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John B. Jamison
It was a strange sound. Some said it was a kind of "clanging" sound, while others said it was more of a "ka-ching," or more accurately, a "ka-chang!" It sounded like the result of metal hitting metal, which is exactly what it was.
In the valley off to the west from the hillside is a steep cliff rising up the face of Mount Arbel. The face of the cliff is covered with hundreds of caves, with no good way to get to them without climbing straight up the cliff. That's why the Zealots liked them. They were safe.
The Zealots were the militant group within Judaism that had declared war on Rome. Every Zealot carried a dagger under his robe and dreamed of the day when he might stick that dagger into a Roman Centurion. Zealots believed that God wanted his people free, and believing that, vowed to accept death before becoming a slave to Caesar. The Zealots found the caves of Mount Arbel to be the perfect hideout. They could swoop down during the night and carry out their terrorist raids and then climb back into the caves and be untouchable.
They slept in the caves, ate in the caves, and built their weapons in the caves. That's what everyone on the hillside was hearing. The sound of metal striking metal was the sound of the Zealot blacksmiths hammering out more daggers and swords to use against the enemy. As Jesus began to speak on the hillside, the sound of war could be heard from the valley. However, in all honesty, it seems that over here on the hillside Jesus is declaring a little war of his own.
We have heard the words of today's scripture many times. We have read them and heard them preached, and taught them in Sunday school. Usually when we have, we have heard them from the "blessed" side. We have nodded our heads when he talks to the poor in spirit, because we have been poor in spirit and appreciate the recognition. We have mourned, have felt meek, have hungered for many things including righteousness, and have tried to be merciful. We all dream of having pure hearts, like the role of peacemaker when we can get it, and certainly get our share of persecution if we put on the appearance of being too religious. The words Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes help us feel better. We know that he understands.
However, I have always wondered about the other folks. As Luke reminds us when he tells this story, the other side of "Blessed art thou," is "Woe to you" and I have always wondered how those folks felt who were on the "woe" side of the fence. I'll bet that the words they heard were a little less like "Blessed art thou" and sounded a whole lot more like "ka-chang!"
Before we begin our wondering, however, let's take a moment to meet the rest of the players. That little group on the right, standing off, kind of by themselves, are the Pharisees. They are an interesting group. They agree with a lot of what they have heard Jesus say. They believe in a resurrection from the dead, and caring for the poor, and that God can, and does, heal. However, uppermost in their minds is protecting the law. The key to all those other good things is to obey the laws of Moses, and the oral laws set forth by your rabbi. Keep your eye on the Pharisees. They have theirs on you.
That group over on the left, back in the back, dressed so nicely. Those are some Sadducees from up at Jerusalem. They have come to see that Jesus doesn't offend them, or the temple. The Sadducees couldn't care less for the poor, or the sick, or the unemployed. People get what they deserve. If they are poor, sick, or unemployed, then God must want them poor, sick or unemployed, and who are we to argue with God. It is better to be rich, powerful, and nicely dressed, even if that means we have to cooperate with the Romans to have those things. The Sadducees are here to see that Jesus doesn't offend the temple or Rome. Pay them little mind. They are pretending you don't even exist.
Here and there in the crowd you see a few folks looking and sneering at the Sadducees. Those "sneerers" are some of the Zealots who have come down from Mount Arbel and are enemies with anyone who is a friend of Rome. Keep in mind, they carry daggers.
The rest of the crowd is crowd. There are some fishermen, some farmers, some tax collectors, some teachers, some prostitutes, some cancer patients, some women, some children; just good common folks. They are just hoping to hear a little hope.
This is Jesus' congregation. Now, let's try to keep score.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit." First of all, to a Sadducee, nothing "poor" is blessed. They vote no. The Zealots respect those whose spirits are strong and determined, and whose hands hold the handle of a dagger ready to act on that spirit. Zealots vote no, but do appreciate what he's trying to do for the poor. The Pharisees have no complaint. They care for the poor, and so long as they abide by the law, yes, they will be blessed. The common folk are quiet. They had never thought of themselves as blessed while their spirits were this broken. Maybe there was hope. There was a mumbled "Amen" from an old man in the cheap seats.
"Blessed are those who mourn." Most nod their heads in agreement with this one. That's probably because most of them miss the point. Jesus wasn't just talking about those who mourned the death of a family member. Who would argue with that? But what about the death of the faith? The common folks and Zealots would agree, the Pharisees, and particularly the Sadducees would not. But it probably went over their heads. This one was just a warm-up.
"Blessed are the meek." The Zealots don't like the direction this is taking. First it was "poor in spirit" and now it is "meek." This is no way to fire up a rebellion against Rome. The Pharisees and Sadducees are ticked. They have studied the old writings and know what Jesus is trying to say here. He is quoting Psalm 37, which compares the "meek" with the "wicked." The way Psalm 37 describes "wicked" comes a little too close to day-to-day behavior for Pharisees and Sadducees. This get-together has taken a nasty turn. The common folk understood, and said "Thank you."
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Everyone liked this one because they all had dreams they hungered and thirsted for. Most of them had problems catching the subtle difference between "right" and "righteousness." If they understood what he was really saying they all would have grumbled.
"Blessed are the merciful." Zealots show no mercy. They are considering going back to the cliffs. Pharisees see little room in the law for mercy. Sadducees saw no need for mercy. If God wanted people better off, he would make them better off. You got what you deserved. Many in the crowd smiled, while others, who remembered how they behave at home, ducked their heads.
"Blessed are the pure in heart." Blessed are the sincere is how it came out. They were all sincere. Again, I think they probably missed the point.
"Blessed are the peacemakers." Every eye on the hillside turned to the Zealots. It was one of those times when everyone believes the preacher has over-stepped the bounds. Sadducees wanted peace with Rome so they could stay in office. The Pharisees were for peace, within the rules of the law, which did not leave room for Rome. The Zealots were ready to kill for peace, and the common folks were thinking about how hard it was to simply be a peacemaker back home in the family.
"Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness' sake." They all liked this one. They had all been persecuted at one time or another. The Sadducees felt persecuted by the ignorant poor people who didn't understand how difficult it was to be God's favored children in charge of the religious life of a nation. The Pharisees felt persecuted for their harping about all those laws. The Zealots felt persecuted by Roman Centurions carrying swords, and the common folks felt persecuted by pretty well everybody. They had all been insulted, and had evil uttered against them, and all for "righteous" reasons. But then Jesus blessed those who were laughed at for his sake. The Zealots didn't know what to do with this one. The Pharisees and Sadducees were aghast. For his sake? Blasphemy! The common folks got lost in the theology.
Let me stop here and say that the whole point of this little journey through Matthew's gospel is to show that in this lovely little collection of Beatitudes, Jesus stepped on some toes. In fact, at one point or another, he stepped on every toe in the church, I mean on the hillside. Some of them were so bruised they began to discuss how to stop him.
Sometimes the church finds itself afraid to step on toes. In fact, we find ourselves in the business of providing steel toed shoes to some folks. It's funny how Jesus almost seemed to make it a point to step on as many bare toes as he could reach in his three years.
Of course, he wasn't there to please people. He was there to save them.
(from John B. Jamison, Time's Up! Sermons for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany [Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., 1992], pp. 61-65)
StoryShare, January 30, 2011, issue.
Copyright 2011 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.
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