In the late 1960’s, when the United States was trying to come to terms with the civil rights movement, one man in Georgia saw the confusion and hostility and hopelessness experienced by his neighbors. Instead of marching or demonstrating, he decided to open a communal farm based off the stories in the Acts of the Apostles where all possessions were held in common and all members were considered equal. Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, based off the Greek word for community, were well known at the time and seen as a threat to many in the South who believed in segregation. As part of his work, Jordan also wrote a new version of the gospel stories of Matthew and John, translating scripture from the Greek into the southern Georgia context. The Cotton Patch Gospels are well known for their folk style and their sense of humor. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, after Jesus stands up to the Devil and the Devil takes his leave, the angels come to take care of Jesus… “bearing a sack of chili cheese dogs for him.” However, the point was to make the gospel stories new and open them up for new understanding, in the hopes that the tension of the time would change.
I want to share with you the Beatitudes from Matthew, Cotton Patch Style.
“When Jesus saw the large crowd, he went up the hill and sat down. His students gathered around him, and he began teaching them. This is what he said:
“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.
“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.
“They who are gentle are his people,
for they will be his partners across the land.
“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.
“The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.
“Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.
“Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.
“Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.
“Y’all are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.”
Any way we read the Beatitudes, we already know what they are about, right? They are a moral teaching from Jesus to his followers, which begins the famous Sermon on the Mount.
But is that really all that is involved in this passage? No.
There are two layers going on in the Beatitudes. What Matthew is trying to tell us and what Jesus is trying to tell us. Matthew is trying to show us who Jesus really is, impart to us Jesus' teaching, and comfort his community in their hard times. And then there is what Jesus is trying to tell us.
But let's start with Matthew. In Matthew's portrayal of Jesus, we see three views of Jesus. First, Jesus is in the line of Jewish tradition, as the new Moses. Jesus is shown on a mountain giving the people reformed rules to follow. Symbolically, Jesus is taking the role of Moses in delivering God’s rules to the people from the mountain. Second, Jesus is a part of those who are peacemakers, meek, merciful, hungry, persecuted, mourners, and poor in spirit. He is a revelation that God stands with humanity. Third, Jesus is compassionate for his people, recognizing their brokenness, and blessing them. Matthew really wants to show his hearers that Jesus is in line with the Jewish tradition, that Jesus is talking about regular people, including himself, and how much compassion Jesus has for his oppressed people.
Then we have what Jesus is saying. When I read through this passage, these are all the things I hear Jesus saying.
Jesus is highlighting some priorities for his followers, the well-known moral teaching aspect of the passage.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, which he has already preached has come near.
Jesus is making a promise and predicting the future, staying firmly in the prophetic tradition.
Jesus is challenging people to see others as God sees them.
Jesus is giving his people a blessing and building hope in his followers.
Perhaps this is why we read the same passages over and over again! We can get so much out of twelve verses! All of this is pertinent to us as Christians today. However, what I want to emphasize is the building up of hope that Jesus is doing.
Jesus' people were marked by hopelessness. They were under Roman occupation and oppression. We are marked in this Northwestern Pennsylvanian region by hopelessness as well. Not because of occupation and oppression, but because of a faltering economy and a sense that things cannot be better than they already are. Could the Israelites do anything about the Romans? Can we do anything about our situation? The Israelites were waiting for the Messiah for exactly this reason! We have been looking for a modern day savior in many the same way. But a human leader was not going to solve all of the Israelite's problems and a human leader is not going to solve all of our problems either. Instead Jesus is the savior that we need, and he teaches us to hope in an entirely different way.
Hope - however abstract - is very important for society. We define hope as a feeling most of the time, but hope functions much more deeply than that. In university research by professors of social work and sociology, hope is much more than a feeling. Hope is a way of thinking. Hope is a process of setting goals, finding different pathways to achieve those goals, especially when difficulties present themselves, and believing in the ability to complete the goal. Hope is a way of thinking for individuals as well as communities. Hopeful individuals are able to see change in their lives and the world around them, even if it is very small. Hopeful individuals do not believe that their successes or failures determine who they are. Jesus gives us all three in this passage from Matthew.
Jesus gives us hope in a way that goes far beyond feelings. Jesus teaches us that the goal is the kingdom of heaven. The pathways to that goal lie in being merciful, meek, deeply concerned, peacemakers, standing up for our beliefs, in having pure motivations. We can do these things and Jesus reinforces this message by sharing his encouragement as a blessing in this work. The blessings that Jesus gives are both in the present and in the future tenses. Some of these blessings are already present realities. Some of them are still to come. With Jesus' blessing, we are given the agency, the ability to go forth differently, with hope. Because Jesus is all of these things and we are following in his way, we can be all of these things. Not because we will be rewarded with riches, but because then we will have strengthened our relationship with God and we will experience the kingdom of heaven.
The Christian tradition has tried to pass along these ideas, but hasn't always done a good job. One way it is easy to see them is in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. There is a whole section titled "The Christian Hope". The first question asks, "What is the Christian hope?" And gives this answer, "The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world." In that answer, there is a goal and there is an expectation. We are to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life. We are to wait for Christ and God's purpose. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is something that we can do. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is what we do together.
Our hope is to make the goal – to see the kingdom of heaven. This is not easy, it takes endurance. We may realize our hope and achieve our goal in this life, we may even realize it today! We may also take a long time to realize this goal. But may we never give up on it! Let us hope in the fullness of life in the community of God!