All Saints’ Day; 1 November 2020; All Saints’, Year A (RCL); Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12.
If you own a red letter edition of the bible, you will notice that the passage we read today from Matthew’s Gospel begins a long block of red text. If you care to explore further, you will discover that there are five such blocks of red text in this Gospel. Matthew has arranged the sayings of Jesus in to five major speeches.
I doubt this is accidental. Matthew wants us to connect those five speeches to the five books of Moses. Jesus is a new law-giver, and Matthew understands his teaching as the new law. And, in case we might miss the point, Matthew begins this first block in a very specific way: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Moses went up the mountain, and the seventy elders sat down to feast on the side of the mountain, while the people remained at the foot of the mountain. This scene replicates the scene in Exodus 24. And Jesus begins his speech with ten sentences (if you count the sentence that begins, “Rejoice and be glad”).
Scholars have argued over how to translate the word “makarios.” We’re used to it being translated “blessed.” Some want to translate it “fortunate” or “happy.” I believe it should be translated “How honorable.” A form of speech which pronounces happiness for a benefactor uses this word. When praising a benefactor for a boon, the orator would proclaim, “How honorable.”
Rather than providing us with rules to be followed, Jesus is holding up people to be emulated, to be considered fortunate or happy, and not the people we are used to considering honorable. This shifts our way of thinking of community. The ten commandments set the boundaries for acceptable community behavior — these things cross the line. The ten beatitudes point us toward the center, rather than showing us the edge. If your community is working well, these people will hold places of honor.
Such a community will always run counter to the dominant community around it. The rules are always used as ways of determining who is in and who is out, who counts and who doesn’t. By placing people we would consider marginal at the center, Jesus expects us to run into trouble. That last sentence seals the deal: rejoice and be glad (when people revile you and persecute you), your reward is great. We are living toward the kingdom of heaven when these things are true.
The passage from Revelation tells us to expect the same kind of treatment. The multitude robed in white are those who have come through the great tribulation and washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb. They are the martyrs who have undergone the baptism of blood. It has been easy in the past to say that we are fortunate that we will never have to pay with our lives for our worship of God, but in these crazy days, we are beginning to see that living the way the beatitudes call us to live might indeed cost us something. I pray it never costs us our lives, but I also pray that we have the courage of rejoicing when we are persecuted for speaking like prophets.