Sunday, October 17, 2010

Matthew's Manual of Discipleship - the beatitudes

Go into B & Q and you may well bump into Alan Titchmarsh.

Not in person, over here for the Literature Festival, but a life-size cardboard cut-out.

I think it’s a bit of a pity.

Back in May B&Q decided to take off the shelves the books of someone else who has never sought any personal publicity, has little time for garden make-over programmes, and said of B&Q’s decision, “It’s sad for the public. And it’s sad for me. There are celebrities and there are experts.”

Much as I like Alan Titchmarsh, I for one am with Dr D.G.Hessayon. When I purchased my battered copy of the New Vegetable and Herb Expert, ‘an enlarged and updated edition of the world’s best-sellling book on vegetables and herbs’, thirteen years ago, it and its predecessor had already sold 4,870,000 copies. The Garden Expert was first published 51 years ago and by the time I bought my copy ten years ago had sold 5,340,000 copies.

I like ‘how-to’ books. And when it comes to the garden, I don’t think you can find a better ‘how-to’ book.

Of all the Gospels Matthew comes closest to being a ‘how-to’ book. It may not have pictures, charts and diagrams, but it is laid out with a pretty clear structure. And it even has a bit of a blurb on the back cover that tells you what it sets out to do … if you have eyes to see!

It’s intriguing that each of the Gospels tells you at the very beginning or at the very end what it is about and what it’s setting out to do. And each of the Gospels is subtly different.

The clue to Matthew comes in the very last words Matthew records Jesus as saying to the disciples.

It was on the third day after the execution of Jesus on the cross that Mary Magdalene and the other mary went to see the tomb. An angel, a messenger of God, had a message for them to take to the disciples …

“Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.

They left the tomb with fear and great joy when suddenly Jesus met them, and said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

So it is that the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

There it was that Jesus came and said to them,

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’*

A wonderful promise – I am with you always to the end of the age.

And a powerful challenge …make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

How can they rise to the challenge and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything Jesus had commanded?

Matthew has provided them the wherewithal. He has built his Gospel around five sets of teaching that Jesus gave. In that teaching you can see what Jesus has commanded. It is what you need to know if you are going to obey everything Jesus commanded, and if you are going to be a disciple.

Matthew’s gospel is the manual for disciples.

It opens with the birth stories of Jesus, then moves on to the proclaimation of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus in chapter 3. Then Jesus faces a time of temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 and then begins his ministry in Galilee where he calls the first disciples. Then he goes throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and bringing healing to so many people, that crowds flock to him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

In chapter 5. When Jesus sees the crowds he goes up the mountain, sat down and his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and he taught them …

This is the first great bit of teaching Matthew records. And in some ways it is the greatest. Want to be a disciple? You will need to know the teaching of Jesus … and here it is.

The sermon on the mount.

What an opening.

The opening says it all.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven …

As ever with the Literature Festival all the celebrity speakers passed me by. But I feel as if I did have a good Literature Festival nonetheless, but I learned on Thursday that I had chosen the wrong event to go to after all!

On Monday I did a play on communication, a wonderful workshop with a young and very dynamic theatre director on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and went to a poetry reading for the launch of an anthology of poetry by black writers. And I missed a poetry presentation evening at the Playhouse on Monday evening when Judi Marsh was a runner up and read her own poem. So congratulations to Judi and sorry I missed it!

A large part of the Bible is written in poetry. Christ Church visitors and house group leaders had invited me to share a quiet day on prayer with them last Saturday. I shared some of the poetry of George Herbert and used it as a way into reading the psalms as the powerful poetry of prayer.

In his preaching Jesus uses poetry.

There’s something about poetry that makes it memorable. We were asked to memorise a sonnet for the workshop on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was relieved that we only got through two sonnets so I didn’t need to own up to not having learned them by heart.

It’s doable.

And this is one of those great passages to memorise.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The repetition of the word blessed. So much stronger than the Good News Bible rendering of the word ‘happy’. It is as if it is drumming the message home.

The Hebrew Poetry Jesus had grown up is a poetry where it is not so much rhymes and a beat that counts, but instead it is a poetry of ideas.

The rhythm is not so much in the words, definitely not in any rhyme, but it is there in the rhythm of the line.

Blessed are … for theirs is
Blessed are … for they will be

And there is great comfort in these lines.

Feeling poverty-stricken in your faith, as if the springs have run dry – blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Felling alone in bereavement, know that you are never alone,
Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.

Feeling browbeaten, taken advantage of, bottom of the pile, take comfort in the words of Jesus …

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

But make no mistake about it Jesus is not offering his would-be disciples, us included, sugar or saccharin to sweeten our task.

There’s more to these words than meet the eye!

The word translated Blessed is not the easiest of words to translate. That’s why the Good News Bible opts for the word ‘Happy’. But it doesn’t really work. Especially as you move on through the beatitudes.

