells us that “But the meek shall possess the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (Ps 37:11) Meekness to us can mean mildness or submissiveness. Yet both Moses (Num 12:1-15) and David (1 Sam 24:1-20) are considered “meek”. Meek means docile but docile to the spirit of God that everything we do is in response to God’s demands. Jesus’ reaction to his arrest and passion is “meekness” in this sense (Matt 26:49-27:50). This is so important that he will return to it again in the weeks to come. (5:21-26 and 38-41) The land for Jesus is the kingdom, unless disciples are docile to the spirit and not the promptings of envy and the desire for prestige then that Church, for us the Parish, will not be part of the kingdom.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied”.
Psalm 107 says “In their distress they cried to the LORD, who rescued them in their peril for he satisfied the thirsty, filled the hungry with good things.” (Ps 107:6,9). Righteousness is doing what God wants but also Jesus’ judgment on the world. Christians as individuals and as a community must seek above all else to get right with God by accepting his judgment. Jesus requires that we live our lives by what God wants not what we are told to desire by the world around us. Only this ultimately fulfills us because we are made to be righteous as disciples. The Church, and again let us be blunt our parish, is successful only when we are doing what God wants us to do. We may have a beautiful building, effective programs, and a heathy bank account but if we are not righteous, we are not successful and I hope not satisfied,
Another possible translation for beatitude is “joyous” or “blissful” It is hard to think of feeling joy when one is persecuted or blissful when insulted but each of the beatitudes will connect us to Jesus which is beyond word or circumstances and is the surest cause of joy. The church from the Vatican to Brooklyn will need to be restructured. In Brooklyn the immediate cause is the lack of priests but, we know that there is more to it than that. The Gospel message is too often not being experienced in our Parishes and addressing this honestly and creatively will be painful. Yet if the beatitudes are our handbook, then however difficult the effort is it will be marked by joy and crowned by bliss.