One scripture scholar has this to say about this beautiful Sermon on the Mount to which we’ve just listened. He says, “Jesus did not preach this so called sermon. Jesus didn’t slave over his sermons the way I do. He simply said whatever was on his mind at the moment and reacted to his listener’s questions. Jesus probably said all these things in some way or other at sometime or other. But it was Matthew who brought them together as one sermon. Then Luke modified them to suit his own gospel agenda. So, seeing any special meaning in the sequence of the beatitudes might tell us something about Matthew and Luke, but perhaps nothing about how Jesus ordered His separate sayings.”
Every time we hear this sermon, this collection of the sayings of Jesus, we are struck by the fact that this is not the way we see things. What Jesus is trying to teach us is what He taught the people of His own time – the values of the kingdom He came to establish will always be at odds with the values that are constantly shaping our lives. Jesus and His teachings will always be counter-culture. We are conditioned to ‘do unto others before they do it unto us’. Its hard for us to get our heads around the idea expressed in the Beatitudes, that there is some kind of hidden purpose in sorrow, some unknown value in poverty, some precious ingredient in humility. As that scripture scholar says, “the beatitudes offer hope to disenfranchised people, and a promise that God does notice their plight and will take care of them.”
Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians long before Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, but the sayings of Jesus were passed around from community to community. Paul probably heard many of them. He may have had such sayings of Jesus in mind when he wrote his encouraging words to the Corinthians about God choosing the foolish to confound the wise, the weak of the world to shame the strong, the things that are not to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that God’s will and work will be accomplished in ways that confound the wise, the rich and the powerful.
When we watch the news and see the tragedies the plague the world and even our own city and country we can be overcome by a sense of helplessness. We see the tribal violence in Kenya, we see miles upon miles of flimsy tents housing hundred of thousands of refugees in Darfur; closer to home we hear of the plight of our own Native People enduring winter in inadequate housing, deprived of safe drinking water, sending their children to rundown schools. Global warming and its inevitable effects on future generations are always in the news as we hear of governments setting up another ‘commission’ to study the issue.
We tire of it all; we get numb, swamped by the dimensions of it all. We wish it would all go away. We ask ourselves, “What can I do? I’m not the government, I’m not the UN. I have enough trouble holding my head above water, coping with sending a son or daughter to college, paying a mortgage, caring for a sick parent, dealing with the uncertainty as to whether I’ll have job next week. Give me a break.”
Certainly Paul’s people weren’t dealing with such issues, but they had their own. They weren’t all that educated, they didn’t have positions of power, they were not well connected. They were just ordinary people struggling to make a living, dealing with internal factions in their community, facing the hostility of their pagan neighbours. But God chose them to be that yeast that would permeate their society with the love and truth of Jesus. God chose them, dim candles that they were, to be a light to those in darkness.
The other week there was story on the news about this grade eight student in Florida who was confused by the fact that at the end of the evening restaurants threw out whatever cooked food was let over in the kitchen. He knew there was any number of hungry people in the State. Why couldn’t that good food be given to them? He was told, it is against the law. He made up his mind to do what he could to change the law. And he did. Just recently the State Legislature in Florida passed a law allowing restaurants to pass on unused food to agencies feeding the poor. We call it the power of one. God chose this young boy, not wise, not powerful, but a boy sensitive to the needs of others, a boy willing to take a change to make a change. And he did.
Most of us can identify with the limited, the powerless, the unconnected Corinthians and with the underdogs of the Beatitudes. What can we do about social justice or world peace? As my mother used to remind us, “I’ve only got two hands.” But with those two hands she feed and clothed a family of eight. But can we open our lives and our hearts to trust the truth that in some mysterious and yet ordinary way God can use any one of us to make a difference. It may not be a global difference, a socially noticeable difference, a world shattering difference, but a difference none the less. In the ordinary living of our ordinary lives we could ease someone’s sorrow, lighten someone’s burden of loneliness or depression, heal a long festering wounded relationship, change someone’s attitude of racism or bigotry, deepen someone’s awareness of the beauty of creation, help restore faith to someone estranged from the church.
Like the Corinthians, not many of us are wise by human standards, not many of us are powerful or well connected but remember God has done wonderful things through the foolish, the weak, the lowly like ourselves if only we open our lives to the working of God’s grace and power and wisdom.