You might just about get away with Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, for you will be filled. Is it ‘happiness’ that the peacemaker looks to. And what about those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, or better for the sake of justice, theirs may be the kingdom of heaven … but can you really say such people are ‘happy’?

A long time ago I came across a reference to someone who spoke the Aramaic language that Jesus would have spoken and who had a very interesting take on the translation of this word. Whenever I have preached on or taught on our course about the beatitudes I have quoted that ‘someone’.

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when earlier in the year, I heard that someone speak and give that very explanation that I had quoted time and again in marking umpteen pieces of written work as students on our course write their own paraphrase of these words.

Elias Chacour describes himself as a Christian that goes back 2000 years, an Arab, a citizen of the state of Israel, and he grew up in a village in Galilee. He and his family were expelled in 1948 by soldiers accompanying Jewish people settling in that area with the establishment of the state of Israel. His story is a wonderful one as it tells of his return to the villages of the Galilee, how he became priest and then Bishop of one of the ancient churches of the Holy Land, and how he has run schools, camps for Jew, Muslim and Christian in a life-time’s work for justice and reconciliation. His great book is called Blood Brothers.

And he was over here to speak a special lecture of the Bible Lands Society in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

It wasn’t long in his address before he turned to the Sermon on the Mount, and to the Beatitudes.

I pricked my ears up.

I was converted to Christianity not long ago. Not long ago, for us Palestinian Christians, we count time differently from you. We never forget the Swiss for putting this age in our arms, for us we still feel it in our body that time, oh my goodness, one thousand years are like one day before the Lord, so what are two thousand years?

It’s the day before yesterday that the younger boy from Nazareth was hanging around with our boys and girls, with our elderly, with our shepherds, sharing our weddings and our funerals.
Watching everything – our clouds, our water, our flowers – and he took all of that and made of them the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven.

He spoke with such authority.

He did not say to those who followed him ‘Ah! Happy you are because you are persecuted; because you are hungry and searching for justice.’ That man would never have said that.

We have two texts of the Sermon on the Mount – the one says ashray and if there is any Jew who understands Hebrew he would vibrate to ashray that’s taken from yashar and from osher v’osher and the second text says to varwhom (? phon.) and both of them mean literally straight, straighten up, straighten up yourself you hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Get up – go ahead, move, do something if you want to be a peacemaker.

Peace never requires contemplators, peace requires proactive people who get their hands dirty, to build peace and justice for every human being.

That was the teachings of that young boy from Nazareth. Some of my ancestors – my forefathers – listened to him, followed him up to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the bloody Jerusalem where all the prophets died – were killed – because they protested against the injustices of the then authority in Jerusalem.

These words take on the feel of a really challenging – how to obey the commands of Jesus. This becomes a very real manual for discipleship.

Are you poor in spirit, in mourning, meek … straighten up!

Straighten up yourselves, stand up and be counted as you hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness and you will be filled.

Straighten up, get up – go ahead, move, do something as peacemakers and you will be called children of God.

No longer the saccharine of reassurance, it’s electrifying as it challenges us to the task of discipleship.

Eight times the phrase is repeated. Each time Jesus ups the ante. At the eighth call to straighten up he thinks of those facing persecution for the sake of righteousness, for justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There are wonderful balances as the second half of this line now echoes the first of the beatitudes.

Then one more is added in.

Up until now each of the beatitudes is impersonal …

Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn

Then neatness of the eight so memorable for their repeated form, is broken with a ninth.

No longer impersonal. Jesus suddenly is direct. He looks those would-be disciples in the eye …

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

To be a disciple we need to straighten ourselves up get up, go ahead, move, do something …

It’s the same with any manual –

After all, it’s no good just reading Dr Hessayon’s books to make a difference in the garden you need to straighten up, get up and do something!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a comment from Jenny ...

I explained that when I first read the 'Blesseds' not knowing the background, I thought they were a strange selection. On reading your article it occurred to me that the collection might make more (ie some coherent) sense by using the opposite attributes. I looked in the RSV and very roughly chose opposites to the 'meek, poor, ...'. The selection I came up with suggested the Romans to me, but of course that presupposes that Jesus was just thinking about one group of people, when in fact it may have been regarding a number of different things that were going on just then. Or .. was he copying this from someone else's speech and adapting it for the day?

Also, although it was at the back of my mind, I forgot to mention another Churchill/Jesus similarity that I had been ruminating on, and that was that Churchill had a belief that he was going to be a great leader of this kind since well before the war; Jesus at the latest knew that he was going to be special from the time of John the Baptist, and possibly earlier: From the time of the nativity Mary would have had this belief; how long would she have simply 'treasured these things in her heart' and not let on to Jesus that she thought he had a special destiny?

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