29 January 2017
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany IVA (RCL)
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
One does look with a certain ennui on the prospect of preaching on the Beatitudes yet again. We are so familiar with this particular passage, it seems hard to find something new to say about it. Gratefully, we have the passage from 1 Corinthians to provide a bit of relief.
One could almost just read this passage from Paul, and then sit down. In ordering the world, humans look either to power or wisdom. The Stoics saw the world as already ordered by Wisdom, and the task of the philosopher was simply to align one’s life to that Wisdom, and to live in accordance with the meaning it provided. Not that this was an easy task, but it did leave one in charge of one’s own life. On Paul’s reading of things, at any rate, the Jews looked for signs, for evidence of God’s powerful works on their behalf in the course of human history. Claiming that power on behalf of God provided a means of ordering the world, of creating meaning and living life in accordance with that meaning.
Neither of these modes of living had proved satisfactory, according to Paul. The evidence was all around that both Stoics and Jews had been pushed to the margins. Paul was trying to build a community in which they could eat side by side, and thereby fight back against Empire, but the only way to build that community was the foolishness and powerlessness of the cross. The Corinthians were playing the game of power, trying to show, in their factions, that they were better than one another and the rest of the world. Paul had to remind them that they worshiped a crucified Christ, that their power lay precisely in their weakness and dependence on one another.
This is the interpretive key for the Beatitudes. The word we translate as “blessed” is probably better translated “How honorable.” This is a form of speech well known in the ancient world. A client would proclaim the honor of the patron as a way of garnering favor, or as thanks for a favor done. This raises the immediate question of what sort of boon we could expect from the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the mourning, the meek, the peacemakers and the persecuted. What favor are we going to gain by inviting them to our feasts? The only way to live in the community Paul imagined is by eating with people we’d rather not associate with — crucified criminals, for starters.
Matthew arranges the words of Jesus into five large blocks (this becomes really obvious in a ‘red letter’ edition of the New Testament). These blocks are probably meant to correspond to the five books of the Torah. The Sermon on the Mount is the first such block, and as such, set out the new covenant. To my mind, the Beatitudes correspond with the “ten words.” Rather than telling us what to do and not do in order to get along with one another, and to guard God’s covenantal love, they tell us who is to be honored in the new community. This is not a call to show charity to the people named here — charity allows us to feel good about having helped them, but then to turn our backs and walk away. We are to honor them, to expect boons from them and then be in their debts when we receive those boons.
This requires a major rethinking of what is current in the community, what serves as its currency (honor and shame served as the real currency of the Roman Empire). We need to learn to value what the people named in the Beatitudes have. What they have is a dependency that can’t be disguised. We have to learn to value that interdependency. This runs counter to everything we’ve learned about being self-made, a contributing member of society and all the rest of it. This will be our task in the days ahead. Repent, Jesus said, relearn, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand, it is here.